Understanding Information Architecture

One morning several weeks ago, I found myself at the Taipei Main Station in Taiwan, having gotten off the local train moments before. As the herd of people moved about with intent, I made my way to the closest map to figure out which MRT lines would take me to the Taipei Zoo.

Said map

Within minutes of studying the map, I noted the transfer station name and the lines that would take me to the Taipei Zoo, and confidently joined the masses migrating to and from platforms. The result confirmed my expectations: swiftly arriving at my destination just in time to meet my friend.

My experience using public transportation to navigate through Taipei, a city I was only vaguely familiar with, became less intimidating and overwhelming upon using the map to help me understand where I was, what was around, and how to get from Point A to Point B. This is a real-world example of Information Architecture (IA) at work. IA helps users understand where they are (context), what’s around (content) and what to expect.

In the digital realm, IA is the structural design of information within a product or interface. Determining the most effective and logical way to present content to users — the IA — involves the interplay of three elements in the service of utility: ontology, taxonomy, and choreography.

Ontology involves the specific meaning of content, commonly organized by labels and tags. Taxonomy involves classification and hierarchy. Choreography involves the user flow, the path the user takes through the product to complete a task.

All three elements exist in the Taipei MRT map example. Each station is marked by a color, which correlates to one of five primary lines labeled and marked by color in the legend. Tagging an individual station a particular color organizes this content into one of five larger categories. Stations within the same line are classified by color. And all of the parts within the map communicated information so clearly that I completed the task of successfully arriving at my destination without getting lost. This system was easy to access and easy to learn.

I haven’t touched on how we evaluate the effectiveness of IA in design — measured by IA heuristics — nor the IA deliverables that go along with and inform the UX Design process; IA is already an elusive role and task in itself. By first understanding what IA is in our physical world and how it effects behavior, we can better implement and maximize IA in the digital spaces within our mobile apps and websites.