The History of Information Architecture

In much the same way that architects organize spatially for the benefit of inhabitants, information architects organize information for the benefit of users.

Information architecture is essentially the study of the logical structure and labeling of information, knowledge or content within a user space. The user space could be a physical location (e.g. a library or a hospital) or a virtual experience (e.g. a website or a kiosk).

In structuring a user space, information architects search for understanding of how users naturally navigate an environment or experience (e.g. internet app) to access information. In this sense, the ultimate goal of information architecture is to facilitate the search for information or knowledge within any given user environment.

Where Did It Originate?

The Library of Alexandria

Although information architecture was not officially coined until the 20th century, the concept dates back centuries. One of the earliest examples of how information can be organized for the betterment of its users appeared in ancient Egypt. In 330 B.C., the Library of Alexandria produced a bibliography of its assets across a total of 120 scrolls.

This idea of organizing information for the benefit of all users continued into the late 19th century. In 1873, Melvil Dewey created the knowledge organization tool known as the Dewey Decimal System, which is used today in libraries in more than 135 countries. Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Library of Congress Classification was developed to organize the book collections held at the U.S. Library of Congress.

The IBM ® System/360 computer

During the 1960s and 1970s, IBM, Xerox, and Richard Saul Wurman each contributed to the advancement of information architecture. In 1964, IBM produced a research paper titled “Architecture of the IBM System/360” in which the term architecture was used to define the layout and structure of data. In 1970, the development team at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) was formed to develop new technology that allowed for the “architecture of information” (Pake 1985). In 1976, Wurman defined the term information architecture in his address to the American Institute of Architects. Wurman, a renowned and decorated architect, first addressed how the principles of architecture can be used to logically organize information.

During the 1980s, the focus of information architecture pivoted to information systems. Architectural theory during this period was applied to the construct of computer infrastructure and data systems within business organizations.

By the late 1990s, information architecture became closely associated with the World Wide Web. In 1998, Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville released the book “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web,” which outlined how to organize information, content, or knowledge to create logically designed websites. Rosenfeld and Morville recognized fluid, dynamic content and user research as important components in web design.

What Does It Look Like Today?

Today, users both consume and create information that needs to be organized and managed in ways that cannot be entirely met by classical approaches to information architecture. Tremendous volumes of data are being produced by users from around the globe, which has raised issues surrounding how to best adapt classical theories of information architecture to a changing technological landscape.

New technologies that rely on the Internet of Things has led to the need for new ways to harness the flow of information in such a way that users can easily access it across any channel (e.g. email, cell, or direct message), platform (e.g. iOS, Windows, or Android), or device (e.g. desktop, tablet, or smart TV).

Per author and information architect Peter Morville, the scope of information architecture has expanded beyond the World Wide Web to include web strategy, cross-channel strategy, and “intertwingularity” (to be explained later). Web strategy involves how the Internet, social media, and mobile platforms converge. Cross-channel strategy involves physical and digital experiences.

The Future: “Ubiquitous Service Design” and “Intertwingularity”

Peter Morville.

The terms ubiquitous service design and intertwingularity have emerged to explain the future of information architecture.

Ubiquitous service design refers to how product and service providers (e.g. Amazon, Apple, or Nike) and consumers (users) connect today. Thanks to the Internet and Wi-Fi, providers and users can connect either face-to-face or virtually across various platforms, devices, channels, or contexts. Transactions or information sharing can occur anywhere and at any time.

Ubiquitous service design also covers how technological advancement has allowed tangible products such as cars or shoes to become conduits for companies like Zipcar, Amazon, or Nike to provide services to their customers. With the Zipcar app, your car becomes a taxi available for service. Amazon’s Alexa is not only a virtual assistant, but also transforms tablets, cell phones, etc. into service providers that can respond to verbal prompts or order Amazon products. The Nike+ app converts your daily run while wearing Nike sneakers into a gateway to social media from which you can share your fitness goals with friends or family members.

Peter Morville.

Overall, ubiquitous service design explains how technology allows providers to merge their products and services across multiple platforms, devices, and channels. In this environment, customer satisfaction and effective user experience are contingent upon how well these various platforms, devices, and channels (e.g. mobile, tablet, Android, iOS, etc.) are consistent and smoothly integrated. Morville posits that information architecture can serve as a solution to this emerging problem by bridging ubiquitous service design and user experience.

Intertwingularity involves the flow of information through a convergence of media, channels, platforms, etc. Morville posits that successful ubiquitous service design enhances intertwingularity. In other words, the better that communication pathways (channels, platforms, media, etc.) are integrated, the easier it will be for information and data to flow across them, thereby improving the experience of the consumer (user). In this sense, information architecture has expanded into a multidisciplinary profession that combines information design, human-computer interaction, and visual design.


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