Photo by Timothy Greig
Information architecture is an often misunderstood job title. Are they Designers? Developers? Managers? All of the above? In this article we’ll discuss what information architecture is, why it’s related to usability, and what are the common tools/programs used in information architecture.
Along the way we’ll share some of the tweeters, books, and resources we found useful for budding information architects. Even if you’re familiar with the discipline already, you can probably pick up something you’ve missed.
A Common Workplace Scenario
An information architect joined my team on a project I worked on in Atlanta. Because I was unfamiliar with the term, or at least, didn’t know the actual definition, I asked: Hey John, what does an information architect do, anyway? His response was as telling as it was vague: “You know when you go to a Bank site…and there’s something about it—the colors, the copy, the mood photography—all of those elements that go into creating a sense of security. That’s what I do. Well, most of it.” Wait. “Isn’t that the job of a graphic designer,” I thought. I didn’t want to ask the question until I had done some more research—well, here it is.
Who is an Information Architect? Back to top
I find it easiest to derive what a job entails by listening to the people who do that job. Below are some quotes from people who work as Information Architects
Jessie James Garrett says:
Information architecture encompasses a wide range of problems. But regardless of the specific context or objectives of a given information architecture project, our concern is always with creating structures to facilitate effective communication. This notion is the core of our discipline.
The Information Architecture Institute defines Information Architecture as:
The art and science of organizing and labeling web sites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability.
Lastly, to quote Andrew Hinton:
Flickr allows me to upload my pictures and organize them, tag them, however I see fit. There is no central authority telling me what to tag my pictures. This is partly because itʼs not going to hurt anybody if I do it ʻwrongʼ … Flickr isnʼt a mission-critical system. Itʼs a playful social platform…if you want a serious photo library, then use a system like the national archive or Corbis has, but not Flickr. Thereʼs a difference between managing information, and designing the infrastructure to let others manage it themselves.
But both approaches are architectural.
Each quote is insightful. Yet, after doing some research of my own I decided that no single quote can truly describe the job. Information architects work in a niche very close to that of the graphic designer, web designer, user-experience designer, front-end developer, and usability expert (I’ve written an article about considering all of the above as careers). Indeed, all of these occupations share a common theme: user-centered design (See Jessie James Garrett’s pdf on the related elements of User Experience). Over time, the duties of these professions have become distinct. While the graphic/web designer specializes in brilliant use of color, typography, texture, etc. to convey a message, the Information Architect looks at the architecture of the site from a more objective position. She might ask: what is the flow of users through our site? How does the software help the user catalog their information? How is that presented back to the user? Is that information helping the customer (ie: decision driving)?
To do this, the information architect must focus on a number of things: the target audience, the technologies related to the website, the data that will be presented through the website, and (hopefully) the results of early usability tests regarding the site ideas.
Evolution of the IA
Information architects are more than just designers, visionaries, or project managers. Information architects must draw inspiration for perfecting their craft from a number of different departments. Typically, they will start as designers, or working alongside designers. At some level, the technical requirements of a sites design enter into their realm of interest and responsibility as well. The best IAs work with multiple departments, holding together a unified vision of what the site will entail. Think of them as analogous to a city planner, or even a traditional architect. They will have an overarching vision for how things will work, but they cannot specify too much without exiting their area of expertise.
Perhaps you’re in a situation similar to this, or you’re wondering if your job qualifies you to be an Information Architect. If you’re itching to reach a more comprehensive conclusion, I would suggest taking the IAI’s “Am I an IA?” Quiz.
Maintaining the Vision
To understand how an IA affects a project, you might imagine assigning a traditional architect to a building after it’s constructed. It’s a laughable proposition, and yet it happens to this day. Even after the most well-engineered buildings are constructed they are still prone to change. Stewart Brand details this fascinating aspect in his book, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. Again, as preposterous as it sounds, we typically place today’s Information Architects in a similar position—assigning them to web sites after some other self-imposed IA has prototyped the site. That’s because most people don’t know any better. The sooner you assign the vision of the project to a professional, the faster it will embody that vision.
