– 11 min read
Content strategy and information architecture: you can’t have one without the other
As college students, my friends and I would pile into my Honda Civic and drive around our favorite fancy neighborhood, picking out our dream homes.
Queen Anne, mid-century modern, Tudor revival — no matter the architectural style, we imagined ourselves with an unlimited budget, and the inside of each house as breathtakingly perfect. In this fantasy, it was a relief knowing I wouldn’t need to change a thing once I moved into my seven-bedroom, nine-bathroom Mediterranean mansion… except for (maybe) swapping out the grandiose portrait in the foyer for my Pink Floyd poster.
We played this game long before aimless Zillow browsing became popular enough for Saturday Night Live to spoof. If we’d been able to see inside those houses, we may have shifted our entertainment strategy from pining for a dream home to exploring the gamut of architectural and interior design taste.
Years later, I’ve replaced those neighborhood college car rides with virtual rides through Zillow Gone Wild, a social media account that highlights the best of the weirdest things found in real estate listings. Usually the first few photos of a Zillow Gone Wild post appear to be from a gorgeous property that just hit the market, but then it always takes a turn — suddenly there’s a photo of a basement with a toilet in the dead center, for example. Or there’s a potato shed — an actual shed, for actual potatoes — in a suburban Massachusetts mansion.
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Seeing the bizarre things lurking in people’s homes leaves you with so many questions. Is this intentional? Who installed that toilet in the middle of the basement? Can humans survive on spuds alone?
All jokes aside, a house should feel like home — not a confusing mess leading to dead ends. When houses are designed well, you don’t need to think about where you’re going, or worry about Mr. Potato Head and his brood hunkering down in the basement.
We’re talking about house architecture, but this analogy came up during a recent conversation I had with content strategist Maria Romanovsky. While at Handshake, a career services platform for college students, Maria led an overhaul of their student-facing information architecture.
What is information architecture (IA)?
Maria pointed out that content strategists are designers — they must think about how a person experiences content, and then they must work to make that experience as easy and effortless as possible. If people leave because they can’t find their way around, it doesn’t matter how good the content is — the product won’t be successful.
As such, information architecture is a crucial part of content strategy. It sounds complicated and intimidating, but in Maria’s words, “it really just comes down to buckets and labels.”
“When people think of information architecture, buzzwords such as ‘card sorting’ and ‘tree testing’ come up,” she said. “Once you start getting deeper into a project and align with more and more stakeholders, more and more questions pop up — what exactly does it cover and what makes it successful?”Content strategists are designers.CLICK TO TWEET
Returning to the house analogy, she explained that you start by building a framework for your users, similar to an initial architecture blueprint. “Where do you put the rooms? You probably don’t want to put a bathroom through the front door or in the kitchen. How do you put it all together so that people can predict, and or quickly learn what’s where? Your framework needs to feel intuitive, not disorienting — like a home. Then, layered on top of your information architecture, you also have other content and design tools that can help orient your users. Information architecture covers where things live and UX content works with interaction and visual design to place doors, windows, and signposts to seamlessly take visitors to where they need to go without unnecessary detours.”
She continued, “Giving clear indications of what IA is and isn’t, as well as what is and what isn’t affected, is crucial for working closely with stakeholders across the entire org. By aligning on our definitions, we were able to streamline communication and organize our project efficiently.”
How Maria took on information architecture at Handshake
While at Handshake, Maria was tasked with overhauling the product’s information architecture, as user feedback indicated the website was confusing and difficult to navigate. She knew that there were a lot of different ways to fix this type of problem, and none of them should involve guesswork. It’s an expensive, time-consuming revamp that needed to work for the product as it currently is, and still hold up with its evolution in the next five years.
One of the first steps in the project was aligning stakeholders and making sure everyone was on the same page about what IA is and isn’t, as well as what is and what isn’t affected. “By aligning on our definitions, we were able to streamline communication and organize our project efficiently,” said Maria.
“IA for some companies is fairly simple and straightforward — there’s only so many ways you can organize a retail site, for example. But it isn’t as straightforward for others that have many different types of features and user journeys. A lot of companies start with a card sort or tree test, but that only works if your test subjects are familiar with the features and concepts in your product,” she noted.
BEFORE THE OVERHAUL
“When I started, we had job search, events, student search, messages, career center, and a Q&A in the top-level navigation. In the context of finding a job, the features made sense individually, but students didn’t know where they were supposed to go first,” she recalled. “We started with an analysis of our product features — breaking things down and asking what the purpose of each one is, how students use it, and how they fit together. We knew that users shouldn’t be asking about the reason for, or the value of, a feature — it’s the product’s job to make it clear and contextual. We wanted the features to tie together into a narrative or give more context on what steps a student should take and in what order.”
