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Information Architecture and Navigation Design Principles

A website’s information architecture (IA) and navigation profoundly impacts user experience. If users can’t find what they need quickly, engagement falls.

This comprehensive guide explores proven IA and navigation design principles and best practices. We’ll cover topics like organizational schemes, navigation patterns, hierarchy, labeling, search, and mobile IA.

Let’s ensure your site architecture intuitively guides users to fulfilling their needs!

Why IA and Navigation Matter

On complex websites, unclear IA turns discovery into frustration, hurting outcomes:

  • Users can’t easily complete desired tasks
  • Key content stays buried and hard to find
  • Critical conversion paths like checkout get abandoned
  • Poor mental model fit means confusion and uncertainty
  • Weak “scent of information” provides limited directional cues

Strong IA and navigation prevents these issues through:

  • Organizing content matched to user mental models
  • Offering clear navigational cues and assistance
  • Establishing site-wide hierarchy and relationships
  • Writing descriptive, meaningful labels
  • Optimizing findability with metadata and SEO
  • Ensuring critical paths are clear and prioritized

Keep IA and navigation centered on serving user goals and the rest follows.

Developing an IA Strategy

A structured approach ensures IA evolves strategically:

Set Key Goals

Identify the core tasks and content types you want to optimize for findability. What must users access easily?

Understand User Mental Models

Research existing mental models and language around your content domains through card sorts and surveys. Discover natural associations.

Content Audit

Catalog all existing site content to assess level of organization and determine relationships. Identify unnecessary pages diluting architecture.

Group Content Priority

Map content to user goals and ordering based on importance. Hierarchy emphasizes critical subsets.

Define Taxonomy and Categories

Develop an organizational framework with category relationships and terminology based on mental models.

Create IA Sitemap

Visually diagram content groups and navigation in hierarchical tree structures. Iterate based on usability.

Match IA to proven mental models through periodic tuning as content and users evolve.

Organization Schemes and Relationships

Various schemes exist for logically grouping content:

By Topic/Theme

Related topics under broader themes like “Health & Wellness” simplifies similar content discovery.


Group key stages like “Considering Divorce” and “Going Through Divorce”. Progress visitors through journeys.


Structure around common user goals and tasks like “Making a Doctor’s Appointment”. Facilitate completion.


For local sites, categorize by geographic regions then offerings within each area.


Alphabetical listings work for certain uniform collections like product catalogs.


Rank content by date like press releases or blog archives.

Structure schemes around dominant user tasks and perspectives. Hybrid combined models are common.

Common Website Navigation Patterns

Navigation patterns provide multi-dimensional access matching varying user needs:

Top Primary Nav

Major persistent top nav with core sections provides consistent high-level orientation.

Contextual Secondary Nav

Category or section-specific secondary navs add flexibility accessing deeper content within topics.

Supplemental Tertiary Nav

Unrelated but useful sidebars like account management links aid related tasks while consuming content.

Footer Navigation

Secondary utility-focused footer nav boosts discoverability for copyright, policies, contact, etc.


Breadcrumb trails like Home >> Electronics >> Televisions show location in site hierarchy.


Site-wide search allows lookup by specific keywords when users know their target.

Layered top, contextual, and supplemental access caters navigation to distinct circumstances. Give choices.

Designing Clear Navigation Hierarchy

Reference the established IA when structuring navigation:

Order Top Level by Importance

Prioritize the most critical, frequently accessed entry points in top navigation.

Be Selective About Main Items

Avoid overload by keeping top nav focused on core sections only. Secondary navs house peripherals.

Limit Submenu Depth

Nest submenus only when essential. More than 2 levels causes confusion and hides content.

Show Sibling vs. Child Relationships

Group peer categories visually together and separate through space or dividers from children cutting visual height.

Sort Items Logically

Alphabetize non-priority lists but group related subsections. Random order perplexes users.

Align Navigation to Page Content

Highlight the associated top nav item for the current page visited to provide reinforcement.

Organization, prioritization, and relationships make or break navigation usability.

Writing Great Navigation Labels

Descriptive, consistent, scannable labels clarify navigation:

Speak User Language

Use terminology users naturally employ based on research like card sorting. Avoid company jargon.

