The History and Originals of Information Architecture

Anton Rose
Mar 7, 2017 · 4 min read

What is information architecture?

According to the Information Architecture Institute “Information architecture is the practice of deciding how to arrange the parts of something to be understandable.” They explain that information architectures are in the websites we use, the apps and software we download, the printed materials we encounter, and even the physical places we spend time in. Good IA helps people to understand their surroundings and find what they’re looking for.

Elements of IA

IA can be broken down into the principles of ontology, taxonomy and choreography.

Ontology is concerned with the specific meaning of the content. Designers use labels to identify categories and tags to help organise data at a deeper level.

Taxonomy is concerned with arrangement of the information. Classification is used to put similar elements together whereas hierarchy is used to rank information. Information can be ranked by importance, frequency of use, regency, alphabetically, numerical and so on.

Choreography concerns the rules for interaction among the parts. A user flow is a path through a product that a user can take to accomplish a task.

Dan Klyn explains IA as “The thoughtful contriving of ontology, taxonomy and choreography in the service of utility and delight and making the complex clear.”

Where does information architecture originate from?

Although the modern concept of information architecture was introduced by by Richard Saul Wurman, idea goes further back. In 1970, at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), a group of people specialized in information science was assembled and then given the charter to develop technology which could support the “architecture of information”. This group was single-handedly responsible for a number of important contributions in what we would call today the field of human-computer interaction, including the first personal computer with a user-friendly interface, laser printing, and the first WYSIWYG text editor.

Fast forward to 1976, during an address to the American Institute of Architecture, Richard Saul Wurman spoke of the idea of the architecture of information. He was an architect and graphic designer and later the creator of the now highly regarded and viewed TED conference. In 1976, Wurman’s focus on the presentation of information eventually led to the opening of The Understanding Business and later the 1996 release of his book “Information Architects”.

Two years later Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld released the book “Information Architecture the World Wide Web”. This book was aimed at managing, organizing, and navigating information in complex websites. In their book they note that the main components of IA:

· Organization Schemes and Structures: How you categorize and structure information

· Labeling Systems: How you represent information

· Navigation Systems: How users browse or move through information

· Search Systems: How users look for information

Rosenfeld and Morville stated that in order to create these systems of information, you need to understand the interdependent nature of users, content, and context. The referred to this as the “information ecology”.

I have seen the value of creating great information first hand. On an initiate to redesign an internal application for a financial institution I used “card sorting” to greatly simplify the information on the system and organise it in a way that makes sense to users. It’s truly amazing how that session laid the foundation of the new system and informed labeling, navigation, search functionality and user flows.


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