Information Architecture: Beyond Web Sites, Apps, and Screens

By Nathaniel Davis

Published: 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.”

“The field of information architecture does need more theory.”

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

What We Need

“Information architecture is maturing primarily through ad hoc theory and practice.”

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

“We do at least need the right theories to help practitioners solve the unanticipated challenges that we’ll encounter in the future.”

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.”

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….”

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

“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.”

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.

References

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

8 Comments

Excellent. Glad to see your take on this topic!

In a 2002 article, I described the nature of IA without internal theory as a process of constructive induction, or stealing :), and I speculated some on what IA theory might look like. I referred to the work of hypertext theorists of the late 90s, abstracting beyond Web and page to topological relationships of information nodes, regardless of granularity, regardless of medium. Their context was often rhetoric/literature, but I think topology is worth a look as a potential source of theory that comes from the inside of IA. I haven’t written anything yet, but am actively exploring…

I see the problem in a slightly different way, and one I think you’re alluding to. It’s not necessarily lack of theory, but rather lack of cohesion and applicability to IA. Given its multidisciplinary nature, we have a ton of IA-related theory from anthropology, complexity science, cognitive psychology, philosophy, architecture, and so on. However, we haven’t done a great job of making sense of all this research for IA. And if anyone can make sense of complexity, it should be a bunch of IAs!

I would love to see more exploration about this topic. I’m personally most interested in philosophy and cognitive science as two fields that provide a massive wealth of knowledge for IA. The challenge now is making those connections in a meaningful way.

Marsha, thanks for your comments.

I’m very familiar with your paper. BTW, good stuff! I cite your paper and also quote you in a recent article that I contributed to The Bulletin of the Association for Information Science and Technology. There’s a link in this UXmatters column that refers to that ASIS&T article, but the label I chose does not make it apparent. I’ll see if I can fix that.

Regarding topological relationships, I completely agree. A topological perspective of the Web is where information architecture has an opportunity to build theoretical, as well as practical foundations that we can extend outward. I hope you continue exploring its potential and look forward to your future findings.

Great article, and I, too, am very interested in the theory that provides direction for how we choose and apply current IA techniques—whether it’s principles of Cognitive Psychology, Library Science, Architecture, etc….

I am also really curious to hear more of your thoughts on how these theoretical information architecture principles will expand beyond our screens and interfaces—as mentioned in the article. One example that always comes to mind is how retail, department, and grocery stores organize, group, and label their products.

Anyway, to summarize my comment/question: I am stoked that you are writing a book on IA theory. When do you think it will be available?

Thomas, thanks for your comment.

I think cohesion is a red herring. While there is a wide field of disciplines that relate to information architecture, I don’t think they define information architecture. When we ask a geeky question like, “How can we improve the information resiliency of Web content and its relationships across various modes and other information environments?” or “What is the underlying structure of information relationships between concepts or among related ecosystems?” don’t expect to find a coherent answer that blends cognitive science, architecture, psychology, anthropology, library science, or [pick your favorite non-Web discipline]. I think we can apply the wisdom of other disciplines at tactical levels, but not as pedagogy for information architecture theory.

I strongly agree with you that the field has not done a great job of making sense of its collective research and that, if anyone can make sense of complexity, it should be a bunch of IAs! It only makes sense that we practice what we preach to mature our very own field. My one contention is that this is not the task of just any bunch of information architects. The job of tackling a unique intellectual foundation for the field will be met by the persistence of academic-minded, practice-researchers and theoreticians of information architecture. People who take on information architecture challenges at work, then go home to contemplate information architecture for a few more hours. I hope this month’s column encourages others to do the same.

The field of information architecture needs more IA geeks. And you can quote me on that. ;-)

So, in the spirit of growing theoretical discourse, it’s probably worthwhile to refer to pieces in the Journal of IA that address the topic of practice and discipline directly.

It’s probably also worth noting the Academics and Practitioners Round Table held at the 2013 IA Summit this year. Around ten speakers all contributed academic arguments for a reframing of IA. Of course, Resmini, Klyn, and Hinton are important voices and thinkers, but there are a bunch of others who are in on this conversation, too. I believe you were at the workshop, so it may be worth digging out the views of those other people. FYI Springer will be publishing all the papers from the workshop in a book, sometime next year.

Another important meeting that you may not have been aware of took place at Pervasive 2012 in Newcastle. There is a general writeup on Andrea Resmini’s site, and the papers of those who contributed are slowly going into the Journal of IA.

Lastly, take a look at next year’s workshops to be held at the IA Summit. Hinton and Arango are offering this educational push.

And myself and Terence Fenn will be facilitating the 2nd Academics and Practitioners Round Table on the topic of “Teaching IA.”

We will, of course, be very disappointed if you don’t submit a paper for it. :)

Jason, thanks for passing on these references—especially the upcoming IA Summit workshops and academic round table. (Note to UXmatters readers: You don’t have to be an academic to attend and, if you’re interested in what happened in the last academic round table, most of the presentations are on Slideshare: Reframe IA. Also, for a full-day program, the round table is extremely affordable.)

Yes, there are many who participate in the conversation of theory, but few follow through on their ideas with further exploration and publication. I realize the practitioners that I mention in the column by no means represent the complete body of work and intellectual thought on the subject. They just happen to be useful examples of how information architecture is currently being framed beyond Web sites, apps, and screens.

The 2014 round table theme, “Teaching IA,” is an important topic. I’m glad you’re taking on this discussion. My research in practice modeling is a good fit for the round table. I hope my schedule allows me to participate and if my paper gets accepted. ;-)

Joshua,

Thanks for your comment and sorry for the grossly late response.

Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati have been exploring the application of information architecture in the design of physical spaces for several years. Take a look at their book, Pervasive Information Architecture and their papers and presentations on ubiquitous ecologies.

I’m very excited about my upcoming book. It will be available in 2015.

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