Information Architecture: Beyond Web Sites, Apps, and Screens

Finding Our Way

Navigating the practice of Information Architecture

A column by Nathaniel Davis
November 1, 2013

I recently asked the Twitterverse to suggest some information architecture topics that would be worth discussing in my UXmatters column. In response, I received a single tweet from @ToonDoctor (Toon):

“We need a lot of theory on information architecture (IA) that goes beyond Web sites and apps or screens.”

I couldn’t agree more with Toon’s statement. The field of information architecture does need more theory. In fact, our industry’s need to pursue theory is the reason my Twitter handle is @iatheory and why I am currently writing a book on the subject. But, enough about me. Here are the topics this column will cover in responding to Toon’s comment:

  • What We Need
  • A Lot of Theory
  • On Information Architecture
  • Beyond Web Sites and Apps or Screens

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What We Need

When you scan the Internet’s trove of content about information architecture, you’ll find that it is rich in practical insights. Methods and best practices help IA practitioners solve real-world problems—the sorts of practical problems that many of us confront on a daily basis.

Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld’s ground-breaking book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web—also known as the polar bear book—brought a sense of practicality, as well as legitimacy, to information architecture by combining techniques of library science and building architecture to solve the challenges of complex Web sites. The authors were convinced of the value of taking such perspectives to improve the findability of information on the Web and the overall usability of computing interfaces. The second edition of their book canonized their ideas and offered approaches and examples that are as relevant today as they were when they were first introduced in 1998. In the third and final edition of the polar bear book, Morville and Rosenfeld described the scope of information architecture as:

  • “the structural design of shared information environments”
  • “the combination of organization, labeling, search, and navigation systems within Web sites and intranets”
  • “the art and science of shaping information products and experiences to support usability and findability”
  • “an emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape”

The significance of Morville and Rosenfeld’s book on information architecture was that it provided practical knowledge. Within the context of information architecture, practicality lets us deal with the often opaque issues around the low-hanging fruit and immediate painpoints that we address when creating Web-based products, services, and ecosystems. By taking a practical and pragmatic approach, we can solve existing problems.

When you deliver solutions for existing problems, you offer business value. It is this level of applied practicality that has satisfied the urgent needs of the ever-expanding Web and helped to sustain the field of information architecture for almost two decades. However, despite the recognition that information architecture has received, Toon is one among a growing segment of IA professionals who feel that the information architecture toolkit is still insufficient to our needs.

Yes, practicality is important. But, since it inherently limits us to a type of professional empiricism that typically solves problems only as they arise, practicality offers, at best, perhaps 80% of what we actually need in most circumstances. The other 20% of professional competency comes from theory. The problem is that information architecture is maturing primarily through ad hoc theory and practice. [1]

It’s like having to put a piece of furniture together that requires a screwdriver, a wrench, and a pair of pliers when all you have is a screwdriver, pliers, and a sledgehammer. You eventually discover that mechanics use the type of wrench you need, so you buy the wrench and add it to your toolkit. Many view the profession of information architecture—or craft, as some would argue—in a similar manner; as a profession that steals tools from other disciplines as a maturation strategy.

To advance beyond the practice of stealing as the primary approach to building a professional toolkit, which I’ve represented in Figure 1, we need more theory.

Figure 1—Information architecture’s not-so-great reputation
Information architecture’s not-so-great reputation

A Lot of Theory

While we might not need “a lot of theory,” as Toon suggests, we do at least need the right theories to help practitioners solve the unanticipated challenges that we’ll encounter in the future. I think this is what Toon was getting at. But, whether we need just a few theories or an arsenal of them, the fact remains that, at best, anyone currently practicing information architecture is doing so with an insufficient toolkit, as Figure 2 illustrates.

Those who consciously avoid academic conversations about theory might not see the urgency in our need to address such topics. Their interests focus on the practical, time-constrained needs of their company or clients. These professionals improve the way people navigate through sets of information—whether small or dense—and recommend effective content organization schemes. They create formal taxonomies, domain models, and structured content and are digging into the emerging challenges of cross-channel and cross-media engagement.

But, let’s face it. Have you ever asked yourself: What formal theory or scientific thinking is really holding all of this IA stuff together? What makes an information architecture an architecture for information? What is the information, and what is the architecture? Do these two words even mean anything to you? If they do, how do they influence your approach to your IA practice?

Theory begins, in part, with definition and ends by drawing a proverbial, epistemic line in the sand to which practitioners can refer for guidance—if not answers. Today, respectfully, even the most valued writings on information architecture provide practical guidance, at best.

If there is one thing that our profession must get right, it is our obligation to establish and propagate actionable definitions that we substantiate through intentional practice and sound theory. Together, they’ll promote the science that we need to implement information architectures with confidence.

