Information Architecture: A Way to Make Sense of the Mess

My room is a mess.

Not as bad as the room pictured above, but bad enough. I shouldn’t have let those documents accumulate, now if I need something, it’s going to take a while to find it. How should I go about organising all my papers?

Welcome to Information Architecture

Well, I wasn’t the first one to come up with this question.

Historically, libraries had to manage the development of “knowledge-organisation systems”, categorising, cataloguing and locating resources.

Throughout the ages, the ancient art of organising things didn’t have a proper name, it was based on common-sense, where a new librarian was expected to follow the practices and traditions of other libraries.

But, as you can see with this graph, content has been growing exponentially. Sooner or later, it would have to be dealt with in a systematic way.

In 1970, Xerox had a Research Centre in Palo Alto, where a group of specialists in information science worked on a personal computer and talked about the “architecture of information” to address the human-computer interaction and how data would flow. It was the first time these two terms “architecture” and “information” were being used together.

Six years later, Richard Saul Wurman, an American architect and designer (known now as “father” of the TED conference) made use of the term “information architecture” in an address at the American Institute of Architecture conference.

He was convinced of the connection between the principles of architecture and the act of gathering, organizing and presenting information.

Later, he would publish a book where he would put it clearly:

That’s why I’ve chosen to call myself an Information Architect. I don’t mean a bricks and mortar architect. I mean architect as used in the words architect of foreign policy. I mean architect as in the creating of systemic, structural, and orderly principles to make something work — the thoughtful making of either artifact, or idea, or policy that informs because it is clear. I use the word information in its truest sense. Most of the word information contains the word inform, so I call things information only if they inform me, not if they are just collections of data, of stuff.

This was still related to the material world, focussing on instructions for organized space and static design.

But, then…

Of course, with the internet, Information Architecture would again take the spotlight.

In 1998, Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville’s book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (the Polar Bear book) was a bestseller, concerning itself with the increasing volume of information available but also how to organise and present information that doesn’t exist as a physical object. It was a designer’s look into an issue that has turned even more challenging with time. Advancing technology brought many benefits but also unintended consequences, as we can see in this passage from the book:

While most software applications are designed to solve very specific problems, the successful ones tend to outgrow their problem-set boundaries to encompass more and more functionality over time. As a result, they lose clarity and simplicity.

This is why seeing the big picture is more important than ever, and Information Architecture is a fundamental practice to fight the information overload and sense of unfamiliarity the user may experience.

At its core, IA can be seen as the combination of organisation, labelling, search, and navigation systems. But a very popular description is by information architect Dan Klyn who sees IA as an interplay of Ontology, Taxonomy, and Choreography.

The words can be scary — let’s not make this complicated.

Ontology is about establishing a particular meaning. What do you mean when you use this specific word?

Is it?

Taxonomy is the way we organise things (and what some people think IA is really about). It’s where you establish logical structures and categorise content.

Sugar rush

But then we have Choreography.

No, not that one.

Choreography as in how the first two components interact with each other and how meaning is affected by this interaction, and how users’ tacit knowledge play a part in it too.

Just now, as a real example faced while working on a project for UX Academy — the aim was to organise the content for a grocery shopping app.

One of the items was rosemary. First, we think of the ontology, its meaning.

Nice, fresh rosemary

It’s fresh, organic. Maybe it will go into the Produce Section.

Great herb to add to meats

Or it could be used as seasoning — which would leads us to the Cooking Section.

This is when we have to think of Taxonomy. Which criteria will we use to organise these items? Alphabetical, hierarchical, maybe following the mental image people have of the physical supermarket?

We’re trying to help our users and the way we choose to organise groceries also says something about the kind of store we are.

Zoom-Out to the Big Picture

Going back to how things are today. We see now that people are experiencing the world in a disembodied way, where the relationships we have with objects and places is less about their physical proximity, and more about our own preconceptions and mental images.

From Information Architecture for the World Wide Web:

The next logical step in the dematerialization of information is for it to permeate our surroundings and become an ever-present feature of our personal interactions with the world.

Sounds like the future, but it’s already our current reality.

Which explains why a holistic approach is needed when structuring and organising information.

Again, it’s Information Architecture, where someone needs to take a step back and look at the broader picture in the abstract, to understand how it all fits together. A nice way to summarise this discipline is by looking at it as “the architecture of understanding”.