Information architecture (IA) focuses on organizing, structuring, and labeling content in an effective and sustainable way. The goal is to help users find information and complete tasks. The Information Architecture Institute defines information architecture simply:
“Information architecture is the practice of deciding how to arrange the parts of something to be understandable.”
The purpose of your IA is to help users understand where they are, what they’ve found, what’s around, and what to expect. To do this, you need to understand how the pieces fit together to create the larger picture, how items relate to each other within the system.
Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville in their book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (now in its 4th Edition), notes these main components of IA:
Organization Schemes and Structures: How you categorize and structure information
Labeling Systems: How you represent information
Navigation Systems: How users browse or move through information
Search Systems: How users look for information
In order to create these systems of information, you need to understand the interdependent nature of users, content, and context. Rosenfeld and Morville referred to this as the “information ecology”:
Context: business goals, funding, politics, culture, technology, resources, constraints
Content: content objectives, document and data types, volume, existing structure, governance and ownership
Users: audience, tasks, needs, information-seeking behavior, experience
Content is the “food” for your information architecture. Visual design and interaction design should enhance the IA. Nail down your IA first, then develop visual designs and interaction patterns that contribute to the optimal experience for your customers.
Note: Information architecture is considered to have been founded by Richard Saul Wurman in the late 1990’s (Wurman, among many accomplishments, also founded the TED conferences). In the introduction of Information Architecture, Richard wrote: “I mean architect as used in the words architect of foreign policy. 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.”
Wurman, “Introduction”, in: Information Architects (1997). p. 16.
“Information Architecture Basics”, usability.gov. https://www.usability.gov/what-and-why/information-architecture.html
“What is Information Architecture?”, Information Architecture Institute, https://www.iainstitute.org/what-is-ia