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What Is Information Architecture? An Expert Explains

Dawn Schlecht

I am an information architect—and so are you!

While researching and writing this post I had to make sense of a lot of information. I read lots of articles and excerpts from IA books, and watched keynotes. Then I had to come up with a system of organizing all the information I had absorbed.

I started with note cards (like in 5th grade, remember?), then I switched to a word document where I recorded snippets. I finally ended up with a mess that I had to make sense of.

Within this mess, I began to define terms, and was surprised to find that there were even some words I thought I already knew the meaning of that I had to relearn in the context of Information Architecture. Then I wrote..and wrote some more…until finally I cut and pasted out the bits I wanted, put them in a coherent order, and deleted the other ten pages.

What would have happened if as I researched I simply recorded everything I came across and then when I was finished, hit publish?

I think you can imagine.

Information Architecture is how we make sense of the world around us.

Whether you are researching a paper, planning a trip, or organizing your sock drawer you are the architect of that information.

So If I’m Already A Practitioner Of Information Architecture, It’s An Easy Job, Right?

As those of you who have completed module three of CareerFoundry’s UX Design Course can attest to, it’s not that easy. Before information can be labeled and maps created, the information must make sense. This is where user research comes in. Understanding our users is easier said than done because each user makes their own information based on their own perceptions.

“We can’t make information, our users do that” — Abby Covert, IA


How Do We Organize This Information?

First we have to take a look at what we have, then organize it.

Here are a few examples of how information architects do just that.

  • Content Inventory - Take an inventory of the site content
  • Content Audit - Is the content convincing given your user base?
  • Information Grouping - What relationships can you see between the content?
  • Taxonomy Development - Create a standardized language for terms

What Else Should We Keep In Mind?

In her talk entitled How to Make Sense of Any Mess, Abby Covert shares three things to keep in mind as we begin architecting.

  1. Language matters - Defining the words we use makes information easier to find and use both for us and for our users.
  2. There’s no right way - People have to agree on the right way for them. There’s no one way to organize information. It’s correct if it meets the needs of the organization or business which is meeting the needs of its users.
  3. Draw pictures - Allowing or encouraging someone to create pictures helps them put onto paper what’s in their head. This will allow them to verbalize their thinking which will allow others to both interact with and build upon these ideas.

Why Is Information Architecture Valuable?

So people can find things, right? True. However, there are many more nuanced reasons. Here are just a few from Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.

Information Architecture:

  • Makes using a website a more enjoyable experience
  • Improves knowledge sharing
  • Reduces duplication effort
  • Reduces reliance upon documentation
  • Reduces cost of finding/not finding information
  • Provides a competitive advantage

Are Information Architects Only Concerned With The Details?

According to Donna Spencer, an expert IA, there are three main skills that one must develop in order to be a good Information Architect.

1.) Detailed thinking: Organizing and labeling information with careful attention to the language used.

2.) Systems thinking: Linking all the information together in a coherent way - the user research, content analysis and business needs for example. Being able to see how all the tiny (and not so tiny) bits fit together in the context of the whole system.

3.) Play well with others: Being able to communicate with team members and explain to others how things work.

IAs are architects of understanding. We help our users understand where they are, what they’ve found, what to expect and what’s around. We help our clients understand what’s possible. ~ Peter Morville

Want to Explore Information Architecture Further?

…then have a peek at these resources.

What You Should Do Now

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Dawn Schlecht

Dawn Schlecht

Contributer to the CareerFoundry Blog

Dawn Schlecht is a graduate of the CareerFoundry UX Design Course and a UX Designer specializing in user research and interaction design.