I attended a local meetup where this question came up, and was shocked to find that I was one of the experts in the room. Apparently, I’ve been a practitioner of Information Architecture for years without knowing it. As someone who’s built websites and implemented content management systems, problems related to information architecture come up all the time. But most of us out there doing it don’t know that there’s a name for what we’re doing, or that there’s an academic discipline or theory behind it.
A lot of people cook without understanding chemistry or the culinary arts, too. You can follow recipes or trust your instincts, and prepare food just as tasty. But it helps to know the principles behind what you doing.
So what is information architecture? It’s easiest to start with a definition of the word architecture. If construction is building a physical structure, and architecture is the design and plan for a physical structure, then information architecture is the design for building something out of information.The things we build out of information aren’t physical products, but products of the mind. Whether you’re humming a tune or doodling on paper, you’re getting an idea out of your head. It helps to give that idea some structure so that it conveys the right meaning.
But that sounds like the definition of design, doesn’t it? Design is art with a purpose. But architecture is about more than design.
When you architect something, you want it to last. You’re designing for the long term. You want to give your ideas — their structure and meaning — permanence. Ideally, you’d like to be able to add on to those ideas, or to renovate certain parts, without destroying the rest of the structure and having to start again. And you’d like to give the occupants or users of your mental framework the ability to do the same thing.Since creating software is almost completely the work of the mind, information architecture comes up a lot, but it’s a general term. When your user experience designer decides what items go on the main navigation menu of your website, she’s doing information architecture, but she might not call it that. When Microsoft unveiled the new “Metro” interface for Windows Phone and later Windows 8, they changed some of the underlying information architecture of the operating system, but people focus on the big, dynamic, blocks of color and not the organization behind the new look and feel.
Information architecture is everywhere, but it’s subtle and (like information itself) invisible. So it’s the effects of good and bad information architecture that get the most comments: “This app is so intuitive!” or “I can never find what I want!” or “I always have to look at the instructions to remember what comes next.”
Most people would say just that a website, or a book, or a software application, is simply organized or disorganized. But there are many ways of organizing things. The Dewey Decimal System is organized, but it doesn’t make it easy for me to find my way around the local library without help. Information architecture is about finding the right method of organization for a particular context, just like physical architecture tries to make a house fit the character of the neighborhood and the needs of its owner.
Despite the fact that software permeates every aspect of modern life, and individuals and companies generate and collect more data than ever before, information architecture is not a common term. There’s an Information Architecture Institute dedicated to helping professionals who work in this space, and some very good tutorials on applying information architecture principles to websites, but it’s not an official job title at most companies and many schools don’t teach it as a separate discipline. Even the meetup group about information architecture that I attended a few months ago has moved on.
But it’s nice to know that there are principles we can use to organize and structure information better, and that there are folks out there like myself who enjoy helping people figure out how to do it. And so long as it leads to tasty websites and delicious software, who cares how the chefs work their magic in the kitchen?