The Architecture of Informations.

A brief history + many quotes from Richard Wurman.

Information Architecture (IA), a term commonly heard in the world of UX Design has become essential for companies that want to create products that focus on ‘User Centred Design’, but where does the term come from?

Before I delve into the (very short) history of information architecture, here is a brief definition courtesy of the IA Institute:

“We defined information architecture as the art and science of organising and labelling websites, intranets, online communities, and software to support usability.”

The term came from known architect, author, and designer Richard Saul Wurman, who addressed the American Institute of Architects in 1976 and used the term “information” together with “architecture”. Twelve years previous to this, in 1964, IBM wrote a research paper which defines architecture as “the conceptual structure and functional behaviour, distinguishing the organisation of data-flows and controls, logical design, and physical implementation.”

Xerox was one of the first companies that took on the notion of information architecture. They built a team of information architects that went on to develop ground-breaking technologies, including the first personal computer with a user-friendly interface, laser printing and the WYSIWYG text editor.

Information architecture has its roots in numerous fields and methodologies including library science, cognitive psychology, and architecture. Realms that user experience designers draw from today. It is more than just wireframes and sitemaps, it’s about creating a flow where users can easily discover the information they need. Businesses and individuals want a product that is easy to navigate, useful, and communicative so that they can obtain information quickly and without having to engage the brain too much.

Wurman’s clear-cut definitions of an information architect still hold today:

  1. “The individual who organises the patterns, parents, and data making the complex clear.”
  2. “An individual who creates the structure (or map) of information which allows others to find their personal paths to knowledge.”
  3. “The emerging 21st-century professional occupation addressing the needs of the age focussed upon clarity, human understanding, and the science of the organisation of information.”
“Information anxiety is the black hole between data and knowledge, and it happens when information doesn’t tell us what we want or need to know.”

Information architecture is an integral part of UX/UI design. The three main practices of which are:

  1. Ontology: “Ontology is a branch of metaphysics, the study of first principles or the essence of things. It defines a set of representational primitives with which to model a domain of knowledge or discourse.” To put it simply, Ontology defines the essential categories of objects.
  2. Taxonomy: “The arrangement of the parts to accomplish specific goals within, or across, contexts.” Hierarchy is used to establish information. Information can be established in many ways: by importance or frequency of use, by recency, alphabetically, numerically etc. Taxonomy is how we class certain elements that are related.
  3. Choreography: “The structure it creates fosters specific types of movement and interaction, anticipating the way users and information want to flow and making affordance for change over time”. (Dan Klyn)

Long before the days of the world-wide-web, humans were tasked with the daunting procedure of consulting tangible data storage such as books, newspapers or other humans to obtain information. Fast forward to 2016 and we have an overwhelmingly vast library of knowledge right at the tips of our fingers. So it seems information architecture is very relevant today, and will become more so in the future as we rely more and more on the internet for research and performing day-to-day tasks. We need IA’s to ensure the sites, programs and apps we use are accessible, clear, and credible. It just means one less thing to worry about in this mad world.