Information architecture (IA) is where it all begins.  It is critical to the success of your new website.  Everything done to build your site is heavily influenced by what is discovered and determined in the IA process.  Without these fundamentals, your site will be built on shaky ground.

Step 1: Define goals and success metrics

All Web projects have to start by defining goals.  What do you want your new site to do?  Sell more products? Generate interest in your services? Establish your company as a leader?  How will you measure the success of your site?  More calls to your sales department?  More subscribers to your e-newsletter?  Higher online sales?  Once these are defined, all other deliverables will strive to meet these overall goals.

Step 2: Establish primary target audience and their browsing habits and needs
Everything boils down to the user experience.  To ensure that your users have the best experience possible with your site you have to start by knowing who they are.  Is your audience primarily male or female?  What age group do they fall into?  Why should they be interested in your company?  What are they looking for when they come to your site?  If you don’t understand who your audience is, you’ll have a hard time delivering content to them in an effective way.

Step 3: Content review of current site and/or materials

Before we can start developing new content we must know what we already have to work with.  This is when all the content is inventoried.  You decide what content to keep, delete, or rewrite.  This process highlights all the holes in your content and helps focus the effort to write new content or rewrite old content to ensure that users will find what they need on your site.

Step 4: Taxonomy

Make sure your content is labeled and categorized in a familiar way so your users can find the information they want in the way that they want.  Some users prefer to browse by topic, others by type (article, press release, blog post, etc.) or perhaps date.  The way you organize and label your content is critical to the user experience.  If your audience isn’t able to find the content they need from your site quickly they will look elsewhere.

Step 5: Site Map
Once you’ve established how to label and categorize your content, the site map can be developed.  The site map identifies the navigation and hierarchy of content and pages.  It is basically an outline of your site.

Step 6: Pulling it all together into wireframes

Wireframes are where everything is pulled together.  Real estate for key areas is established and hierarchy is visually identifiable.

Step 7: User Testing

User testing is a way to verify that everything done up until this point works with your users.  Does the navigation make sense?  Where would you look for a particular piece of information?  Are items labeled in a familiar way? Feedback you receive from users at this stage is invaluable.

Once the IA process is complete, you have a solid foundation to continue on to the design stage.  You will have a solid set of deliverables to use to validate future decisions.  All the tough decisions are made.  The blueprints are ready and the building can begin.  It’s a crucial step that is often overlooked and can prove costly down the road.