What is an Information Architect?Natalia Persin
Information is practically currency in the UX world. It’s not only user data that companies covet to make better products. Users are also searching for information of some kind whenever they access the internet or use one of the countless apps or software products that rely on it.
Websites and apps need to have their information and other assets organized so that users can access it, mark it, and find it later. Algorithms that power search engines like Google tap into the structure of websites to guide people to the resources they’re looking for.
Ensuring the information available on the web is placed where people can find it is one of many crucial duties for making the web work the way it does today. Information architects are responsible for the layout of information that’s intended to be shared among many people.
Read on to find out everything you need to know about information architects and how they fit into the wider UX design process.
Even before the advent of the internet, the world was becoming overrun with information. This is partly due to the expansion of markets, which caused larger audiences to arise. Rather than a broadcast effect where many people saw the same kind of information, niche markets and audience subsets were created.
As a result, more information is needed to reach a larger number of people. Pair that with the many channels now available for those people to find information and you get a kind of information multiplication.
Beyond that, far more companies are attempting to use marketing, branding, and social media channels to get their product to a wider audience. Products are getting more complex while audiences are becoming better informed. Simply put, there is exponentially more data for people to sift through year by year.
Making Sense of Data
Companies use data in a variety of different ways. The data they collect and front-facing data that users see and manipulate all need to be put somewhere. A digital filing cabinet isn’t enough for the job.
That’s exactly where information architects come in. Think about it like an external hard drive. You can put all your music, documents, photos, and movies onto a hard drive as a backup and have them readily available even when the internet is down. But if you don’t have them placed into folders and subfolders your chances of finding certain files is slim to none.
Apply that principle to all the information on a website or an app. eCommerce sites and social media are just two examples of web services that rely on incredible amounts of information to work. All those pages of products on Amazon would be worse the useless if there wasn’t an intuitive and well-defined architecture behind them.
As for how users recognize the ordering of that information and find what they’re looking for, there are a few tricks information architects tend to use.
Common Techniques of Information Architects
The goal of the information architect, generally speaking, is to place needed or desired information where it is accessible, findable, and retraceable.
What IA the architect uses depends on the kind, amount, and variety of information. Take a look at these common IA design patterns, for example:
Likely the most common type of website structure, the kind based on an index page has all other pages linked to the homepage in an even hierarchy. You’ve probably seen personal and small business websites like this. For a restaurant with a single location, the website doesn’t need much more than a homepage, a gallery, a menu, a map, and a contact page for reservations.
All of these pages may appear in a horizontal bar on the homepage. You don’t have to go through other pages to reach the menu page, for instance, although there may be links to other pages within some subpages.
- Hierarchy Pattern
When there are more distinct categories of information, the structure needs to be more restrictive. Say a retailer has separate categories for apparel, home goods, electronics, outdoor supplies, and food. To facilitate people who are searching for something, it’s best to keep all your apparel and related links under one parent page rather than leaving everything flat like it would be with an index page structure.
Think about what it would be like if a brick-and-mortar grocery store didn’t group items in aisles nearby related things. Items aren’t even in alphabetical order – you just have to walk around until you happen to spy the peanut butter you’re looking for.
That’s what the user experience of a website or an app would be like if there were tons of categories that the IA didn’t acknowledge or make wise use of. Let’s return to the eCommerce example. There are multiple categories of products and, most importantly, there is no reason that they should be interlinked.
Even when the same branding is uniform across all the products, it would be unusual to have links to men’s shoes on pages displaying dresses or bed linens. The reasoning is closely related to the design thinking principle of cognitive overload.
Imagine you select the horror category on Netflix or a similar video streaming service and get inundated by romance, comedy, and animated movies instead. You’d be so overwhelmed with choices that you would wind up frustrated and very likely abandon the pursuit of a movie to stream.
- Co-Existing Hierarchies
The more tightly protected parallel hierarchies we just described aren’t always the best choice. Certain types of information, such as services offered by a landscaping company, might have more fluid boundaries than an eCommerce site.
Even eCommerce sites can have co-existing hierarchies if they have the kind of products and services that people will want in combination. For example, a tourist board website could have interlinking pages for guided tours, restaurants, hotels, and car rentals. Visitors to that kind of site will likely want to buy all or multiple services available on the site.
Beyond products and services, information-heavy sites and apps with related subjects that overlap also present the perfect opportunities to use co-existing hierarchies. As content writing and other forms of digital marketing come around to audiences’ infinite appetite for quality information, there is a growing chance that the information on individual sites will overlap and necessitate co-existing hierarchies.
- Flat Structure
On the opposite end of things, simple sites that only have a few pages with contact information, about sections, and perhaps a description of services don’t need to worry about interlinking or separating certain parts of the site from others. In this case, the IA can be a simple set of pages that are all equal.
The homepage is still necessary as far as every site needs a landing page for visitors to start on. But it isn’t as prominent or explicitly named a homepage as such like it would be for larger websites. In most cases, these sites could be a single long page for all the information they contain.
For many restaurants with short menus or small businesses with individual contractors or small teams, a flat IA structure is enough. Of course, they’re much harder to pick up on a search engine because they lack content. They’re easy to keep updated in the sense that there is little information that is likely to change over time but they are also far less enticing for audiences outside of the people who are already looking for that particular business.
