When Do You Need an Information Architect?

Not all digital projects need the help of a dedicated information architect. Simple, informational websites such as narrowly focused marketing sites, or small, straightforward event or documentation sites can often be effectively arranged by an astute and structurally-minded UX designer. When a website or application’s audience and goals are not so narrow and well defined, however, failing to effectively plan for its information architecture (IA) can lead to user frustration, missed business opportunity, and, ultimately, much greater cost than taking the time to get the IA right at the start.

There are a few common leading indicators that offer clues that you should include an information architect, or at least a practitioner with strong IA skills, on your design team:

You serve a wide variety of user types

Many websites and applications must serve a range of users with different needs at different times. The digital properties that do this well are the ones that provide clear, predictable navigation, orientation, and wayfinding structures based on their users’ mental models of the content and functionality provided. An information architect can help create these structures by conducting or collaborating in research; designing, prototyping, and testing wayfinding structures and labels; and working hand-in-hand with UX and UI designers to ensure the effective translation of recommendations into the final design.

You have multiple authors, content contributors, or content curators

Spreading the responsibility of creating and maintaining content across an organization has a lot of benefits. When “everyone” contributes to how an information environment grows and evolves, however, it is important to establish the necessary support structures to keep that environment consistent and in line with user and business goals. An information architect can build these structures by articulating information design principles, establishing taxonomies and category schemes, testing and validating information structures and labeling systems, and helping plan for governance and ongoing maintenance over time.

You must accommodate competing organizational and stakeholder interests

Project stakeholders are generally chosen to represent a range of business and user viewpoints. Even though stakeholders are all interested in the success of the project, differences in viewpoint and expertise can sometimes lead to confrontational and even counterproductive project dynamics. An information architect can help focus discussions and decisions about category design and organization, labels, and hierarchy on insights from research and information design best practices.

Your digital information environment will evolve over time

Websites and applications rarely remain static for long. Even though we still often speak of them as sets of “pages,” these collections inevitably grow and adapt to accommodate new content and meet evolving business and user needs. One of the most costly missteps organizations make with their IA is to create an arrangement of content and functionality that works well at launch, but which fails to articulate the assumptions and decisions that motivate that arrangement, and that influence its evolution over time. This is often what causes some websites to become a tangled mess after only a few years (or months), leading to either another costly redesign or confused and dissatisfied users (or both).

In addition to these early warning signs that your project will need focused IA work, there are also lagging indicators that can help you pinpoint that inattention to IA has created problems. The most obvious of these is that your users can’t find what they’re looking for, don’t understand what they find, and don’t know what to do next. By factoring IA into your project when it’s needed, and by being sure to bring your information architect into the design process early enough affect change, you—and your users—can avoid this costly and frustrating outcome.

There are some questions that never fail to come up when I endeavor to explain what it is that I actually do as an information architect. This series of short posts offers my spin on some of the more common of those questions. Read the first post here