What is Information Architecture?

February 14, 2009 in Architectural Approach
Mickey McManus
Chairman & Principal

I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about Information Architecture as we understand and practice it at MAYA.

Although it’s tempting to skip ahead to the look and feel of a design, the importance of first defining an Information Architecture (IA) can’t be overstated. Often we find that an existing system has been built as a monolithic solution that jumbles the raw plumbing of the system with the business process and the user interface. Unfortunately this leads to a brittle solution that can’t evolve with new user interfaces, new underlying systems, or new business realities. In fact we often hear the words “Information Architecture” naively applied to only one aspect of an experience (like “Information Architecture for the Web”) and then disregarded or ignored when an experience bridges interfaces (like when a user has to interact with a mobile application that integrates with related information in physical places). This balkanization of experiences was common when the world was made up of disconnected products and services. However with the proliferation of connected computing into every manufactured thing, space, and experience it represents a significant challenge to the usability, usefulness, scalability, and tractability of our built world.

We think partly this is because many of the current crop of designers and technologists think they’ve invented the idea of information architecture from whole cloth (just last week) and it only applies to their big area of expertise. It also is partly because we as a discipline are not really clear on what information or architecture really means.

We can’t help with the first part of the problem, people that can’t see the forest for the trees, or can’t learn from history, aren’t going to help solve the big challenges that lie ahead. We might be able to illuminate the second part though.

What do we mean when we say “Information?”

Information

Information is a slippery idea, all too often we confuse information with the form that it takes. We confuse the medium for the message. To help explain what information really is, we’ve created a short film, take a look.

So what do we mean when we say “Architecture?”

Architecture

Well for that one, let’s just watch the film.

Pulling it all together

When we say Information Architecture (IA) we are really talking about everything you can define about a solution without specifying the underlying system (the raw plumbing) or specifying the particular user interface that will be employed to deliver and manipulate the information. By thinking about the architecture of how information is used, how it flows, and how it fits within the user’s world (its context), you can capture the essence of how to build a system that is not only intuitive but futureproof.

The outcome of a comprehensive IA program is a systematic description of the information content of a given product, service, or environment. This type of detailed understanding and documentation is the first step toward taming the complexity of a design to make even the most intricate solutions functional, transparent, and user-friendly.

In addition to enhancing function for the user, the IA also forces clarity upward into the user interface and downward into the system architecture, thereby simplifying design development and implementation. In other words, the IA creates a common ground between designers and developers by bridging the gap between the user interface and underlying systems or technologies.

A well-defined IA will define the meta-patterns that don’t change over the long run. It can not only help you expand the function of your designs, it can also inform consistent experiences and paths for the evolution of future designs across many variants within a family of products, services, or environments.

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