Label Based on Page Goal

Use action-oriented headings indicating what users achieve on the page like “Find a Doctor.”

Be ultra Specific

Vague headers like “Services” tell users little. Add clarity like “Legal Services.”

Write Concise yet Informative Headers

Balance brevity with details that communicate section scope.

Adopt Parallel Structure

Use consistent grammar and format across labels for continuity once patterns established.

Consider Scanning

Optimized for quick visual skimming by capitalizing logical keywords for each section.

Maintain Consistency

Once labels chosen, use exact same phraseology consistently across all platforms.

Words make navigation systems hum. Ensure terminology precisely guides users.

Best Practices for High-Findability IA

Beyond core structures, details boost discoverability:

Include Sitemaps

Provide an all-pages sitemap to facilitate deep-dive content hunting.

Link Related Content

Use “Related Articles” modules to connect complementary content throughout the site.

Enable Effective Site Search

Optimize on-site search with synonyms, custom indexing, and predictive results.

Descriptive Page Titles

Make each page’s title in search results compelling through keywords.

Include Strong Metadata

Thorough metadata improves SEO and helps search engines understand page content.

Link to Related Internal Pages

Include in-content contextual links to direct users deeper based on detected interests.

Provide Shortcut Link Directories

List commonly desired utility destinations like contact and support in footers to shortcut navigation.

Findability touches ease frustration and direct specific goals. Audit for enhancements.

Mobile and App IA Best Practices

On mobile, simplified navigation is key:

Simplify Menu Options

Condense complex desktop menus to only most critical tasks. Hide advanced options under “More”.

Use Dropdowns Over Mega Menus

Dropdown submenus hide options until tapped to focus menu real estate.

Position Menu for Thumb Access

Ensure menus positioned reachable by thumb to prevent hand strain.

Make Buttons Large and Spaced

Increase touch target size and space between nav options for easy tapping without precision.

Keep Menus Sticky if Possible

Persistent sticky menus while scrolling provide constant access without needing to jump to the top.

Include Category Images

On ecommerce category pages, add visual product type examples that quickly orient mobile shoppers.

Leverage Swipe Navigation

Let lateral swiping navigate app screens and workflows.

Keep mobile navigation focused on enabling fast access to primary destinations. Hidden advanced options reduce clutter.

IA Testing and Iteration

Evolve IA based on observed usage:

Card Sorting

Test IA early by having users group content and suggest their own organizations. Identify mismatches.

First-Click Testing

See where users initially go from homepage without guidance to assess intuitiveness.

Tree Testing

Observe users navigating full site structures to pinpoint confusing areas.

A/B Testing

Try reorganizations, different menus, varied labeling. Let data guide changes.

Analytics Review

Analyze on-site search queries, highly trafficked pages, and exit points. Target problem areas.

IA requires ongoing refinement as user needs change. Let real data guide enhancements over opinions.

Key Takeaways for Strong IA and Navigation

Here are best practices for maximizing site usability through architecture and navigation:

  • Audit content to developIA catering to key user goals and mental models based on research
  • Organize predominantly by user tasks and topics. Supplement with secondary schemes like alphabetical as needed.
  • Design clear hierarchy prioritizing important pages and sections in top navigation.
  • Use concise but descriptive labels optimized for rapid scanning.
  • Include supplemental elements like sitemaps and contextual linksto enhance discoverability.
  • Simplify menu options and structure for mobile to only most critical destinations.
  • Continuously test IA and navigation with techniques like card sorting and tree testing.
  • Use behavioral data to identify underperforming areas of site architecture needing redesign.

Getting IA right means matching customers’ perspectives, not company conventions. But continuous testing and iteration based on observed usage patterns keeps structures highly usable as needs evolve.

By truly understanding your audience, you can architect intuitive navigation that effectively guides visitors to accomplish their goals each visit. Reduce their effort so you see the rewards in engagement, loyalty and growth.


By Dani Davis

Dani Davis is the pen name of the writer of this blog with more 15 years of constant experience in Content marketing and informatics product, e-commerce niche.

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