#UX101: On Information Architecture

When you read about user experience and the UX design process, you will inevitably see a lot of discussion about Information Architecture. What is Information Architecture? Simply put, Information Architecture is the art and science or organizing and labeling data to make it usable and findable… though its practical application in user experience design is the subject of some debate.

This quote, by noted Information Architect Richard Saul Wurman, adds some color to the above: “I mean architect as in the creating of systemic, structural, and orderly principles to make something work — the thoughtful making of either artifact, or idea, or policy that informs because it is clear.”

A key point, and one that is important to note: Information Architecture is not the same thing as “site navigation” or a site map. Navigation is a reflection of and directed by formalized information architecture, and can vary (an information architecture can have information at many levels, while a navigation is usually a “flatter” model that in most cases only has two levels). And a site map is a mapping of content – again, this should be the result of (and be informed by) a formalized IA and, even then, it isn’t going to be 100% consistent.

Information Architecture can be applied in all levels of design, from form layout (What fields go together? What order should they be presented?) to Intranet development (how many intranets need to exist? And what should they contain?) and even an automated voice response system (What is the primary information tree callers access? And the second?)

Mental Models

A good IA aligns with the mental models of the user. How do they think of the domain and the information? Indi Young, in her great book Mental Models, goes into great detail about this subject, but the best way to uncover the mental models of your users is through user research. More on that subject in a later section.

Visualizing Information architecture 

The term “boxes and arrows” is a popular one in UX circles; this descriptive term reflects the many different flow charts, task models, and IA diagrams a UX professional create. Visualizing information architecture is fairly straightforward – use the aforementioned boxes and arrows to structure the various domains of information. Keep it simple – the point of the documentation is to present the domains of information in a way that is easily understandable by the consumers of the information. For some good examples of effective IA documentation, check out the work of Edward Tufte.

Information Architecture, Applied

As noted above, Information Architecture informs the design of many facets of a user experience. It will also “level-set” expectations and help teams understand the depth and breadth of the domain that has to be designed. It can also be used to inform what features are prioritized on a roadmap and what content needs to be created. All in all, Information Architecture is an important “blueprint” that allows you to understand what needs to be done in a design project.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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