Understanding Information Architecture Differently

By Nathaniel Davis

Published: May 7, 2012

“There is information architecture that resembles UX architecture and design, then there’s information architecture that looks like, well, information architecture.”

If you’re new to the debate about the practice of information architecture, you’ll discover that there are two polarities of thought. As Peter Boersma proposed in his 2004 blog post “Big IA Is Now UX,” there is information architecture that resembles UX architecture and design, then there’s information architecture that looks like, well, information architecture. The Big IA perspective is still evolving, as the creation of digital products and services reveals new gaps and challenges, while the narrow perspective on information architecture remains a highly under-researched, under-developed, and under-communicated subject domain that is as important today as it was when it originally surfaced in the early 1990’s.

People originally called the narrow perspective on information architecture little IA. Today’s more politically correct term is classic IA. I’d really like to call it just information architecture. Why? Simply for the fact that—before there was any need to produce wireframes; improve Web site planning, strategy, or tactics; or discuss platforms and channels—there was a need to address a unique concern within the new context that the Internet had created, for which there was no single source to which one could go for answers.

I maintain that the classic and, thus, narrow concern of information architecture practice was and still is primarily about how to organize and relate information in ways that simplify how people navigate and use content on the Web—and how we can develop this practice through research, strategy, and management. For more about this perspective on information architecture, see my UXmatters column “Framing the Practice of Information Architecture.”

While it is possible to apply information architecture methods within non-digital contexts—most notably through explorations of pervasive information architecture—I would argue that the fundamental need for a practice and discipline of information architecture is, at present, in the digital domain.

Lately, I’ve been exploring the idea of information overload as a topic relating to information architecture. My research on this matter has produced six signatures of information overload.

  • Literacy Gap
  • Volatility
  • Filter Failure
  • Abundance
  • Utility Gap
  • Feedback

In this column, I’d like to offer a different approach to understanding information architecture by mapping the six signatures of information overload to the classic IA concerns of navigation, organization, and information relationship. These challenges played out in email services during the formative years of the Web.

From Information Rags to Rich Content

“Sophisticated marketers and businesses quickly found an incentive to add more content to their sites: the monetization of visitors roaming the Web for knowledge and entertainment.”

If it weren’t for the Web browser, the practice of information architecture probably wouldn’t exist. But, it wasn’t actually the Web browser that ushered in the practice of information architecture. It was the content that appeared on Web pages.

Early settlers of the Web really didn’t have much to publish on their Web sites. These sites hosted one or a just few pages whose content typically resembled the content of their printed brochures. But that quickly changed. Within months after the first graphic user interface on the Web opened the toll roads to the information superhighway, sophisticated marketers and businesses quickly found an incentive to add more content to their sites: the monetization of visitors roaming the Web for knowledge and entertainment.

Getting eyeballs on your site was probably the first formidable digital strategy, and the only way to capture these eyeballs was to offer content that people wanted to consume. As a result, content became the gold in the rush to the digital frontier that was the Web. The more content you had, the greater your chances for new-found financial success—typically from advertising. Hence, the race to digitally publish content commenced.

Information Abundance

“The rush to publish content on the Web led to one sure outcome—which is also a key signature of information overload: information abundance.”

The rush to publish content on the Web led to one sure outcome—which is also a key signature of information overload: information abundance. The low barrier to publishing content on the Web made this abundance of content possible. This abundance also resulted in our need to deal with the earliest challenges of organizing Web content into more manageable structures that users could navigate through hypertext. Single-page sites quickly blossomed into sites comprising sections; then, as the unregulated relationships between hypertexts swelled, into full-blown Internet portals like Yahoo! While site owners were indexing and categorizing their own content, portals began the monumental task of indexing and cataloguing content across the entire Web.

Indexing and cataloguing were not the efforts of the interaction design, visual design, or coding disciplines, and they weren’t about online Web strategy either. The new discipline that defined rules for how and why to organize and relate content in ways that would enable content retrieval in an unregulated and non-standardized information domain was novel. This discipline would come to be called information architecture.

Information Architecture Fact

Information abundance eventually forces owners of information to create more effective ways of organizing their content and for users to navigate to their content. In many cases, organization and navigation strategies must accommodate the needs of both content producers and consumers through many and sometimes unpredictable scenarios.

Information Volatility

“Not long after the Web opened the floodgates of communication, the creation of content quickly expanded from hundreds of thousands of business owners to millions and eventually hundreds of millions of Internet users.”

At first glance, we might easily mistake these responsibilities for extensions of library science, but this would be a premature conclusion. Because, if you exclude the occasional interaction someone might have with a reference librarian, the typical experience of a physical library is through a one-way engagement—meaning, visitors to a library navigate their way by following signs and reading labels that eventually enable them to find and consume content that was awaiting their discovery. Furthermore, we do not expect library visitors to leave behind their own original published works, placing them on a shelf.

Much like a library, the early Web was essentially a one-way interaction of information consumption—and so was much of the thinking about organizing content. It was an Internet where Web site owners had control of the information on the Internet and organized information according to their objectives. But that perspective of information organization changed as the volatility of information creation that email and other forms of user-generated content had encouraged finally eclipsed the one-way consumption of this abundance of information.

As a result, not long after the Web opened the floodgates of communication, the creation of content quickly expanded from hundreds of thousands of business owners to millions and eventually hundreds of millions of Internet users. And the speed of information flow went from that of a raging river to an unrelenting tsunami.

Information Architecture Fact

Information architecture strategy should anticipate potential information volatility and provide automated and manual functions that help to regulate the rates at which user interfaces present information and information propagates throughout a domain.

