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Information Architecture in Review, Part 2

Finding Our Way

Navigating the practice of Information Architecture

A column by Nathaniel Davis
May 17, 2016

Polar Bear book coverIn my previous book review, I summarized two books on information architecture. Originally, my goal for this installment was to review two more books. However, thisĀ­ turned out to be no easy matter because this book review is about one of the industry’s most admired books: Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond.

For their fourth edition, Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld have teamed up with Jorge Arango to revive the classic text on information architecture, which had not been revised in a decade—since 2006 to be exact. This was a period before the iPhone’s introduction, when the world was not yet knee deep in a mobile-computing revolution. As you’ll see in this review, even though Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond confronts a much more complex digital environment, the book describes practices and methods that are just as relevant today as they were ten years ago.

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Review Objectives

This review represents my own opinions, encapsulating four things:

  1. The lasting impression the book left on me
  2. What audience would benefit most from reading the book
  3. The book’s relevance to the field of information architecture
  4. A summary of my endorsement

I am providing this series of reviews to help readers find books that either match their current interests or might prove useful in working on an information-architecture project. In reviewing Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond, I also hope to encourage the many people who already own this book to revisit a passage or two—perhaps looking at the book through a new lens.

Lasting Impression

Okay. This book popularized the field of information architecture almost 20 years ago, so its making a lasting impression goes without saying. But indulge me for a few minutes.

It’s important to note that, while the book’s title may suggest topics that go beyond digital interfaces, that’s not the case. This book is primarily about how the authors see the practice of information architecture in the multi-channel context of Web-based user interfaces. There’s nothing wrong with that.

With that said, Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond, or Polar Bear Book IV, delivers relevance by remixing and fine tuning the classic themes that have made it the successful book it’s been across four editions.

First, the book’s foundation—as well as that of the general study of human-computer interaction—is the recognition of the vital importance of content, context, and users. The authors remind us: “You can’t design a useful information architecture in a vacuum.” This axiom is far easier to prove than to dispute. Why this mode of thinking has not yet become ingrained in the psyche of the digital-design community is still a mystery.

Second, while the authors are adamant about not defining the practice of information architecture, they assert, “Information architecture (IA) is a design discipline that is focused on making information findable and understandable” across products, services, communications, and channels. This is actually a fairly succinct definition that encapsulates the spirit of the entire book. So it might initially be confusing to some readers that the authors would argue for four alternative definitions later in the text.

In keeping with Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld’s academic backgrounds, the book still applies relevant perspectives from library and information science that promote the themes of organization and enabling information discovery. As a result, the authors continue to frame the basic principles of information architecture around their “four components of an information architecture”:

  • navigation systems—How we browse or move through information
  • organization systems—How we categorize information
  • labeling systems—How we represent information
  • search systems—How we search information”

These four systems have always been central to the Polar Bear framework and remain as critical as ever. The authors continue to call attention to a categorization scheme that provides an alternative to the four components, which many overlook. A rich set of heuristics for recommending and evaluating an information-architecture solution accompanies this alternative categorization.

  • browsing aids—These components present users with a predetermined set of paths that help them navigate an information environment.
  • search aids—These components allow the creation of user-defined queries and automatically present customized sets of results to users that match their queries.
  • content tasks—These are the user’s ultimate destinations, as opposed to separate components that get users to their destinations.
  • invisible components—These components often feed into other components such as a thesaurus that is useful in enhancing a search query.

While Polar Bear Book IV exists to provide a practical review of the role of information architecture in the creation of digital user interfaces, it subtly exposes readers to three important ideas that have become key parts of the field’s vibrant, contemporary discourse. The authors have diligently included these discussions, while sparing readers the level of detail they can get from other sources. They state:

  • “Digital experiences are new—and very real—types of places made of information;. The design challenge is in making them coherent across multiple contexts.” [1]
  • “Information architecture asks designers to define semantic structures that can be instantiated in multiple ways, depending on the needs of different channels.” For example, a person using a bank’s mobile app should experience consistent semantic structures when using the bank’s Web site or calling the bank’s phone-based services. [2]
  • The way we structure the environments we inhabit influences how we understand them. [3]

Likely Audience

The underlying information architecture of a digital-information environment should not be taken lightly. Architects and designers of these environments—not necessarily people who call themselves information architects—should be aware of the basic challenges and tactics this book presents. Consequently, this book is for the general digital-design practitioner and is required reading for anyone who wants to specialize in information architecture.

Senior IA practitioners who already have the third edition of this book and are aware of the leading practices of the profession may find it hard to justify upgrading to the fourth edition. With that said, for serious IA geeks and historians, your library would not be complete without this new edition.

Relevance to Information Architecture

The fact that the core message of the fourth edition of the Polar Bear Book hasn’t changed from that of previous editions demonstrates the continued relevance of both information architecture and this comprehensive book. Polar Bear Book IV still offers a solid introductory, highly practical read and remains a gateway book into the emerging practice of information architecture.

Endorsement

Information architecture, as a practice, takes a few specialized trajectories. Polar Bear Book IV engages readers in topics covering practical methods that promote user understanding as part of the act of searching for and using information. There’s essentially no theoretical jargon, and the science behind the content in the book is implied. So, you can expect to put this book to use immediately and refer to it for practical ideas as you build greater proficiency.

Having reviewed the available literature, I can definitively say that Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond remains a must read for anyone who is interested in digital Web–information architecture or design. The book is packed with examples covering tactics, research, strategy, testing, diagramming, and documentation. There is still no other book on the market like it. And there’s a reason for that. 

Notes

[1] Credit to Jorge Arango’s earlier articulations on this subject in a 2011 Journal of Information Architecture paper. Jorge is co-author of Polar Bear Book IV. See also Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati.

[2] The authors cite Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati, who have put substantial thought into this subject—which they summarize in the book they wrote in 2012, Pervasive Information Architecture.

[3] Credit to Richard Saul Wurman who, in 1990, made this assertion in his book titled Information Anxiety.

Director of Information Architecture at Prudential Financial; Founder and Curator of DSIA Research Initiative and DSIA Portal of Information Architecture

Franklin Park, New Jersey, USA

Nathaniel DavisNate is a practitioner, researcher, and theorist on the subject of information architecture. His theoretical interests include the general nature and catalysts of information behavior and its impact on human-to-computer interactions within the domain of information technology. Working in Web design and development since 1994, with a focus on UX design and marketing throughout most of his career, Nate began practicing information architecture in the late ’90s, then identified information architecture as his primary area of interest in 2006. In April 2010, Nate launched the DSIA Research Initiative and the DSIA Portal of Information Architecture as a way to advance insights into information architecture and offer resources to practitioners and the general public.  Read More

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