How important is Information Architecture?

Web site design and development has been a part of our day to day lives for about 2 decades.  Why is that just within the last 2-3 years has information architecture been a "task" in all of our project plans?  Did we not do it before?  Were we doing it wrong?  Not necessarily...most of us always approached analysis of usability and then worked on how we can structure a site to be easy to use.  Because that truly is the most important thing. Look at Google...no fancy layout, no fancy banners, just easy.  And now they the most commonly used search engine; the name of their compay is now a verb in our day to day communications.  That says a lot.

So what is Information Architecture doing today that we were not doing before?  Much like the internet is constantly changing, so is our methodologies.  Understanding and educating ourselves on user behavior and how sites can be structure differently and better based on your target market is an ongoing learning experience.  

With sites housing a large amount of information it is about identifying your core content and creating paths to reach your content.  In addition, it is about really fine tuning organization and site goals.  Many organizations have multiple target audiences, but in reality, you have to be smart and prioritize who your site is targeting.  If you have 4 different target audiences, which many of you do, you can't effectively reach to all your audiences at the same level.  If you do, then you will ultimately create a site with a navigation that is over saturated and you inadvertently decrease the priority of all the content on your site.  Therefore, none of your audiences are served.

So what do you do?  Focus on prioritizing your target audiences.  Identify your organization's goals and then provide focus to your site's main navigation to obtain that goal and reach your primary audience.  That does not mean you don't try to reach your other audiences, that just means you have to be creative.  

A site without a Content Management System (CMS) is pretty archaic and most of you have a CMS.  The ability to update your site and site structure easily is a necessary tool, but you can also cause future problems.  You can pay an expert to conduct an information architecture but if your content editors start to put every piece of content back into the navigation, you may end up in the same position that you were in before the review.  So make sure you add some control into your CMS with security roles and even workflow, if that is necessary.  Lastly, educate your CMS administrators so they can make informed decisions on the placement of your content.

Your site should be living and breathing and you need to review your site's stats on a frequent basis.  Make sure you have someone reviewing your analytics.  You may find that even after an information architecture your statistics warrant a change.  That is okay, just make sure your change is backed up by your analytics so ultimately you gain an advantage with the structure change.