What is Information Architecture

This continues to be a hot topic in Web Development, and by just broaching the subject, I risk the wrath of people in my field who may disagree with the answer I am going to try and outline in this article. IA, as it is referred to, overlaps with other aspects of project planning, and often blurs the lines between itself and information design, project management, usability analysis and user-experience approaches.

For example, James Kalbach gathers a few definitions in his article "IA, Therefore I Am":

"Definitions range from Elaine Tom's 'a map of the underlying information structures' to Wurman's 'the building of structures that allow others to understand' to Rosenfeld and Morville's 'the combination of organization, labelling, and navigation schemes within an information system' and John Shiple's 'the blueprint of the site upon which all other aspects are built - form, function, metaphor, navigation and interface, interaction, and visual design.'"

The purpose of this article is to supply clients with a basic understanding of what someone with the title 'Information Architect' normally offers in their skill set, and try to clarify what their role is on a development team.

Basic Comparison: Librarian of the Internet

When I think of a librarian, I often picture a meek individual behind a counter in a library who knows where everything is. This description of a librarian is, to say the least, limited and outdated. I might as well describe women as beings who wear aprons and greet their husbands with a martini at the end of a working day. So let me provide a slightly broader (though not fully fleshed out) view of what a librarian does.

Librarians, at the most basic level, organize a space filled with resources in a manner that allows visitors relatively easy access to the printed information and different types of media they are searching for. They have a structure in place where visitors can independently find these resources, and are available to assist people who still cannot find a specific item.

Your website is like a library. One big difference is that there isn't someone standing at a counter ready to help visitors who can't find what they are looking for. It is the information architect's job to assist in making decisions about your website that will guide visitors to the resources they are seeking, and (sometimes more importantly) the information that you want them to find.

Pitfalls of Poor Architecture

People usually don't recognize when a website has good architecture, but they sure notice when it doesn't. A poor information structure often results in:

  • Customers or employees being unable to find the information they are searching for
  • Your webmaster or help desk being bogged down with constant emails and phone calls from confused users
  • Potential customers abandoning your site out of frustration
  • An interface that is too complicated or difficult to use. For example, a content management system that the average employee cannot decipher to post content, or an archive of content that is impossible to navigate
  • Important information that you want to promote to the public being lost or overlooked

Role & Responsibility of IA

Though there is some disagreement when it comes to what the role of an information architect is, here is an overview of what a good one should be able to do:

  • Help to clarify the mission and vision for the site in order to meet the goals of the client/organization and the needs of its audience(s). This may also include defining stakeholder requirements
  • Determine what content the site will contain, and define the desired functionality
  • Define the site's organization, navigation, labelling, and searching systems which will provide users with the most efficient and/or logical means to find information. Why did I say "and/or"? Well, because sometimes the most 'efficient solution' - where specific information is accessed in the least amount of mouse clicks possible - doesn't always follow the logic behind how information on the site is organized, or how a user might 'logically expect' to find that information
  • Develop a controlled vocabulary or thesaurus (if needed)
  • Determine content positioning and user interaction at the screen level. I use what I call a content matrix which is essentially a blueprint to your site that records every single bit of content (both existing content and, to a reasonable degree, proposed/anticipated content) that will appear. By using a matrix and/or sitemap, wireframe, and user flow, vital information is recorded and documented. This includes terms for your navigation menu, groupings of related content, and notes on technical specifications for each section
  • Address scalability: help to ensure the site is expandable to support change and growth in the future

There are many tasks a good information architect will perform, but I believe it boils down to having one vital skill: the ability to ask the right questions. There are so many intangible elements that make up the skeleton of a website. Asking the right questions helps to deliver the needs of a client, to try and anticipate the needs of the users, and to communicate these needs to all parties directly involved in the development process.

It should be noted that I did not include usability testing (heuristic evaluations, usage analysis, scenario-based testing) or research (interviews, questionnaires, demographic research, market segmentation) in the list of IA responsibilities. For an explanation and for further reading, see IA and Other Roles in the Website Development Process.

April 8th 2008 12PM
By: danielle