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Information is more abundant today than ever before. With smartphones, activity monitors, smart watches, tablets, and new Internet-enabled appliances of every kind, we also have many more ways of interacting with it than before. This abundance and pervasiveness makes our lives better in many ways, but it also introduces new challenges. With so much information available in so many places, it can sometimes be difficult to cut through the noise to find the information you need and understand it once you have found it.
Information architecture is a design discipline that is focused on making information findable and understandable. Because of this, it is uniquely well suited to address these challenges. Information architecture allows us to think about problems through two important perspectives: that information products and services are perceived by people as places made of information, and that these information environments can be organized for optimum findability and understandability.
Let's start by clarifying what we mean by information architecture:
The reason we can't serve up a single, all-powerful, all-purpose definition is a clue to understanding why it's so hard to design good digital products and services. We're talking about the challenges inherent in language and representation. No document fully and accurately represents the intended meaning of its author. No label or definition totally captures the meaning of a document. And no two readers experience or understand a particular document or definition or label in quite the same way.
The relationship between words and meaning is tricky at best. And here's the paradox of defining information architecture: by defining and clarifying semantic concepts, Information architecture makes them more understandable and findable, but at a cost, because definitions are so imperfect and limiting at the same time. The definition of information architecture itself is a great illustration of this paradox.
We'll now descend from our philosophical soapbox and get down to basics. Let's expand on our definitions to explore some basic concepts of information architecture:
We use the term "information" to distinguish information architecture from data and knowledge management. Data is facts and figures. Relational databases are highly structured and produce specific answers to specific questions. Knowledge is the stuff in people's heads. Knowledge managers develop tools, processes, and incentives to encourage people to share that stuff. Information exists in the messy middle. With information systems, there's often no single "right" answer to a given question. We're concerned with information of all shapes and sizes: websites, documents, software applications, images, and more. We're also concerned with metadata: terms used to describe and represent content objects such as documents, people, processes, and organizations.
Structuring involves determining the appropriate levels of granularity for the information "atoms" in your product or service, and deciding how to relate them to one another. Organizing involves grouping those components into meaningful and distinctive categories, creating the right contexts for users to understand the environment they are in and what they're looking at. Labeling means figuring out what to call those categories and the navigation structure elements that lead to them.
Findability is a critical success factor for overall usability. If users can't find what they need through some combination of browsing, searching, and asking, then the system fails. But designing for the needs of users isn't enough. The organizations and people who manage information are important, too. An information architecture must balance the needs of users with the goals of the business. Efficient content management and clear policies and procedures are essential.
Disciplines such as usability engineering and methodologies such as ethnography bring the rigor of the scientific method to the analysis of users' needs and information-seeking behaviors. We're increasingly able to study patterns of usage and subsequently make improvements to our websites. But the practice of information architecture will never be reduced to numbers; there's too much ambiguity and complexity. Information architects must rely on experience, intuition, and creativity. We must be willing to take risks and trust our intuition. This is the "art" of information architecture.