With all of that said, in most projects a dedicated IA is simply not necessary. This is because an Information Architect fills roles similar– but not identical- to that of the project manager. A professional IA is only necessary if your site deals with large amounts of data, especially in an unusual way. Perhaps your site involves a new way to search for books, for example?
What does an Information Architect do? Back to top
An information architect will generally do the following activities as part of a project team:
Research the audience and the Business
IAs take on a myriad of responsibilities for the project. To learn about the project’s audiences, IAs should have access to the results of, or conduct: usability tests, card sorting exercises, stakeholder interviews, user polling, etc. The goal is to provide as much information about what factors are influencing the project as possible. Information architects need to know what people will do with your application, how people will use information provided by the application, and what mental models user’s create while using your application
The IA takes knowledge gained from the discovery period to define what the site’s primary objectives are and how it will realize those goals. At this point, it’s helpful for the IA to work hand-in-hand with the designers, developers, and other members of the team with an interest in the project deliverable. By analyzing data, the IA may generate a set of user personas.
A user persona is a representation of the goals and behavior of a real group of users. In most cases, personas are synthesized from data collected from interviews with users. They are captured in 1–2 page descriptions that include behavior patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, and environment, with a few fictional personal details to make the persona a realistic character. For each product, more than one persona is usually created, but one persona should always be the primary focus for the design.
Develop labeling/navigation/site structures
Finally, an Information Architect will, in essence, architect the site. IAs will produce things such as site maps, site-flow diagrams, and wireframes to convey how the site will work from a practical perspective. Indeed, the best Information ARchitects will take all perspectives into account while creating these deliverables: business, technological, and social (user). From this point on, the IA will help make decisions about the overall direction the site gravitates towards. For example, the IA should be involved in periodically testing the site, reading the copy, and evaluating any user-testing that is occurring during development cycles.
Notable Information Architects Back to top
As Information Architecture has evolved, so has it’s practitioners. Below, I list some of the most influential Information Architects:
Donna Spencer is a freelance information architect, mentor, writer and trainer. She has 9 years experience working in-house and as a consultant doing strategic and tactical design. She has designed large intranets & websites, e-commerce & search systems, business applications, design patterns and a CMS.
Nick is a 12-year veteran of the web and considered a web craftsman by trade. His skills traverse web design, web development, user research, web analysis, information architecture, and web publishing. He is the author of numerous web design-related articles for various publications and founder and publisher of Digital Web Magazine, “The web professional’s online magazine of choice.”
Peter Morville is a writer, speaker, and consultant. He is best known for helping to create the discipline of information architecture. His bestselling books include Information Architecture for the World Wide Web and Ambient Findability. Peter’s latest book, Search Patterns, is being published by O’Reilly Media in 2010. Peter lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife, two daughters, and a dog named Knowsy.
Jesse James Garrett
In 1995, Jesse started working on the Web — first as a writer and interface developer, then as an interface designer and information architect. In 2001, he started a company called Adaptive Path to help people solve user experience problems. Today he writes articles and speaks publicly about User-centered design and Information architecture. He has authored a book on the elements of user experience.
Louis helped create the profession of information architecture, co-authoring its leading text, and was president of its best-known consulting firm for seven years. Lou co-founded the Information Architecture Institute and is a member of its Advisory Board. He is also a co-founder of the User Experience Network.
Andrew has been designing information systems in one way or another since 1990, and calling himself an “Information Architect” since 1999. He co-founded the Information Architecture Institute in 2002, and takes full blame for writing its Manifesto. Today, Andrew describes himself as a “‘User Experience Designer’ who specializes in IA.”
Below you will find a collection of the most accessible tweeters in the Information Architecture community
What are the tools/programs used? Back to top
Information Architecture is more of a mental job than one based on output. For this reason it has always received more than its fair share of scrutiny. Information architects leverage experience, research, and user polling to provide sound advice as to how a site should be architected. This is the nature of their work. To convey their suggestions, however, Information Architects normally create site wireframes. These help all project stakeholders comprehend the breadth and depth of a website’s architecture, including all interactions with the user. You can learn more about website wireframes on wikipedia.org.
