Information Architecture is the practice of deciding how to organize the parts of a system, so everything is understandable. When we design a website, the process of determining what things are, where they should go, and how they should connect to everything else is no easy task. As humans, we only understand things when there is a relationship between them.
Information Architecture as we know it, began around the 70s, long before web and mobile applications, or the popularisation of UX Design. Like Usability and Accessibility, Information Architecture (IA) extrapolates the digital. Its influence is present in the websites and applications we use; in printed materials, and even in places where we spend our time. Information Architecture helps us understand what is around us, and to find what we’re looking for.
The Components of Information Architecture
To succeed with IA, we need a diverse understanding of standards for creating, storing, accessing, and presenting information. In the book “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web”, Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville list the main components of IA:
- Schematic Organization and Structures: How to classify and structure information — The categories in which we put information, such as author names and titles or shoe size, fabric and color;
- Labeling Systems: How to represent information — For example, should articles use the terms “optometrist” and “ophthalmologist”, or “ophthalmologist” is the most appropriate;
- Navigation Systems: How users navigate — How we move from one information segment to another when this information is presented to us;
- Search Systems: How users search information — For example, in a search box, you can type multiple words to narrow the results and get closer to the topics you want.
Other components related to IA come from the technology used to make the model into a functional system. For example, if you’re building a website, access to information requires components such as browsing, scrolling, and clicking. If you’re inserting information into a database, the architecture must incorporate query components to retrieve specific information.
Common Methodologies in Information Architecture
As mentioned earlier, Information Architecture extrapolates digital. It’s an area that has roots in several fields and methodologies, including Library Science, Cognitive Psychology and Architecture.
Library Science is the methodology responsible for the organization of knowledge systems. This methodology involves the study of how to categorize, catalog and locate resources. It’s used in traditional libraries, museums, science labs and even in hospitals. In the digital world, the best example is a search engine like Google. A search engine is nothing more than a giant library where all information is digitally cataloged. It then needs to be extracted in a logical, relevant and organized way for users.
Cognitive psychology is the study of how the human mind works. What mental processes occur during the consultation and processing of information. Information Architecture is based on elements from Cognitive Psychology to influence how we structure information. Some of the key elements of cognitive psychology that information architects most value:
- Cognitive load: is the amount of information a person can process at any time
- Mental models: are the assumptions that people consider before interacting with a website or application;
- Decision making: it’s the cognitive process that allows us to make a choice or select an option.
The founder of modern Information Architecture models was Richard Saul Wurman, a Graphic Designer and Architect.
Wurman believed that information should be structured in the same way as a building: with a solid foundation. Like Architecture, IA must be based on a precise, intentional structure and a solid foundation of ideas.
According to Wurman, information can be organised in only 5 possible ways (LATCH):
- Location: When the information comes from different sources or places (eg. French wine, Argentinean beef, etc.);
- Alphabetical: When the information exists in a large volume of data (eg. phone book, list of websites, etc.);
- Time: When there is information where a fixed duration is prevalent (eg. 2-hour meeting, 2-day stays, etc.);
- Category: When information can be grouped in an obvious way (eg. format, topics, etc.);
- Hierarchy (or magnitude): When we can group information in an illustrative way (eg. price, size, etc.).
Why is Information Architecture important?
When we design the architecture of a website, the principles of Information Architecture increase the chance of understanding where we are as users. But more importantly, where the information we want is in relation to our position. Information Architecture helps creating hierarchies, taxonomies, categorizations, navigation, and metadata. Whenever we organize a menu, the content or structure of a website, we are practicing Information Architecture.
Some of the issues we should always consider when designing a website:
- How is the flow of users on our site?
- How does the system help the user to catalog their information?
- How is this information displayed back to the user?
- Does this information help the user make relevant decisions?
In order to answer these questions correctly, we must take into account characteristics such as: target audience, website technologies and the data that will be displayed on the website.
What’s the relationship between Information Architecture and SEO?
An information architect is usually responsible for a variety of activities as part of a UX team. They work to create usable content structures from complex sets of information. This is done using user-centered design methodologies: usability testing, research and creation of personas and flow diagrams, etc.
Some of the most common tasks for an information architect are the creation of search, navigation, wireframing, labeling, and data modeling. All these features and functionalities affect SEO at some point. Thus, it’s essential that there’s a synergy between the team responsible for SEO and Information Architecture… As well as all the teams within UX.
If you want to know more or study IA, I recommend the readings: