Information architecture can be used as a buzzword out the Wild, Wild West of web design. Don’t be fooled. It’s a fancy term for some simple concepts. It’s just hard to define. But we’re here to solve that, and to help you make the best of your information architecture on your next WordPress website.
What is Information Architecture?
To define information architecture you need to know what an information architect does. This term, and similar ones like it, are used in other technical communities. So it can have different meanings in different contexts.
In web design, we are mainly talking about strategizing your web content so that it is easier for users to find what they are looking for. Sounds simple, yet many, many, many websites miss this. And ‘big’ agencies or companies are not excluded from making this mistake.
An information architect has to know a lot about websites. They are the person that glues all the components together – the web design, the copywriting, the SEO, the usability, the user testing, the navigation, the page hierarchy, and the Internet marketing strategy. It’s not just about making pretty sitemap charts. So please, put that concept out of your head. An information architect is essential to any website.
Yes, they are like a project manager. And a designer. But they are aware of so much more. They consider things like whether the CSS will work in a certain scenario while also understanding the importance of copywriting and calls to action on a page. They help make sense of the why behind all those board room meeting website decisions. Why do you want a search bar in the top right corner of your header? Why do you want a slider on your home page? (Really, why? It’s so silly). Why do you feel you need an, ‘About us’ page? Seriously, have you given this thought, or are you only doing it because you saw it on other websites? How is this going to serve your user?
The crux comes down to this: what exactly are you trying to accomplish with your website? Once we figure that out, we can get to work solving your dilemmas and strategizing your ‘plan of attack.’
Since it’s a job that is so situational, it’s hard to teach it. A lot of the answers you get from an information architect might just be, “it depends.” But yes, you can learn this stuff in school and online if you really want to.
You don’t have to hire a professional information architect in all cases, however. Many small business websites, or even just business websites without a lot of content, may not require such a specialized role in their website design process. But you as the web developer or web designer can take on this role for them, and you should. At some level, even if it’s a small one, information architecture needs to be considered before you begin mocking up concepts in Photoshop and even before you sketch a wireframe with pencil and paper.
I mean it. Stop right here. Don’t design your website yet. It’s time to hold off and think about what you’re doing.
First of all, pause here and go read this article: How to Make Your Website More Click-Worthy with Goals, Words and Common Sense
Finished? Great. Now lets discover ways we can improve our information architecture tactics within the WordPress environment specifically. There are more resources for you to read at the end of this article.
Using Information Architecture Tools Built in to WordPress
WordPress has many tools built right into its content management system (CMS) that you can utilize for good information architecture planning. As you are organizing your content, speaking to the copywriters, designers, marketing team, and so on, make sure everyone knows these are here and ready-to-go out-of-the-box in WordPress. You don’t need plugins to use these. They are present in WordPress because the CMS expects you to be using information architecture in your design and website planning.
You will need to do more research on these if you’re not sure how they work or how to utilize them. Here is an article that gives a rundown on how to make your content easier to find on a WordPress site, and elaborates on some of the tools mentioned below.
Categories and tags (i.e. taxonomies) – these are likely the most used information architecture tools built into WordPress. They can often be confused in their usage, however. For more on this topic, please checkout the following articles:
Custom post formats – these are built in to WordPress, but they are a little bit hidden. You need to ‘activate’ them with a dash of code. However, once you do, you may find it easier to organize your blog beyond just categories and tags. Taxonomies and custom post formats are not to be confused with each other though. If you are an avid blogger with a content-heavy site that contains different types of content (images, video, quotes, articles, etc.), similar to a Tumblr-style blog (without the social aspects), then this is the solution for you. Custom post formats are not the same as custom post types though! I’ve explained custom post formats in great detail in this article:
Custom post types – these aren’t technically built into an out-of-the-box installation of WordPress, but they are readily available if you know a bit of code or can weasel your way around a plugin, like the popular Types or Pods plugins. Sometimes, they are also built into themes.
Custom post types should be used when you need to organize information separate from ‘regular’ posts and pages in WordPress. For example, if you want to section off your team member bios, or your portfolio items. They help organize your back end, and usually feed multiple posts onto a page or single URL. Some plugins create them automatically. Two of my favorite plugins that utilize custom post types are the Meet My Team plugin and the FAQ Manager (not updated, but still works for me).
Smashing Magazine wrote a guide to using custom post types here:
Custom fields – these also need to be coded into WordPress, but are a functionality that is always ‘there’ if you need them. Custom fields help you enter data on your site in an organized, consistent way. For example, let’s say you are a food blogger and every recipe you post has a section for these items:
Instead of typing these out and formatting them every time you write about a recipe, you can set these up as custom fields. Especially if you are a web developer or designer, you should be considering using these for your clients. It will avoid bad styling when they start managing their own content.
