Information Architecture Notes
Information Architecture is a discipline and a set of methods that aim to identify and organize information in a purposeful and service-oriented way. It is also a term used to describe the resulting document or documents that define the facets of a given information domain. The goal of Information Architecture is to improve information access, relevancy, and usefulness to a given audience, as well as improve the publishing entity’s ability to maintain and develop the information over time. It is primarily associated with website design and it is directly related to the following professional disciplines: User interface design, content development, content management, usability engineering, interaction design, and user experience design. It is also indirectly related to database design, document design, and knowledge management.
Richard Saul Wurman is credited with coining the term “Information Architecture” in 1975 (Wurman 1989). Wurman recognized decades before the “information age” that people were becoming “inundated with data but starved for the tools and patterns that give them meaning.” As a result, Wurman defined the Information Architect as “someone who enables data to be transformed into understandable information.”
Information Architecture is a term most frequently used in relation to website design. It rose to popular professional consciousness as a specialized field of concern, study, and then a job title (Information Architect) in the late 1990s. It arose to address some of the specific problems posed by the rapid expansion in volume of information published by individual web sites to the world wide web. Leading up to the “internet boom” advent, many websites rapidly expanded in scale on an ad-hoc and apparently arbitrary basis. Their information content, context, and the relationships between units of information were often lost in the process. As the volume and complexity of the information published increased along with people’s dependence on it, there was often an inversely proportional relationship between the increase in volume and decrease in its usefulness experienced by those for whom it was ostensibly published.
The emergence of Information Architecture as a distinct role and area of responsibility can also be viewed as a natural result of the evolution of websites, from small scale sites to large-scale, highly complex “information spaces.” As website design and production are inherently multi-disciplinary fields, and as the scope of web-based information storage and retrieval projects increased, specialization and depth of knowledge in a particular area of it increased too. That is, a normal knowledge domain evolution occurred, resulting in specialization and division of labor. The practice of Information Architecture grew from the recognition that, in order to make increasingly complex information delivery systems useful, special attention to information structure and design itself, separate from visual design or information technology, was necessary.
By about the year 2000, Information Architecture-specific professional organizations (volunteer, non-profit) began to form. Foremost among them are the Argus Center for Information Architecture (2000-2001), Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture (2002-present), and The Information Architecture Institute (2002-present). Among their activities is supporting educational institutions in Information Architecture curricula development and at about the time professional organizations for Information Architecture emerged, top universities and colleges in the United States and other countries offered Information Architecture graduate programs and degrees.
Though loosely associated with information technology (IT), information science (IS), as well as other internet development fields (Systems Architecture, etc.), the primary focus of an Information Architect is information classification and organization schemes that aid findability, context, and human apprehension. Information architects apply processes, methods, techniques, and schema that improve information access, usability, and comprehension, regardless of delivery technology. Thus the role of an Information Architect is generally more nearly allied to human-computer interaction (HCI) and other “human factors” concerns (ergonomics, cognitive science, psychology), as well as library science and linguistics, than with computer science (CS), information technology (IT), and the like.
Over time the web has transitioned from being relational database is the most common prime mover. The interface used to control website database content, and, in many cases, the conditions of information retrieval for a given website/user combination, is commonly referred to as a content management system (CMS).
There are a wide range of types of CMSes now available, ranging from expensive enterprise CMSes, to free open source ones, to “blogs”, “wikis”, and so on. As CMSes have become commonplace, the relationship between data modeling, for the purpose of database design and development, and Information Architecture, for serving human purposes and uses of the information, have become closely interrelated. In fact, the Information Architect’s role and focus is perhaps broader in scope than any role or area of responsibility on a web project team, because the Information Architect’s concerns span nearly all of the specialized, individual concerns. It can be said that the Information Architect role serves as the main bridge builder between the specific concerns of website design, technology (production), and use (usability).
Furthermore, as websites and the web continue to grow increasingly rich, yet crowed, with information, and our dependence on information continues to increase, search technologies have become nearly indispensable in helping us find information quickly. As “findability” is one of the primary concerns of the Information Architect, site search technologies and search engine optimization (SEO) are a keen concern of the information architect. There are, however, significant differences between how people consume information and how search engine “bots” (programs that index a site’s content) consume it. In all, those fulfilling the role of Information Architect must carefully consider all of the information consumer’s capabilities, needs, and limitations, for both human and machine (program) information consumers.