What is Information Architecture? - Examples & Definition

Instructor: David Delony

David is a freelance writer specializing in technology. He holds a BA in communication.

In this lesson, you'll learn about information architecture and how it is used to create coherent websites that are easy to navigate. Also learn about information architecture techniques such as card sorting, wireframing, and metadata.

Information Architecture

When designing a website, it might be tempting to focus solely on how it looks rather than whether anyone can find anything useful on it or whether the structure of the content actually makes sense. This is where the field of information architecture or IA comes in.

Information architecture is the process of structuring information so that people can find it easily. While the term is most often used in regard to web design, it originates in library science. It's a multidisciplinary field, drawing on insights from cognitive science, cybernetics, and mathematics, among others. Very few people working in the field officially have the job title of 'information architect': they may be officially employed as web designers or content strategists instead.

Information architecture is important in website design because customers need to be able to find what they're looking for easily or they'll go to somebody else's website. Information architects work closely with other members of a team designing a website, including developers, content strategists, and graphic designers to make sure a web page presents its structure logically to its users.

You can build a house that looks good, but without a good structure underneath, it will collapse. A website that has poor information architecture will likewise collapse under its own weight, driving customers to other websites. You wouldn't build a house without a blueprint. Information architects likewise define a coherent structure for a website before any other work is done.

To see information architecture in action, we'll follow Andrea, whose web design firm has been hired to redesign the website for World Wide Airlines. The company has received some complaints from customers that the current site is difficult to navigate. One of the first things Andrea does is improve the site's information architecture.

Principles of Information Architecture

The Information Architecture Institute defines information architecture as 'about helping people understand their surroundings and find what they're looking for, in the real world as well as online.'

An information architect's job in the context of web design is to define the structure of a website so that it is clear and logical, using a hierarchical structure. If you've ever looked at a website's site map, you've seen the work of an information architect dividing a site into categories. Ideally, this should be transparent to the user and they should intuitively grasp a site's structure.

World Wide Airlines' customers, in this case, want to know things like what the airline charges for baggage fees, what kind of food they can expect to buy on their cross-country journeys, and when they should check in so that the long lines at security don't make them miss their flights.

Because information architecture is user-centered, the first thing Andrea does is ask users to categorize the site's information through a card sort.

Card Sorting

A card sort is almost exactly what it sounds like: asking users to organize information by moving index cards with the titles of web pages under certain categories. Andrea has some people come in as part of a focus group and watches how they place the cards carefully.

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