When this project started, Handshake was at a pivotal point in company growth and product evolution — so this wasn’t a normal taxonomy and organizational project. “I had to work closely with product and design to dig into each feature, its history, intended purpose, and usage.” she noted.
Given the limitations of card sorting and tree testing when it came to a product like Handshake, Maria had to reach for other tools to help make sense of the user journey and feature relationships.
TOOLS THAT WORKED
So she took a different approach to uncover the root of the problem. Using The Five Whys exercise, Maria went through every feature and product offering to align on purpose. One of those was Student Search, which enabled students to see and message other students on Handshake.
Here’s what Maria’s thought process for that feature looked like: “From the student’s perspective, I thought about the intended use. Why would a student use the student search? To find other students. Why would they need to find other students? To get career path ideas. Why would they want to get career path ideas instead of searching for jobs? They may want to brainstorm job options. Why are they brainstorming job options? To narrow down where they want to apply… and they’re obviously doing that, because they’re getting ready to find a job.”
The 5 Whys led her to realize a lot of their features naturally bucketed into two broad themes: find a job and get ready to find a job.
“So each of our features was intended to either directly impact the job search action, or set students up for success in-between job searches,” Maria explained.
Another key part of the analysis was looking at each feature in terms of expected frequency of use. How often did they expect or want students to use each part of the product? Maria organized them across three buckets: repetitive actions, infrequent actions, and one-time actions. She pointed out that “at a very basic level, repetitive actions should be more easily discoverable and possibly higher in the navigation, whereas one-time actions can be hidden.”
GETTING LEADERSHIP BUY-IN
After about six weeks, Maria was ready to present her analysis, conversations, and user research and feedback.
“One of the reasons I did The Five Whys exercise was to narrow down the top themes to give a framework and story to our IA. I color-coded features based on these themes,” she noted.
In this process, Maria also identified two other themes: “give back to the Handshake community” and “administrative tasks.”
For administrative tasks, her team thought through when and how frequently a student needed to complete a task. “Some admin tasks like ‘upload a resume’ make sense in the context of a job application or onboarding,” said Maria. “We put this feature under the account menu in our architecture, but used interaction design and content to surface it in relevant flows using modals or guiding text.”
How do you know if your information architecture is good?
A good IA is kind of like a duck treading water. It looks simple and effortless, but behind it is comprehensive groundwork, strategy, and analysis.
Maria’s advice: “You want an IA you can grow into. Ask: is this still going to be relevant in five years?”
For example, with Covid and everything being online, job applications are happening in a different way — and the relationship between students and employers is also now different. Handshake is in a unique position to have students and employers meet online.
WAYS TO MEASURE SUCCESS
Maria used the following methods to measure the new IA:
- Sentiment and comprehension surveys
- Action rate tracking and first click analysis
- Moderated user testing of wireframes
She also asked these questions:
- Does our bucket system make it easier for users to find what they’re looking for and complete tasks?
- Do our bucket labels send users down the correct path to complete a task on their first or second click?
- Can our users articulate the key value and purpose of our product after completing a set of tasks and navigating IA buckets and labels?
According to Maria, a good IA makes it so you can tell where you’re supposed to go and what the point of the product is. “Are buckets organized and named in line with our three to five year product vision? And are they broad enough to house future features? How do you organize this framework in a way that you can then build on it?”
Maria emphasized the importance of word choice when it comes to IA labels. “Use words strategically,” she said. “For example, we initially wanted to empower students to take action, message companies and sign up for events, so we organized features that brought students and employers face-to-face under ‘Meet employers.’ Through user research, we found that a few students were excited about the prospect, but most didn’t intuitively go to that section to find events like career fairs. ”
Content is a user experience function — it’s not just writing
We’ll say it again: content strategists are designers.
At its core, content strategy is built on frameworks and organization of information.
“Most content strategists and UX writers need to remember that no one actually wants to read what you write. They just want a product to work, with minimal effort and mental hoops,” Maria said. “There was a time when every product had a manual, but now users want to just dive into a product and expect it to make sense as they navigate through it — just like walking into a building and looking for the bathroom.”
If you have a clean information architecture and a clean organization structure, people will innately navigate to where they need to go — you don’t have to be wordy, or explain as much.
And that potato shed? Hopefully it’s nowhere to be found in the house you’ve carefully designed and built.
Unless, of course, you own a potato farm.
Feeling inspired by Maria’s stellar work? Us, too. Read more: Maria from Handshake on writing for marketplaces.