The 4 Components of Information Architecture

In its purest from, information architecture is defined as “the practice of deciding how to arrange the parts of something to be understandable”—this, according to the Information Architecture Institute. Information architecture is found all around us: when we navigate a subway map, in the product instructions we read, when we browse the Internet, use an app, or engage in countless other daily tasks.

In terms of content, information architecture involves structuring and notating content to aid in usability, archiving, and preservation, as well as organizing artifacts in an intuitive format for users. Information managers develop information architecture frameworks to help users locate content and complete tasks. These professionals combine many components to create systems for effective content management. They must also make decisions regarding content strategy and user interface design.

The discipline of information architecture resides at the intersection of how users naturally explore content, the content itself, and the context that applies to the content. Content elements may include media formats, the volume of content, existing architecture, and copyright matters. Context may involve business objectives, finance, politics, culture, technology, available resources, or organizational limitations.

Information architecture for large projects is a complex endeavor that may require the skill of a specialist in a specific area such as search schemas, metadata, or taxonomy. This need may arise as information managers start to uncover the requirements of users by evaluating routine organizational research tasks, how the group searches for information, and the computer literacy of the intended audience.

The primary function of information architecture is to make content easy to locate using site navigation that assists users in completing tasks. Information architecture and site navigation both affect user satisfaction and the successful performance of the repository. Organizational stakeholders cannot exploit hidden resources, and will only put so much effort into a search, given their other work-related responsibilities. Therefore, information managers typically use the following four standardized components to develop effective information architecture frameworks.

Organizational Structure

Information managers develop organizational structures that delineate the connection between artifacts, develop intuitive content frameworks, and provide consistency throughout an information repository. The three most common organizational structures are hierarchal, sequential, and matrix. Hierarchal structures, also called tree structures or hub-and-spoke structures, use a trickle-down format with parents representing main categories and children representing subcategories. Sequential structures lead users through content, step-by-step, down a designated pathway. Finally, matrix organizational structures allow users to follow their own path using links that follow no specific route.

Labeling Systems

Information managers use labels to identify content. They develop clear and distinct labels so that users do not resort to unproductive, random browsing in the hope of stumbling across a needed resource.
Three kinds of labels enhance the user experience (UX): document labels, content labels, and navigation labels. Information managers also design labels so that both users and computers can easily understand their meaning. Typically, navigation labels are shorter than descriptive labels. Most importantly, managers design labeling systems so that they are consistent throughout an entire repository.

Navigation Systems

The way that content connects within a repository encompasses a resource navigation system. For instance, search engines are one tool that information managers might use to facilitate resource navigation. However, effective information architecture requires more that an embedded search engine; it’s also important that content within a repository connects to users in a way that has meaning to them. Therefore, information managers will develop several methods that intended users can exploit for intuitive navigation.

Search Systems

Information managers borrow from the cognitive psychology field to understand how users search for content. The primary elements that managers use from the discipline are cognitive load, mental models, and decision-making.

Cognitive load involves the amount of information that users can process while searching for content. This consideration prevents managers from overloading users with too much information. Mental models encompass the assumptions that people make when searching for artifacts. It’s easier for users to find content if it resides in a location that corresponds to users’ mental models. Finally, information managers consider the decision-making processes experienced by the intended user. By placing content in key places where users are likely to look, information managers aid users in making decisions.

Organizations employ information managers to present mission-critical content to stakeholders in a meaningful way. They develop complex schemas that make the search for knowledge a fruitful endeavor. Therefore, organizations that wish to inform stakeholders or communicate with other populations will likely recruit information management professionals for years to come to help them make the best use of a wealth of content.

Learn More

Information means more than knowledge, it means solutions. When technology, people and information intersect, society and industry benefit. You can harness the power of information with our online Master of Information degree at Rutgers University.

Recommended Readings:

Best Practices for Knowledge Management System Creation – Master of Information
How Data Is Stored And What We Do For It
7 Career Paths for Data Analysts & Information Scientists


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