The importance of context in creating a good IA

The importance of context in creating a good IA

By Samantha Winfield (Entelect, UX/UI Designer)

Context is important in all areas of design and can be a make or break factor. This is especially the case in information architecture. There are many techniques and methods used by UX designers to establish the information architecture for a product but overlooking something as important as context can mean the difference between a successful product and a failure.

Consider the following statement:

Ashley is running to the ball.

What was the first idea that appeared in your mind?

What if I were to tell you that Ashley was wearing a ball gown? Does that change your initial perception of the statement? What if I said Ashley was a professional rugby player or that she was a 5 year old playing with her friends in the street?

Notice how the introduction of a small amount of extra information can completely change the meaning of the statement? Context refers to the who, what, where and when of a situation and provides us with important insights which influence our perception of that information. Without these insights, we are forced to make assumptions and come to our own bias conclusions about what a statement, object, or situation means. By setting the scene and providing context, we remove ambiguities, reduce the chances of assumptions and can therefore start relying on the correct interpretation and perception of information.

In UX our main goal is to interact with users in order to remove biases and assumptions and create a product that our target market can use and interact with effectively. In this space, context is used to inform the user as to what something means and what to do next. Similarly, information architecture involves arranging the parts of a product to be understandable. Together, context and information architecture aim to achieve a similar goal: to guide the user to complete the necessary tasks effectively and efficiently.

Building a solid foundation is critical to the user’s interaction with a product, therefore the information architecture should be carefully considered. UX designers typically use card sorting as the method of interacting with users to establish the information architecture. Card sorting involves presenting parts of the content for your product to the user as separate parts and asking them to group and categorise them.

Consider the simple example below:

When given to a user in a card sorting exercise, the result may be similar to the example below:

Now, let’s change the context slightly:

The user may group this collection as follows:

The example above highlights how a small change in the context of the content can result in a very different grouping and categorisation of the information. It is therefore essential that the content presented to users is proportionate to the content you need to present in your product and is representative of the correct context for that product.

It is always a good idea to perform a tree test (reverse card sort) with users after the initial card sorting exercise in order to ensure that the resultant information architecture makes sense, is usable and understandable.

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