Information Architecture

It is finally summer break, and you’ve flown into Berlin, Germany to visit an old friend in Potsdam, a city 35 kilometers southwest. How do you get there from the airport? First stop is the train station to scope out its maps, list of stations, and timetable. Even though you may not speak the language, the information is clear and organized in a way you can understand. Since you’ve ridden trains before, you’re able to figure out which train to take at which time and where, and meet up with your friend with relative ease and without any issues. This situation may not always be the case for those who are not tech-savvy or experienced with public transportation, but this is the ideal situation for every user. The concept described here is information architecture, which involves the structuring of information presented in a way that is effective and logical for the user needing that information.

So information architecture is something about organizing information in a certain way that makes sense for everyone? Okay, but where did it come from exactly? The principle of information architecture has actually been around since we’ve needed to organize and understand information (an early recorded example is the Library of Alexandria’s bibliography scroll in 330 BC), but the term itself was coined in 1976 by architect Richard Saul Wurman at an American Institute of Architects conference. He defined the information architect as:

“1) the individual who organizes the patterns inherent in data, making the complex clear. 2) a person 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 focused upon clarity, human understanding, and the science of the organization of information.”

This was in response to the limitation of the term “information design” or “information designer” used at the time, which focused more on the visual aspect rather than the structure and interaction. Then in 1997, he published Information Architects, a collection of design work that defined information architecture.

Information Ecology by Morville and Rosenfeld

A couple years later and with the internet and web becoming more mainstream, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by librarians Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld was published and regarded as the technology book of the year, newer editions of which are still periodically published today. As a guide for effective web layouts, it highlighted analyzing the interaction between users, context, and content to make up the main components of IA:

Organization schemes and structures — how information is categorized or organized;

Labeling systems — how info is represented or labeled;

Navigation systems — how users get around and navigate information; and

Search systems — how information is found or searched.

UX Booth

That quickly became a bit complicated, but to look at it another way, we can break down information architecture today into 3 main principles:

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Ontology refers to name and meaning. For example, you may have a list of strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries, and categorize them as “berries.” However, someone else may categorize them as “fruit.” IA comes in to use the name that is most logical and recognizable for users.

Taxonomy refers to arrangement or how things are put together. IA classifies and ranks information by hierarchy. For example, you could be searching for a new book to read on Amazon, and you narrow the results by genre, price, reviews, etc.

Choreography refers to interaction or flow. For example, you’ve decided on the book you want to purchase after searching and narrowing, add it to your cart, go to checkout, enter your billing and shipping information, and submit your order. There is a logical and expected flow for the shopping experience — you’re not putting in billing information before you confirm shipping information.

As you can see, information architecture is a relatively new branch of technology and design that continues to grow, specialize, and overlap in other fields, and like other aspects in design, there is hidden complexity in simplicity.

Resources and Further Reading:

Information Architecture Basics

What is Information Architecture?

Complete Beginner’s Guide to Information Architecture