Information Architecture: Study Guide

Summary: Unsure where to start? Use this collection of links to our articles and videos to learn about what information architecture (IA) is, how to run an IA research study, and how to design navigation effectively.

This article is a compilation of our articles and videos on topics related to information architecture. Resources cover specific types of information-architecture principles, navigation design choices for the UI — such as desktop-specific options, mobile-specific options — as well as research methods, such as card sorting and tree testing, which are commonly used in information architecture.

Within each category, the resources are shown in recommended reading order.

If you’re totally new to information architecture, start with the first list, which covers basic principles and commonly asked questions about information architecture, and then make your way to our resources providing deeper guidance for research activities and navigation-design choices.

Information Architecture and Organization Principles

If you’re new to the practice of information architecture, start here! The articles in this section cover what information architecture is and how it relates to (but differs from) navigation. Being a successful information architect also requires an understanding of how people seek out information, and we cover common organizational structures that support those behaviors. In addition, this section covers best practices for categorization and common reader questions about acceptable practices for global-navigation breadth and depth.

Number Link Format Description
1 The Difference Between Information Architecture (IA) and Navigation Article The core difference between the underlying information architecture vs. visible navigation
2 Findability vs. Discoverability Video A key distinction in how users access information
3 Information Scent: How Users Decide Where to Go Next Article A critical IA concept about how users “follow their noses” when seeking information
4 Search Box vs. Navigation Video A clear answer to the question “Do we even need navigation — don’t users just search?” (Spoiler alert: you do need navigation!)
5 How Many Items in a Navigation Menu? Video A commonly asked question about a common IA misconception
6 Flat vs. Deep Website Hierarchies Article Two common structural patterns in IA, and their relative pros and cons
7 Top 10 Information Architecture (IA) Mistakes Article A list of the most common IA mistakes
8 Top 3 IA Questions about Navigation Menus Article A discussion of the number and order of navigation categories, as well as the use of hover menus for touchscreens
9 The 3-Click Rule for Navigation Is False Article A common IA misconception that says that no page should take more than 3 clicks to access
10 Polyhierarchies Improve Findability for Ambiguous IA Categories Article A discussion of polyhierarchy: the practice of crosslisting resources in multiple categories
11 How to Handle Category Outliers in Your IA Article Using cognitive science to decide how to manage categories with some items that don’t fit perfectly
12 Better Labels for Website Links: the 4 Ss for Encouraging Clicks Video Insights on better wording for link names within navigation (and otherwise)
13 “Learn More” Links: You Can Do Better Article Alternatives to the problematic Learn More link (and other vague link names)

Research Methods for IA

Information architecture has a few unique research methods, such as card sorting and tree testing, that are a bit different than other common UX-research methods. Card sorting is a form of discovery for IA that allows us to understand how our users naturally categorize our resources. Tree testing allows us to test a proposed information architecture to see if users can find key items. Resources in this section will provide guidance on how to plan, execute, and analyze an IA study.

It’s also worth noting that standard user research methods (e.g. usability testing) also usually generate useful findings about IA, so we recommend also reviewing our study guides for qualitative usability testing and quantitative research.

Number Link Format Description
Card Sorting
1 Card Sorting: Uncover Users’ Mental Models for Better Information Architecture Article An overview of the card-sorting research methodology
2 Open vs. Closed Card Sorting Video An explanation of the two main types of card sorting and their appropriate uses
3 Card Sorting: Pushing Users Beyond Terminology Matches Article Common mistakes in setting up a card sorting study that can reduce the validity of the research
4 Card Sorting: How Many Users to Test Article Sample-size guidelines for card-sorting studies
5 How to Avoid Bias in Card Sorting Video How choosing card-sort items that proportionately represent your offerings can prevent bias in your studies
6 How to Interpret Dendrograms from Card Sorting to Improve Information Architecture Video Guidance on analyzing dendrograms (i.e., visualizations of card-sorting results)
Tree Testing
7 Tree Testing to Evaluate Information Architecture Categories Video An overview of the tree-testing research method
8 Tree Testing: Fast, Iterative Evaluation of Menu Labels and Categories Article
9 Tree Testing Part 2: Interpreting the Results Article Guidance on analyzing tree-testing results
10 Low Findability and Discoverability: Four Testing Methods to Identify the Causes Article How to use tree testing to find solutions for common IA problems

Navigation Design

Once you have an information architecture established, you need to make choices about how to present the IA to users in the form of navigation. This section gives advice about mobile and desktop design patterns that support orientation and wayfinding.

Number Link Format Description
General Navigation Best Practices
1 Menu Design: Checklist of 15 UX Guidelines to Help Users Article Checklist of top menu-design guidelines
2 Navigation Menus – 5 Tips to Make Them Visible Video Guidelines for ensuring that navigation is noticeable
3 Hamburger Menus and Hidden Navigation Hurt UX Metrics Article Research demonstrating the risks of hamburger menus (especially on the desktop)
4 Killing Off the Global Navigation: One Trend to Avoid Article A case for why to keep global navigation, rather than rely on search
Wayfinding and Orientation
5 Navigation: You Are Here Article Why navigation is more than a list of links and how it helps users to orient themselves on a site
6 Digital Wayfinding Video
7 Breadcrumbs: 11 Design Guidelines for Desktop and Mobile Article Breadcrumb-design best practices
8 Local Navigation Is a Valuable Orientation and Wayfinding Aid Article Appropriate ways to expose sibling resources within the same section that the user is currently viewing
Common Navigation Patterns and Design Guidelines
9 Sticky Headers: 5 Ways to Make Them Better Article How to ensure that sticky navigation remains present, but unobtrusive
10 Left-Side Vertical Navigation on Desktop: Scalable, Responsive, and Easy to Scan Article Design overview of a left navigation, a desktop pattern on desktop especially useful for broad information architectures
11 Utility Navigation: What It Is and How to Design It Article What utility navigation is and what resources belong there
12 Footers 101: Design Patterns and When to Use Each Article Which content belongs in the footer and how to design it
13 Mega Menus Work Well for Site Navigation Article Mega-menus design guidelines
14 Centered Logos Hurt Website Navigation Article Research on where to place the company logo and how it can affect navigation use
Mobile Navigation Patterns
15 Basic Patterns for Mobile Navigation: A Primer Article An overview of common mobile-navigation design patterns
16 Mobile Subnavigation Article A companion article with mobile-specific subnavigation patterns
17 Accordion Icons: Which Signifiers Work Best? Article Research on which icons to use for mobile-navigation accordion

Full-day Course: Information Architecture

Want even more guidance on information architecture, with a chance to practice some of the methods? Our full day course on IA explores these themes in more detail.

Written by Page Laubheimer.