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Information Architecture Section: Overview

Beginners to Information Architecture can be confused by the very wide spectrum of definitions, options and alternatives. This is an emerging area of information science, so the terms continue to evolve as technology becomes available.

Information architecture (IA) brings content and technical elements of web development together. IA is the art and science of identifying, organizing, and managing information for a particular need. Think of information architecture as a process that ends with a well-designed website or other informational product. Most information architectures following four general steps: research, strategy, design, and implementation.

Information architects play a number of roles. According to Wurman (1996), they identify and organize the patterns in data to make the complex more managable. They also create a structure that allows people to make effective use of information.

For an interesting diagram and information on information architecture, go to the Information Architecture Resources page.

readRead!
Read the following sections from Web Style Guide: (1) Information Architecture, (2) Organizing Your Information, (3) Information Architecture: Site Structure, (4) Presenting Information Architecture, (5) Site Structure, (6) Site File Structure, (7) Page Structure and Site Design, and (8) Page Templates.

Definition of Information Architecture

The world can be seen as only connections, nothing else? A piece of information is really only defined by what it's related to, and how it's related. There really is little else to meaning. The structure is everything. - Tim Berners-Lee in Weaving the Web

Involving both art and science, information architecture is the process of identifying, organizing, and managing information for a particular need. This process ends with a well-designed website or other informational product. Some people view information architecture as a cycle focusing on the continuous evaluation, maintenance, and evolution of a website or other informational product. Viewed as a process, information architecture is often seen as containing four steps: investigation, analysis, design, and implementation.

Like architects of a house, information architects must be aware of their client's needs. Some people prefer small simple homes, while others wish huge trophy homes. In the same way, some website projects are small and focused, while others are large and complex.

Information Architecture Defined

Rosenfeld and Morville (1998) formally define IA in the following way:

  1. The combination of organization, labeling, and navigation schemes within and information system.
  2. The structural design of an information space to facilitate task completion and intuitive access to content.
  3. The art and science of structuring and classifying web sites and intranets to help people find and manage information.
  4. An emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

Let's examine some of the basic concepts of information architecture indepth. Creating an effective website is a balancing act of judging the type of information, connections, usability, and discipline that best meets the needs of users.

Information

From very specific facts and figures to highly structured databases, information architecture is concerned with all shapes, types, and kinds of information. Audio, video, images, and text are just a few of the forms of digital information that can be considered in information architecture for the web.

Connections

Information architecture is concerned with how information is organized, structured, labeled, and presented for maximum access. It looks at the levels of "granularity" or relative sizes of information chunks. For example, a single issue of an electronic journal issue would be a large chunk, while an article, paragraph, or sentence would be a smaller piece of information. In the same way, a virtual museum would have many exhibits and each exhibit would have individual elements such as text, audio and/or photos. When bits of information are too small they are easily lost, however large pieces of information are sometimes difficult to digest. Information architects seek ways to group bits of information into meaningful clusters and categories. Then, create the optimal navigation to travel among this information. They help users make the information connections they need.

Usability

Information architects must balance the complexity of informational content with the needs of users for easy information access. The key is "findability". Can end users easily locate the information they need? The goals of the organization must be addressed while providing efficient, effective, and appealing resources.

Discipline

Information architecture stresses both the art and science of creating usable information environments. Designers must carefully engineer their websites for efficiency and effectiveness in terms of operation. At the same time, they must consider the appeal and aesthetics of the website if they wish people to return to the website.

Some people like to pigeon-hole information architecture into a single category such as graphic design, software development, or usability engineering. Information architecture isn't a single discipline, it's a combination of many areas including psychology, computer science, art, and language. In some cases a dozen different professional may work on various aspects of a project. For example, some professionals focus primarily on examining and addressing the behaviors of users. They examine specific tasks and processes, then develop computer-user interfaces that are user-friendly. Other professional deal with the management of content focusing on how information is organized and accessed.

