What is an Information Architect?
If you've ever opened a website or application and felt frustrated because you can't seem to complete what you thought was a simple task because you just can't seem to find your way around (I guess most users of the internet have experienced this), then one of the main issues you were facing is likely to be that the site or app you were struggling with was in need of the attention of an experienced information architect who is well versed in the core aspects of the arrangement of information for optimum findability and usability.
Conversely, consider those times where you may have visited a site or application and completed the task that you went there for quickly and easily. These positive experiences are not so easy to remember, and it's just a fact of life for information architects (and other usability related professionals), that if they've done their work well users will never consider whether or not a user focused design professional has been involved.
The term 'Information architecture' is considered to have been founded by Richard Saul Wurma, a well respected and influencial American architect and graphic designer.
One of a group of definitions crafted by the Information Architecture Institute (a international group of IA professionals and enthusiasts) for the term 'information architecture' resonates the most in terms of a decription that relates to digital world that I operate in as a UX designer:
"Information architecture (IA) is the art and science of organizing and labelling websites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability."
The term 'organizing' is important here as it rightfully suggests the crucial role that information architecture plays in the creation of digital products.
Impact and timing
And so to a large extent, in my personal experience a digital product with insufficient attention to information architecture (or attention that is applied too late in the process) makes it at best quite unlikely that the end result will offer an optimum user experience (at worst the overall UX can be downright unworkable).
Take for example an e-commerce website or app that offers it's users poor usability and findability. How long do you think it would survive as a viable proposition against superior competition? Of course the answer is 'not long' as poor findability alone would result in few or no orders coming through.
From this perspective we can see the crucial importance of information architecture in the digital product creation process.
Also important is timing in so much as it needs to be considered early on, soon after discovery, insight and strategy activities are completed and certainly before a design team start to think seriously about interface layout and design.
So if we were to agree that IA is all about organising and labelling for findability and usability the next question may be 'how do you do this exactly'? From my experience information architecture should ideally be driven by user needs which are expressed as user journeys.
So in other words when we consider the core needs of our core personas and start to craft optimised journies to meet those needs we are then able to think about what content, features and functionality should be presented in terms of the where, when and how. This then leads to another way to define information architecture:
"Efforts to ensure a digital product offers up the right content, features or functionality in the right place at the right time".
Then in terms of the presenting the content in the 'right way', that will usually benefit from other team member input and guidance such as interaction or UI designers, visual designers and developers etc.
Labelling is a crucial apsect for any digital product and a user focused information architect can be the core driver in ensuring that users can follow the label trail all the way through to successful journey completion.
As tempting as it is to think that all information architecture work is based on user centred design (UCD) thinking this is not entirely the case (and on non-user centred projects not at all the case). There are other taxonomy and grouping considerations that an IA must also consider such as ensuring that a site/app sections or navigation designs are not made up of too many or too few individual elements for example. Cognitive psychology and HCI (human computer interaction) therefore also have an important part to play and ideally a practitioner will have sufficient knowledge in all these areas. As is often the case, getting this balance of skills right is a question of considered understanding combined with (perhaps more importantly) solid experience.
Educating project team members of the importance of solid information architectural thinking in the process is still required (surprisingly often) as well as untangling convoluted and overcomplicated information architecture on aspects of legacy products.
Also important is device type priorities (e.g. mobile, tablet and desktop) as this may impact thinking on site map and content priorities and scale.
As you can see an IA's role requires a lot more expertise and skill than may be initially apparent.
Relationship with content strategy
In terms of content rich websites I've found that of all the other project team members, it's the content strategist role where there is the potential for the most close collaboration as these two roles are essentially responsible for establishing the backbone and essence of a given site.
Whilst it may be argued that the information architect's work should usually come first in terms of creating the skeleton of the site onto which the content can be applied, I've also worked on projects where there has been a stronger case for the content strategy work to be completed first (or in tandem) for example where it is content requirements that are driving the identity.
Suffice to say, information architecture and content strategy are often the key components onto which everything else will be applied and so careful, balanced strategy is required to ensure that both these disciplines are allowed to deliver to their full potential.
Ways to test information architecture
My preference is test the IA with some early stage interface designs together to get a sense as to how well the overall design is coming together from a core user task perspective. Having said that there are some interesting tools out there that allow you to test a proposed IA in it's own right early on. For example I've used Optimal Workshop's TreeJack to get a sense of overall grouping and labelling and found it to be quite insightful (although as mentioned I'd always prefer to test the IA and interfaces together in more joined up usability testing activities where possible).
See 'UX terminology' navigation (located below if viewing this page on your phone or tablet) for my perspective on other UX terminology.
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