A Primer on Information Architecture: Introduction

A Primer on Information Architecture Series

  1. A Primer on Information Architecture: Introduction
  2. A Primer on Information Architecture: Navigation

Information Architecture (IA) is one of the most important and exciting concepts in designing applications, but it also one of the least understood by a majority of designers, programmers, business analysts, etc. Hopefully through the following overview of the major concepts and benefits you can immediately improve both the utility and finabitliy of information in your application. After all, content (information) is the most important thing to any application so doesn’t it deserve some foresight?

Defining Information Architecture (IA)

The Findability Flower

The Findability Flower

The Information Architecture Institute has the following definition to begin our study. They define IA as:

  1. The structural design of shared information environments.
  2. The art and science of organizing and labeling web sites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability.
  3. An emerging community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

Information architects, from this working definition, play an important role in not only ensuring the usability and utility of information but it also goes to the level of discovering the optimal way to do physical layouts inside applications. From beginning to end, IA has an important role our design work.

Relation to Other Disciplines

Findability truly is the center of all applications we design. If information is not findable, then the value-added proposition from our applications doesn’t amount to much. Information Architecture is an important component to achieving maximum findability in our applications, but it has a very symbiotic relationship to other disciples in designing interfaces.

  • Interaction designers/user experience gurus are very interested in how our applications are actually used by the end user and therefore take a keen interest in how we label, describe, and layout our information.
  • Usability experts love IA for ensuring that our applications actually have information structured in such a way that makes it both usable and provides utility for the user.\
  • Graphic designers need IA before ever applying CSS, DHTML, or any other element to add to the aesthetic and function of the interface.
  • Business Analysts/Executives are concerned with ensuring that the product they sell and/or information they provide is understood by the target market. They see a tight relationship between IA and an application’s return on investment (ROI).

The list can continue, but it’s very apparent that many different stakeholders have a keen interest in IA. Because of this, information architects straddle an important line between the business objectives, customer needs, and application designers. They truly serve as the “glue” that makes projects stand or fall.

Understanding Information-Seeking Behavior

Before we continue with the various aspects of IA we first need to clarify how users actually seek information. If we can’t understand this vital aspect than all our IA will amount to a waste in time and money.

Too many designers design interfaces on the premise that search takes a linear form. In other words, the user comes to our application, searches/browses in a simple manner, finds their information, and leaves. Truth is, seeking information is an involved process. Think of how we search for information on sites: Sometimes we attempt to navigate the site, other times we go straight to search, but usually it’s a combination of both. We need to keep this in perspective when designing our information architectures.

A Diagram of Typical Information Seeking Behavior

A Diagram of Typical Information Seeking Behavior

Here are some important articles outlining information seeking behavior.