Optional Reading - Read Preface and Chapter 1: Defining Information Architecture in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 3rd edition by Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld.

In recent years, the area of information architecture has gained credibility as a specific field of study. People come to this field with backgrounds in graphic design, information and library science, journalism, usability engineering, marketing, computer science, technical writing, architecture, product management, and many more areas.

readRead!
Huwe, Terence K. (March 2011). Focusing the library website. Computers in Libraries, 27-29.

 

Real World Information Architecture

A vast majority of web resources are developed by people with limited knowledge of information architecture. You don't need a staff of professional web designers to create an effective information environment. Instead, you simply need an understanding of your website goals, the technical resources available, the content, and the needs of your audience.

Three Circles of Information Architecture

diagram

In the "real world" the key is understanding and addressing the information ecology consisting of context, content, and users (Morville & Rosefeld, 2007, 25).

Context

Regardless of whether you're developing for a school, library, museum, nonprofit, business, or other group, your information architecture must be aligned with the goals and culture of your organization. What are the politics and issues facing the organization? What are the constraints of the project?

Content

Consider the types of information that will address the goals of the organization and website. What documents, applications, resources, and data do users need? How should this information be organized and accessed?

Users

Who will be using the materials at the website? What are their needs and interests? What's their reading level and background? What experiences do they have with this type of information?

readRead!
Kiyotake, Cynthia (September 2010). Synergy: Creating a library website with social interaction and a collection focus. Computers in Libraries, 18-22. Notice how the author addresses connects to Context, Content, and Users.

Optional Reading - Read Chapter 2: Practicing Information Architecture, Chapter 13: Education, and Chapter 15: Building an Information Architecture Team in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 3rd edition by Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld.

Overview: Libraries and Information Users

In the same way that a library is more than the books, a website is more than the individual web pages. Although a website needs a meaningful context and quality content, information architecture is really focused on the end users. To bring the website to life takes an awareness of the needs and behaviors of the users.

readRead!
Coombs, Karen A. (January 2007). Building a library web site on the pillars of Web 2.0. Computers in Libraries, 16-19. Think aout how Web 2.0 is woven into the websites you've explored.

Information Needs

When attempting to satisfy our information needs we look for ideas and concepts that inform us and help us to make decisions. Some strategies include:

Information Seeking Behaviors

Searching, browsing and asking are all methods we use to find information. At the same time we also use the processes of integration and iteration to deepen the experience. We often integrate browsing, searching and asking over many iterations before collecting the perfect set of results.

Consider the following two approaches to information seeking. These approaches have been around for quite a while. Which do you generally use? Or, do you consider these approaches dated and no longer applicable?

Berry-Picking Model. Although developed before the existence of the Web, this model developed by Dr. Marcia Bates in 1989 still has relevance. In this model users start with an information need, formulate a request (query), then move through an information system picking up bits of information (berries) along the way - along the way modifying the requests as they learn more about what they want and what information is available.

Pearl-Growing Model. In this model, users start with one or a few good documents that are exactly on point, then get more like that one. They use search tools to find "similar documents." People often do this with term papers. They find one quality paper and look at the citations.

Optional Reading - Read Chapter 3: User Needs and Behaviors in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 3rd edition by Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld.

tryitTry It!
Go to BoxesandArrows. Notice the categories or articles. Scan a few articles.
This about how the articles represent the broad area of information architecture.

 

Learn More

Definitions of Information Architecture - Peter Morville's article on this topic.

The Design of Browsing and Berrypicking Techniques for the Online Search Interface by Marcia Bates (1989)

Information Architecture for Everyone in Evolt.org by D. Keith Robinson.

Information Architecture Research - Peter Morville has put together a great article with many links to research

User Experience Design by Peter Morville.

For other articles by Peter Morville, go to his website at Semantic Studios.


Some ideas adapted from Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 3rd edition by Peter Morville & Louis Rosenfeld.


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