What is Information Architecture?
In a nutshell, it is the practice of taking information and organising it. In other words, figuring out the best structure for that information to fit into, so that it ultimately makes more sense to people. The goal for effective information architecture should be to provide content that is amongst other things easily findable, valuable, accessible, useful.
Has it got anything to do with actual architecture?
Well, in so far as the aim of the game is to establish the foundations and figure out the structure of something then yes. You don’t need to have an in-depth knowledge of the latest building standards and wield a laser distance measure though. Think of it as kind of like the way a ‘bricks and mortar’ architect often takes an empty three-dimensional area and organises it into rooms and spaces for different functions, as well as establishing a good flow between those spaces.
Does it just apply to websites?
Well, the term Information Architecture (IA) is particularly connected to the organisation of the content within a digital product. That said, examples of architected information are all around, and the effort to organise information has probably been going on since humans first started to communicate with language. Indeed, the fact that Homo Sapiens became so good at classifying and organising the things around them played a large part in their ascendancy over all the other creatures on earth.
It is especially in modern times though, with the rise of computer technology and electronic storage, that the concept and discipline of information architecture became formally established - the term was first coined by Richard Saul Wurman in the 1970s. He was an actual architect of buildings as well as a graphic designer and later went on to set up the marvellous TED conference.
Wurman made the case that information design was as much about organising patterns of data, and creating a structure, as it was about simply making things look good.
Is it important?
Yes, it is. Abby Covert describes it quite nicely as ‘making sense of a mess’. Imagine if we didn’t try to make sense of a mess, we would just be left staring at the said mess, and that would be bad, wouldn’t it? Instead, turning the mess into a neatly manipulated, classified and organised pool of information gives it an extraordinary value. It makes it useful and usable.
Give me an example
Well, staying away from websites for a moment how did you get to work today? The chances are you benefitted from architected information on your journey. At a train station, for example, lots of disparate pieces of information are collated, organised and presented, in order to facilitate easy travel - timings, routes, locations, services, maps, directions etc.
Even if you’re more likely to be in a car, you benefit from a series of road signs that fit within an overall structure, designed to always give you the context in terms of where you are and where you are going.
So how do you do Information Architecture?
Ok, let’s get back to digital products, shall we? In essence, you are aiming to collect all the pieces of information that your website or product will convey, then design a structure (including the labels) by which that information will be identified and arranged. At a deeper level, IA is often explained as the combination or interplay of Ontology, Taxonomy and Choreography.
The ontology part is concerned with establishing meaning and finding the right labels, categories and tags for our information. Taxonomy is where we look to apply some hierarchy and structure by arranging the information. Then the choreography part is concerned with the flow of that information, i.e. defining the rules and means by which users will move through and digest the content. Remember, a key principle of Information Architecture is to support usability and improve the findability of content.
How to create Information Architecture?
A simple exercise to help establish a good Information Architecture is card sorting. Try to get a few other people involved, end-users if at all possible. It really helps to have more than one point of view, especially when trying to establish the right language for meaningful labels and subsequent taxonomy.
Now grab those cards (or post-its) and a pen! Write down all the content topics that your website should contain, one per card. Next, invite people to suggest how these different content topics might be organised into groupings that feel logical and appropriate to them. You could either pre-determine the labels for these groupings/categories (known as a closed card sort) or have participants actually name the groupings (open card sort). You could even do a hybrid of the two, where you start with some predetermined labels but participants are free to suggest better ones.
Any other tips?
As an alternative, instead of collecting the content topics that you want to tell people about, try to research and list the things that users actually want to do or know. In other words the tasks they need to accomplish.
Doing it this way, as endorsed by Paul Boag really forces you to come at it from a user’s point of view. The idea is to understand and follow actual their mental models of your business and online offering, rather than your own internal, perhaps departmental views.
Is it worth it?
At the end of a card sorting exercise, you should hopefully have some valuable and fresh insight that can be applied to the actual structure and navigation design of your website.
The larger the website, then the more crucial it becomes to establish a good architecture, and undoubtedly the more difficult it can be to get it right. Whatever the scale though, the time and effort that goes into researching, devising and testing the information architecture shouldn’t be begrudged. It is well worth however much time can be devoted to it so that you delight rather than frustrate your users.