Of course, that aspect is a bit outside the realm of information architects. They can only do so much with what they’re given to organize.
Even simpler than the flat structure is the single-page website. If you only need to describe one product or service you can just design one page and leave it up. Often, businesses use this to notify that the site no longer exists or the business has closed its doors. However, there are also some cases where the web presence isn’t that important or there just isn’t anything else that needs to be said.
Public announcement pages and simple forms are great examples of this. Even if you want people to be able to subscribe to a mailing list, you can add the form at the bottom of a single page that has some information on it about what kind of list they’re signing up for.
QR codes had a huge resurgence during the unprecedented events that began in late 2019 and early 2020. When you scan one of these codes with your phone camera, landing on a full-fledged website is not desirable and could even turn you away from perusing the information as soon as you see it. It’s far nicer to reach a single-page website with only the most needed information. You can even include a link to the full site for those who want to know more.
Information Architecture & UX Design
There are many different kinds of information architecture. Libraries and databases use IA, for example.
When it comes to the UX development process, information architects are responsible for mapping the information that supports the larger user journey. They’re an integral part of the UX development process.
Many people have trouble seeing the difference between what a full-fledged UX designer does and what an information architect does within the larger UX development process. The important thing to understand is that IA is the foundation of other parts of the UX development process. The user experience, aesthetic design, and marketing are all based on where information is placed.
Certain parts of UX and jobs rooted in design thinking exceed the limits of what we would refer to as information architecture. The buttons and color scheme, for instance, are not a consideration for the information architect.
The information architect is aware that buttons and other calls-to-action will be on the website and may consider how they will fit into the IA, but beyond the existence of a button or some other form of navigation, the architect is not generally involved.
UX concentrates on building blocks and IA looks at the structure. But how can UX designers work on deliverables like wireframing and user journey maps if they aren’t dealing with structure as well? The answer is that the structure for UX is a bit different than the one for IA.
Structure in the UX Development Process
The structure of information that an information architect focuses on is a bit more cerebral sometimes. While they are likely responsible for the organization and even storage of data, information architects are primarily focused on making user-facing information accessible.
UX designers and particularly UI designers arrange the content and visual tools for conveying meaning to the user. The work of the information architect comes before that stage of the process.
Certain qualitative aspects of the user experience are outside the realm of information architecture. How a product makes the user feel, for example, is not addressed by the work of the information architect, although that doesn’t mean individual architects don’t consider it.
There is some degree of the user experience that is addressed by information architecture, though. They still want to make sure the user can navigate structures seamlessly and intuitively to reach the information they want to see.
In many cases where the creative team is smaller, companies leave IA up to the same people who take care of the UX and UI design. However, larger businesses are hiring individual information architects when they have the budget.
The reason for this is probably because companies need to make sure their information is striking and presented in a novel way so that people will access it and hopefully engage with the brand and product line as a result.
What Do Information Architects Do?
If you’re interested in becoming an information architect or you work alongside UX-related creatives and want to be more certain of how roles differ, understanding information architecture will be a big help.
It’s one of the newer UX-adjacent positions for most companies. Here are a few of the things an information architect is likely to do throughout the workday:
- Build Navigation Systems
Information architects are primarily in charge of starting what will evolve into the final user journey through a website or an app. Even in physical spaces, an information architect is concentrated on the way people will move through the place.
Most commonly, though, they are concerned with categorizing and labeling the information that will appear on the final product. As the first people to process this information, information architects have a large effect on the final product.
Card sorting is one of the most common ways IA creatives try organizational ideas to see how they work.
- Understanding Content
Before they can put everything in the right place or decide on the organizational structure that will suit the final product most effectively, information architects have to understand the kind of content that will be featured on the website.
But the beginning of the project isn’t the only time these creatives will be auditing the content. Changes in marketing, branding or the product itself can lead to content overhauls that could very well change the information architecture.
So the architect has to audit the content continuously throughout the product life cycle. Regularly scheduled audits are good backup plans, but coordinating with the marketing team and other content creators is the best way to stay on top of things.
- Draw the Structure
Information architects have deliverables just like UX designers do. In their case, the wireframes won’t be nearly as developed as they would be for a UX or UI designer who wants to convey how the site will look. Information architects might include navigation menus and buttons, but they will be completely rudimentary, mere placeholders that designers can build out as they wish later on in the design process.
- Testing & Rebuilding
As with any other profession based on design thinking, information architects test and retouch their structures as part of an iterative process that aims to reach the best product possible. Just like with other design projects, the success of good IA depends on how well it works.
This part of the IA process should be as frequent as possible during the production process. But it can also work as an audit that features user testing and feedback to make sure the information is as accessible and findable as it can be.
Information architecture is a particular part of the UX development process. It occurs before the visual and user-journey aspects and sets up the roles performed by UX/UI designers, graphic designers, and content creators.
Companies are beginning to come around to the idea that the information architect should be a separate role from the UX designer. The IA field is growing in new directions as a result. Creatives looking for work would do well to research information architecture before making their next career move.