The Information Architecture Value Chain

By Nathaniel Davis

Published: May 5, 2014

“I’ll provide a simple reference guide that summarizes … the information architecture value chain….”

In my last column, I described how an information architecture (IA) compass is useful in grounding your approach to solving IA challenges and offers a perspective that is good to have when explaining the value of information architecture to business stakeholders. However, while the IA compass provides useful guidance for approaching your information architecture work, you may need to do even more to improve the chances that a business will consider information architecture an essential task on your next project.

In this column, I’ll provide a simple reference guide that summarizes what the DSIA Research Initiative refers to as the information architecture value chain and offer a fresh perspective on a range of IA activities and the value they bring to a broader audience.

In the Real World

“The lack of external advocacy by industry associations and influential analysts further reduces the chances that the future senior leaders of digital organizations will see information architecture as a priority.”

I recently witnessed the collapse of an information architecture practice that lacked a sustainable level of advocacy. Information architecture was not part of the cultural fabric of the enterprise and a major leadership change significantly impacted the organization’s IA IQ. Plus, the lack of external advocacy by industry associations and influential analysts further reduces the chances that the future senior leaders of digital organizations will see information architecture as a priority. So, what should you do in a scenario like the one that follows?

Imagine that every VP and senior leader in your design and technology group gets the axe—because that’s how they do it the enterprise—leaving just you and maybe a few colleagues who understand the importance of information architecture. You realize that, when the dust settles, your organization will need a new champion for the value of information architecture and that, should you have the chance to enlighten your future boss and peers, information architecture will have to share the stage with the latest business and product development trends, including agile development, failing quickly, minimal viable products (MVPs), innovation initiatives, and the traditional time-to-market pressures. Ensuring that your organization hears your message will require you to articulate the value of information architecture effectively to a diverse audience.

Now, you don’t have to work in a large organization or survive a major layoff to get the opportunity to champion the virtues of information architecture. All you need is an environment that lacks an awareness and understanding of information architecture, and there are plenty of those. So, let’s get you ready to meet the challenge of evangelizing information architecture.

First, a Little Housekeeping?

“approach your audience with more concrete, actionable concepts by explaining the value of information architecture to the final interface design and to the other professionals who are involved with a project.”

When attempting to position the value of information architecture, you may be lucky enough to have to explain this to only a single individual. If you're not so lucky, your audience might span a team of business stakeholders, product managers, UX strategists and designers, a technology group, or a disparate UX team of interaction designers, visual designers, and developers.

Never go into a meeting armed with only a definition of information architecture and expect everyone to drink your Kool-Aid. With multiple perspectives in the room, defining something like information architecture is always a matter of debate. Instead, approach your audience with more concrete, actionable concepts by explaining the value of information architecture to the final interface design and to the other professionals who are involved with a project. This will move the conversation forward in a more productive manner by focusing it on the gaps that the practice of information architecture fills.

Finally, to prepare your value proposition for the appropriate audience, make sure that you know who will be present. Of course, since you never really know who may actually show up to a meeting, it’s always best to plan for a full house, with all viewpoints represented. When you embrace the information architecture value chain, your message has a better chance of resonating with everyone in the room. Now, we’re ready to proceed.

Value the Chain

“For any Web user-interface design project, you can group the interests of the entire team into … four segments of an information architecture value chain.”

For any Web user-interface design project, you can group the interests of the entire team into the following four segments of an information architecture value chain:

  • strategy value
  • design value
  • user value
  • technology value

Information architecture must address each of these segments with a solid value proposition. I'll summarize the IA value propositions and list key areas of interest that you can use to support each claim. If you're not familiar with these areas of interest, I encourage you to explore them on your own or discuss them with your peers or mentor.

IA: Strategic Value

Proposition: Information architecture contributes systems thinking that improves synthesis, strategic alignment, and solutions framing.

As Figure 1 suggests, a successful IA strategy fosters alignment across many business-related concerns, which helps establish solid intention.

Figure 1—Alignment on intent

Alignment on intent

Business owners, product managers, and design strategists think in terms of the big picture. Business owners obsess over the budget, objectives, and key performance indicators. Strategists wax poetic over North-Star visions that provide guidance to the design and development teams. Similarly, sound information architecture activities establish coherent objectives and bring clarity to IA goals that naturally contribute to the overall product or project strategy.

Key areas of interest:

  • planning
  • performance
  • context mapping
  • visioning
  • synthesis
  • understanding

IA: Design Value

Proposition: Information architecture improves the relevance of and expectations for information by probing issues about content, context, and users.

As Figure 2 implies, we can achieve greater design value when meaning and relevance are apparent to users. Users may experience a user-interface design not only through a device, but also through an interplay between physical and digital spaces.

Figure 2—Delivering meaning and relevance across contexts

Delivering meaning and relevance across contexts

A Web user-interface design is the most tangible artifact to which every design, communications, and development discipline on a team must contribute. This design includes content strategy and authoring for all types of media, information architecture, visual interface design, interaction design, and front-end development. Each discipline or specialized function contributes to the experience of the user interface.

