While members of the UX community are still debating what we should expect from an information architect—most recently Peter Morville—placing our attention on the practitioner of information architecture appears to be a more attainable goal. Not because information architects don’t exist, as Jesse James Garrett would want you to believe, but because the function of information architecture meets a real need and requires our immediate attention, no matter what a practitioner’s title or disciplinary affiliation might be.
For the growing number of UX design professionals and other traditional participants in the design of user experiences—such as interaction designers, user interface designers, visual designers, and software developers—who help to create Web-based interactive experiences, discerning the essential scope of the practice of information architecture can be a challenge.
It would be nice to say that we can fix this situation through better communication, which would surely be an improvement and is one of the reasons why I have committed to writing this column. However, the name of my new column, Finding Our Way, reflects the main reason most people still struggle with understanding the scope of information architecture. This title is an admission that the field of information architecture is in a dynamic phase of discovery and maturation. While there is a lot that we already know, there is still much that we need to understand.
Most important, this title is imbued with a sense of optimism and a promise on which this column will deliver: helping UXmatters readers to navigate the evolving practice of information architecture by exploring the actionable theories, concepts, and vocabulary that enable us to produce design solutions with greater attention to the details of information architecture. These details will become increasingly important as the domains of information we create grow more complex over time.
The Interests of Information Architecture
You may confront greater IA challenges simply by staying around long enough to see a domain of information that you’ve architected grow in abundance and use. Or, you may end up taking on more projects that force you to view information architecture in a way that’s broader than a single-domain IA strategy. For example, how should you consider the information architecture for a domain of information that spans multiple subject domains, across physical constructs that support multiple modes of interaction with information? This would be equivalent to engineering a single information architecture that supports two separate sites—one on the desktop, using a Web browser, and the other on a mobile phone.
Many of you might be thinking that the practice of information architecture is just the organization of pieces of content in a way that lets people make useful semantic and contextual associations between them and creating navigation schemes that promote findability. You would be right. However, this is equivalent to saying, “an iceberg is an island of ice that floats on water.” Technically, this is right, too. However, if we want to take this viewpoint to the next level of clarity, we’ll need to acknowledge that the floating-island perspective describes only a small part of what an iceberg truly is: less of an island and more of a massive, floating underwater mountain.
In their seminal book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 3rd Edition,  Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville were the first to use this more extensive perspective on an iceberg to express information architecture. However, the iceberg of information architecture that I’ll be discussing here is not exactly the one Rosenfeld and Morville depicted.
If you recall, Rosenfeld and Morville proposed an information architecture iceberg in which the user interface is the tangible work product that often becomes the focus of projects. However, if you study the layers of their illustration as a collection, as shown in Figure 1, they appear to describe an iceberg of user experience design more than an iceberg of information architecture.
I’d like to recommend an alternative view of this iceberg in which the user interface does not represent the surface. From this viewpoint, navigation instead represents the surface of information architecture, as shown in Figure 2. A series of hypertext links and search functionality are widely used artifacts of navigation.
Removing the interface and wireframes from Rosenfeld and Morville’s original iceberg makes a clearer delineation between information architecture and user interface (UI) design and interaction design. While information architecture is closely related to UI design and interaction design, information architecture remains a unique concern.
This contemporary IA iceberg also focuses less on communicating tactical methods and places more emphasis on important, high-level areas of interest that provide categorical homes for many of the methods and interests that appear in Rosenfeld and Morville’s original diagram.
Finally, this contemporary iceberg of information architecture is both scalable and flexible. For example, it provides actionable perspectives for Web site information architecture and the more challenging enterprise information architecture. Depending on your need, feel free to choose the most appropriate methods for each layer. In the next section, I’ll demonstrate common methods that we can consider for each layer.