Information Architecture Step-by-Step

In their seminal book Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond, Morville, Rosenfeld, and Arango explain that Information Architecture (IA) is comprised of three elements: Users, Content, and Context, reflected in this diagram from Arango’s blog.

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Whether you are planning a new website with new content or reworking an existing website with a boatload of existing content, the project should be framed by business goals. Users, content, and context lie within the frame of the business.

Donna Spencer‘s book, A Practical Guide to Information Architecture, breaks the Information Architecture process into four main parts. If we include an element for business goals at the beginning of her list, a five step process emerges:

  1. Understand the Business Context
  2. Understand Users and their Context
  3. Understand the Content
  4. Design the IA
  5. Design the Navigation

Information Architecture Process Step-by-Step

These steps are presented in a linear process. Information Architecture projects are not always linear and you may not be responsible for all the project pieces. The questions or statements under each section are useful, whether you are responsible for the entire process or a single section.

1.  Understand the Business Context

Meet with stakeholders to reveal business goals. Ask lots of questions, conduct individual and group interviews and ensure all stakeholders are heard.

  • What is the Business Model?
  • What is the Value Proposition?
  • Who is the customer?
  • What is the business need for this Information Architecture project?
  • How will success be measured?

If you have a team working on this project, post stakeholder answers and comments  in a public place to reference during the project.

2. Understand Users and their Context

Observe users and conduct interviews to reveal user needs, goals, and behaviors.

  • Why do they look for info?
  • Where do they look for info?
  • How do they look for info?
  • How do they categorize info?

Share results of user research with your team and with stakeholders. If the business does not yet have a primary persona, create one from your user research.

Communicating insights gained from user research and revealing user goals, needs, and behaviors may challenge the assumptions of the stakeholders and potentially shift the business goals of the project. Stay flexible and be ready to pivot on the project.

3. Understand the Content based on User Needs

  • What content is already present?
  • What content should be repurposed, reworked, or removed?
  • What content does not yet exist but is needed?

Communicate content research activities to stakeholders and your team. Sometimes people have personal feelings attached to pieces of content. Lack of communication about reworking or removing content may cause hurt feelings and could lead to project impediments.

4. Design the IA and Test

  • Explore IA patterns already present in similar projects
  • Plan carefully for the labels and language that will be used
  • Test the IA with users by card sorting and tree testing
  • Revise the IA

Communicate designs, testing, and changes to stakeholders and your team.

5. Design the Navigation

  • Plan and design the navigation
  • Test the navigation
  • Revise the navigation

Design the navigation after the IA? Yes—IA is the big picture and navigation is wayfinding. Navigation helps users move through the Information Architecture to accomplish goals.

For a successful Information Architecture, follow or adapt a process that includes regular tests with users and meaningful communication with stakeholders at every step in the process.

Controlled Vocabulary, Lexicon, Thesaurus, and Ontology


It took about six months to refine a list of over 925 company terms down to 173 controlled vocabulary terms. During the process, the words taxonomy, lexicon, dictionary and controlled vocabulary were tossed around nearly interchangeably.

“You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”   Inigo Montoya, Princess Bride

Curious to uncover differences and relationships among these terms, I dug for answers and modeled the relationships.

Controlled Vocabulary

A controlled vocabulary, or authority file, is a restricted list of words used for labeling, indexing, or categorizing. It is controlled because:

  • Only terms from the list may be used for the subject area.
  • Defined policies delineate who, when, and how words are added to the list.

Controlled vocabularies are the broadest category of word groupings, which includes thesauri and taxonomies. Thesauri and taxonomies are specific kinds of controlled vocabularies, but not all controlled vocabularies are thesauri or taxonomies.

Relationships between terms may or may not exist in a controlled vocabulary.

Controlled vocabularies often have synonyms to point from incorrect variant terms to equivalent preferred terms in the controlled vocabulary, but this is not a requirement.



A lexicon is a group of meanings for specific terms in a controlled vocabulary. A specific person or team may be responsible for maintaining a lexicon. For example, the Marketing department may maintain a lexicon, but their terms are a part of the larger controlled vocabulary. A dictionary is a type of lexicon providing pronunciation rules.


A taxonomy is a classification system. The taxonomy in a controlled vocabulary indicates a hierarchical structure. Terms within a taxonomy relate to other terms in the taxonomy.

Taxonomies are often displayed as a tree structure. Taxonomies allow for the creation and use of facets, particularly helpful for information retrieval.  For example, a shoe store may provide a search system based on the classification of their shoes, allowing customers to search for women’s pink Nike athletic shoes—four facets of a particular shoe.