Figure 2—An incomplete information architecture toolkit
An incomplete information architecture toolkit

On Information Architecture

Information architecture needs a theoretical foundation that it can claim as its own. While principles of library science, building architecture, and long-held perspectives on human-computer interaction (HCI) have heavily influenced information architecture, it is possible and could potentially be most beneficial to break away from these intellectual cornerstones. As crazy as this may seem, leaving the nest could create an opportunity for information architects to discover their own world view.

It seems probable that we will be able to establish original theories that are internal to information architecture because the nature of IA work is unique, at least in its context. As Figure 3 shows, this context is the Web, and it’s one area that we must attempt to master if we can expect to realize how information architecture is different from other design disciplines.

Figure 3—The Web remains the primary test bed for information architecture
The Web remains the primary test bed for information architecture

When we can concisely articulate the function of information architecture for the Web—both in theory and in practice—our profession will finally achieve the depth that is necessary to effectively extend its abstractions beyond the Web. Some, however, are pursuing a different approach.

Beyond Web Sites and Apps or Screens

Rather than extending Web IA theory outward, there is interest in establishing an IA perspective that describes information environments without distinguishing between digital and physical space and, thus, is naturally independent of the Web, as Figure 4 illustrates. Because of the ubiquitous nature of computing, Andrea Resmini, president of the IA Institute and author, views this sort of thinking as part of a necessary reframing of IA practice. A few industry contributors have made some progress in this area.

Figure 4—Giving new meaning to the phrase taking it all in
Giving new meaning to the phrase taking it all in

Andrea and IA consultant Luca Rosati have developed a set of heuristics and mapping techniques for improving the design of cross-channel user experiences and customer experiences that are medium- and communications-channel agnostic. They’ve even written a book that they’ve devoted to this subject. For more about Andrea and Luca’s research, visit Pervasive IA.

Dan Klyn, current IA Institute board member and cofounder of The Understanding Group (TUG), uses performance continuum mapping—originally developed by Richard Saul Wurman—to map effective project scope and consensus in the planning of complex projects. Dan has also developed a model that he says we can use to “understand the information architecture of anything.” For more about Dan’s research, visit his blog.

Andrew Hinton, TUG associate and former board member of the IA Institute, is probing the nature of language, context, and embodied cognition for ways to design information environments with greater intent. Andrew asserts that information can be semantic, digital, and ecological. Because that which is ecological includes physical space, Andrew contends that the scope of information architecture goes beyond the screen. In fact, he has recently argued that “the world is the screen.” He is preparing a book that expounds on these ideas. For more about Andrew’s research, read his blog.

Finally, check out the Journal of Information Architecture. It provides peer-reviewed content that ranges from theory and research to practice within the field of information architecture.

It is important to note that all of these resources provide insights into ongoing research and working models that will require extensive testing and validation in the field. If you’re interested in kicking the tires of experimental techniques that push information architecture beyond Web sites, apps, and screens, I suggest that you start with these.

In Conclusion

My final thought: Can a craft-like profession of information architecture that lacks internal theory keep up with the growing complexities of ubiquitous ecosystems that comprise both digital and physical objects? I don’t think so.

To position the practice of information architecture for future success, we must not wait for the future to arrive, but try to anticipate it—and, in some cases, even help to create it. To offer theories of information architecture that transcend Web sites, applications, and screens, we need to pursue original theories of information architecture that address Web sites, applications, and screens, period. If we fail to do this, Toon and the rest of the IA community will have to be satisfied with stolen insights from other fields.

But I wouldn’t count on that outcome happening. There are enough IA contributors—including myself—who are crazy enough to think that they can deliver a theoretical ground for the structural design of shared information environments for the Web and beyond. You’re welcome to join the conversation and contribute!

Let Us Know

If you are actively researching original IA theory for the Web and beyond, please let us know by leaving a comment with a link to your blog or research site. If there is an information architecture topic that you would like me to discuss in this column, please send your request to me on Twitter @iatheory. 


[1] MacDonald, C. “Learning and Teaching Information Architecture: The Current State of IA Education.”PDF Bulletin of the Association of Information Science and Technology, 2013.

Founder at Methodbrain

Franklin Park, New Jersey, USA

Nathaniel DavisNathaniel has over 25 years of experience in human-computer interaction and is a leading advocate for the advancement of information architecture as an area of research and practice. He began practicing information architecture in the late ’90s, then focused on information architecture as his primary area of interest in 2006. He has made a study of information-architecture theory and how that theory translates into science, workable software, and methods that improve human interaction in complex information environments. Nathaniel was formerly director of information architecture at Prudential. His information-architecture consultancy Methodbrain specializes in UI structural engineering.  Read More

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