The Difference Between Information Architecture and UX Design

Have you ever wondered what the difference was between these highly cerebral professions? UX Architect Darren Northcott breaks it down in his own words, providing helpful tips to get started in both.

Information architects form the blueprints of the web

Next to explaining what I do for a living, the second question I most frequently hear is: “What’s the difference between Information Architecture and User Experience?” The line always seems to blur between the two, even though there’s clearly a difference. How should I go about explaining it?

Information Architecture, according to Wikipedia, is “the art and science of organizing and labelling websites … to support usability.“ According to the same source, User Experience is “the way a person feels about using a product, system or service. [This includes] a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease of use and efficiency of the system.”

Even with regards to its definition, User Experience takes Information Architecture as its foundation and brings it to the next level.

Information Architecture concerns structure

Information Architecture is a relatively old term. Old in the sense of the web and old in the sense of our progression through technology. It focuses on the organization and structure of content in a manner in which a user can navigate through it. Digitally speaking, it can range from a simple brochure site all the way to a complex information system.

Information Architects work to create usable content structures out of complex sets of information. They do this using plenty of user-centered design methods: usability tests, persona research and creation, and user flow diagrams (to name only a few). That said, it still seems that UX design is in vogue.

And here’s why: Information Architecture comprises only small a part of a user’s overall experience.

User Experience concerns emotion

What’s User Experience then? User Experience Designers take a site’s information architecture one step further, considering not only its navigation, but also its ability to facilitate engagement. To do this, they employ user-centered design to produce a cohesive, predictable, and desirable affect in their target audience. Whoa.

UX designers turn ordinary experiences into exceptional ones

Essentially, UX designers work to make things more profound, targeting their users on an emotional level. I don’t mean “tugging at heart strings” emotional, but more eliciting an emotional response in respect to what they just accomplished. UX design adds context and story to a user’s natural behaviour and, in so doing, gives them something to take away from their experience.


The Fundamentals of Experience Design

Stephen Anderson believes that the best experiences lie at the intersection of “People, their Activities, and the Context of those activities”

You can look at it like this: UX encompasses the whole spectrum. It’s like taking a cup of IA, mixed with a dash of usability, a pinch of content strategy and whole lotta creativity. Or, even simpler, UX is the love child between a Creative Director and an Information Architect. A lot of the time this means stripping things away so you’re left with just the essence of what a user needs.

Being easy and cool

If you aren’t completely confused yet, you’re probably thinking that you need a good IA in order have a good UX. Exactly. Another way of looking at it is: User Experience Designers consider Information Architecture, but Information Architects don’t necessarily consider their users’ entire experience.

A usable experience is easy, simple and gets the job done. An engaging experience does all of that and instills a lasting impression on the user. It’s the difference between coming away from a site and thinking “That was easy” and “Whoa. That was cool.”

It’s the difference between Wunderlist and Clear.

Between Sketchbook and Paper.

Both of the former apps are good, easy, usable tools. But the latter apps are not only easy and usable, they’re fun and engaging.

It’s all in the approach

Looking at any one discipline’s workflow is a daunting task, but let’s take a quick 10,000-foot view how the workflows for IAs and UX designers might differ. Information Architects would likely consider their requirements, research their users’ goals, and conduct some form of competitive analysis. In the end, they might generate page flows, wireframes and, of course, a sitemap. Add on some usability testing, refinement and revisions, and it’s off to the designers.

UX designers, though, would likely take a different approach. Although they’ll take the IA’s workflow into consideration, they might also consider the emotional goals of their end-user. Their competitive comparison may be more around interaction models, rather than structure and layout.

Conclusion

UX builds on the foundation that IA provides, aiming to take that experience to the next level, both creatively and emotionally. This is the outstanding difference that defines how the apps, sites, and products of today are designed as opposed to those of yesterday. For those interested in more resources, I’ve included a list of links below to check out.

About the Author

Darren Northcott

A User Experience Architect with a passion for mobile and tablet design, Darren has over six years industry experience. His work at Critical Mass – on the Nissan Account GT Academy experience – won him a Cannes Gold Lion. Darren is currently contracting with The UX Guys in Calgary, striving not only to keep up-to-date with current trends, but also to push the envelope on what's possible with today's technology.

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15 Comments

  • Sjur Reply

    Great post! I agree with you almost all the way. I think the IA community is getting better at including emotion to their workflow.

  • Daniel de la Cruz Reply

    Thanks for the article Darren. There are definitely some truths in your post. I always try to picture it this way: If UX is the entire picture that you get from putting together a puzzle, than IA is basically one piece of the puzzle.

    In my opinion the role of an IA does not really exist anymore, given that companies are so demanding of their ‘Experience Architects’ these days. Unless you work for a library and manage the structure of a catalogue, but even there you will touch upon other disciplines within the UX puzzle.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Panayiotis Karabetis Reply

    I agree with Daniel that it’s hard to just wear the IA hat, especially if a project offers the opportunity to utilize design and development skills.

    Any way you slice it, IA is a general art and science that has it’s own specializations—library, web, etc.—but it’s still a piece of the Ux puzzle.

  • Susan Tait Reply

    I’ve heard it said that decisions are made emotionally and justified rationally. What I see happening with user experience with some customers is that a focus on IA precludes concern with motivation. Other customers want to hear about UX because they don’t connect the gap between how we justify what we think. I’m still pondering that one.