The Literacy Gap

Users are ill-equipped to effectively organize and relate the information that they unwittingly hoard. Their inability to effectively tame information consequently revealed another example of the information overload signature called the literacy gap.

Soon, information and content were growing exponentially and with increasing volatility. Unfortunately, for humans, the combination of information abundance and volatility are equivalent to an open gas line and a burning torch!

For example, while a typical user might have had two and three email accounts—and many still do—a harsh reality quickly became apparent: users are ill-equipped to effectively organize and relate the information that they unwittingly hoard. Their inability to effectively tame information consequently revealed another example of the information overload signature called the literacy gap. To this day, every user interface that gives control of information management to users presents challenges—because of users’ literacy gaps in information organization and relationship building.

Here’s a question for you: For each file you save on your computer or view in your email inbox, do you try to solve how you will retrieve it and other randomly saved files that closely relate to it in a year from now? If you do, you shouldn’t, because information architecture solutions should be solving that problem for you.

Information Architecture Fact

Information architecture is informed by primary and secondary research in human cognition and behavior whose goal is to reduce user literacy gaps in managing information and content.

Filter Failure

“Volatility and wide literacy gaps typically break a user’s ability to effectively filter their various channels or inputs of communication for relevancy.”

Where there’s a literacy gap, filter failure is close by. When you give users the ability to make their own folders and tag and prioritize messages and other content, volatility and wide literacy gaps typically break a user’s ability to effectively filter their various channels or inputs of communication for relevancy.

Filters are the gatekeepers of information flow and engagement. They are also intentional. For example, tagging a sender of email as safe is a filter. Additional filters could be personal and business. Through an IA strategy that considers domain modeling, one can break down email content from a safe sender into multiple views. For instance, one might make a request to view email messages from a friend that refer to some business discussion. With the right domain model in place, the email content or metadata description does not have to mention the word business. The word organization or revenue might also indicate a relationship to a business discussion. However, this flexibility doesn’t happen by itself; it must be carefully planned.

Information Architecture Fact

Information architecture is responsible for applying attributes to information and content that promote relevancy, optimized search, and information extensibility.

The Utility Gap

“A gap in utility occurs when users have information at their disposal, but can access or use only a limited amount of that information in a constructive manner.”

As the epidemic of filter failure set in and volatility continued, email inevitably produced an information glut that led to a great deal of unusable and unintelligible information. This consequently produced a gap in the utility of stored email content. This is where we can observe the utility gap signature.

A gap in utility occurs when users have information at their disposal, but can access or use only a limited amount of that information in a constructive manner. The unutilized part of their information produces the utility gap.

Information Architecture Fact

Information becomes unusable and unintelligible because of ineffective navigational constructs within user interfaces and a lack of effective information organization and relationship schemes. Poor information management strategies that don’t consider the regular removal of irrelevant information from a domain can also lead to a utility gap.

Feedback

“In … information overload, feedback carries a different meaning. It represents only an undesirable metric of human performance or behavioral response as a consequence of an information overload event.”

It didn’t take people long to realize that email was not just a communications medium. It soon became our personal and business knowledge base of conversations, transactions, and, for many, an alternative form of disk storage. Email became indispensable.

As email stumbled into this new-found level of responsibility, it did well in enabling the technical aspects of communications, but fell short in information architecture strategies that would later create conditions for the last signature of information overload: feedback.

In usability research and testing, we group user feedback into two categories: positive feedback and negative feedback. But, in the context of my study of information overload, feedback carries a different meaning. It represents only an undesirable metric of human performance or behavioral response as a consequence of an information overload event.

One example of feedback is the observed frustration users experience when moving between multiple accounts to read their email messages. Because of this disconnect, email aggregation services surfaced and automatic email forwarding became a common enhancement to existing email services. While abundance and most other information overload signatures remained unaddressed, offering a consolidated domain where users could navigate and manage their content from multiple sources remedied the literacy gap and filter failure slightly.

Information Architecture Fact

The discipline of information architecture must measure the effectiveness of navigation, information organization, and relationship schemes to meet user expectations for the use of information and the improvement of information sharing across domains.

Closing

“Signatures of information overload expose challenges that correlate with the interests of information architecture.”

Signatures of information overload expose challenges that correlate with the interests of information architecture. While I’ve used email as my example in this column—and it is rightly the poster child for any information overload discussion—we can observe the six signatures of information overload throughout the entire Internet and across all types of information-based Web sites and applications. Hence, no information domain or user interface is immune to the threats of information overload.

Most important, the practice of information architecture has confronted the need to solve the effects of information overload from its very beginning. It did not begin as a struggle for better user experiences, site planning, usability, or budgets. Information architecture arrived as a practice specifically to address the challenges that information abundance brought on within the context of the Internet. This is the seemingly narrow scope of information architecture through which the classic IA perspective survives.

But, in defense of classic information architecture, it is not really narrow at all. Just through the example I’ve used to explore information overload, we can see the depth of this subject, which has far-reaching implications for the successful use and adoption of information technology. Under the banner of information architecture, there are many challenges to explore and solve.

The classic practice of information architecture for the Web is rightly called classic because it became relevant not long after the birth of the Web, remains important today, and will surely be a pillar of the success of digital communications in the future.

There are differing points of view about the practice of information architecture, but this is my practice of information architecture: “the effort of organizing and relating information in ways that simplify how people navigate and use content on the Web.”

Visit the DSIA Portal of Information Architecture to read my latest ideas about information overload.

1 Comment

G’day, Nathaniel

Thanks for your excellent articles on information architecture.

One thing that may be interesting in relation to the six signature points, and to the example topic of email, is the rise of email spam. It could be interesting to map the email-spam phenomenon in relation to any opportunities created by the IA that actually assisted its meteoric rise.

Cheers, Darryl

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