How Information Architecture Works

Just as architects design complex buildings, information architects create intricate systems to organize, find, display and use information.
Just as architects design complex buildings, information architects create intricate systems to organize, find, display and use information.
Digital Vision/Photodisc/Thinkstock

Imagine construction workers starting to build a new house with no plan. How do they decide where to put the walls, doors and windows? How can they be sure it will support a roof or have room for all the plumbing and electric wiring? A plan is essential to ensure that the workers construct the building correctly. That plan comes in the form of a blueprint created by an architect.

Now imagine you're opening a clothing store and you need a Web site where you can sell your products. How do you decide what information needs to go on the main page? Where do you put your product catalog or company information on the site, and how will your customers find that information? As when planning a building, a thorough design for your Web site is essential to make sure that all the information you want to convey is accessible and easy for your customers to find.

Planning how to organize information in a Web site is just one application of a broader field known as information architecture (IA). The term "information architecture" has many different descriptions. Since IA is constantly evolving, though, it's hard to pin down an exact definition. By putting together definitions from various sources, information architecture is:

  • The model of a system of information describing the rules for how that information should be organized, interlinked, accessed and presented
  • The art and science of creating and maintaining such a model

The IA for the growing corporation that we described might be designed just for its Web site -- or it could cover a broad range of corporate information, including marketing materials, customer databases and user documentation.

If this definition sounds a little confusing, think of each piece of information as a pair of shoes. The information system would be an online store containing many shoes for sale. The information architecture would include the sizing system, the colors available, how many pairs are in stock and the price for each pair.

That's a lot for an IA to handle! This article explores the wide range of techniques and technology that fall under the umbrella of information architecture, describes some IA history and concepts, and looks at some of the software and professional culture inspired by IA.

History of Information Architecture

Information architecture grew out of our human desire to organize information so that it's easy to find when we need it.
Information architecture grew out of our human desire to organize information so that it's easy to find when we need it.
James Woodson/Photodisc/Thinkstock

Humans have been creating and using systems to organize information for millennia, long before computers and the Internet. In 330 B.C., ancient Egypt's Library of Alexandria listed its contents in a 120-scroll bibliography. More recently, the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification were developed to better organize and access ever-growing library collections. [sources: Rosenfeld and Morville; Library of Congress]. You might have used another technique, an outline, to organize information when writing papers in school.

Computer networks, especially the Internet and its popular use through the World Wide Web, have accelerated the rate at which information is published. As a result, we now have massive amounts of data available to us, with more added each day. These networks use the power and flexibility of digital formats to make tasks like cross-referencing as fast and easy as clicking a link. With all this information and speed, the task of keeping everything organized and easy to find seems overwhelming, if not impossible.

As the format of information evolves, humans continue to come up with new and better ways to organize it. Richard Saul Wurman, best known today for being one of the creators of the Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) conferences, coined the term "information architecture" at an American Institute of Architects (AIA) conference in 1976. He also published a book on the topic in 1997. Wurman felt that the term "information design" described how information looked rather than how it is accessed and used. His new term was a more accurate description for the systematic approach to how systems of information work. [sources: TED, Knemeyer, Wurman]

You might hear some other terms used as synonyms for information architecture: usability engineering, content management, content strategy, user experience (UX) design and interaction design (IxD) [sources: Rosenfeld and Morville, Frank]. However, those terms refer to specific areas within IA or a specific technology used to build and manage the information system (such as a Web site).

Now we have an idea of where information architecture originated, and we know it's both difficult to define and essential to address the expanding universe of information. Next, let's take a closer look at why we need it.

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.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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.

Information Architecture Concepts

This Venn diagram demonstrates the three conceptual circles of information architecture.
This Venn diagram demonstrates the three conceptual circles of information architecture.
HowStuffWorks.com/Louis Rosenfield

As mentioned earlier, information architecture is broadly defined as a model (or the practice of building the model) for an information space, or a set of information that is organized and managed together. That model describes the rules for how that information should be maintained, interlinked, accessed and presented. To describe an IA more accurately, though, you need to use a few information architecture concepts.

Rosenfeld and Morville are authors of a book titled "Information Architecture for the World Wide Web." The cover of the book, like other O'Reilly publications, features a drawing of an animal. Due to its popularity in the IA community, the book is known primarily in reference to that animal as the polar bear book. Many IA professionals reference this book and its authors as authorities on defining and describing information architecture.

In the 2002 edition, the authors state that information architecture consists of three conceptual circles: content, users and context [source: Rosenfeld and Morville]. Content may include text, numerical data, images and videos. Users are the target audience for the information, with IA including the audience's experience and how audience members look for information (information-seeking behavior). Context encompasses goals and resources such as technology, company culture and politics.

During his presentation on information architecture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Gary Marchionini, professor and dean of the university's School of Information and Library Science, defines a concept for the basic unit of information in an IA as a package [source: Marchionini]. He describes a package as a paragraph of text, an image, a video or some similar piece of data. Part of information architecture involves a plan for what packages can consist of and how they're managed and accessed within a larger information system. For convenience, this article will use Marchionini's term in the same way.

Another concept in information architecture is attributes. Attributes are the details we use to describe something, such as describing a person by height, weight or gender. Information can have attributes that describe its packages or the objects within that package. These could be physical attributes such as the number of characters in a paragraph, or abstract attributes such as the appropriate context for displaying that paragraph. For an information architecture to work efficiently, attributes should be applied consistently to packages and their contents. The IA might also include logic for how attributes relate to each other.