  • Stew Dean Reply

    Interesting view but the real difference between IA and UX is not about emotion or creativity but in depth and breadth. A good UX person can replace a creative director and does so by applying a more scientific approach and focusing upon the tasks of the users in order to find the best design solutions. Information architecture is now part of the UX, one of the colours in a complete palette. We also add engagement, business strategy, content strategy as well as the research and testing that where part of being an IA. The emotional aspect was always there but is only more evident because we now look to ensure the experience is engaging via it’s visual design and experiential interface elements (although, as with Clear, sometimes engagement can erode overall usability).

    • Darren Northcott Reply

      Stew,
      I agree that depth and breadth is part of it as well, but I find that the emotional and contextual connection is what fuels true UX. Engagement isn’t just about visual design & experimental interface, although a lot of the time it seems that way because historically we have been known to over complicate things, it’s about drilling down to the core of the experience. With clear, I don’t see how engagement eroded the usability. I think they did an excellent job of analyzing how the gestures relate to the tasks, and not only that, but stripping out all the gack a user may be used to, but doesn’t necessarily need. It’s a simple, core experience, and that is something I truly admire.

  • Vishal Mehta Reply

    Nice level of clarity achieved through your post, Darren. I feel at times that IA introduces a constraint/bias when one tries to achieve UX. In fact, thinking user experience can (rather should) actually find gaps and re-define IA to achieve the desired experience.

    Great Post!

  • Dan Klyn Reply

    Darren – I found it curious that you trace the history of information architecture back to Jesse James Garrett. Is that where your backgrounding in it begins *and* ends?

    Based on the comments so-far it sounds like information architecture is encountered by readers of UX Booth largely in the terms you set forth: as a phase or aspect or sub-set of a user experience design project.

    But the UX = superset, IA = subset framing that’s sacrosanct in your article only came to pass in the mid 2000s, largely through the brilliant work of Jesse James Garrett (who you cite in the piece).

    For the librarian pioneers of Web 1.0 and for the architect who coined the term in 1976, information architecture was the superset.

    And still today, there’s a handful of us within the community of contemporary IA practice who reject the “slash” in the UXD/IA superset/subset dichotomy in favor of the more graspable differentiation between architecture and design.

    In the built environment, architects do different things at different points in a building project than their sisters and brothers who do the design work. There’s no slash. There’s collaboration, as opposed to conflation.

    I think if you widened the lens you’re using to examine the differences between IA and UXD, and if you went beyond JJG and the Wikipedia and into the architectural dimensions and history of information architecture for your context, you might find the task you identified at the outset of the article (explain this stuff clearly) to be easier to accomplish.

    Our work is increasingly cross channel and going beyond just screens. The ways people encounter the digital products and services we make are more similar then different from the ways they encounter products and services in the built environment. One extreme example is the Arab Spring. Where did that happen? Largely, it happened on Facebook. People understand that Facebook is a place. Leverage this thing people have first-hand understanding of to explain the stuff they don’t is pretty powerful.

    “You know Facebook, and how that’s pretty much a ‘place’ that’s made of information instead of bricks? There are architects and designers who make that place. You need both. I’m a (pick one).”

  • David Fiorito Reply

    Dan,

    If these comments had a “like” or “agree” button, I would hit it a thousand times, and a thousand times more.

    Cheers!

  • Darren Northcott Reply

    Dan, I like your analogy at the end about Facebook being a ‘place’, however, I would argue that the architect has a large influence on design and visa versa. The article is set out to make the blurry lines between the two (UX & IA) a bit more clear. In my experience, I have encountered many ‘UX Professionals’ who simply adhere to the realm of IA, visa versa with some designers as well. But you are correct, you need both. It’s when those two disciplines merge in one place to better the user experience, as opposed to simply applying a skin, that a person can then call themselves a UXD. To bring it into the ‘built’ realm you mentioned, an architect could build a doorway with a door and a doorknob that entered a room. That is useful in itself as it gets the person into the room, but that’s about the extent of that interaction. If the architect was to build a doorway with an automatic door, that entered into a room with a large vaulted ceiling, skylights and beautiful stone floor, that would elicit an emotion, and thus they have improved the experience.

  • Bob Royce Reply

    Here’s a way of looking at this that I’ve been cogitating on for a bit:

    User experience is more tightly bound to context (ala Steven Anderson’s graphic) than information architecture.

    Of course one needs to understand the contexts of use when creating the structure for information, but in today’s world, it’s increasingly important to create digital places that support multiple contexts and thus multiple flavors of user experience.

    If information architecture is treated as a sub-task to support a given experience then the the overall structure is going to be fragile as multiple structures are glommed together.

    Rather, I think it’s important to start by examining the breadth of experiences and uses for information (not all uses are experiential actually) and then create a foundational architecture to support the range of contexts. With this foundation, UX professionals can design multiple places where particular experiences are likely to flourish, depending on the context.

  • WebDesign Reply

    Nice post on understanding the real difference between the two major areas of websites, UX and IA.

  • Amagsaz Reply

    Way to think outside of the box on this one.is very nice. Your blog is been turning one of my favorites.

  • Andrei Gonzales Reply

    Good article, although I feel it sort of inadvertedly downplayed some of the skills required to do IA well. In the digital field, IA’s often have to deal with data and content structure, especially with regards to how it translates into information that can be used by the developers. This “data system logic” is often missing from UX practitioners, because they often don’t have the programming knowledge to execute it, due to different priorities.

  • Ritu Reply

    @Darren, “User Experience Architect” = brilliant job title! Loved this article. What brought it home for me is “User Experience Designers consider Information Architecture, but Information Architects don’t necessarily consider their users’ entire experience.” Thanks for making it simple.

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