Using information architecture to improve your online store
Buzzwords. Trends. Internet crazes. They pop up on your Facebook feed one morning, and by noon they’ve been picked up by news outlets, industry experts and everyone in your office. And while most are easy to dismiss as ephemeral marketing fluff (Growth hacking? Brand storytelling? The Internet of Things?), a few stand out for having stood the test of time. One of our favourites: Information Architecture (IA).
If it sounds like a fancy term to convey something that’s really quite simple, that’s because it is. The Information Architecture Institute defines IA as “The art and science of organizing and labelling websites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability.” For the purpose of applying IA to ecommerce, that’s a good place to start. As pioneering information architect Jakob Nielsen put it: “If the customer can’t find the product, the customer can’t buy the product.”
Nielsen's statement may seem obvious, but a quick study of ecommerce sites—even a few major ones—reveals the relative scarcity of simple and intuitive site structure. While IA may be a straightforward concept, getting it right takes more than having a website and an opinion of how things should be laid out. Luckily, we’ve got five steps to help you achieve a more thoughtful and effective architecture for your store.
Develop a clear purpose
Even if you’ve been in business for a while, it’s good to go back to the basics every now and then. Ask yourself: What’s my site for? Every site should have a clear purpose, whether it’s to inform, persuade, entertain, or, in the case of ecommerce, sell. Without a well-defined purpose or goal, it’s practically impossible to structure an effective IA.
Keep your site’s purpose in the back of your mind as you structure your content and navigation. On a site where the primary purpose is to get visitors to the checkout, every step a user takes should be part of a clear path. You may have various other sub-goals within a site (to inform your customers about an important ethical issue, for example) and that’s fine, so long as you can see how each piece of content fits into the broader purpose of your site.
Get inside your customers’ heads
You are not your customer. Your site should not be designed for you or be based on your preferences. If you want to create a site that’s oriented to your customer, you need to adopt a different perspective—theirs.
There are a number of ways to go about doing this—and no, telepathy isn’t among them. As Silicon Valley serial-entrepreneur Steve Blank wrote in his Customer Development Manifesto, “There are no facts inside your building, so get outside.” You need to talk to your customers about who they are and what they need and want from your site. In-person interviews and phone calls are often the most revealing method, but online surveys and purchase feedback can also prove valuable.
Give some forethought to the kinds of questions you want to ask. Knowing what customers care about will help you structure and prioritize your site's content. Figuring out what they’re apathetic towards will make it easier to eliminate information and simplify it. Once you know what your customers actually want—rather than just your assumptions of what they want—you’ll be able to create an IA that conforms to those needs and desires.
Create some buyer personas
Now that you have some hard data on your customers, it’s time to get creative with it. Traditionally the domain of large corporations, buyer personas have become increasingly popular with smaller online retailers in recent years as ecommerce becomes more crowded and demographic-targeting tools become more accessible.
In its most basic form, creating buyer personas is as simple as figuring out the types of customers who shop at your store and developing fictionalized characters that fit those categories. Generally they include demographic information like age, occupation and income, as well as psychographic details like goals, interests, motivations and buying concerns. Here’s a sample persona borrowed from our friends at Shopify (attaching a photo can help you better envision the customer you’re targeting):
With your research complete and your buyer personas defined, you should have a pretty good idea of who and what to structure your IA around. Use the personas you’ve profiled as the basis for designing and testing your site. For example, if you know that Alex is a price-conscious consumer, you might consider having a prominent “sale” or “clearance” category on your site. You might also consider enabling filtering for various discount levels.
To learn more about buyer personas, visit the Shopify link above, or check out HubSpot’s downloadable free template to start creating your own.
Figure out where your customers are going—and where you want them to go
Analytics offer an incredible window into how your customers behave when they visit your site. In a perfect world, they’re following a clear path from your homepage or landing page to the content they're looking for, and then making a beeline for the checkout. But is that what’s really happening? Or are they getting caught up in a convoluted navigation structure or bouncing once they see the checkout process?
To create an information architecture that keeps users more focused on the end goal, use the buyer personas you developed to sketch out some purchasing scenarios or user flows. Remember that not all buyers will have the same motivations or behaviour. According to information architect Donna Spencer, there are four essential modes of information-seeking: known-item, exploratory, don’t know what you need to know, and re-finding.
Customers in each of these modes require different navigational features to succeed, so think about how your site looks from each of their perspectives. If someone knows exactly what they’re looking for, they’ll most likely want to type specific terms into a search box. If they’re “just browsing” (like more and more people, especially on mobile), they might not know what they want, but your site should have some suggestions. And if someone wants to go back to something they’ve discovered in the past, it should be easy to find.
Go back to the drawing board
Yes, you read that right. This is the fifth and final step, and it’s probably also where you started when you first laid out and launched your store—mapping out which content should go where. The only difference is that this time you actually have some data to base your decisions on.
There are a number of approaches you can take to figuring out your store’s optimal sitemap or menu structure, but one of the most effective and popular methods is card sorting. seoWorks has an excellent guide that walks you through conducting a card sorting exercise step-by-step: it involves writing down the informational elements you want to organize on index cards, and getting test subjects to arrange them in ways that they think make sense. You can even take a stab at it yourself using the information you collected in your interviews.
Here's a three-minute video explainer:
Once you’ve conducted your card sorting sessions—Jakob Nielsen recommends about 15 in total—it’s time to analyze. Which cards appeared in the same category most frequently? Which cards did test subjects struggle to categorize? Were any new elements or categories suggested by participants during the sessions? Online tools like OptimalSort, UserZoom and usabilitiTEST can make analysis much easier. It may even make more logistical and financial sense to do all of your card sorting online (you can read more about that here).
Rather than just taking the results of your card sorting sessions and implementing them as your site structure, use them together with the other data you’ve gathered to create a sort of composite structure. This process is both a science and an art, and you shouldn’t expect to get it completely right (or wrong) on the first try. Work with your team, gather feedback from your customers, iterate, and repeat.
Information Architecture might seem overwhelming or difficult or tedious, but it’s actually one of the best investments you can make in both your business and your customers. Taking the time to get IA right for your store will ensure an amazing user experience, ultimately leading to improved customer satisfaction and conversions.
If you’d like to learn more about IA, we recommend checking out Boxes and Arrows for a wealth of up-to-date articles written by a range of highly qualified authors. The “User Research” section of A List Apart is also a good resource, as is Nielsen Norman Group’s ecommerce page.