Microsoft’s fore into the diagramming field, Visio is one of the youngest members of the Microsoft Office Suite. Visio is the premier communication tool amongst high-end IT and IA professionals. However, its lack of XML output and compatibility with Mac computers has been a notable frustration.
Omnigraffle is the Omnigroup’s competitor to Microsoft Visio, and boy have they done a great job. With just a few simple clicks (and some of the resources listed below) you’re on your way to handing off a site wireframe to convey your thoughts. OmniGroup says their product can do diagrams, process charts, quick page-layouts, website mockups, and more. It has support for Microsoft’s visio format, linked PDFs, and you can even wire together your diagrams with AppleScript.
Axure’s Axure RP Pro 5
This windows product is well regarded by practicing Information Architects. Unfortunately, it produces “mess”heavy” HTML prototypes that are probably more trouble than their worth insofar as generating a working application from them. Axure describes their RP Pro 5 product as “the leading tool for rapidly creating wireframes, prototypes and specifications for applications and web sites.”
Lovely charts is a great brand-spankin-new diagramming application by Jerome Cordiez, a User Experience Architect and founder of This is Lovely!. The offering differs fro the above solutions in a number of ways: it’s free, web-based, and super simple. While this may not be everybody’s cup of tea, the idea is brilliant and I can see this empowering many budding Information Architects as they search for the perfect communication medium.
Related Resources Back to top
The resources listed below should help you get your feet wet with IA. From learning about how to create personas to using stencils to generate your first IA diagram, it’s all here. Click, download, and enjoy.
Ultra-high quality templates to get you started. Includes shared layers for basic UX document needs, e.g. title page, wireframes, storyboards. Column guides and a regular grid make it easy to use and keep your layout tight.
Another gem from Konigi, these wireframes contain most of the elements you’ll need to specify user interfaces. This one is an absolute must have.
This brief video will show you how to link together your wireframe so that your clients can get an idea of how they will interact with the site.
Peter Vandijck is the author of Information Architecture for Designers. He has provided numerous Visio templates for information architects to benefit from.
Nick Fink has done a great job collecting and creating stencils over the course of his work. On his website you can read his thoughts about how these stencils should be employed to create your deliverables.
Use this diagram to create your own User Personas, and then develop your application around them.
Garrett Dimon has put together a great set of resources for both Visio and OmniGraffle. For instance, his Page Description Diagram is useful for “planning or strategically designing pages without focusing on layout.”
The Information Architecture Institute has a plethora of varied and unique tools available, from a site-map generator to a task analysis grid.
Includes stencils, patterns, shape libraries, and even Powerpoint objects used to convey IA concepts.
Related Books Back to top
- Information Architecture
- The Elements of User Experience
- Web 2.0 Architectures
- Ambient Findability
- Information Architecture for Information Professionals
Miscellaneous Resources Back to top
- Four Essential Skills for Information Architects: An Interview with Donna (Maurer) Spencer
- Information architecture: Beyond the hierarchy
- Doing a great job on the web
- Ethical issues and information architecture
- Lakoff’s Women, Fire & Dangerous Things – What every IA should know
- The Information Architect as Change Agent
- Information Architecture: We were are and where we’re going
- Fascinating slides by Andrew Hinton on connections and contexts in information architecture.
- Information Architecture 2.0
- Information Architecture for Designers: Structuring Websites for Business Success
A Brief History
More recently, the Information Architecture Institute has run a contest asking its members to creatively answer the question “What is Information Architecture?” One of the entries, embedded below, does a great job summarizing where IA came from and where its going.
This is a generic summary of a complex field that is evolving every day. While I don’t expect this article to reflect the current state of Information Architecture in 5 years time, I do think that we could all stand to benefit from what motivates the IA in a project. In the future, I’ll more thoroughly investigate all of the methods of the IA madness. Until then, get your feet wet, download a copy of OmniGraffle, and don’t hesitate to ask questions below!