5 Fundamentals of Information Architecture

IA is not voodoo, smoke or mirrors. It is a real science and vital to creating the best, most engaging user experience your customers need and deserve. Without IA your customers will get lost in the navigation or confused in the meaning or worse, just leave and never come back.

So it’s important not only for IAs, but for those who work with IAs, to understand what it is they do and why it’s essential.

1. Information is Not Data

While it might seem like information architecture is arranging the data to help a user, this is way too simple an explanation. Information is the connection between data and user. How does the arrangement of the data, within a given context, brings about understanding of the system(s) to the user? This is the question an information architect asks themselves on a daily bases.

data chartKnowing your data is key to providing this understanding to your customer or end user. You must look at the page views, the click maps, the user testing results, the facets and all the meta stuff in order to bring clarity to your user as they navigate your architecture or website. Often this means hiding the data out of sight, but allowing it to work without the user event knowing. The data you show is just as important as the data you don’t show. This is especially true with the flat, simple and clean design trends of today.

Too much data all at once will create information overload, which creates a horrible user experience.

2. Context is Everything

When designing, creating wire-frames or drawing boxes and arrows, we must understand the tool, system or site’s contextual use beforehand. Without knowing when or where or in what environment the user will be using the end product, how can you truly make an engaging, or even useful, user experience?

A perfect example of understanding context is a workout tracking app that uses really big buttons and simple language to help the user quickly enter in their workout information. Simple language and big buttons are not because the user is not intelligent or has bad eyesight. The big buttons are because after a strenuous workout, your hands are not as stable to perform fine motor skills like hunting and pecking for that data entry field. The simple language is because after running on the treadmill for 30 minutes your glucose levels are depleted. This moves normal, intuitive tasks into the cognitive task realm. Cognitive tasks consume high levels of glucose. If a mind is depleted of this precious resource and we want to make our app as intuitive as possible, we should make it even simpler to use than in a normal context, like sitting on your couch.

3. Understand Your User

This is similar to understanding the context of your user, but instead goes deeper into the heart and mind of the user. I thought about putting it in my own words, but Louis Rosenfeld, Peter Morville, and/or Jorge Arango put it so eloquently in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web – 4th Edition:

Information architecture is not restricted to taxonomies, search engines, and the other things that help users find stuff in an information environment. Information architecture starts with people and the reason they come to your site or use your app: they have an information need.

You must understand your user at the fundamental level by knowing what their information need is. Without knowing what they are looking for, how can you expect to guide them to understanding? But you must also know that not all your users are identical and looking for the same kind of information. Each user is unique. But to identify each user would be an exercise in futility.personas

That’s where personas come in. Most IAs and UXers get personas wrong. They think personas are just another way of saying demographics. This is a completely wrong way of thinking. Not all 18-30 year old males, making $50-75k a year think the same, behave the same or are looking for the same information. Instead a good persona would be: this user is a researcher looking for the best information to make a highly informed choice OR this user is a social media minded individual who wants to engage with others and share their experiences along the way OR this user needs to do this task in less than 30 seconds while driving.

To be even more confusing these examples could be the same user within a different context.

4. Fight for Your Understanding

When diving into the data, context and users you can easily become confused or overwhelmed with the connections. You may think to yourself, as you observe user behavior or look at click map data, “Why the heck-fire did they click there? What could they possibly have been thinking?” Don’t give up. Keep digging. They clicked there for a reason, possibly on a subconscious level, but they still clicked. If you look at enough data and observe enough users in a variety of contexts, you will start to see patterns behind these interactions.

If you don’t fight to make yourself understand, then you will inevitably lose the battle when you have to fight to make the designer, developer or stakeholder understand.

fight-understandingOnce you fully understand for yourself you can, in the words of Tron, “fight for the user.” The designers and/or developers may rest on tried and true methodologies to what makes good design or a good piece of software. If your understanding of the data, context and user flies in the face of all their collective intuitions, be prepared to fight. But do it politely and politically. In the end you all have the same goal – create an engaging user experience.

5. You Will Be Rich & Famous

Actually it’s just the opposite. Information Architecture may not be glamours, buts it’s vital. Just like great physical architecture a select few will be hailed as visionaries, but most will do great work without any recognition. After all, when was the last time anyone went into a building and said, I must thank the architect? Sure there are those that “appreciate” good architecture, but they probably won’t be able to articulate why. You may have amazing architecture, but it’s the interior designer that usually gets the praise. That’s fine.

If you signed up to be an Information Architect for the glory and glamour, you’ve been mislead and should quickly exit the profession. But if you are passionate about building systems and designing interconnectivity to facility understanding, and ultimately making engaging user experiences, then you’ve chose wisely, my friend. Welcome to the Cult of IA.

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