A thesaurus is a controlled vocabulary which follows a standard structure, where all terms in the thesaurus have relationships to each other.

  • Hierarchical (broader term/narrower term)
  • Associative (see also)
  • Equivalent (use/used from or see/seen from). 


For a controlled vocabulary, an ontology is the meaning of words and concepts, resulting in a complex thesaurus with a kind of taxonomy. In an ontology, relationships could include located in to relate a group to a place, manufactures/is manufactured by to relate a business and its goods, and instructs/instructed by to relate a school and its student.

Information and meaning are embedded in an ontology, both in the specific relationships in the controlled vocabulary and the broader world of the intended audience. The controlled vocabulary should be meaningful to the user, reflecting the ontology (or meaning) of terms in the user’s world.


An ontology is the meaning of words and relationships of concepts in a  thesaurus, which resides within a taxonomy, which resides within a controlled vocabulary, which resides within the ontology of the world.


The Secret Sauce for Effective Usability Testing

Interviews, observations, recommendations

It was my first usability test for a project team. The previous UX Researcher on our in-house UX Team had moved on to another company and I was delivering research solo.

I read Steve Portigal‘s book Interviewing Users. I subscribed to Nielsen/Norman Group  articles. I discovered the MeasuringU blog by Jeff Sauro.

I knew these things:

With the eagerness of exploring new territory, I enlisted participants, left my worldview at the door and made the user the expert in the interview.

I wrote up observations, scheduled a meeting with the project team, and delivered a presentation complete with recommendations.

This wasn’t very effective

The project team didn’t act on the recommendations nor change direction to improve usability for the user.

I was bewildered. Other UX Researchers in the field were making a difference in the user experience, informing design, and bringing value to project teams. Determined to find the secret sauce of effective usability testing, I re-evaluated my approach.

In search of the secret sauce

I began by asking questions:

  • Who wants this research?
  • Why are we testing this?
  • Why is this a business goal?
  • What does the project team need to learn?
  • What are the key parts to test?
  • What does the perfect participant look like?
  • When does the Project Manager need results?

Taking insights from Mike Kuniavsky‘s book Observing the User ExperienceI divided the interview into six phases: Introduction, Warm Up, General Focus, Deep Focus, Retrospective, Wrap Up. The interview phases brought clarity to writing the interview, guiding the participant, and the debrief analysis afterward.

After pilot testing, the project team was invited to observe all the interviews. I explained that we were trading the big presentation for a collaborative team debrief immediately after each participant interview.

The conversation during the debrief was remarkable. The project team empathized with user difficulties and ideated on improvements to the user experience. They discussed feature sets (desirability), feasibility, and viability. I logged their thoughts on a whiteboard and contributed just a few observations, leaving most of the discovery to the team.

After the interviews were completed, I synthesized the debrief notes into a findings document which included their own discoveries and recommendations. With an open door to discuss the findings, I sent the document to the team.

The open door resulted in hallway and coffee pot conversations, but there was no need for the big presentation. The project team didn’t have time for it. They were busy making the experience better for the user with an improved alignment to business goals.

The secret sauce of effective usability testing

Once in a while the big presentation still makes an appearance–mostly to inform stakeholders who did not observe participant sessions.  But over time I have found that collaborative planning and discovery is the secret sauce for effective usability testing. 


Does my domain need a search system?

Do all domains really need their own search system?

Probably not all.

If the interaction of site visitors is browsing rather than searching behavior, a search engine might not be as useful to help users accomplish their goals.

Website designers and developers should consider what content of volume is enough to merit the need of a search system. If the time to set up and maintain a content retrieval system which will return meaningful and consistent results will not pay off with visitors, it might not be worth it. Costs for web development resources to implement, optimize, and maintain the system must also be considered.

A manually maintained index could provide visitors quicker access with more relevant results than a search.

A website with a strong a navigational system, such as a controlled vocabulary to tag content, may be more useful than a search engine, if the user can follow the ‘scent of information’ through the trigger words to meet their goals, this may be more useful to visitors.

Then again, the search box is expected on many websites, especially if the goal of the visitor is to find their answer quickly. It is possible that websites that do not provide this service may be more likely to be abandoned by users, but this is my personal assumption.

If your domain needs a search engine, a third party search engine like Google could be easier to implement than an in-house or agency designed and developed search algorithm.

Are there some types of domains that always need their own search systems?

Yes, absolutely.

Outside of the obvious Google, Yahoo, and Bing search engines which require powerful search systems, domains which access large databases require search systems.

