"Understanding is a continuum that leads from data, through
information and knowledge, and ultimately to wisdom."
What is Information Architecture?
Information architecture is the art and science of defining information structure, organization, labeling, indexing and navigation so that content is more easily accessed and understood by its audience.
The goal of is to enable:
- content owners/sponsors to more effectively manage content accuracy and presentation effectiveness;
- content users/audience to more efficiently find and use what they are searching for;
- content authors/creative team to be responsive to the needs of owners and users in their communication choices.
It involves design and use of both cognitive and technology structure to help people find, manage, communicate and understand information more successfully.
Information is meaningful content (data) that can be communicated. However, an organizational scheme that makes sense to one person may not make sense to another. There is more than one way to organize information. Effective information architecture must accommodate the multiple mental models of users, and growth of content in scope and size over time. Design involves both top-down and bottom-up processes. Top-down: developing standardized categorization schemes or taxonomies. Bottom-up: analyzing and labeling content chunks.
When it is said that "information is data that informs its audience"
— it suggests that the information is given a form (a mental model) that is:
- meaningful and useful
- storable and retrievable
- and can be communicated.
Information structure connects the user to context and function
— thus, producing cognitive experiences of meaning, knowledge and understanding. The structure strengthens the user's ability to communicate and manipulate the information
— which increases effectiveness and efficiency of user action. These benefits of information structure apply equally to print documents (that are static), to media documents (that are graphic and auditory), and to web sites or other electronic media (that are dynamic and interactive).
Structures that support information organization and communication vary in size and complexity. On the largest scale of structure, an IT architecture is the arrangement and inter-operation of technical components (infra-structure) that provide enterprise-wide information and communication flow . On the smallest scale of structure, information architecture is the design of the units of information themselves
— so they are usable within larger communication and publishing schemes. Both large-scale and small-scale design serves the diverse needs of the end-user to store, search, share, manage and understand information.
The Spectrum of Understanding
The spectrum of understanding moves from data, to information, to knowledge and finally to wisdom. This fundamental model is illustrated in three different sources: (1) Nathan Shedroff, (2) Gene Bellinger, (3) Stephen Tuthill. A more detailed discussion is provided in the Knowledge Management section of this site entitled "Knowledge & Understanding". Definition of key terms is also provided.
The model by Nathan Shedroff is explained in greater detail at his web site. Note that Shedroff emphasizes that the process of understanding moves from global, to local, to personal domains.
Gene Bellinger's model is presented in detail at his web site. He emphasizes that the understanding process proceeds from understanding relations, to understanding patterns, and finally to understanding principles.
The model presented by Stephen Tuthill at 3M in the 1990's emphasized the roles of automation (storage), information organization (arrangement), knowledge relationships or schema (assimilation), and personal constructs of meaning (interpretation).
In this model, Data are raw numbers and facts (data acquisition, statistical properties, data filtering, transformation and reduction, semantic analysis); Information is processed data (totals, aggregations, summaries, counts, ratios, multi-dimensional partitioning, variances, trends, seasonal indicators); Knowledge is contextual and actionable information (decision factors, sensitivity analysis, structure, quality, assessments, projections); and Wisdom is the decision-making or problem-solving capacity that makes use of knowledge. Wisdom is the application of knowledge with practical insight. Therefore, it is integrally related to motivation (sustained action over time), initiative, and creative capacity.
The stages of team development have been characterized as "Form, Storm, Norm, and Perform." We can see that the individual's information processing (personal steps of cognitive conversion) is somewhat parallel to the team building process (social process of cognitive conversion). How a team or social group functions is an expression of the cognitive information processing taking place within the group in that it moves from facts, to context, to meaning, to application. The full cycle of information processing (data, information, knowledge, behavior) is, of course, needed during each stage of the Team Building Process.
