Understanding the art and science of Information Architecture

A dive into the history, evolution and current system of organizing information using IA.

Information Architecture (IA) is the structural design of information and content within a digital product focusing on presenting the most efficient and logical way of searching and utilizing information for a user.

In other words it helps the user solve the problems of accessing and using a vast amount of information that is available to them.

In the digital world, IA focuses on organizing and labeling websites so that users can easily find what they’re looking for. It helps them understand - where they are, where they can go, how to find what they are looking for, what they have found, what they can expect and what is around them. A well crafted IA helps users to easily navigate websites, explore and locate information that they are in need of without falling of the track.

Information Architecture in real world use

Imagine going to the library for researching a topic or just simply wanting to read a book. The map at the entrance helps you locate the different wings in the library, color code aids in identifying the department or genre, labels on bookshelf indicate the section where you can find your book and the alphabetical arrangement or numbering on the spine of a book helps you find the one you are looking for.

Signage at a library using Library of Congress Classification System

Information is everywhere around us. Whether you are taking a metro to work, going to a zoo, visiting a museum or simply shopping for groceries in your local supermarket; signages, maps, indications help people navigate and complete tasks in real time.

Information Architecture aids in developing an organised and sustainable way-finding system. The key that forms the basis of Information Architecture is providing users the right content, at the right place, at the right time and at the right context. An effective IA for a website or an app depends on the reciprocal action between the specific meaning of the content such as labels and tags (Ontology), arrangement of information such as hierarchy and classification (Taxonomy) and the interaction among its parts - search and navigation (Choreography).

History of Information Architecture

From the beginning of mankind, humans have developed many systems to organize and classify information. From cave paintings to tally sticks, papyrus to paper, more nuanced methodology of record keeping kept replacing one another and is still in use in many organization systems. More recently the Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal System were developed in the 19th century to classify and organize libraries. With the birth of internet, there has been an explosion of information that is created and published, enforcing the imminent task of finding and organizing information all the more.

Information organization over the years

In modern use, Information Architecture is considered simply as design of information but it’s roots have evolved from various knowledge organisation systems from the past through an aggregation of library science, cognitive psychology and architecture.

Library Science

Information Architects use the art of cataloging and archiving from the field of Library Science which is still prevalent today in libraries, museums, and hospitals. Metadata is assigned to content and cataloged to make it relevant and the collated content is archived resulting in an organised system of information.

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive Psychology is a branch of psychology that studies how humans receive information, how they process it and how they respond to it. Information Architecture contrives on different constituents from Cognitive Psychology to understand how people structure information.

Preconceived notions and assumptions of users play an important role when they interact with a content. They group information based on a unique characteristic or an attribute that defines it. It varies significantly from one person to another because of cultural differences, use of language, social norms and a plethora of other influencers. Information Architects categorize information using card sorting methods to understand the closest way each user would mentally perceive the content and implement understanding through faceted search and browsing.

Similarly architects make sure they don’t put users through a cognitive overload as humans cannot perceive all information at once. They conceptualize methods using semantic networks, information scent, short term and long term memory retention of users to understand how users structure and associate concepts over time.

Architecture

The words Information and Architecture was first put together by Richard Saul Wurman in the year 1975 at an American Institute of Architects conference. Creator of TED conference, a trained architect, a skilled designer and a writer, he has published a number of books towards the presentation of information, design and technology, known most notably for authoring the book Information Architects in 1996.

Architecture is the science and art of creating an instruction for organized space - Richard Saul Wurman

He compares the problems faced in collecting, organizing and presenting information to the problems of an architect when designing a building to suit the needs of residents. Much like architecture, information architecture is a structured unit built on a strong foundation of determining user needs, organizing those needs in a manner that creates interaction and ultimately meeting the needs of the user.


Ever since the ascent of Information Architecture as a standalone system, propelled with the birth of internet, it has evolved and progressed in numerous ways to benefit the ever changing digital age. Information Architecture is essential. No matter what advancements may come in digital technology, a good IA ensures that people can access what they need when they need it.

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