Origins and Evolution of Information Architecture

What is Information Architecture?

Let’s take an example: how do you end up at your new friends’ house for a dinner party? When you learn what city they live in, find the necessary street, and find the number of the house, you can use these systems to find your way. With the structure in place, it makes it a lot easier than being told “the dark green house near the park.” Simply, information architecture (IA) is the way we organize, move, browse, and navigate through information. It may sound high-tech or new, but humanity has been organizing things for ages.

Keeping Ancient History Relevant

As soon as people began recording and organizing information, a primitive form of IA was born. Take, for example, the clay tablets of Sumer (estimated around 2600 B.C.) which were then organized into the very first archives. The concept became the basis for one of the greatest libraries in history: the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.

Rendering of Library of Alexandria. Source

Relying on the principle of unifying context (time, location, etc.), users (people), and content (information, objects, etc.), IA has evolved through the history of humanity and become increasingly complex. Essentially, anytime you are working with any form of content and need people to find said content, you are designing IA.

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Modern IA

It wasn’t until 1976 when Saul Wurman was the first to use the term “information architecture” and defined it as “the structural design of shared information environments”. With its foundations in both art and science, the term can be, at times, abstract, however, it is now summarized as having three major components:

  1. Ontology — how we establish meaning
  2. Taxonomy — how various elements are organized within a structure
  3. Choreography — how the meaning and the structure interact
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While it is still a largely gray area that can span multiple disciplines (user experience, content strategy, cognitive science, and more) and cannot be quantified, there is no doubt that it plays an important role in the way we interact with environments. Think of it this way: would Amazon be so successful if it was difficult for users to browse and find products? With an ever-increasing amount of information, complex and sophisticated IA is crucial for success.

The Future of IA

Despite many sci-fi attempts, it is impossible to understand where the future will take us. Since information architecture relies on organization of content, it is thus independent from medium. We can begin to conclude that the field will be essential where there is the most information to work with, such as connected products and wearable devices.

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Peter Morville, President at Semantic Studios and author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, states that “feedback loops in ecosystems” will be common puzzles to solve. He adds that people can easily become overwhelmed with too much information and have the urge to shut it out, therefore, it will be an increasingly important to make information understandable for people. This will require an “emphasis on culture and cognition.”

With IA evolving significantly from clay tablets to connected products in a short span of time, the uncertainty of its future poses exciting questions. What other disciplines will be necessary to understand to be successful at IA? How advanced will artificial intelligence become to assist with the technical aspects? How will the past inform the future? Current information architects are already hard at work trying to answer these questions.

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