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How Information Architecture Works

Why Do We Need Information Architecture?
A good information architecture makes it easy to find exactly what you're looking for.
A good information architecture makes it easy to find exactly what you're looking for.

To understand why we need information architecture, let's first consider how you might organize books on a shelf. For this task, you can only use one set of rules at a time to organize the shelf. For example, you could put the books in order by author's last name, by title or even by height. Even if you combine these strategies, one still has to take priority over the other, such as by author first, then by title for books with the same author.

How do you decide how to order the books? Ideally, you'd choose a strategy that makes it easiest for readers to find the books they want. If it's a large research library, for example, the people accessing the books may be looking for them by subject rather than by author and title.

The options you have for organizing digital information are typically much greater than for the books. Like the books, though, the reason for choosing how to organize the information is to improve how users can access it. An approach that helps some users find information faster might make the search slower or even impossible for other users.

With the massive and ever-increasing amount of digital information, information architecture is essential to ensure that people can access what they need when they need it. A business using the optimal IA for its information system can enjoy advantages such as lowered costs of doing business since users spend less time finding information or duplicating information because they couldn't find the original [source: Rosenfeld and Morville].

In 2009, Jared Spool described an amazing example of how moving the login form on a Web site increased online sales at the site by about $300,000,000 within a year. Spool was part of a team that tested how customers interacted with the site, part of the site's IA. The team noticed that if returning customers could log in before they started shopping, the shopping experience was easier for them and, consequently, they spent more money. Plus, by eliminating the need to register, more first-time customers would complete their purchases. Within the first week, the business began to see a significant increase in sales thanks to those simple changes in the site's IA [source: Spool].

Now that we have a picture of why we need IA, how do we get started using it? Since IA is such a big subject, let's examine some basic information architecture concepts before we look at the techniques and technology that put those concepts into action.