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Posted by James Oliver on 11 June 2015

Understand what IA (Information Architecture) is and the value it brings to a digital project

In the digital world the term IA (Information Architecture) is mentioned a lot, but I find that it's a concept that isn't often properly explained, or made clear how valuable it is.

I'm going to take a closer look at what IA means and why it is so important to a digital project ;– we’re all about explaining the jargon here, one acronym at a time...

What is IA and why is it important?

Venn diagram showing 'Users', 'Content' and 'Context' crossing over to 'IA' in the middle

IA stands for Information Architecture.  One definition provided by the Information Architecture Institute is:

“We define information architecture as the art and science of organising and labelling websites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability”

As a user experience designer I view IA development as a crucial stage of a digital project, be that a website, intranet, app or software development. Basically it's the starting point for understanding what information needs to be communicated.

Building an IA allows any volume of information to be arranged into a logical form that a wider project team can then springboard off. 

Simple thinking

Photo from the movie 'AI: Artificial Intelligence'When you hear the word IA what do you think of? I'm guessing a common answer might be the movie A.I. with thoughts jumping to Spielberg's science fiction film with the freaky android kid?

In reality the premise of IA. is actually really simple and far removed from any cybertronics chat.  It can be demonstrated by every day tasks such as alphabetising your CD collection (granted not many people do that daily...), scanning through a restaurant menu, or navigating across a large complex airport space using signage.

In essence, it’s the ability to arrange various units of information in order to help make sense of the world around us.

It's about helping people understand their surroundings and find what they are looking for, both in the real world and online.

We're all Information Architects

Someone looking through a filing cabinet

You may not have realised it, but it’s likely that each and every one of us has been an Information Architect at some point in our lives. Information sorting and gathering is a human task and there are billions of examples out there – good and bad, of organising human content into some format in order to communicate information.

In order to do a good job of organising information, it’s crucial to consider the end users.  When developing an IA the person or team responsible needs to avoid thinking of how they personally would like to arrange things, but instead consider what is the logical way that communicates the who, what, when, why and how, questions that face a new user when they arrive on the perimeter of a vast range of information - such as when a visitor arrives at a website for the first time. 

Creating objects

Everyone has their own mental model – a map of the world within their head, which they have developed over time to make sense of what they see. It is also a constantly evolving internal map. This thinking leads us to create objects – with the aim of sharing information with multiple people at once.

A hand drawn website site map

In the world of web design these objects traditionally come in the form of maps, diagrams, prototypes, and lists.  In my daily life the most common objects I create are lists, I'm always using maps for helping to find my bearings. At work we're creating diagrams and prototypes all the time - all key elements in the life of a user experience designer.

At the information-gathering phase of a project, I usually sketch some kind of list or hierarchy diagram to make sense of a brief or a set of requirements. I’m always keen to tease out my client’s core business objectives at an early stage – as this should influence the direction that I take the IA. and ultimately make it as easy as possible for a user to complete their end goals.

Understanding the detail

When deciding which object to create it’s important to consider the initial scope and scale of the project – this helps to find the right way to visualise the objectives and makes it understandable for the rest of the team and very importantly, the client. There are different levels of detail that the first diagram could be broken down to, but it’s worth considering the audience and what they need to see to begin with. It may be more appropriate at the beginning to keep it lightweight and simple, then add more technical details later as the audience shifts towards a more deliverable build phase.

Someone drawing out user flows

Choose your language wisely

Another very important aspect to consider whilst creating diagrams, and one that is often overlooked is that of the language and labels used. These should be simple and relatable to the audience. If too many technical words and abbreviations are used for example, it's likely the audience will have a lot of questions.

The more complex a project, the more likely that revisions and changes will occur, so the diagram should be clean, tidy and can be shared and commented on easily. Throughout the process it should be remembered that this is a human mess that requires to be cleaned up and organised. 

But I’m not the architect!

By writing this blog, my intention wasn't to inspire you into being an expert diagram geek! As I mentioned at the beginning, we have all been information architects at some point in our life, through everyday information sorting exercises, even if we haven't realised at the time. 

What I think is important to highlight is the time that can be wasted on a digital project if the complexity isn't broken down first into whatever type of diagram helps to make the path forward clearer. As a web design professional, I have seen many occasions where a brief has been taken and ran with too quickly, without fully understanding some of the finer complexities within. Even the initial brief can sometimes be incorrect, so by first seeing another diagrammatic interpretation – this may help highlight excessive information, missing information, or even a fundamental error or flaw. The idea is to begin the process of collaboration as early as possible, as ultimately without this we can never reach a truly successful end user experience.

What do you think; do you think it helps to see a visual interpretation of information? If you would like to discuss any of the points covered please do get in touch!



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