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An introduction to Information Architecture

11th November 2020

When we think about architecture, we tend to think about attractive buildings and their functionality.

Architecture done well looks good and enables the building to function as intended, but if architecture is done badly, you could end up with stairways to nowhere or doors that open up to a 40-foot drop.

Architecture is about the carefully designed structure of something, as well as the aesthetics. Digital properties are no different. If we think about a physical place, you have rooms or areas. The digital equivalent of that is pages. Hallways, lifts or stairs equate to navigation menus and links.

Similarly, if you live in a fancy apartment with a lift, you might have to use a key card to access a particular floor number or penthouse. With a digital application, you may need to upgrade to premium to access a particular feature. All of these are architectural decisions that have to be considered.

Architect, Frank Lloyd Wright once said that you can use an eraser on the drafting table, or a sledgehammer on a construction site. I've taken this to mean that you can iterate on the architecture to make sure that something is going to be usable, and work as intended, before it gets to construction. Architecture will always exist regardless of how much thought you put into it, but the more consideration that goes into it, the better it will be for your user.

Information architecture (IA) is no less important and manifests itself everywhere online. Getting the IA right is fundamental, so that people can navigate around your proposition. It ensures your users know where to go for what they’re intending to do.

IA is about the way that we arrange the parts to make sense of something as a whole. For example, page numbers and chapters of a book, transport timetables or the pages and labels that we use on a website or app. Without carefully considered signposts, users become unstuck. 

Approaching IA

Our first challenge is to identify what exactly we mean by ‘information’. The first thing to know is that ‘content’ and ‘information’ are two different things and play a different role in IA. Content is whatever has been arranged or sequenced for a person to interpret. Information is whatever that person believes to be true based on the content they encounter. For example, if someone was reading a news website, the content is what is presented on screen and the information is what that person believes to be the story, based on the content that they have just read.

The user may make observations, form viewpoints or have questions based on the information they take from the content. In IA, this is referred to as data. Without thinking about how content becomes information and informs data, in an IA context, you might not be serving your intended purpose. Making intent very important.

The three pillars of information architecture

With IA, there are three core concepts to consider: ontology, taxonomy and choreography.

Ontology

Ontology is the declaration of meaning within a specific context. It’s simply what we mean when we say something. That said, we need to consider controlled vocabulary, the documentation of universal language choices that are interpreted in the same way. 

For example, the Catholic Church once categorised certain animals as fish, including lizards and alligators. Though technically incorrect, there was a shared understanding within the Church that these reptiles were categorised as fish.

If we think about the types of ontological choices that have been made, we can include things like labels used on your website, ordering a meal by meal number, and how Facebook uses the word ‘like’ as a noun. Language isn't just words; it can change the way that the user feels and behaves. 

Taxonomy

Taxonomy is the classification of something. It’s how we order or group things. A common example is how e-commerce websites group extensive product ranges - also known as a mega-menu.

Other examples include the way a building is broken up into rooms, the Dewey Decimal System at the library, the alphabetical order of a telephone directory or the pages a website is split into.

To choose the right taxonomy, you must have a clear intention. For example, your intention might be that you want people to see who you are and call you, or you might want people to view your past work.

Using the L.A.T.C.H principles is one way of organising information. L.A.T.C.H comprises location, alphabetical, time, category and hierarchy data and sorts information accordingly.

Alternatively, we might consider facets, which comprise any aspect, piece of knowledge or thing that sorts or retrieves information. SR Ranganathan was a mathematician and librarian, and he developed the first major faceted classification system - the colon classification, consisting of five key principles.

  1. Personality – what is it about?
  2. Matter - what is it made or not made of?
  3. Energy - what are related activities?
  4. Space - where does it exist?
  5. Time - when it exists?

To sort the facets of a record, we might use things such as artist name, record name, release date, record label, genre, sub-genre, and country of origin. If we then think about the L.A.T.C.H principles, we can assign some of these facets as follows: 

L.A.T.C.H Principle

Facets of a Record

Location

By Band’s Origin Country

Alphabet

By Artist Name

Time

By Release Date

Category

By Genre

Hierarchy

By Sub Genre

Organising things isn't difficult, although agreeing on how to organise them can be.

Choreography

Choreography is the sequence of steps that a person can take. We have to decide how we want our users to move. For example, when you're walking through a park, there may be a little dirt track that diverts people from the intended pathway, having been created by walkers (users). This is called a desired pathway.

Pathways are where users are telling you what they want and where they want that path. They want to get through the park more directly and quickly than they would by using the intended pathway.

Choreography within IA might include the difference between features on a desktop compared to a mobile experience or limitation of functionality based on the role of the user.

If we think about Instagram, you can go to instagram.com where you can view people's stories, see people's posts, and receive suggestions for accounts to follow. You can like content and comment on it. The one thing you can't do on instragram.com is upload content - to do that, you're forced into using the Instagram app.

Intrinsic to choreography in IA is the need for placemaking - the act of determining how to communicate the intended purpose of the place to its users. For example, if we have a room with a window, a table and four chairs, we can change what's on that table, to communicate a different purpose.

If that table was set up with cutlery, plates and glasses, we would know that the intended purpose of that table is to sit at and eat. Similarly, if we went into the room and there was a projector on the table, we would know that we were probably entering a presentation or a screening. Equally, if there's a quiet sign on the table, we might consider ourselves to be in a library. 

When we consider placemaking and choreography combined with our intent we can create a shared taxonomy that communicates our intended purpose in a more structured and accessible way.

Making a business case

Information is all around us and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when surfing the web. Brands who understand this, and optimise their sites accordingly have a better chance of increasing conversion and delivering a better user experience. That said, reorganising your entire digital estate is no small feat. There’s no quick fix, or instant remedy - it requires consideration, commitment and constant governance.

You’ll also want to consider:

  1. The focus and intent of your content; what is its purpose? And who is it trying to reach?
  2. Optimising existing content - ask does it meet its intended purpose? The type, and volume of content can make a huge difference in how well it meets its intended purpose. If done and indexed well, you should have to drive home the same content time and time again.
  3. The presentation of content, old and new. Think about taxonomy and where on your site content is best placed. Also think about the layout of your content from a strategic perspective. Content is best received in manageable chunks.

If you’d like more information on anything I’ve covered in this article, get in touch.

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