To a lot of people Information Architecture (IA) is some kind of remote construct with no apparent significance.

However,  IA permeates every aspect of our lives, and for e-commerce sites, good information architecture is paramount to success. 

Effectively, IA helps us to make sense of a world where data is being generated at an unprecedented rate. Our ability to make sense of all this data is heavily influenced by how it’s accessed, organised and delivered.

The numbers, words and pictures have to manifest as something you can interpret, understand and act upon. This is what turns raw data into information.

As Theodore Roszak commented in his book ‘The Cult of Information’: “the mind speaks with ideas, not with information.” This suggests that visits to your website ought to be somewhat conversational and stimulate ideas.

It is the appreciation, design and execution of these factors that informs usability. For e-commerce sites this is paramount to success. So what to do?

According to the Five Hat Rack rule there are five ways to organise information:

Category: useful for defining different types of goods, particularly relevant in retail. 

Time: best for events that happen over fixed durations. Typically more pertinent in content heavy or publishing sites.

Location: ideally used when you are trying to examine and compare information that comes from diverse sources or locales.

Alphabet: useful for organising large bodies of information, particulalrly where the audience might not understand classification by another form or where scientific naming may be used.

Continuum: organises information by magnitude e.g. large to small, least to most etc Ideal for adding weight or value to types of information.

Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld’s book ‘Information Architecture For The World Wide Web’ simplifies this further with three core principles Content, Context and Users, the interdependencies of which define a good information architecture design.

Site search uses information architecture to aid the user, which in turn stimulates discovery,  as long as there are relevant search results throughout the experience. Products can be interlinked with relevant non product content (e.g. Video, pdfs, reviews etc) but only with a well structured IA.

Five ways to improve your information architecture

Understand the nature and objective of your site. For example, are you trying to sell product, disseminate information or attract subcribers? A good and inexpensive start to getting your information into these structures is to use card sorting

Profile the type of users who will be visiting the site and what their requirements and actions are likely to be. Reviews and surveys can help here

Test, review and act on the findings! There’s no point jumping to conclusions or rushing off in a blaze of excitement only to find that you are going in the
wrong direction or have started off on the wrong foot.

It’s best to conduct some simple tests to ensure the approach you take will work (this also applies even if you have an established site!).

Don’t work in isolation. Talk with your peers to learn from their exeriences and work with partners and experts who can add value to what you are trying to

Understand the monetary value of IA. How many visitors leave your site because they cannot find what they are looking for or because the information is poorly presented? 

What is that worth in terms of lost revenue? What is the cost to maintain, develop and innovate your IA and what are the benefits worth to your business?

The sooner you can visualise your information the better prepared and more agile your business will be for the opportunities that will continue to come your way.