IA Principles


Dan Brown has been practicing information architecture for more than twenty years, and has laid out eight principles of IA that are a great place to start when learning what it takes to create solid content architecture for a project. His Eight Principles of InformationArchitecture (PDF) lays out a theoretical framework for the IA industry, and makes the following assumptions:

  • that the IA’s main focus is on the structure of information first, and the design of the actual user interface second (if at all);
  • that the IA understands how people actually use content and how the structure should function to support that;
  • that the IA grasps the range of content and functionality on a project and how that needs to be structured.

Principle of objects

The principle of objects says that content should be treated as an evolving thing that has its own lifecycle. Different content has different attributes and behaviors, and this has to be recognized in order to best utilize that content.

You should start every project by identifying the kinds of content that will be present. That means both on a broad scale and a more granular one.

For example, an ecommerce site might have content that includes products in various categories (broad), but also has different kinds of content within each of those products: title, description, specifications, prices, and related items. This type of site might also have additional pages, like an about page, an FAQ, a customer service page, etc. Listing out all of these content types and how they relate to one another is the first step in devising a plan to best deliver the information on a site.

Principle of choices

The principle of choices means that you should offer your users meaningful choices. However, you need to make sure that those choices are focused on something specific. Too many choices can overwhelm a user and negatively affect their experience using your site.

Information should be arranged in hierarchies, avoiding long lists of options, which can become cumbersome to sort through. Categorizing and sub-categorizing content is much more effective if you have more than a handful of options to begin with.

Principle of disclosure

It’s important to give your users the information they need. But be sure you identify what the necessary information actually is, and don’t just give them information because you feel like it. Give them the information they need to have an idea of what they can expect to find as they delve deeper into your site, no more, no less (this is called progressive disclosure).

By limiting the information they see at any one time, you allow your user to better absorb what they’re seeing. A paragraph on each page for ten pages is much easier to digest than a single page with ten paragraphs of text. Use tools at your disposal to guide your users through your content in a way that makes it feel accessible and easy to use.

The main concept here is to not overload your user by trying to cram every bit of information on a single page. Steer them through the information in a way that makes it easy to digest and remember.

Principle of exemplars

Describing the content within a category of information via example makes it easier for your users to understand what they’re getting. It greatly improves user experience.

For example, when browsing categories on Amazon, they often show products that fall within that category. This makes it easy to immediately identify the correct category, especially if you’re not exactly sure what the category in question might be called.

This principle is a bit harder to use in some scenarios, depending on the type of content you’re providing. But think about how you can incorporate it into your category labels and menus, as it does provide a big boost in user satisfaction when done well.

Principle of front doors

Half of your visitors are likely going to arrive on your site via a page other than your home page. That means that every page they land on should include some basic information so that they know what kind of site they’re on. It also means every page should include at least top-level navigation, as well as navigation to related pages.

There are two major avenues that visitors will access interior pages of your site from: search engine results and social media links. In either case, the user may have very little information about your site or organization, other than that the information they’re looking for is somewhere on the page they’ve arrived on.

If they can’t find it quickly, then they’re unlikely to stick around for long.

One takeaway from this is that you don’t need to cram all of your information onto your home page, since half of your visitors, give or take, aren’t landing there and may never even see it at all.

Principle of multiple classification

Multiple classification means that there should be different ways for your users to browse the content on your site. Different people are likely to use different methods for finding the information on your site.

For example, some users may go straight to your search function while others may want to browse. But beyond that, even, some users may want to browse by one specification, while others might want to browse by another.

For example, on an ecommerce site selling clothing one user might want to look at all of the dresses on the site, while another user might want to look at everything that comes in a large size, and yet another user might want to browse by price range.

Giving users multiple options results in more satisfied users.

Principle of focused navigation

Navigational menus should not be defined by where they appear, but rather by what they contain. Your menus form the primary method for most users to find content on your site. In many cases, there may be more than one navigational menu on the site, to provide different ways to access the content.

You might have topic-based navigation (often the main navigation for a site); menus on interior pages that show how the current page is classified, as well as related pages; a menu offering sales or marketing links; and even seasonal or topical menus that provide content that might be pertinent at a given time.

In any case, keep each navigational menu focused to make them easier to use.

Principle of growth

On the vast majority of sites, content is a fluid, changing thing. The amount of content you have on a site today may be only a small fraction of what you’ll have tomorrow, next week, or next year.

Organize your content in a way that allows it to grow over time. Your navigational menus and general information architecture should be able to scale to accommodate a lot of content without becoming cumbersome or unwieldy.

Sit down and consider what content may be added in the future, including entirely different types of content rather than just extensions of what will be on the site now. Think of how this additional content will interact with the current content, how they’re related, and how they can be integrated successfully without the need to redesign the site’s entire content structure.

These principles are all key to creating effective informational structures. While not every principle will carry equal weight on every project, considering and assessing each prior to beginning and during each phase of a project will result in better informational strategy overall. And better information architecture equals happier users.


Go to your Website Goal Document and re-structure it based on the principles learned in this lesson. Delivered in hard copy to your instructor.

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