Making Things For Others Is Practicing Information Architecture

Picture yourself walking into an IKEA. The store is seemingly endless shelves organized into rooms of varying sizes — how are you going to find what you want? You are going to need a way to understand what the store contains, how it is organized, and how you can get to it. This is Information Architecture. At its simplest,

Information architecture is about helping people understand their surroundings and find what they’re looking for, in the real world as well as online. We like to say that if you’re making things for others, you’re practicing information architecture.

-Information Architecture Institute

IKEA´s Information Architecture supports a variety of user journeys and is easily accessible and understood via multiple channels. There are maps with terms and numbers, corresponding signage, computer search stations, and an overall ¨choose your own adventure¨ store layout that expedites the search process. IKEA has well designed Information Architecture because it lets the user know: where they are, where they can go, what to expect there, and what there is at each location.

So how is this achieved? On his site, The Understanding Group, Dan Klyn defines the foundation of IA as the interplay of Ontology, Taxonomy, and Choreography in the service of creating utility and delight.

Continuing with the example of IKEA…

Ontology is the definition of the items and parts that are going to be organized, so in this case it is the things that store sells. By defining and naming these things, we can identify them as distinct entities and give them meaning.

Taxonomy is the way these items or entities are organized to aid in specific goals within or across contexts. From IKEA´s product naming system all the way up to its store sections, it follows a precise and logical system to create a consistent organization of its ontological elements.

Choreography is how the taxonomy and ontology, or structure and meaning, fit together to create the user experience. IKEA keeps all of its products organized in a warehouse according to a clearly labeled taxonomy; while this taxonomy may be clear and thus easy to navigate, it´s not enjoyable to shop this way. Instead, IKEA uses showrooms where a different taxonomy is used to combine and display the store items in a way that is more appealing and inspiring for the customer.

IA is very important to UX Design precisely because of this Choreography: it´s a valuable tool that designers can use to create a more delightful user experience.

Richard Wurman, an architect by trade, is commonly attributed as the first to coin the term Information Architecture in the 1970´s. In an article for Wired Magazine, Gary Wolf describes Wurman´s contribution as

…not his hands-on work so much as his metawork: He redefined the problems his designers were trying to solve. [He] realized long ago that the presentation of information can be more important than the information itself.

Since then, many notable figures have contributed to the further definition of the field, including Peter Morville, Dan Klyn, and Jesse James Garrett with his book The Elements of User Experience. The field mainly draws on Library Science, Architecture, and Cognitive Psychology.

Common tasks for an Information Architect include research, site inventories, site mapping, wireframing, labeling, data modeling, and navigation and hierarchy creation.

In the future Information Architects may have much to learn from the field of Artificial Intelligence as AI develops non-intuitive ways to link and organize information that may be more highly efficient. On the other hand, in the zeitgeist of big data and data transparency, Information Architecture needs to be more intuitive and adaptive than ever. Users of the same information may range from a very low education level to subject matter experts — we need to be able to profile a user and adapt the Information Architecture to their abilities and needs.

If Wurman was right about the presentation of information being more important than the content itself, then as society becomes less interested in text and more dependent on visual communication, Information Architecture will look very different in the future.


My name is Ashley Ortega and I am a User Experience Design student at UX Academy by Design Lab. Thanks for reading! Comments welcome and appreciated.


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