Transformation: From Ideas Into Action
Team Building Process
|Data: facts, observation, data points
||Form: create team with clear structure, goals and roles
|Information: data with context
||Storm: dealing with realism of team goals and current circumstance; develop task related skills; group process & conflict management skills are essential
|Knowledge: information with meaning
||Norm: acceptance of others on team; shift energy to team's goals; increase productivity
|Behavior: wisdom to apply knowledge
||Perform: commitment to team's mission & competence of team members is high; accomplishments are measured & celebrated
The following illustration emphasizes that the "domain of information design" seeks to establish an environment by which data, information, knowledge and wisdom conversions can occur. It accomplishes this through providing information processing tools that support "convention" (taxonomy, information organization), "cognition" (mental models, representation, schemas that support personal encoding and retrieval), and "contemplation" (activity that generates personal constructs of meaning).
Information Organization: "LATCH"
Saul Wurman (2000) asserts that there are basically five ways to organize information
— represented by the acronym "LATCH": Location, Alphabet, Time, Category or Hierarchy. The following are typical information organization examples:
– Roads, towns and bodies of water are typically best organized by location.
– Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other collections of data are often most usefully organized by alphabet.
– Museum exhibits and planning documents are organized by timeline because it relates the content to a meaningful context or to the evolution of changes over time.
– Department stores, Yellow Pages, Web sites (where the user is attempting to find one item among many) are best organized by category.
– Physical object are often best organized by hierarchy related to a primary natural characteristic of the object (from largest to smallest, from heaviest to lightest weight, and so forth).
In each of these examples, organization aims at making the information more accessible and easier to understand.
Examples of software which install or implement an information architecture design include: knowledge management systems, document management systems, library systems, research systems, archiving systems, business process automation, intranet portal sites, and internet publishing. In each case, a system blueprint and standards are required
– so that information components will functionally interrelate.
Dimensions of Information Structure
Certain information characteristics are fundamental to their structure:
– how content is grouped or clustered
– how content is referred to
– how to move between content groups (functional flow and linking)
- Writing and editing
– message and meaning; readability, accuracy and style
– effectiveness and efficiency of the information system to serve the needs of the end user
– the ability to locate content for use (the prime requirement of any information system)
Each of these basic characteristics is absolutely essential for an effective information system because they define and frame the message
— the scope, depth, breadth, and accessibility of the information content.
Addressing these key content issues establishes the foundation. Only then will important design decisions about presentation have a meaningful and reality-based context:
- Use of graphics
– visual design and aesthetics
- Media selection
– text, graphics, animation, audio, video
- User interface
– ease of use and visual / logical consistency
- User interaction
– engagement, and opportunity for choice and learning.
There is clear difference between online and offline information systems
– between screen versus print construction and delivery to the user. Yet both forms of delivery (screen or print) often depend upon database systems and computer automation behind the scenes for their creation and maintenance. Information architecture will apply at that level as well. In a library, information architecture is a combination of the catalog system and the physical design of the building to hold the books and provide physical access.
On the Internet, information architecture is a combination of organizing a site's content into categories and creating an interface to support those categories and give them screen and printable access. In each example, information architecture is the construction of structure to organize the content and provide user access.
The Idea of Architecture
The premise of “architecture” comes from traditional planning and construction of habitats, homes and buildings
— involving the mapping of function to form, and the design of components to fit together. There is a long history of extending that term to the design of any large or complex system. The term has been especially used in relation to "software architecture" and "network architecture"
— the way in which the components of a computer or computer systems are organized and integrated. What all these domains have in common is the need for a unifying or coherent structure for the system to be viable.
The generation, distribution, and management of information is essential for a knowledge-based economy. Information design problems cannot be resolved by a single template (one size does not fit all). They must be solved on a business-case by business-case basis
— related to the scope and function of the concrete business situation.
The Problems to be Solved
Information architecture must deal with at least three key realities:
The glut of information
— A research study in 1999 showed that 50 percent of the managers interviewed felt they are unable to handle the vast amount of information they receive. 65 percent reported diminished job satisfaction because of the stress that comes with information overload. We are inundated with information
— much of which is useless or irrelevant, and creates a fog-like barrier that obscures the specific information we are seeking. Our own communication flow must take place within this context.
