Examining information architecture: structuring content for maximum value
- 18 August, 2021 11:25
Information architecture is a discipline focused on structuring, organising, and categorising content and data in an effective and usable way, largely for websites and applications.
Application front ends are becoming increasingly complex, spanning multiple platforms, covering multiple use cases, and drawing data from an ever-growing collection of information sources. Information architecture is the art of putting all the pieces together into a coherent whole.
Information architecture framework
Without solid information architecture, companies don’t get the maximum value out of the data collected in warehouses, says Daniel Wallance, associate partner at McKinsey & Co.
“The volumes of data have significantly increased over the past several years,” he says. That has forced organisations to pay attention to developing their information architecture frameworks based on enterprise-level decisions about choice of data platforms, tracking metadata across systems, and having single pane of glass visibility of data.
Creating an information architecture framework requires cooperation between infrastructure teams, data experts, business unit leaders, and risk managers, and often occurs over a multi-year period, Wallance says. “Establishing a clear information architecture vision and enabling strategy that has organisational-wide buy-in is essential.”
The payoff is that a contemporary information architecture will not only help a company extract maximum value from its data today, but also position it for future business needs and resiliency. The danger of not modernising the information architecture framework is increased technology debt, which renders organisations incapable of making use of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.
The work of an information architect
Information architects can work at multiple levels in an enterprise. Some build information architecture platforms, weaving together all the threads — infrastructure, governance, business requirements, and the needs of the applications and systems that consume company data. Others play a smaller, more focused role, working on individual use cases.
For example, an information architect can play a key role in designing an employee information portal or an e-commerce site. To do this, they need to understand business needs and user requirements, work with data engineers to identify and organise data sources, and collaborate with user experience (UX) developers to create front ends that enable users to quickly get the information they need, when they need it, in the form most useful to them.
Sitting at the intersection of three disciplines, information architects can start out as data engineers, as business analysts, or as UX designers, and then learn the other aspects of the job.
Information architecture design
At this more focused level, information architecture is the process of arranging information so that it is usable to the user, says Sridhar Vasudeven, practice director at Insight, a Tempe-based technology consulting firm.
That includes understanding the structural design of the information environment. “How do you synthesise and organise that information? How do you label it? How do you make it searchable? How do you build your navigation so users can get the information?” he says.
Information architecture design requires an understanding of what the user wants to find, and the establishment of navigation paths that get them there. “And in today’s world, you also have to make it coherent across different channels,” Vasudeven adds. “Today you may look for information on a website; tomorrow you may be looking on a phone or asking Alexa.”
For users, good information architecture design will help them find what they are looking for, but that’s just one of its functions. It can also help users explore and find things they might want, but don’t yet know that they do. For example, a website customer searching for oranges could be recommended other fruits they might want to try, or be offered juicers.
When users do find what they want, good information architecture design can help them find additional context and information that they need to make a choice, such as nutritional information or user reviews.
Finally, good information architecture design should also ensure that, if a user previously found something on the site, they can easily find it again.
Data architecture vs. information architecture
Although some companies use the terms interchangeably, data architecture is more concerned about the technical side of managing data, dealing with the raw data and the sources that provide the data, as well as data lifecycle management and the infrastructure required, says Vasudeven.
Information architecture, by comparison, focuses more on the meaning and usability of the data. As a result, Vasudeven says, information architects often come from the business analyst side, or from user experience design, as a key component of information architecture is understanding how to visually present data using sitemaps, tree structures, or graphic design.
Information architecture principles
There are no formalised rules or systems for information architecture, but some experts have created some general guidelines. For example, Dan Brown, an information architect, author, and co-founder of design firm EightShapes, has developed the often-cited eight principles of information architecture:
- Principle of objects: Treat content as a living, breathing thing with a lifecycle, behaviors, and attributes.
- Principle of choices: Create pages that offer meaningful choices to users, keeping the range of choices available focused on a particular task.
- Principle of disclosure: Show only enough information to help people understand what kinds of information they’ll find as they dig deeper.
- Principle of exemplars: Describe the contents of categories by showing examples of the contents.
- Principle of front doors: Assume at least half of the website’s visitors will come through some page other than the home page.
- Principle of multiple classification: Offer users several different classification schemes to browse the site’s content.
- Principle of focused navigation: Don’t mix apples and oranges in your navigation scheme.
- Principle of growth: Assume the content you have today is a small fraction of the content you will have tomorrow.
Information architecture jobs and career paths
Very small companies often use off-the-shelf tools and applications for their information architecture needs, but midsize and larger companies often rely on the work of information architects, especially if the organisation does any business on the web.
Because of this, information architecture skills are in high demand across a wide range of industries. ZipRecruiter, for example, currently lists more than 200,000 information architect jobs.
Since information architects sit at the intersection of several disciplines, career paths can vary greatly. According to career resources site Zippia, the most common major for information architects is computer science, but English, business, and graphic design are all close behind, as there is no specific degree for information architects nor a standard career progression. Practitioners often learn as they go along.
“We often see information architects gain skills on the job as managers for specific systems or infrastructure capabilities,” says McKinsey’s Wallance. They then get a broader portfolio over time. “Rotational programs for information architects across business functions is also a great way to gain visibility of different business units,” he says.
Wallance recommends information architects who want to position themselves for the future should stay on top of the latest trends, platforms, and technologies — and those who come from a technology background should look for opportunities to engage with business executives, and vice versa.
Information architecture salaries
Demand for information architecture talent will only increase, Wallance adds, as companies work with even larger data sets and need to deploy new capabilities. “The need for talent will increase in parallel especially for individuals with a dual technology and business skill set,” he says.
This demand is reflected in information architecture salaries, which are high.
According to ZipRecruiter, the average salary of an information architect is US$126,000 per year, with most jobs ranging from US$100,000 to US$162,000 per year.
Most information architects have bachelor’s degrees, but salaries increase with higher degrees. Certifications can also increase earning power, including those in usability or project management.