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What is Information Architecture?

Danny Sullivan on Flickr

This issue of the magazine is about design. Let’s explore how information is designed and architected when used in computer software and hardware. Information architecture is defined as the art and science or organizing and labeling data to make software and hardware. In many cases, it is used to make web sites and software applications more intuitive and easy to use.

Even hardware requires the careful design of information, for example, labeling input and output ports for the Raspberry Pi or the knobs on a humidifier. Software applications and web sites are more obvious places where the organization and display of information is critical.

There are several ways to express information. Information is expressed through icons, labels for links and content headings, and the physical location of information in an interface, as well as relationships between blocks of information in a single software interface. If you’re familiar with graphic design, for example, a magazine ad, you know a few ways to organize information so viewers see the most important content first. You might use a strong image to convey a mood or use a spot of bright color to make a tagline stand out visually. While web sites and software are different from single page print ads, how people process both types of data is similar.

With information architecture and design, the question is what tasks do people accomplish and what information do they need to find and perform their tasks?

Information design is fascinating because it is a unique discipline which is included in many different disciplines. It includes cognitive psychology, semiotics (the study of signs and symbols), library science, graphic design, usability, and architecture. Indeed, librarians often make great information architects because their training teaches them structured ways to organize large amounts of data. Two key aspects of information design, taxonomies (formal systematic descriptions and organizations of data) and folksonomies (informal user-generated descriptions and ways to group data), are familiar to people who study library science.


The tools used by information architects are similar to user experience designers: interviews, notes, word-processors, spreadsheet software, wire frame software, and cards. They create lots of notes as they interview people who use a software application and brainstorm different ways to organize data in the application. Notes are written up in proposals, mocked up designs (low-fidelity and high-fidelity), requirements documents, and any other format needed to define, test, and implement an ideal data structure.


As with user experience design, and perhaps any design process, the first step is to define goals. Who will use the software or hardware? What are their needs and goals? What do they currently use to meet their needs and goals, and how do those options succeed or fail? What is the background of people who will use the software or hardware, and how does their background affect their ability to use what you provide?

For example, a piece of hardware designed for engineers would use different language than a software application geared towards people at a motor vehicle department. While some people who use the motor vehicle department are engineers, software used in that environment would need to communicate its purpose with language everyone understands.

Identifying goals is done primarily through research. This includes interviews with actual people who use or will use the software or hardware. But research also can include finding then trying out competitor products, identifying key traits that impact how people will use the product, and many other possible details you need to understand what information is required and how you might organize then display the information.

The result of defining your goals is an initial design document to identify your audience, their goals, task scenarios for your audience, and a competitive analysis of alternatives to what you offer.

Once the initial design document is approved, as needed, the next step is to collect all the research and other data about your audience and begin to work through possible ways to organize information to meet their needs. Testing can include:

  • A/B Tests — Also called split testing, the goal is to identify which of two options yields the best result. People are presented with the same information where one element is changed, for example, the name of a link. Results are carefully measured and compared.
  • Card Sorting — A representative group of people are asked to identify concepts and language about the application, to write down each on an index card or Post-It note, then sort and organize their results. Card sorting is a low tech way to organize information, usually for web sites and software applications.
  • Tree Tests — Also called reverse card sorting, people are presented with a structured set of data and asked to complete tasks by selecting the appropriate categories, child categories, and grand-child categories. Tree tests can validate a navigation structure without the distraction of interface elements, for example, colors or lines or shapes.

Another part of the process, of course, is how to recruit participants for testing. And how to gather and quantify your results.

Beyond research and testing, other parts of the information architecture process include how to recruit people for testing, how to gather and quantify results, and how to measure success or failure when your solution is out in the wild, available for use.

Skills Needed

Unlike user experience designers, information architects do not need to be familiar with programming and system technical design. They do need experience with interviewing, negotiations, usability testing, visual communication, interface design, spreadsheet calculations, taxonomies, folksonomies, and other skills involved in the design, development, rollout, and evaluation of software and hardware. Experience with the history and use of symbols and signs (semiotics) also is useful, as well as how people internally process information (cognitive psychology).

Learn More

Information Architecture Defined


IA Professional Organizations




A/B Testing


Card Sorting


Tree Testing


Cognitive Psychology




Measuring the Success Of a Classification System

Describes card sorting process but in a way that offers insight into how information architects work.

Information Architecture 101: Techniques and Best Practices




Taxonomy and Folksonomy