Information architecture contributes by probing to learn about and justifying why, what, how much, and when to deliver information to a Web user interface, with targeted meaning and relevance that resonates with users. Whether the Web user interface is static, responsive to various presentation modes, or traverses the boundaries of physical and digital space, information architecture is invaluable in understanding the nature of the appropriate information interactions.

Key areas of interest:

  • content modeling
  • information interactions
  • sense making
  • place making
  • information environments
  • experiences

IA: User Value

Proposition: Information architecture simplifies how people navigate and use information that connects to the Web.

As I’ve highlighted in Figure 3, we realize value for users when wayfinding techniques and logical information connections improve a user interface’s usability.

Figure 3—Wayfinding, connections, and ease of use

Wayfinding, connections, and ease of use

Everyone involved in the design lifecycle for a Web user interface must contribute to user value, because user value is product value, and product value is business value. Assuming that user and business value are aligned, there should be nothing in the design lifecycle that doesn’t contribute to user value.

The value of information architecture to the user has been clear for nearly two decades. By simplifying how people navigate and use information in complex Web environments, information architecture gives users the chance to achieve their tasks and goals with greater precision. Businesses typically associate information retrieval, or search; labeling; and the formal organization of content with the interests of information architecture. However, the methods for enabling their flexible use and maintaining a coherent, manageable Web structure represent additional value that also rests within the domain of information architecture.

Key areas of interest:

  • navigation
  • organization
  • metadata
  • Web structure
  • segmentation
  • information

IA: Technology Value

Proposition: Information architecture improves the resilience of database structures through sound conceptual modeling.

As Figure 4 shows, by endowing data with intrinsic value, information architecture assists in the planning of data architectures that are becoming larger and more complex.

Figure 4—Transforming information into meaningful data

Transforming information into meaningful data

Nothing on the Web happens without the magic of information technology. Period. Everything that we do in information architecture and UX design resides within the realm of abstraction, so our value is realized only when developers and other computer-science experts implement technology solutions in software, systems, and physical devices. The expression “garbage in, garbage out” typically refers to the quality of data. However, it has another meaning in the area of database modeling. A bad data model will produce a failed physical database structure.

Thus, because Web user interfaces rely on database-driven content management systems, the underlying database models that they leverage require the sound conceptual and ontological modeling that strategic IA documentation delivers. This is a more advanced information architecture activity that provides crucial input for database designers who must design logical and physical data models and engineer sustainable data architectures. As the information domains that we design increase in complexity, these will be the kinds of conversations that we must be prepared to have to demonstrate the value of information architecture.

Key areas of interest:

  • concept modeling
  • ontology
  • semantics
  • communication
  • information modeling
  • information theory

Whether you perform information architecture tasks as a UX designer or an IA professional, be sure that you consistently communicate the value of information architecture. This is all of our responsibility to the field of information architecture.

Further, senior-level proficiency in many of the areas of interest I’ve listed in this column can take several years to acquire. So, don’t be intimidated by the breadth of information architecture. Just keep learning. The most practical path to growing your IA skills is to start at the top of each list of areas of interest and work your way down. If you gravitate more toward strategy and theory, start at the bottom of each list and work your way upward.

Finally

“Business stakeholders, product owners, and the rest of a product team don’t care what information architecture is unless it poses a threat to their objectives—or, if it’s not a threat, they’re interested in it only as one part of the solution.”

If you were fortunate enough to attend the 2014 IA Summit, you attended one of the best conferences put on by the Association of Information Science & Technology (ASIS&T) and the Information Architecture Institute. Richard Hill and his dedicated ASIS&T staff, the IA Institute, and an army of volunteers put on a great conference year after year. 

You are guaranteed to walk away from each IA Summit with much to think about, a handful of ideas to advocate or debate with newly acquired, kindred spirits who work in the IA profession. What was worth noting for me was a comment by conference keynote and IA pioneer Peter Morville, who stated:

“Nobody understands information architecture. We don’t even know what it is. And that’s okay.”

The theorist and independent researcher in me might disagree with his statement, but the practitioner and pragmatist in me whole-heartedly agrees. And here’s why. Business stakeholders, product owners, and the rest of a product team don’t care what information architecture is unless it poses a threat to their objectives—or, if it’s not a threat, they’re interested in it only as one part of the solution.

The purpose of the IA value chain that I’ve described in this column is not to convince anyone about what information architecture is. We can safely leave that debate to the theorists and philosophers. For now, we know enough about the relationship between information architectures and Web user interfaces to demonstrate how information architecture contributes to the value chain that comprises strategy, design, users, and technology.

You can download the official visual reference guide about the DSIA information architecture value chain from the DSIA Portal of Information Architecture.

Reference

Davis, Nathaniel. “DSIA Information Architecture Value Chain.” DSIA Portal of Information Architecture, May 2014. Retrieved May 1, 2014.

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