What is Information Architecture?


The following are draft DSIA definitions that disambiguate the term “information architecture” as it applies to the creation of application user interfaces. These definitions are based on working theory and research in information science by Nathaniel Davis.

Last Updated: 9/17/2020

Information Architecture (Area of Study)

Information architecture is an area of study that explores the theoretical and practical implications of information “behavior” and how the derived knowledge of said behavior is used to improve the human experience across various aspects of communication and engagement.

As suggested in a DSIA-based research poster, the intellectual discourse of information architecture can be divided into two schools of thought: the “Classic” school and the “Contemporary” school. Each school has two sub-categories, and each sub-category includes several areas of interest. The fundamental difference between both schools can be described as follows:

  • The classic school of thought generally explores the complexity associated with the base properties of information and the approaches used to apply information science to give structure to interactive information environments.
  • The contemporary school of thought investigates the complexity to express the contextual conditions that give rise to thoughtful intent and approaches for embodying meaning and implied purpose within an interactive, physical-digital space.

For additional intellectual discourse about information architecture, I highly recommend visiting the Journal of Information Architecture and the IA Roundtable.

Information Architecture (Web Practice)

Information architecture is a practice concerned with the structural design [5] and engineering of application user interfaces. The 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” [2] for application user interfaces

Information architecture is a practice concerned with the structural design and engineering of 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.” [3] 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:

Additional reading:

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 content, and the endowment and evolution of conceptual and content relationships over time for a given context.

The information architecture of an application user interface or system of interfaces functions as the governing framework for content behavior and user engagement.

Information architecture is often misunderstood as a tangible design artifact like site navigation, the labeling with which a user might engage in a user interface, or the path that a user might take to navigate to desired content and functionality. In actuality, these are only parts to a greater whole.

The information architecture for an application user interface is a set of structural definitions that correlate to the concept and content constraints of a target environment. IA structural definitions result in diagrams and reference models that are shared with team members to help inform activities that involve strategy, 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 [4]. 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 that closely relates to the academic study and research in information behavior and philosophy of information (PI). However, information architecture tends to explore 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-1990’s.

Information architecture is a … science that studies the description and nature of information as a discrete phenomenon.

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 that’s 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 edit and the following comment was added 9/17/2020: 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”. Dan Klyn and Bob Royce have been using this term recently and I agree completely with its use.

Previous Updates: 8/23/2020, 6/3/2020, 1/29/2020