Information Architecture (noun.)
Definition: As an object: The way we arrange the parts of something to make it more understandable as a whole. As a practice: The act of deciding which order the pieces of a whole should be arranged in order to communicate the meaning that is intended to users.
Also referenced as:
Related to: Architect, Controlled Vocabulary, Diagram, Frame, Information, Information Architect, Ontology, Structure, Taxonomy
Information architecture is all around you.
Information architecture is the way that we arrange the parts of something to make it understandable.
Here are some examples of Information architecture:
- Alphabetical cross-referencing systems used in a dictionary or encyclopedia
- Links in website navigation
- Sections, labels, and names of things on a restaurant menu
- Categories, labels and tasks used in a software program or application
- The signs that direct travelers in an airport
We rely on Information architecture to help us make sense of the world around us.
Things may change; the messes stay the same.
We’ve been learning how to architect information since the dawn of thought.
Page numbering, alphabetical order, indexes, lexicons, maps, and diagrams are all examples of information architecture achievements that happened well before the information age.
Even now, technology continues to change the things we make and use at a rate we don’t understand yet. But when it really comes down to it, there aren’t that many causes for confusing information.
- Too much information
- Not enough information
- Not the right information
- Some combination of these (eek!)
Every thing has information.
Over your lifetime, you’ll make, use, maintain, consume, deliver, retrieve, receive, give, consider, develop, learn, and forget many things.
This book is a thing. Whatever you’re sitting on while reading is a thing. That thing you were thinking about a second ago? That’s a thing too.
Things come in all sorts, shapes, and sizes.
The things you’re making sense of may be analog or digital; used once or for a lifetime; made by hand or manufactured by machines.
I could have written a book about information architecture for websites or mobile applications or whatever else is trendy. Instead, I decided to focus on ways people could wrangle any mess, regardless of what it’s made of.
That’s because I believe every mess and every thing shares one important non-thing:information.
Information is whatever is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things.
To do is to know.
Knowing is not enough. Knowing too much can encourage us to procrastinate. There’s a certain point when continuing to know at the expense of doing allows the mess to grow further.
Practicing information architecture means exhibiting the courage to push past the edges of your current reality. It means asking questions that inspire change. It takes honesty and confidence in other people.
Sometimes, we have to move forward knowing that other people tried to make sense of this mess and failed. We may need to shine the light brighter or longer than they did. Perhaps now is a better time. We may know the outcomes of their fate, but we don’t know our own yet. We can’t until we try.
What if turning on the light reveals that the room is full of scary trolls? What if the light reveals the room is actually empty? Worse yet, what if turning on the light makes us realize we’ve been living in darkness?
The truth is that these are all potential realities, and understanding that is part of the journey. The only way to know what happens next is to do it.
Good is in the eye of the beholder.
What’s good for a business of seven years may not work for a business of seven weeks. What works for one person may be destructive for another.
When we don’t define what good means for our stakeholders and users, we aren’t using language to our advantage. Without a clear understanding of what is good, bad can come out of nowhere.
And while you have to define what good means to create good information architecture, it’s not just the architecture part that needs this kind of focus.
Every decision you make should support what you’ve defined as good: from the words you choose to the tasks you enable, and everything in between.
When you’re making decisions, balance what your stakeholders and users expect of you, along with what they believe to be good.
Words I don’t say in this eBook.
I’ve avoided using these terms and concepts:
- Doing/Do the IA (commonly misstated)
- IA (as an abbreviation)
- Information Architecture (as a proper noun)
- Information Architect (exceptions in my dedication and bio pages)
- App as an abbreviation (too trendy)
- Very (the laziest word ever)
- User experience (too specific to design)
- Metadata (too technical)
- Semantic (too academic)
- Semiotic (too academic)
I have reasons why these words aren’t good in the context of this book. That doesn’t mean I never use them; I do in some contexts.
It’s easy to reach agreement alone.
Maybe you’re working on a project independently and you’re the only stakeholder and user.
More likely, you’re working with other people to serve other people. In that scenario, making maps and diagrams alone at your desk is not practicing information architecture.
Your whole team should be able to influence and react to your tools and methods. You should be making prototypes to get feedback from users on language and structure.
Getting everyone involved early is crucial. Every step you take should come from the direction you choose together. If you don’t get agreement up front, prepare for more work later.
When you see the world through the eyes of other people, you can spot weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. Don’t hide from other stakeholders or wait until the end of the project to talk to users.
If it isn’t under the floorboards, it’s a façade.
Information architecture is like the frame and foundation of a building. It’s not a building by itself, but you can’t add the frame and foundation after the building is up. They’re critical parts of the building that affect the whole of it. Buildings without frames do not exist.
It’s hard to relay your intended meaning through façade alone. When your structure and intent don’t line up, things fall apart.
Imagine trying to open a fancy restaurant in an old Pizza Hut. The shape of its former self persists in the structure. The mid-nineties nostalgia for that brand is in its bones. Paint the roof; change the signage; blow out the inside; it doesn’t matter. The building insists, “I used to be a Pizza Hut.”
(Now type “used to be Pizza Hut” into Google’s image search and enjoy the laugh riot!)
Make room for information architecture.
If you find yourself needing to promote this practice, here are some ways you can talk about it:
You: “Wow, we have lots of information floating around about this, huh?”
Them: “It’s a bit unruly, isn’t it?”
You: “Yeah, I think I can help though. I recently learned about the practice of information architecture. Have you heard of it?”
Them: “Never heard of it. What is it?”
You: “It’s the practice of deciding which structures we need so our intent comes through to users.”
Them: “Is it hard? Do we need an expert?”
You: “Well, it isn’t hard if we’re willing to collaborate and make decisions about what we’re doing. I have some tools we can try. What do you think?”
“Hey, nice IA!” — said no one, ever.
No one comments on the plumbing or electricity of a building unless the toilet is clogged or the lights aren’t working. Then all of a sudden, pipes and wires are a hot topic of conversation.
Similarly, people don’t compliment or even critique information architecture unless it’s broken.
The “information architecture part” is almost invisible when separated from how something looks and how it’s made. For example, we can’t evaluate the quality of the structure of this eBook without considering how it was written, edited, designed, illustrated, typeset, marketed and delivered.
If you practice information architecture for the glory, get ready to be disappointed.
But if you practice it for the clarity it can bring, get ready for some seriously interesting work.
Abby Covert is an information architect. After ten years of practicing information architecture for clients, Abby worried that too few people knew how to practice it themselves. She decided that the best way to help would be to teach this important practice.
After two years of teaching without a textbook, Abby told her students that she intended to write the book that was missing from the world: a book about information architecture for everybody.
As she wrote the first draft, she identified a mess of inconsistencies in the language and concepts inherent in teaching an emerging practice. At the end of the semester, she had a textbook for art school students, but she didn’t have the book that she intended to write for everybody. She had gone in the wrong direction to achieve a short-term goal.
She was frustrated and fearful of starting over. But instead of giving up, Abby faced her reality and used the advice in this book to make sense of her mess.
To get to the book you are reading, she wrote over 75,000 words, defined over 100 terms as simply as she could, and tested three unique prototypes with her users.
She hopes that it makes sense.