What is Information Architecture?

Information Architecture is a relatively new part of web development (as compared to, say, responsive design), and something that may be foreign and annoying to any website stakeholders. What do these guys do, anyway? Why do we need one? I will tell you up front that, unless this is a one or two page website, you DO need one. Planning is a HUGELY important part of any website, and getting it right before the design phase will save you boatloads of money in development.

Now then, onto the good stuff.

According to the internet, Information Architecture… has many definitions. Wikipedia has five. In an effort to keep it concise:

[Within the context of web design,] Information Architecture is the organization and labeling of information to support usability.

Information Architects want the website to make logical, informational sense to the user. They are concerned with getting the right information in the right place at the right time. If the IA is good enough, a user won’t even realize they are navigating a structure, as the content will flow smoothly and logically from start to finish. As a result, good information architecture is largely invisible.

IAs come from multidisciplinary roles, as they need to be familiar with a variety of skills and technologies. They work closely with the stakeholders responsible for the site (the project owners, managers, graphic designers, developers, writers, users, etc.). The IA focuses on the end goal of the user, and works to keep the moving pieces aligned with this goal.

Ok… so what do they do?

In the grand scheme of web development, Information Architects focus on the big picture. They can be compared to city planners: they have to know how everything works, but they don’t have to know how to do everything.

So what do they do?

  1. Research. IAs study everything, especially the content and the users. They get to know the project, the primary endpoints of the stakeholders, the target audience, and how they communicate. In larger projects, this step could include interviews, focus groups, polls, usability tests, etc.
  2. Analysis. IAs put everything together and (attempt to) simplify it. They layout the steps in between now and the achievement of the project’s biggest goal. They also generate personas and scenarios (fictitious user personalities) to represent the segments of the target audience.
  3. Blueprints. Like an architect, IAs put together the blueprints of the website or app, typically with a site map and wireframes. The blueprints do not limit the art, web design, or copy of the site. They layout the key labels, navigation, and structure that the content will fit into.
  4. Overall direction. Once construction begins, the architect is responsible for maintaining the right direction. IAs do this through personal feedback, but it is also important to test users early and often.
Wikipedia reported some debate about whether or not Information Architecture is limited to the organization of information or if it covers usability as well. I think, in a practical sense, Information Architects working on web and mobile projects should always keep usability top-of-mind anyway, regardless of its categorization.

Next week, one of my favorite things: What is UX Design?