Here are examples of custom fields we used when creating the 4Cats.com website:
You will notice that on location sites, every “Class” and “Party” (which are custom post types), follow a certain order of information, and contain separate backgrounds and styles. This is controlled by custom fields. That way, the client always knows where to enter information in the most ‘dummy-proof’ way. Styles are applied automatically. This is what back-end custom fields look like:
And this is what these two sections would look like on the front end:
Here is a simpler example, of custom fields being used merely to enter data in an organized, pre-styled way:
And this is what that information on the front end would look like:
We have an article on our blog explaining how you can create your own custom fields:
Custom menus – this is last of the ‘custom’ named tools we’ll talk about here. Custom menus were introduced quite a while ago and if you’re developing your own theme, you need to be using them. They allow you to put lists of links in different parts of your website, not just the navigation menu. They are very helpful for organization, like if you wanted to put a list of ‘related links’ on the sidebar of a single page of your site, to help users find more on the subject.
Below is an example of a site I worked on where we helped users find content relevant to the ‘section’ they were in, using WordPress custom menus. Notice how the ‘About’ section and the ‘Media’ archive contain different sidebar menus at the top:
Widgets – no matter what theme you’ve used in the past, you have most likely always encountered these. WordPress comes with several built-in widgets such as the ability to show a list of pages, categories, custom menus, and more. Plugins can offer more, and sometimes themes also have widgets built into their functionality. Widgets are not just for sidebars though. You can create widgeted areas for basically any part of your site, if you code them into your templates. For example, your footer could use widgets, as could your home page. They are helpful as a drag-and-drop feature for organizing content in the WordPress CMS.
For example, the home page at bclaserandskincare.com (disclosure: one of my clients), uses widgets to organize its core service categories, which needed to be easy to find:
Sidebars – even if you are using the default twenty-something theme, you will usually find a sidebar on your site. You don’t always need to use a sidebar (many sites are going full-width with wide margins nowadays). But a sidebar can really help with navigation, calls to action, and accomplish the goals of the site.
For example, the bclaserandskincare.com site mentioned above also needed a constant way to remind its visitors to request a consultation. This was a key goal of the site. So for that reason, the sidebar serves a very important purpose – to contain a contact form. Here is an example:
But sometimes you don’t want to use a sidebar because it can distract from the message you’re trying to get your users to focus on. For example, the page below aimed to show its visitors how a relatively unknown service works, since it wasn’t easy to explain in a simple sentence. In cases like these, a no-sidebar page would be warranted:
Search – the search function in WordPress is admittedly not that great. But it’s there if your site is content-heavy and contains a lot of information that users may want to dig into. For example, we have a search bar on our blog, because it’s big, and contains a lot of posts on a lot of topics. If the categories on the sidebar aren’t enough, you have another option to find what you’re looking for.
There are plugins and other ways of getting a better search function on your site. We wrote about that here:
Author pages – if you have a multi-author blog, you may want to help your users find articles written by a specific person. Authorship as an SEO tactic has waned recently. But it may still benefit you from a marketing and visibility standpoint to take advantage of author archives. For example, by linking to them from personal social media profiles. If you run a one-author blog though, using this feature is not necessary, and may even be bad for SEO (due to duplicate content in archives).
See this article on our blog for more info on author pages in WordPress:
Read more link text – it sounds tiny, but you can be surprised how this may help with your information architecture. Instead of showing full articles or portions of text, you can use a link to get users to read more only if they wish. That way you save retail space on your web page templates in WordPress. We wrote an article on how to customize this text:
WordPress Multisite – this is another one of those things that needs to be ‘activated’ in WordPress, but is always there. If your site has many huge sections, like franchise locations, or newspaper beats, you may want to consider WordPress multisite. There aren’t a lot of use-cases to justify this route if you are not going to have many users managing many sites. But it’s there to help you when you have a massive project on your hands and need ‘mini websites’ to be contained within a larger website network.
See these resources for more information:
Using Plugins to Enhance your WordPress Information Architecture
WordPress out-of-the-box is great for organizing content, but of course, there are going to be unique cases when you may need more. That’s why plugins exist. They help you get the features you need, that not every website scenario may need. In web design, you should choose these carefully. Too many bells and whistles may not be needed, and can do more harm than good. Remember, less is more.
