Businesses suffer from a surfeit of information and nagging doubts that failure to use it efficiently represents a competitive threat. Gartner estimates that businesses across the globe will spend as much as $30 billion on "information management" systems this year alone. Information Architecture (IA) is the process of planning how to make the right information conveniently available to the right people. IA also promises to help governments keep track of the needles-in-a-haystack snippets of intelligence crucial to national security.
Humans have a limited bandwidth for the input of information. This makes it necessary to provide some structure by which information can be accessed according to its different levels of significance. In the absence of good IA, information can become slow to retrieve, inaccessible, and fragmented.
Over the past few years, IA has become increasingly important due to the Web-enablement of many more business functions. Organisations still sometimes view the development of an IA to be impractical, both in terms of the time and skill required to do it effectively, however. This view is changing because a good information architecture plan can save significant resources in the course of both an initial development project and over the lifetime of the system involved.
What Is Information Architecture?
Information architecture involves the design of organization and navigation systems to help people find and manage information more successfully. Any process of design results in a blueprint and an IA plan will act as a specification from which the development project plan will be derived.
Just as the architect of a new building doesn't manage the construction work, Information Architects fill the communication gap between the software development team, the customer, and the users.
They will generate meaningful metrics for success in terms of how a development is to perform. Developers benefit from IA directly in that the hard work of thinking about and specifying the complex logic of system use will already have been defined by the architect.
Who are information architects? They tend to individually have a range of abilities, including a combination of business, technology, and creative skills:
- Data modelling
- Human computer interaction
- Information design/retrieval
- Usability engineering/"experience design"
What Tools and Techniques Do They Use?
|Tool||What It Does||Examples|
|Automated classification software||Automatically indexes text documents||Autonomy|
|Thesaurus tools||Help maintain a controlled vocabulary||Verity and Lexico|
|Content management||Manage the workflow involved in content authoring and publishing||Broadvision and Vignette|
|Analysis software||Distills online and offline behaviour making for better customer relations||Personify and Accrue|
|Database management||Tools for accessing structured data||Oracle and MS SQL Server|
|Presentation and communication tools||Representing data meaningfully via spatial maps seems to work well for people (see www.smartmoney.com and http://maps.map.net/start)||Visio, FlowCharter, Inspiration|
What Do IAs Actually Contribute?
Based on research into performance requirements, an IA will create blueprints detailing the scale, structure, content, and functionality for the system under development (in terms of information delivery). The IA will represent the users' views of the system and specify appropriate consistency, usability, and any navigational metaphor.
This may also involve the production of both wireframes for Web site designs and defining controlled vocabularies for the system. All of the above makes a developer's job better specified, although an IA's demands on behalf of the user may often result in greater challenges for the development team.
Some of the more common conventions for information architecture revolve around navigation, transaction processes, and link use. These are sometimes not necessarily the best solution, but are historically dominant. Information Architects are sometimes reluctant to risk confusing their users by introducing more effective, but unfamiliar, processes.
For example, many Web sites incorporate a navigation system that runs top-level categories horizontally across the top of the screen with secondary links listed down the left side. Another informal standard is a horizontal, "tabbed folder" metaphor. These now-familiar techniques have been copied by "designers," without much critical evaluation of performance.
Multiple points of entry into content are often used in the form of a confusing variety of text and graphic links. Clients usually demand that their content all be available "within three clicks of the home page." Good IAs will want to adopt standards that work well (based on measurements) as well as challenging some of these items of received wisdom.
Just as in conventional architecture, to build anything new requires a degree of Vision—beyond the assembly of components. Information architecture is currently a highly non-standardised process by which an information system is structured, in a fixed way, for its lifetime. The future of IA may be very different; please see my second article: Architecting the Future of Information.
About the Author
Patrick Andrews is the managing director of Break-Step Productions, a consultancy firm specializing in designing digital businesses. His areas of interest include interactive marketing, machine intelligence, and software design. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources of Information about IA
For more information, I recommend reading Rosenfeld, Louis, and Peter Morville's Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. O'Reilly & Associates, 1998.