Information Arcitecture with Dave O'Brien - June Meetup Review


Dave O’Brien is an Information Architecture legend, with more than 20 years of experience in the field. He created the TreeJack tool with Optimal Workshop, and is the author of the upcoming book Tree Testing For Websites. We were very privileged to hear him talk about two of the best tools to help define an Information architecture: Card Sorting and Tree Testing.

Information Architecture

Dave started the session off with a great analogy about bookshelves. Posing the question "How do you organise your bookshelves?", the answers illustrated the various ways information can be organised. Some people organised by author, some by genre, some by size, colour, or a mixture of few methods. Almost everyone had some kind of system in place to organise their books. This is the start of information architecture, grouping things to make them easy to find.

Dave offers his favourite explanation of Information Architecture, from

"Information architecture is the process of organising and labelling information, and designing navigation and searching systems so that people can find and manage information more successfully."

And his succinct version:

"Making stuff easy to find." 

The elements of Information Architecture


Elements of IA

You can't have Information Architecture without the "Information" part. Content is key; it’s why we have a website at all. Search and Navigation are integral, as they are how we find the content. But because we only had limited time in the session, Dave focused on two key areas of Information Architecture - Organisation and Labelling.

Card sorting

Before the meetup, we sent around a card sort and a tree test from Dave. During the session, we saw the direct results of these using two tools by Optimal Workshop: Treejack and OptimalSort.

In the card sort, Dave got us to organise types of food into categories we labelled ourselves. Most people grouped the foods into meal types, like Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner. Some people grouped them into types of cuisine, like French or Italian.  This shows us the different ways that different people think about the same subject matter. In a real study, the researcher would examine which types of users were categorising by which types of scheme, to gain an understanding about how different user groups approach the content differently.

Dave explained that there are many ways to organise content in an IA - by topic, task, audience, geography, and so on. Another thing to be considered is whether the structure should be broad or deep. Depending on which type of information needs to be organised, there are pros and cons to both. Broad is often better because sections are clear, like in the example below where information is clearly split by sport.

Example of a broad structure



Example of a deep structure

Deep IA can work, but also can add an extra layer or two of choices for a user to make mistakes and cause confusion. For example, Ice Sports contains Hockey, which means that the user must know Hockey is an ice sport before they can find it.




An important part of Information Architecture is the language used for labels. This is how your audience will find (or not find) the content they’re looking for.

Dave recommends using the same language as the audience uses, so that the audience can quickly locate information without having to think too hard. Sometimes this is jargon, and sometimes it is not – again, it depends on your users. Dave cautions us to be careful when using product names, as users might not know the difference between them.

To figure out which terms a person uses, card sorts are useful because participants label their own groupings. If you interview users as part of your research, you can pick up on the language they use. Of course, tree-testing the structure once it's complete is a great way to do a final test of language, as well as user testing.


Navigation is how a user moves around the site. The main goals of navigation include letting the user know where they are on the site, where they have been on the site, and (most importantly) where they can go.

There are different components to navigation:

  1. Global navigation (includes headers and footers)
  2. Contextual navigation (includes see-also links)
  3. Search (only useful if people know what an item is called)


Content is very important; without it, we wouldn’t need a website. To serve the needs to the business and the users, you need to conduct a content audit and strategy. A content audit means going through all of the content on the site and asking questions such as ‘Do we still need this?’, ‘Is there content missing?’ or ‘Do we need to update this?’. A content strategy is thinking about the future, with questions such as ‘Who is the audience?’, ‘What do they want to read?’, ‘What’s the process for doing the content?’ or ‘What reading level are they?’

So, how does IA fit into the design process?

There are a lot of activities that can be used to complete an IA. Dave focused on two for the purposes of this session: card sorting and tree testing.

Card Sorting

Card sorting is done early in a design piece, once the users are understood, and the content has been defined. The next step is figuring out how to organise the content based on how users group it in their heads.

Open Card Sorting is where you gather 1-3 people and give them a bunch of pre-labelled cards to sort into groups and label them. Doing this in person allows you to hear the why of how people are sorting the cards. It’s also good to conduct the test on a broader scale digitally, with 30+ people. This will give you the patterns between users. This also exposes the users’ vocabulary and mental models of how they group and sort information.

Using a card-sorting tool, you can quickly organise data to discover common patterns.

Card sorting is great because it gets real data on how users think and generates ideas for organising content. However, it doesn't give you the final structure. Also, if you’re doing card sorting online only, you don't get the reasons behind users’ choices.

Site Structure

Once you have understood the users, got a full view of the content, understand how your users group and label content, it's time to create a site structure.

There are many different things to consider when creating a site structure, including what you’re going to sort it by, if it’s going to be narrow and deep, or wide and shallow, what language to use on the labels, and so on.

Generating as many ideas as possible at this stage is key, before you refine them down to a few ideas. Dave stresses that testing designs against alternatives is the only way we know our design is the best it can be.

Getting your team together to come up with several tree ideas is a quick way to generate lots of options, and you can refine them down to a few to test. Testing is essential, because even the people creating the site understand the tree, this doesn’t mean the users will.

To test site structures, you can use tools like a spreadsheet, or a dedicated tree-testing tool. Treejack is a tool from Optimal Workshop that you can upload spreadsheets into to create a tree test. You add some typical tasks, and tell the tool which is the correct answer:


A few survey questions can be added after the tree test to get some information about the audience group, so that it’s easier to identify patterns between types of users.

Once the test is ready, and participants have been identified, you can send the link out. This is an example of what the user sees:

It's good to look for answers to these questions:

  • Did the user succeed?
  • Did they backtrack?
  • How fast did they click? (the fast, the more confident)
  • Which sections need work?

At the end, Treejack generates graphs that show the overall success rate.

As a part of the results, you can view a “pie tree”, which shows you which paths the users took:


In summary

Card sorting is a great way to generate tree ideas using user’s language and groups.

Tree testing is the best way to quickly validate the site structures you’re considering.

These tools give you a quick idea of what works and what doesn’t early on, using objective data. They are fantastic tools to add to your UX toolkit.

A huge thank you to Dave for sharing his Information Architecture wisdom with us, and to Optimal Workshop for sharing their space and pizza! And thanks to all UX Meetup-ers who attended the session.


Some further resources on IA

Next month

We are planning on a lunchtime event – for those of you who cannot make evenings due to other commitments. We are also planning a networking drinks and nibbles at a bar – would be great to see you there! :)

Ben, Kim and Kelsey

As always, if you have a project, idea or subject you would like to talk about or do a workshop with the group, please let us know. UX Wellington meetup is a volunteer run group aimed at fostering a community of people with an interest in User Experience. We want to enable a safe place to share and learn together. If you have any questions, concerns or ideas, please contact us at