The "information overload" effect occurs on at least three levels: First it is a logistical usability problem (building a IT system architecture that works from a user-interface/ usability point of view). Secondly, it is a communication problem (managing "cognitive load" in communication). Finally and perhaps most importantly, it is an emotional problem involving stress, distractibility, and loss of meaning (directly disrupting an individual's perception and motivation during work tasks). See Richard Saul Wurman, InformationAnxiety2 (2nd ed, 2001) pp. 4-12.
A concrete example that illustrates this overload in business communication is the important and demanding role of daily e-mail
— including the fact that uncontrolled "spam" can make the email 'in box' painfully dysfunctional.
Increasing demand for mission-critical information
— We are constantly asked to create information and make it understandable. How can we best structure our ideas, and the ideas of others, so they make sense? How can we ensure our audience understands what we are saying? How can we create systems that make it easier to publish the needed information?
— Researchers estimate that for most Web sites, 80% of the cost goes toward maintenance. Changes to poorly architected sites take a long time to implement.
Vision Guiding Design
The Requirements Gathering phase provides the goals and scope of the design or re-design. Once content and organization has been defined, then navigation and labeling can be addressed. The user interface is elaborated by visual design and production. Usability testing then reveals any flaws in the architecture, navigation or labeling.
The bottom-line is communication. Effective communication requires an understanding not only of the content to be shared, but also the needs of the audience. It is not simply understanding "What" needs to be said, but also the "Why" and the "How." A good architect will design structure that is aligned with all three factors. In this way, information structure is designed to achieve the following:
- Improve performance
— make information findable, usable and actionable
- Improve presentation
— make information clear, distinct and memorable
- Improve understanding
— make meaning and purpose clear; make complex information accessible and memorable
Information design guides the planning, design and development stages. It is followed by usability testing to ensure that the design has been successfully achieved.
The information architect is responsible to lead the team in delivering some or all of the following:
- Competitive Analysis
— clarify market need and differentiation
- Site or Document Requirements
— define audience, message, technical, and aesthetic criteria
- Site or Document Goals
— with the help of all stakeholders
— clarify unique user needs and task flow
- Wire frames or Use Cases
— illustrate information and task flow
- Navigation and Labeling
— evaluate for clarity, simplicity, and ease of use
— validate design concepts and implementation
- Specialized Vocabulary & Metadata
- Site map or Document Table of Contents
— evaluate topic hierarchy for completeness, usability and navigation logic
- Usability Testing
— evaluate prototypes and wire frames
Information Architecture References
Buzan, Tony and Barry Buzan (1993). The Mind Map® Book. Penguin Books.
Carliner, Saul (2000). "Physical, Cognitive, Affective: A Three-part Framework for Information Design," TechicalCommunication, Fourth Quarter, 2000.
Hackos, JoAnn T. (1994). Managing Your Documentation Projects. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Hackos, JoAnn T. and Janice C. Redish (1998). User and Task Analysis for Interface Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.,
Hackos, JoAnn T. and Dawn M. Stevens (1997). Standards for
Online Communication. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Kimen, Shel (1999). "10 Questions About Information Architecture", Online at Builder.com
Jacobson, Robert (editor, 1999). Information Design, MIT Press.
Morrogh, Earl (2000). Information Architecture: An Emerging 21st Century Profession. Prentice Hall
Nielsen, Jakob (2001). Designing Web Usability.
Norman, Donald A. (1988). The Design of Everyday Things. Bantam.
Nielsen Norman Group. Online at
Rosenfeld, Louis and Peter Morville (1998). Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-scale Web Sites
Shedroff, Nathan (1999). "Information Interaction Design: A Unified Field Theory of Design," Online at http://www.nathan.com/thoughts/unified/index.html (Published as chapter in Jacobson's Information Design — presents the 'continuum of understanding' model).
Tufte, Edward R. (1990) Envisioning Information, Graphics Press.
Tufte, Edward R. (1983) The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Graphics Press.
Wurman, Richard Saul (2000) "Blueprint for Information Architects: Five rules for mapping information so others can find their way". Online Interview at: FastCompany.com
Wurman, Richard Saul (2001). InformationAnxiety2 (2nd ed.). Que.
Wurman, Richard Saul and Peter Bradford (1997). Information Architects. Watson-Guptill
©2003 Cognitive Design Solutions, Inc.