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
- Filter Failure
- Utility Gap
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
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.
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.
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.