Components Used in Information Architecture

Now that you understand the more abstract concepts behind information architecture, let's examine the IA components and techniques that architects use to capture those concepts. The polar bear book, mentioned earlier, presents four components within an information architecture system:

  • Organization systems are the categories in which we place information, such as author names and titles or shoe size, fabric and color.
  • Labeling systems are the ways we represent information, such as the level of terminology considered appropriate for the target audience. For example, should articles use the terms "optometrist" and "ophthalmologist," or is "eye doctor" more appropriate?
  • Navigation systems are the way we move from one piece of information to another when that information is presented to us. On this page, for instance, you could use the Next button to get to the next page, or you could begin exploring something new at any time using the tabs like Adventure and Tech at the top of the page.
  • Searching systems are the way we search for information, such as entering words in a search engine or scanning for terms in a numbered list. For example, in the search box on this page, you could type multiple words to narrow the results and get closer to the topics you want to read about.

Other components related to information architecture come from the technology used to make the model into a live information system. For example, if you're storing information in a database, the architecture must incorporate a querying component to retrieve some specific piece of information. If you're building a Web site, accessing information employs components like browsing, scrolling and clicking.

Because of the magnitude of the job, the information architect needs to be a jack-of-all-trades. When designing a house, a regular architect must know about established architectural standards and government regulations so that builders can understand the blueprint, so the building will pass legal inspections and so the finished house will be a safe and desirable place to live. An information architect needs a similarly diverse understanding of industry standards for creating, storing, accessing and presenting digital information. Such standards might include Unified Modeling language (UML), Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and JavaScript. Common industry practices are also important for the architect to know, such as controlled vocabularies and metadata used to ensure each category label means only one precise thing each time it is used.

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.

Putting Information Architecture into Action

Software used in information architecture falls into two categories. One is the modeling software described earlier. The other category is information system software used to put together the system in accordance with an architect's plans.

Information system software makes it easy to implement some of the most common features of an IA. Content management system (CMS) software, for example, combines the features of a file system and a library. CMS users can check out, update and check in information while tracking revisions of the information over time and accessing older revisions as needed. In addition, the CMS itself or some other piece of software can retrieve that information as needed, such as to add to a document or display on a Web page.

Two popular CMSes that both organize and present Web content are Drupal and Alfresco. Drupal is a free, open source CMS written mostly in Hypertext Preprocessor Language (PHP). Drupal is known for being very flexible, but its major attractions are its out-of-the-box features and free extensions, which are often needed to implement a Web site's IA [source: Feiler]. Alfresco, a subscription-based CMS, implements an IA that goes beyond just the Web content, including features for managing an organization's in-house documents and records.

Besides CMSes, other software can be used to implement some or all of an IA. For example, some blog software like WordPress and wiki software like MediaWiki behave as CMSes, though they have more limited options for storing, categorizing and presenting information. A document management system (DMS) is similar to a CMS, but limited to certain types of information. A DMS like KnowledgeTree can preserve a document's format while continuing to track the author and timestamp of each revision. Also, when it comes to searching information, a DMS will rely on tags rather than searching the contents of the document itself.

Information grows and changes over time in response to the needs of users. For the information architect, this means determining when the amount or types of information no longer fit the existing IA or when there's a shift in the context or users of that information. When an IA has to change, the architect must consider not only how to update the model, but also whether to update the software used to manage the information system.

The Information Architecture Culture

The information architecture culture seems to have emerged out of the explosive growth of the Web in the 1990s combined with the publishing of Richard Saul Wurman's book "Information Architects" in 1996. Peter Morville, who we introduced earlier, recalls passionate discussions with colleagues about applying the principles of library and information science (LIS) to Wurman's concept of information architecture. When O'Reilly published Morville's book, co-authored with Louis Rosenfeld, interest in the topic grew enough that, two years later, Richard Hill of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T) helped Rosenfeld organize the first annual Information Architecture Summit.

ASIS&T has held the IA Summit every year since that first one in 2000 [source: ASIS&T]. The conference includes workshops taught by IA innovators and respected professionals. Topics covered in the 2011 conference include specific areas of information architecture, the latest IA techniques and the status and future of information architecture.

This growing interest in information architecture has helped launch other organizations and conferences. International conferences include the European Information Architecture (EuroIA) summit and Australia's Information Architecture Conference (Oz-IA) [sources: EuroIA, Oz-IA]. The Information Architecture Institute (IAI) is a professional organization whose aim is to advance the field of information architecture. The IAI holds its own annual conference called IDEA: Information Design Experience Access [source: IAI].

So, who is the typical information architect? Adelle Frank of Emory University in Atlanta has embraced her passion for IA through her work managing the data behind the Emory College Web site. Frank has attended two IA Summit conferences, and she describes the typical IA professional as a "quirky, intelligent individual who combines tech-savvy with good social skills and creativity." She also explains that information architecture enthusiasts love creatively bringing order out of the chaos of information overload, improving how people experience the Internet [source: Frank].

While not every information architect works under that job title, there are many people with the same skills and passion for IA that Frank describes. This growing community stays informed of the latest information architecture news through RSS feeds, mailing lists, podcasts from IA events, articles and membership in key organizations like ASIS&T and IAI. Frank added that this tech-savvy crowd also sends and receives messages through Twitter during events, offering another way IA enthusiasts can stay informed even if they can't be there in person [source: Frank].

While this article has covered the history, concepts, techniques and technology behind information architecture, it has really only scratched the surface. IA is a very broad topic with lots of literature for both newcomers and experienced architects. For lots more information, be a part of this site's user interaction IA and click forward to the next page.

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Sources

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