Information architecture (IA) refers to the science and process of arranging and relating information. The architecture or structure of your site, page, document or knowledge base, is pivotal in deciding how efficiently and painlessly your information is absorbed by your audience.
It is very much worth investing the time to think about how your reader or user will want to apply your information, before your start tapping at your keyboard. IA experts consider the specifics of the target audience’s needs, because IA puts user satisfaction at the center of design. Unorganized content makes navigation difficult and inexplicit, so the users can easily get lost and feel annoyed thereby sabotaging a task needing to be achieved. Well-thought out information architecture can save both time and increase accuracy or prevent mistakes, thereby saving the organisation time, money and reputation.
The concept of information architecture was first coined by Richard Saul Wurman, an American architect and graphic designer, the very same person who conceived and initiated the TED conferences. Clearly a very creative and versatile thinker, he wrote several books on the topic of information architecture in the latter stages of the 20th Century. I love the title of one of his works: ” Information anxiety: What to do when information doesn't tell you what you need to know.” He clearly understood how much time can be wasted when you can’t find what you need to know quickly and easily.
Pioneers of the IA field, Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, distinguished between four main components of information in their book “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web”: organization systems (hierarchy), labeling systems, navigation systems and searching systems.
Against this backdrop, Robert E Horn founded the Information Mapping methodology and brought it to the world as a course and consulting service in 1982. Information Mapping describes a technique that categorises information into different types before arranging it into hierarchies and blocks that are defined by user needs and priorities. Case studies and anecdotal evidence indicate that mapped documents produced improvements in retrieval accuracy, usage and uptake, and reductions in supervisor questions, error rates and reading time. The creation of documents to first draft and the subsequent time to peer review them was also significantly reduced.
So what are some of the elements of good information architecture?
First and foremost, the structure needs to understand your audience. Know their most pressing information needs and how they would search for that information. You can test this by creating draft heading labels and hierarchies for a small pilot audience and asking them to complete various information retrieval tasks. What headings were they expecting to see?