The Changing Foundation of Information Architecture

June 18, 2010

Information Architecture has always been an important part of website design; if a website is too difficult to navigate, users are unlikely to stick around. It is the IA’s job to think like a user and structure the website accordingly. IAs sometimes operate as graphic designers and often are responsible for SEO (search engine optimization), thus contributing to a rather unwieldy job description. But until relatively recently, the job of Information Architect has remained relatively stable. As the saying goes, however, the only thing that remains constant is change.

What now?

Gone are the days of a one-page website—say hello to blogs, vlogs (video blogs), YouTube, and Twitter. Facebook has gotten in on the action by allowing users to personalize their pages’ look and feel; products like the iPhone and the Droid allow for “apps” or additions to a phone that you have purchased; and RSS feeds allow users to pull content from an infinite number of websites onto a single customizable page—their own personal Internet.

An Information Architect organizes websites based on the way he or she thinks users will use them. While there are tools that can help IAs do their job (Google Analytics, Omniture, and good old-fashioned legwork), in the end IA is an exercise in subjectivity. It is practically impossible to organize a website in a way that makes it perfect for every single user. This problem is being compounded by the sudden insurgence of an infinitely customizable Internet: if every user is able to customize his or her experience, where does that leave the Information Architect?

Passive vs. active organization

Although it is a website’s job to tell its story, users are quickly finding out how to exert enormous influence over how that story is told and understood. Authors are extremely protective of what they consider to be “their” stories; in the same way, it can be intimidating for clients and designers to hand the reins over to users. The goal here should be to find a balance between static and dynamic storytelling. The client and designer provide the framework, and the user makes it his/her own.

This means that the Information Architecture job description likely will be changing ... again. Instead of asking the passive question, “How do we organize this information we think the user needs?”, IAs will need to think more actively: “What information does the user want to find?” It’s a slim distinction, but it’s a vital one.

Instead of presenting information in rigid hierarchies and sitemaps, it soon will become the Information Architect’s duty to structure a fluid website which allows different users to navigate and find the information they want in different ways. Not only will a fluid, easily navigable website keep users there longer, it will help them discover on their own what they enjoy and want to learn.

Or, as I would have said in my previous life, “What do you want to read today?”