Where am I and How Did I Get Here?

Understanding Context with Information Architecture

Posted by Matthew Farleo on 28th Jan 2018

In web design a commonly heard adage is “Content is King.” In terms of Information Architecture Context is King

TL:DR Information Architecture is a broad and complicated field that can require a role all its own (Information Architects) to perform effectively depending on project size and scope. It begins with understanding the way your users think and continues through developing relational context between workflows and taxonomies. For a broad definition, Information Architecture is the practice of arranging elements of something to be comprehensible. Basically, it is putting the pieces of a digital product together in a way that will be useful and intuitive for your users. Think of a grocery store and how items are organized by aisle and product category, this organizational structure is an example of information architecture in use.

Understanding Your User’s Context Through Storyboarding

How a user comes to learn about your product, what expectations they have for your product and what drives them to use your product is important information to research, as it will lead to a better understanding of both your users and your business landscape. Information gained through a competitive analysis or an analysis of similar experiences can be weighed against user personas to help develop Mental Models. Mental Models in user experience design refer to how a user believes an interface will function based on previous experiences, interfaces and (sometimes false) assumptions.

An example of a storyboard from a classic Disney movie (Peter Pan).

Sometimes, to help teams understand the mental models and context a user experiences before and while using the digital product, Storyboards are created. Storyboards are illustrations or sketches of sequential art that makes a story. In terms of digital product design, it is the illustrated story of what led up to a user learning about the product and using the product. Storyboards can be helpful to help those having difficulty understanding and empathizing with the users, as stories contained within the storyboards are more relateable, memorable and engaging.

Mapping Your Content and Screens

Once the team has an understanding of what the product’s goals are and the primary workflows involved (read how: what are these people doing here?), and how a user is coming to engage with the product, it comes time to organize how the product’s screens will accomplish the product’s goals. The process of Screen Mapping is going through the digital products workflows and creating lists of content and elements that will be available on each screen or page. Producing robust screen maps allows the team to ensure that nothing is missed when developing wireframes and future design artifacts.

Content Mapping is similar to screen mapping but is focused on the actual content and where it is within the digital product. Understanding how a user moves through the digital product will help provide context to where the content should go, again providing the user with a story that will be relateable, memorable and engaging.

Putting it All Together

When the team has an idea of the workflows and the screens that are needed to create a functional digital product it is time to put it all together in a structure that makes sense. Organizing the various screens and pages into groups or taxonomies of like content and purpose helps users easily perform related tasks and enjoy the process of interacting with your digital product. Developing taxonomies helps ensure that the user will have relevant context when they are working on processes that require multiple steps or screens. The goal of this like grouping is to alleviate confusion as users engage with the product.

This high-level organizational document is called a Sitemap or Product Map. It shows how elements of the digital product are organized and how the individual elements interact with one another to provide a successful user experience. It ensures there are no roadblocks to user success or “dead-ends” that leave a user hanging with questions as to what to do next. Some websites have very simple sitemaps, only containing a few pages, whereas some digital applications can have a significant number of pages or screens that have variable content depending on the time or context in which the screen is viewed.

With all of these deliverables; sitemaps, product maps, screen maps, content maps, and storyboards, the purpose is to ensure that the digital product team is building an application that isn’t missing any important elements and that a user will have the context to complete any relevant tasks. These items provide a team a high-level, holistic look at the product, its workflows, and its place in its user’s lives. Understanding the intersection between those elements of the product sets the UX team on the path to a successful and engaging product.