Public facing domains with like,, as well as private company wikis require robust search engines. The amount of information in domains like these are too large for a manual index or navigational system to provide alone, although an index may supplement the search system.

Advocate for users through the Customer Journey Map

Advocate for users through the Customer Journey Map

Empathy is powerful in design work. Understanding users in deep and meaningful ways leads to innovations in products and services.

A designer can advocate for users through a Customer Journey Map to product team members to gain empathy with users. The map reveals user behaviors, thoughts, and emotions as they interacting with a product or service. Customer Journey Maps expose gaps in service design leading to product pivots and improvements.

An effective method to advocate for users through a Customer Journey Map starts with data and your team’s goals. 

Connecting the Dots in User Experience

You may have a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, finished several books about User Experience, and conducted pro-bono UX work to gain experience before your first professional role on a UX Team, yet don’t feel like you are connecting the dots in User Experience. This is exactly how I felt when I first accepted a User Experience position.

To get better, I read more books, subscribed to blogs, watched videos, joined Meet-ups, and attended a conference. After eight months of working under the direction of a remarkable manager who offered direction and encouragement, I knew my design education was inconsistent and incomplete.

The mountain

I very much wanted to be good at this craft and spent many personal hours in study and activities to grow in UX skills. The missing connections created an internal struggle that was frustrating to me. I felt like for every step I took forward in understanding, the mountain of how much I had to learn grew ten times greater.

I expressed this internal struggle to a trustworthy and well-respected Mobile Developer. He chucked and said, “That’s imposter syndrome. I feel like a fraud every day.”

While I appreciated his candor, his words were not comforting. Would I always feel like I don’t know enough? Would the enormous mountain of required knowledge always loom before me?

The dots

Why was it hard for me to make the connections between Information Architecture, Visual Design, Business Analytics, Interaction Design, Writing for UX, Information Design, Facilitation, and User Research? How long would it take for me to feel confident connecting the dots in User Experience to match business goals with user needs, effectively advocate for the user, and craft an exceptional experience—bringing value to the user and success to the business?

Attempting to join the dots through books, videos, and conferences varied in effectiveness. Some of the teachings were zoomed in on user interactions; some were zoomed out to strategic business decisions. While these are all aspects of a quality user experience, it was a challenge for me to understand when to shift perspectives in my work.

The frame

During a specific project, I was encouraged to think about the next larger context in research and design. I reflected on this statement and realized that it applied more than just my immediate work. Context provides a bridge to meaning in all experiences.

If I leveraged context, I could improve my ability to connect the dots in this profession. I realized I needed a personal information architecture to make sense of this craft. A framework, a structure for learning user experience design, would provide this architecture.

After researching several options for frameworks, I choose a graduate program and enrolled in the Kent State Master’s Program in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management with a concentration in User Experience Design.

The first course delivered a solid foundation for understanding the whole of User Experience and the second course focused research and design on a technical project from start to finish. Both courses connected the aspects of User Experience into a meaningful whole, helping immeasurably to reduce my frustration and provided multiple layers of context.

Through practical coursework and reading, I am focused on improving skills, immersing myself in contextual thinking, and applying new learning immediately to my work. I am far more satisfied and believe my contributions to my team and employer are much greater.

Connecting the Dots in User Experience

Graduate school isn’t for everyone. And just because I will have a degree at the end doesn’t guarantee I will master the work with effectiveness.

The benefit of the education is the frame on which I hang learning. I am scaling the mountain with purpose and direction. Executing my work with new insights and wisdom brings value to my colleagues and my employer.

Do you feel like you don’t know enough about User Experience? Does the mountain of what you need to know loom before you? You may lack a frame to connect the widely varied aspects of the User Experience profession. I encourage you to pursue frameworks that will help you connect the dots. A framework suited for learning will feed confidence and context for your work and increase the value of contributions.

The Four Essentials of a Customer Journey Map

Mapping is a fundamental UX skill.

User Experience professionals map questions, concepts and ideas, hierarchies, journeys, spaces, and more.

Customer Journey Mapping is a combination of four UX skills: data analysis, synthesis, storytelling, and visualization.

Customer Journey maps visualize the process that a person goes through in order to accomplish a goal. These maps may be used to understand customer needs, reveal where a business lacks insight about a user, and to surface pain points that may lead to service or product innovations.

Customer Journey Maps require research to be actionable. A Customer Journey Map formed without research and information is just a fairy tale, a bucket of non-tested assumptions.

