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How Information Architecture Works


Designing an Information Architecture
In the early brainstorming process for a new or updated design, information architects might make rough sketches of the plan that are easy to erase and rearrange.
In the early brainstorming process for a new or updated design, information architects might make rough sketches of the plan that are easy to erase and rearrange.
HowStuffWorks.com/Adelle Frank

To put all the pieces together, an information architect might start by documenting the IA. This is similar to the way architects document detailed building plans in their blueprints. Documenting means creating a written record of the IA to ensure that the professionals involved in setting up the information system have a clear set of rules to follow. This documentation is also a reference guide for maintainers, providing important directions on how to preserve the IA design over time.

Some of the things the architect might document are descriptions of the types of packages and their attributes, diagrams showing how packages relate to each other, flow charts showing how users' decisions lead from one package to another, and Web page layout models called wireframes showing how information should be displayed to the user. When new or updated IA designs require approval from a manager or board before they're implemented, architects might develop slide shows to use when presenting the plan in meetings.

While architects are brainstorming during the earliest stages of development, or when they need to think through a quick change, they might start by sketching out IA components on paper, sticky notes or a whiteboard [source: Frank]. As the plan becomes more solid, architects might use modeling software to create visual representations of the IA and its parts. For example, architects could use diagram software such as Visio, OmniGraffle and Dia to create flow charts of how users navigate through information or a tree or map of how information is interconnected. Those architects can add these graphics to the final IA documentation, too, using desktop publishing tools like Adobe Illustrator.

To aid in design, architects can also use modeling software specifically developed for IA. The following are examples of modeling software used for Web sites:

  • Optimal Sort identifies how users interact with information (called the user experience, or UX) so architects can select the best categories and labels for information.
  • Treejack examines how users navigate information (click through Web pages) and locates where they can potentially get lost.
  • Axure RP uses the wire-frame model approach for creating prototypes of Web sites.
  • Morae tests the effectiveness of an existing Web site so an architect can better understand the user experience and use that understanding to improve the IA.

With a design in place, information architects can move on to the next phase: putting that design into action. Many IA professionals participate in all or part of the technical processes used to implement their design. Let's take a look at what's involved in that implementation.


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