What is Information Architecture?
Information Architecture (IA) is the process and the product of designing shared information environments. When discussing a website or application, you might refer to its labels, structure, navigation, and search affordances as its “information architecture.” Likewise, an information architect uses specialized research, modeling, and validation techniques to create system-wide recommendations for information organization, labeling, and interactions that help information seekers find what they’re looking for and understand what they’ve found. These recommendations create scalable, sustainable methods for producing the final results you recognize as a site’s or product’s IA.
In the same way that building architects collaborate in the creation of physical environments for shared human use, information architects collaborate in the creation of information environments for shared human use. Both types of architects work closely with project sponsors, engineers, and production contributors to get the job done. The architect may not know in detail how each wall or widget gets built, but they know enough about how all the pieces fit together as a whole to ensure that the final result effectively meets the human needs.
For most of the web’s (and the IA profession’s) existence, IA has focused on designing useful and usable websites, applications, and intranets. For this work, card sorts, site maps, navigation models, tree tests, taxonomies, and wireframes are among the typical tools of the trade. Just as building customs, codes, and technologies change, however, so too with information environments. Today’s digital experiences are increasingly spilling off of webpages and intranets and into smart home speakers, digital assistants, and AI augmented search experiences. When designing for these environments, IAs start bringing out a different set of tools: here you’ll see experience mapping and domain modeling, ontologies, knowledge graphs, and linked data.
In these more recent examples, the product of IA may look different—a voice interaction instead of a form to submit, for instance—and the steps taken to get there may change, but the human centered design process of creating useful, usable shared information spaces remains the same. When all the dust has settled, if you can describe an information environment as a good place for people to be, you’ll know the IA was done well.
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.