The following are draft DSIA definitions that disambiguate the term “information architecture” as it applies to creating application user interfaces and sensemaking. These definitions reflect working theory and research in information science by Nathaniel Davis.
This is a working document (see Revision History). Last Updated: Week of 2/15/2022
Information Architecture (Field of Study)
Information architecture (IA) is a field of study concerned with sustaining shared understanding and alignment with conceptual clarity. While the mechanics for understanding and alignment between two or more people are generally achieved subconsciously, IA practitioners seek formal methods (or a discipline) to enable understanding and alignment more explicitly.
An information architecture-based approach to understanding (or sensemaking) and alignment typically offers several benefits for working teams:
- Brings focus on intention as a contextual anchor
- Reveals hidden relationships that are critical to a targeted outcome
- Promotes common language as a means to improve communication
- Reduces ambiguity through visual models that clarify meaning
- Makes linear and non-linear sequences easier to anticipate in complex systems (both physical and digital) of behavior
- Exposes sustainable long-term patterns
The primary and most tangible artifact of a practitioner is a conceptual model. Conceptual models take on many forms. Hence, IA practitioners will leverage various modeling techniques and measure their success based on their ability to enable a consensus about the meaning of things, actionable behavioral synthesis, coherent framing of intent, and conceptual continuity.
Despite its name, the study of information architecture is very much human-centered. Hence, practical techniques are typically applied to modeling linguistic and behavioral patterns that shape the context of human experience. Information architecture is also subject-agnostic and applied in private and public sectors. With that said, human-computer interaction has provided the most fertile testing ground for information architecture as a professional practice.
As suggested in a DSIA-based research poster, the intellectual discourse of information architecture regarding human-computer interaction (HCI) can be divided into two schools of thought: a “Classic” school and a “Contemporary” school. Each school has two sub-categories, each including several areas of interest. The fundamental difference between both schools can be described as follows:
- The classic school of thought generally explores the properties of information and information science, in general, to give structure to an information space (both physical and digital) in support of human interaction.
- The contemporary school of thought investigates the contextual conditions that give rise to thoughtful intent and approach for embodying meaning and implied purpose within an information space (both physical and digital).
The practice of information architecture is not beyond digital business and is not widely documented. However, Peter Morville, a prominent author and advocate of IA practice for the Web, contributed his thoughts on applying information architecture thinking beyond the Web with an article titled “The Emancipation of Information Architecture” and a podcast interview with Jorge Arango.
I recommend the Journal of Information Architecture and the IA Roundtable for other intellectual discourse about information architecture. Additionally, the Information Architecture Institute (now defunct) offers a related perspective on information architecture here.
Other notable arguments for information architecture as a field include:
- A Brief History of Information Architecture – by Andrea Resmini and Luca Rosati
- Towards a New Information Architecture – The Rise and Fall and Rise of a Necessary Discipline – by Christina Wodtke
- Explaining Information Architecture – by Dan Klyn
Information Architecture (Web Practice)
Information architecture is a practice concerned with the structural design  and engineering of application user interfaces. Web IA practice includes defining and managing the conceptual models that express the core relationships for sustainable human interaction with technology. In a way, information architecture provides the conceptual “blueprint”  for application user interfaces.
When done well, information architecture helps to simplify how people navigate and engage with content presented in application user interfaces and across disparate and “shared information environments.”  That means delivering content to users when and how they need it.
The necessary systemic perspective of information architecture practice makes it a vital factor for a coherent experience strategy, design ideation, and software development activities.
Other perspectives on information architecture to consider:
Information Architecture (Work Product)
The information architecture of an application user interface or system of interfaces functions as the governing framework for content behavior and user engagement. It represents the aggregate of assumptions and governing conceptual constructs for assigning properties and attributes to objects and the endowment and evolution of conceptual and object relationships over time for a given context.
Information architecture is often misunderstood as a tangible design outcome like site navigation, the labeling with which a user might engage in a user interface, or the path a user might take to navigate to desired content and functionality. In actuality, these are only parts of a greater whole.
The information architecture for an application user interface is a broad set of structural definitions that correlate to the concept and content constraints (or relationships) of a target environment. IA structural definitions result in diagrams and reference models shared with team members to help inform activities involving strategy, user interface design, and software development.
Information Architecture (Science)
Traditional information science investigates information as an entity that can be originated, collected, organized, stored, retrieved, interpreted, transmitted, transformed, and utilized . In this way, information is primarily viewed as a resource to be manipulated in the context of knowledge access and management. Information architecture is an information science closely related to the academic study and research in information behavior and philosophy of information (PI). However, information architecture explores broader, experiential complexities of information-seeking behavior and the description and management of such environments.
The science of information architecture, in the context of technology, stems from the exponential rise in human-computer interaction since the advent of the Web graphical user interface in the early 1990s.
Information architecture, as a science, studies the description and nature of information as a discrete phenomenon to expose properties and behaviors that information exhibits over time and space. This includes investigating the potential metaphysical, semiotic, linguistic, and ontological impact of information and the systemic information complexity created when coupling human performance and cognition with the spatial topology of one’s inhabited environment.
In general, insight into information architecture science helps to improve the performance of information interaction and knowledge management in complex human user interface environments and communications between technology interfaces.
Notes and References:
1. Resmini, A. & Rosati, L. (2012). A Brief History of Information Architecture. Journal of Information Architecture. Vol. 3, No. 2. [Available at http://journalofia.org/volume3/issue2/03-resmini/]. Originally published in Resmini, A. & Rosati L. (2011). Pervasive Information Architecture. Morgan Kauffman. (Edited by the authors).
2. Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld introduced the “blueprint” analogy in the second edition of their best-selling book, “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.”
3. Rosenfeld, L., & Morville, P. (2007). Information architecture for the World Wide Web. Farnham: O’Reilly.
4. Borko, H. (1968). Information science: What is it? American Documentation, 19, 3.
5. This is consistent with the language used by Morville and Rosenfeld use in the second edition of Information for the World Wide Web – “the structural design of shared information environments.”
Week of 1/14/2022
- Added a related presentation: “Information Architecture: Beyond Navigation, Labels, and Organization | Nathaniel Davis, Methodbrain“
Week of 1/11/2021
- Added greater detail to Figure 1
Week of 12/28/2020
- Added Figure 1 to support the “measures for success” mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
Week of 12/7/2020
- Changed the article title from “What is Information Architecture?” to “The Disambiguation of Information Architecture.”
- The Information Architecture (Field) entry was missing the discussion of how central conceptual models are in promoting alignment.”
Week of 10/26/2020
- Edited the first paragraph of this article. Changed the qualifier from “Area of Study” to “Field of Study.”
- This was refined to incapsulate “conceptual alignment” as the foundational thread across all information architecture perspectives, and a list of benefits was added.
- Made minor edits to the descriptions for classic and contemporary schools of thought by applying consistent use of “information environment.”
- Added a small entry that recognizes activity in the contemporary information architecture space with a mention of Peter Morville’s first strong endorsement of practicing IA beyond digital and business contexts.
- Added “design” to reflect the traditional aspect of the IA practice that considers Morville and Rosenfeld’s original multi-part description that includes “The structural design of shared information environments”. See .
8/23/2020 – Edits
6/3/2020 – Edits
1/29/2020 – Edits