Four necessary elements for building a useful and actionable Customer Journey Map

Goals–Identify the purpose of the Customer Journey Map.

  • What business goal or user goal does this journey map inform?
  • Whose journey is this and what experience does it address?
  • Who will use the journey map?

Research–collect data and information that leads to insights for mapping.

  • Database statistics
  • Customer Service contact information
  • Google Analytics
  • Marketing statistics
  • Usability tests
  • Customer Discovery Interviews
  • Other information indicating user behavior
  • User feedback

Frame–An expansive beginning-to-end customer journey or a micro-interaction journey can be mapped. Regardless of length of map or purpose, a Customer Journey Map should identify what customers are:

  • Thinking
  • Feeling
  • Doing

Collaboration–Build the journey with a cross-functional team for greater insights and relevance.

  • Challenge each other and call out biases and assumptions about the cusotmer and the journey
  • Pull out pain points and opportunities for further research
  • Declare an owner of the journey map who will communicate updates to the user’s journey over time
  • Discuss methods to inform others about the customer’s journey

A Customer Journey Map serves as a connection to the customer and provides an opportunity to solve their problems and innovate on unmet needs.

Integrity-Minded Social Engineering

Social Engineering is a non-technical security threat which relys heavily on human interaction. A typical Social Engineering technique manipulates victims into performing certain actions or providing confidential information.

But could the principles of Social Engineering be used for good? Could integrity-minded Social Engineering lift product teams out of stale practices and limited vision and into new layers of innovation and technical feasibility? Could the most important skill for a UX Designer be the ability to leverage Social Engineering in product teams?

When product or service teams are unable to rise from the grind of daily work and step into design-thinking inspired innovation, it is time for the Designer to revisit the product or service value proposition for insights and inspiration.

An impetus for integrity-minded Social Engineering for product/service team leaders is measurement and competition. Most Project Managers are prioritizers. Project Managers are usually somewhat competitive, organized, and highly motivated to show value to the company.

The Value Proposition Canvas offers an opportunity for Designers to execute integrity-minded Social Engineering with Project Managers. The Lean Startup approach provides an occasion for making, measuring, results, and learning. Learning leads to innovation. Competition to test innovations that meet customer jobs, pains, and gains (documented on the Value Proposition Canvas) gives Project Managers room to show off the amazing skills of their team.

Conversations surrounding new ideas and quick experiments would fill the digital shop if product/service team leaders:

  • Were recognized for making time to test  innovative ideas
  • Measured the success of their team, in part, by the number of innovations tested

Intentional and strategic integrity-minded Social Engineering focuses resources and activities on experimentation and innovation.

Not only could this change digital team behavior and direction, it would also ensure that the deeper needs of the customer are always under scrutiny.

Testing  value-based innovations to confirm or disprove value to the customer and learning from the results to inform future innovations lifts product/service teams out of the daily grind and into the innovative space. Integrity-minded Social Engineering  may provide a frame by which to encourage innovation.

The Magnificent Task

When research with users indicates they are looking for products that have value, quality, and convenience, the designer should consider what value, quality, and convenience means to the user.

To understand value, the designer should understand what job the user is trying to accomplish. Helping the user get their job done brings value to the user.

For example, I recently tested a mobile app with users and believe the value the app brings to the user is the ability to communicate with others within the app, not the app itself. The value of the app is tied to the relationships of the user. The job the user is trying to get done is to build their relationships, even though the app had very little to do with building relationships.

What does quality mean to the user? The Design Research I performed for the app did not bring clarity to understanding quality. I still have questions. Does quality mean:

  • Ease of interactions
  • Sync between devices
  • Delivery of services at the right time through the right channel
  • Something else?

I could have asked better questions to gain these insights.

When looking for insights on convenience, the designer must understand what impediments to task accomplishment the user is already experiencing and innovate on methods to lessen the pain of task accomplishment. Adding features and thereby increasing complexity is not the answer. Minimizing distractions and adding clarity to user actions increases convenience.

Since users have several methods to accomplish tasks or ‘get jobs done’ a single app is not their only option. In fact, users may abandon an app or service they were previously faithful to if they find a suitable substitution.

As a designer, if I fail to improve the quality, value, and convenience of a digital service for which I am responsible, the customer may no longer find the service relevant to their life. The loss of the customer may fall on my shoulders.

That’s a lot of responsibility!

Framed in another way:

What a magnificent task the designer has before them—to understand and anticipate user needs and desires and innovate to meet those needs.

The best designers have this in common—they maintain a deep empathy with users and continually seek to know them better.