The benefits of information architecture are often overlooked and undervalued. Just like the foundation of a home, a well-built foundation goes unnoticed while a poorly laid foundation affects everything about the home’s structural integrity. Let’s face it, for most people information architecture isn’t as appealing as visual design and not as cool as the latest in technological wizardry.
So, what does information architecture even mean?
Information architecture is “the art and science of organizing and labelling websites, intranets, online communities, and software to support usability and findability.” Peter Morville, a pioneer of information architecture (IA), further clarifies, stating that “the purpose of your IA is to help users understand where they are, what they’ve found, what’s around, and what to expect.”
How did information architecture become a concept?
It’s said that the idea of information architecture originated from Richard Saul Wurman, who was both a traditional architect as well as a graphic designer and who also created the TED conference. In his 1996 book, Information Architects, Wurman used the word “architect” to mean “the creating of systemic, structural, and orderly principles to make something work.” Like traditional architects, information architects essentially create blueprints. However, they create blueprints for a digital space instead of a physical one.
What’s considered when creating an information architecture?
When creating an information architecture, it’s important to take into consideration what Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld refer to as the information ecology. Information ecology is a blend of the business goals (context), content, and the needs of your users. Morville and Rosenfeld illustrated this further using the following Venn diagram.
Context: business goals, funding, politics, culture, technology, resources, constraints
Content: content objectives, document and data types, volume, existing structure, governance and ownership
Users: audience, tasks, needs, information-seeking behavior, experience
What are the benefits?
Understanding what information architecture is and how it’s created is essential to grasping its benefits. If you’re in the market to design or redesign a digital product, taking the time to establish a well-thought-out IA is an essential step to ensuring your product’s success. Let’s look at some of the high-level benefits.
1. Enhances Usability and Increases Findability
Good IA, according to the Information Architecture Institute, enhances usability and increases findability. Digital products are ultimately created for people, or more specifically, your users. If we want to help users, we need to organize digital product information in both a logical and intuitive way. IA takes into consideration the wording on buttons, links, and navigation categories, ensuring that the labels are something the user would understand. If users can easily and quickly find what they need, they’re more apt to use your product again.
2. Eases the Burden of Maintaining Content
Digital products typically change over time. Without carefully considering the IA, those products often become unwieldy. A solid IA is flexible enough to grow over time, but defined enough to maintain structure. With a good IA, anyone responsible for maintaining the product will quickly know where to place new content, what tags to apply to that content (if they’re using a content management system), and how to label it.
3. Saves Time and Money
Enhanced usability, good findability, and easy maintenance all translate to cost savings. When discussing ROI and The Business Value of Information Architecture, author Eric Reiss references a way to actually calculate the cost of not finding information.
The Cost of Not Finding Information
We can make a similar case for maintaining the content within a digital product. As mentioned previously, poor IA structure results in what can best be described as a maintenance nightmare. We would be forcing those who maintain content to either search for the correct location to place content, guess where they should place it, or create a new spot entirely. Those tasks all take up valuable time which translates to lost productivity and increased cost. That lost time increases further when you consider that poorly structured IA’s often fall prey to redundancy.
What began in the 1970s as a concept introduced during a conference has become an integral aspect of digital design. Through thorough understanding of the needs of the business, the needs of the users, and the content, information architecture gives structure to your digital product’s information. Taking the time to create a well-thought-out information architecture will benefit your users as well those who maintain the content of your digital product. Doing the work up front to craft an IA will ensure that you have a solid foundation on which to build your product. That foundation will ultimately save your company both time and money.