Chapter 1. Defining Information Architecture

We shape our buildings: thereafter they shape us.

Winston Churchill

What is it about buildings that stir us? Whether we’re architectural connoisseurs or just plain folks, we are all emotionally engaged by the physical structures we experience throughout our lives.

Each building serves a different purpose. A bustling café with hardwood floors and large windows onto Main Street provides the ideal place for a quick breakfast meeting. A steel-and-glass high rise with its mix of cubes and offices envelops inhabitants in a collaborative, high-energy work environment. A dark, smoky bar with tin ceilings and exposed brick walls becomes a sanctuary from the whirl of modern life. And a medieval Gothic cathedral adorned with granite sculptures, stained glass windows, and towers that reach for the heavens provides an experience both humbling and inspirational.

Each building serves its purpose uniquely. Architecture, design, construction, furnishings, inhabitants, and location all play major roles in shaping the overall experience. All elements must work together. In successful buildings, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Why begin a book about web sites by writing about buildings? Because the architectural analogy is a powerful tool for introducing the complex, multidimensional nature of information spaces. Like buildings, web sites have architectures that cause us to react.

Some web sites provide logical structures that help us find answers and complete tasks. Others lack any intelligible organization and frustrate our attempts to navigate through them. We can’t find the product we need; we can’t locate the report we found last week; we’re lost inside an online shopping cart. These web sites may remind us of buildings that fail: houses with flat roofs that leak, kitchens with no counter space, office towers with windows you can’t open, and maze-like airports with misleading signs.

Bad buildings and bad web sites share similar architectural roots. First, many architects don’t inhabit the structures they design. They don’t fully understand the needs of their customers, and they’re not around to suffer the long-term consequences of poor decisions. Second, creating structures to stand the test of time is really difficult. Needs change. Surprises are the rule. The desire for stability must be balanced against the value of flexibility and scalability. Architects are often faced with complex requirements, competing goals, and high levels of ambiguity. Transforming this chaos into order is extremely hard work that requires rare vision and perspective.

However, as designers of web sites, we should not become trapped by the metaphor of building architecture. Throughout this book, we’ll also talk about information ecologies, knowledge economies, digital libraries, and virtual communities. We learn what we can from each analogy, and we leave the baggage behind.

A Definition

If you’re new to the field, you may still be wondering: what exactly is information architecture? This section is for you.

in·for·ma·tion ar·chi·tec·ture n.

1. The combination of organization, labeling, and navigation schemes within an information system.

2. The structural design of an information space to facilitate task completion and intuitive access to content.

3. The art and science of structuring and classifying web sites and intranets to help people find and manage information.

4. An emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

Were you expecting a single definition? Something short and sweet? A few words that succinctly capture the essence and expanse of the field of information architecture? Keep dreaming!

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 web sites. 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.[2]

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: web sites, 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, Organizing, and Labeling

It’s what information architects do best. Structuring involves determining the appropriate levels of granularity[3] for the information “atoms” in your site, and deciding how to relate them to one another. Organizing involves grouping those components into meaningful and distinctive categories. Labeling means figuring out what to call those categories and the series of navigation links that lead to them.

Finding and Managing

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 site fails. But user-centered design 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.

Art and Science

Disciplines such as usability engineering and ethnography are helping to 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 web sites. 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.

[2] For a humorous perspective on the trickiness of the English language, see Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way.

[3] Granularity refers to the relative size or coarseness of information chunks. Varying levels of granularity might include: journal issue, article, paragraph, sentence.

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