What Isn’t Information Architecture?

One of the most effective ways to define something is to identify its boundaries. We do this all the time. This is my property. That’s your property. This is England. That’s Scotland. She’s a brain surgeon. He’s an ophthalmologist.

Sometimes it’s very easy to explain the differences. Mammals breathe with their lungs and give birth to live young. Dogs, cats, dolphins, and humans are all clearly mammals. Fish live in water, breathe with their gills, and lay eggs. Salmon, bass, and guppies are all clearly fish.

But as with many classifications, you quickly run into problems. What about fish with lungs? What about fish that don’t look like fish? Are sharks, skates, eels, and sea horses really fish? (Yes, they are.) And where do we put that darned platypus?[4] Biological taxonomists have argued about these classification issues for centuries.

Mapping the boundaries of information architecture is even more slippery. Some things are clearly not information architecture:

  • Graphic design is NOT information architecture.

  • Software development is NOT information architecture.

  • Usability engineering is NOT information architecture.

Makes sense, right? But as soon as you start working within the messy reality of web site design and construction, you find yourself in the gray areas between disciplines. For example, consider the ubiquitous global navigation bars in Figure 1-3.

Top and bottom navigation bars on the United Nations web site

Figure 1-3. Top and bottom navigation bars on the United Nations web site

The navigation bars feature labels and links that lead to other sections and pages within the web site. These labels are dependent upon the underlying structure and categorization of the site. The creation of categories and choice of labels fall clearly inside the domain of information architecture.

But wait a second. What about the look and feel of the navigation bar? What about the choice of colors, images, font styles, and sizes? Now we enter the realms of graphic design, interaction design, and information design. And what if a designer challenges the labels proposed by an information architect? Perhaps those labels are too long to fit on the navigation bar. What happens then?

What if the information architect wants a search link on the navigation bar, but the software developer says that adding a search capability to the web site is too expensive and time-consuming? And what if the usability engineer says that user tests indicated there are too many options on the navigation bar? What happens then?

These are the types of questions and challenges that live in the gray areas between disciplines. These gray areas drive some people crazy. Lots of heated arguments have resulted from attempts to draw clear lines. We believe the gray areas are necessary and valuable. They force interdisciplinary collaboration, which ultimately results in a better product.

Gray areas and caveats aside, here is our attempt to draw some boundaries between information architecture and a number of closely related disciplines.

Graphic Design

Traditionally, a graphic designer was responsible for all aspects of visual communication, from the design of corporate logos and identities to the layout of individual pages. On the Web, we’re seeing increasing specialization due to the complexity of the environment. Even so, many graphic designers do a great deal of information architecture as part of their work.

Interaction Design

Interaction designers are concerned with the behavior of tasks and processes that users encounter in software and information systems at the interface level. They often have a background in human-computer interaction, and are focused on helping users successfully achieve goals and complete tasks.

Usability Engineering

Usability engineers understand how to apply the rigors of the scientific method to user research, testing, and analysis. Their background in human-computer interaction and their experience observing users provide them with useful insights into design. They are often concerned with testing all aspects of the user experience, inclusive of information architecture and graphic design.

Experience Design

Experience design is an umbrella term that encompasses information architecture, usability engineering, graphic design, and interaction design as components of the holistic user experience. You’ll find relatively few “experience designers,” as there aren’t many people on the planet with skills in all these areas. The term is useful insofar as it encourages cross-disciplinary awareness and collaboration.

Software Development

People rarely confuse software development and information architecture, but the two fields are highly interdependent. Information architects rely on developers to bring our ideas to fruition. Developers help us understand what is and isn’t possible. And as the Web continues to blur the distinction between software applications and information systems, these collaborations will become even more important.

Content Management

Content management and information architecture are really two sides of the same coin. IA portrays a “snapshot” or spatial view of an information system, while CM describes a temporal view by showing how information should flow into, around, and out of that same system over time. Content managers deal with issues of content ownership and the integration of policies, processes, and technologies to support a dynamic publishing environment.

Knowledge Management

Knowledge managers develop tools, policies, and incentives to encourage people to share what they know. Creating a collaborative knowledge environment means tackling tough issues surrounding corporate culture such as “information hoarding” and “not-invented-here syndrome.” Information architects focus more on making accessible what has already been captured.

[4] To find out, read The Platypus and the Mermaid: And Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination, by Harriet Ritvo.

Get Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Second Edition now with the O’Reilly learning platform.

O’Reilly members experience live online training, plus books, videos, and digital content from nearly 200 publishers.