Let’s explore some ideas for plugins. And by all means, search the WordPress plugin repository and evaluate your options before going with a plugin. There is usually more than one option to achieve the functions listed below (including custom-built solutions).
Drill down menus and sub page menus – there are different ways to refer to this, and different ways to go about it. The idea here is that you help a user get closer and closer to what they are looking for through links and labels (i.e. menu items). Using custom menus (see above) is one way to do this. But when you want to automate things a bit more, you probably want to use a plugin. Here are some options we found:
Mega menus – while most themes will come with the ability to do ‘regular’ drop down menus, some large sites may need more than that. For example, you might need drop down menus that span more than one column to make room for more links, or show featured content as graphical links. You can custom-make these, or use a plugin. Here are some options:
Also see this article we wrote about menus:
Expand and collapse – this is a great way to temporarily ‘hide’ information anywhere on a WordPress site. It saves retail space on a template, but keeps the text available should a user want to know more about a particular topic. All they have to do is click on the title, or a little ‘+’ icon, or any text you choose, and they can read more without having to load or visit another page. My favorite plugin for doing this:
Custom sidebars – we’ve talked about this above, but it’s good to note some plugins that can help you separate your sidebar content onto different pages.
Widget Logic (I used this in combination with a custom sidebar plugin for even more specific customization)
Galleries – you’ll need something to show many photos in WordPress. While WordPress does have it’s own gallery function, if you find it’s not cutting it for your needs, you will find a plethora of other gallery software out there – both paid and free. We can’t name them all, and since there are many, the word ‘favorite’ would be a relative and contextual term to use here. However here are a few to start your search:
Apline PhotoTile (for showing images from various social networks – it’s awesome)
Video players – yes, you can just embed a video from YouTube or Vimeo if you want. But sometimes you either a) want to make your video playback more fancy or b) need to self host your videos so they’re not available on social networks. You can do either of those with the following plugins:
Faceted search – this is like a drill-down menu, and you’ve probably used something like it before while online shopping. It’s a more powerful way to search by specifying exactly what you’re looking for. We wrote about how to do this here. Check out these plugins for ideas:
Tabs – like the expand and collapse feature, tabs are a great way to squeeze a lot of content into a small area, without affecting crowded-ness or legibility. Read our article on why you’d want to use them here. Here are some options if you’re looking for plugins:
Forms – the question of forms is a big one. You want to use the right tool here. The form plugin you pick should depend on the type of information you want to collect, the place where the data will be sent, and the way you want to ask your questions. We wrote about forms plugins extensively. See the following resources on our blog for more info:
Some commonly used contact form plugins:
Breadcrumbs – many themes come with this feature built in, and they are often commonplace. If your content is very hierarchical and several layers deep, breadcrumbs will be very helpful in showing users where they are. Since SEO will likely be important to you as well, consider using the breadcrumb feature in the WordPress SEO by Yoast plugin to avoid extra, unnecessary plugin installations. You may need to know a little code to use this.
See this article for more info:
Related posts – please do be careful with this feature. It would probably be best not to use a plugin for this, but instead to manually enter related posts with custom fields. One of the most popular WordPress hosts, WP Engine, just won’t allow some related posts plugins for the following reason:
Almost all “Related Posts” plugins suffer from the same fundamental problems regarding MySQL, indexing and search. All of these problems make the plugins themselves extremely database intensive.
Nonetheless, they are useful for getting people to click through to more articles on your site. You can do this with simple text based links at the end of an article, or consider a custom fields solution (see above).
We also wrote an article on how to do this here:
All-in-one Graphical User Interface (GUI) plugins – if you think you need more than one way to organize content, try some all-in-one plugins that include several functions. This way there will be less chance of a plugin conflict down the road, and you can keep your options open for adding content later. Here are some choices:
Shortcodes (made by us at Elegant Themes)
iThemes Plugin Suite (technically separate plugins, but lots of options in the package)
To Conclude: Information Architecture Needs More Than Just Tools
After reading all the tools listed above, you may still be wondering, ‘ok, but what is it and how do I do it.’
That’s hard to say, because information architecture is broad and covers many aspects. To become an expert in this field requires a lot of reading, study, testing and experience. Just read some of the articles about it on blogs like Boxes and Arrows or A List Apart and you will see how complex the topic can get.
However, I’ve gathered some articles and reading for you to start you on your journey. You’d be surprised how much an understanding of information architecture can improve your website projects, if all parties involved are willing to go through its process.
Enjoy the further reading and let me know your favorite information architecture tools to use with WordPress in the comments below!
Information Architecture Resources From the Web:
The Information Architecture Institute – Recommended Reading