The problems that information architecture addresses
For most of our history, the information we have interacted with has existed in a one-to-one relationship with the artifacts that contain it.
Badfinger, beach boys & the beatles
Mario was in the mood to listen to The Beatles. He had only one Sgt. Pepper’s CD, and if he wanted to listen to it, he needed to know exactly where it was on the shelf. If he was traveling and didn’t bring his CD with him, he couldn’t listen to it. Because the information (the music) was physically embedded in containers (compact discs), and he only had one copy of each, he had to define “one right way” to organize his CDs. Should they be ordered alphabetically based on the artists’ first names, or their last names? What about albums in which the composer mattered more than the performer?
In 2001, Mario was no longer limited to the one-to-one relationship between information (the music) and containers (the discs) that he used to deal with. He was no longer constrained to deciding between sorting the albums alphabetically by artist name or album name; he could now do both simultaneously. He could make multiple perfect copies of his songs, and bring them with him on his laptop when he traveled. Mario stopped thinking of his music as something tied to its container. It had dematerialized.
The first version of iTunes had a few distinct modes. Its focus was clearly on allowing people like Mario to find and play music from their own collections. As a result of this reduced feature set, it had a very simple user interface and information structures.
By 2005, the iTunes Music Store had more than 2 million songs available, a far cry from the 40 albums that Mario had in his collection to begin with. But Apple didn’t stop there: soon it started selling TV shows and then movies through the (now renamed) iTunes Store. TV shows, movies, and music were presented as distinct categories within the store, and each “department” had its own categorization scheme: rock, alternative, pop, hip-hop/rap, etc. for music; kids & family, comedy, action & adventure, etc. for movies; and so on.
Each of these functions introduced new content types with particular categorization schemes. iTunes still had a search box, as it had on day one, but search results were now much more difficult to parse, because they included different (and incompatible) media types.
the problems information architecture addresses
The tool he used to manage and navigate his simple library of 40 or so music albums had changed into one that dealt with hundreds of millions of different data objects of various types (songs, movies, TV shows, apps, podcasts, radio streams, university lectures, and more), each with different organization schemes, business rules (e.g., restrictions on which device he is allowed to play back his rented movie on within the next 24 hours), and ways of interacting with the information (e.g., viewing, subscribing, playing, transcoding, etc.).
more ways to access information
The functions provided by this tool were no longer constrained to Mario’s computer; they are now available across multiple devices, including his iPhone, iPod, Apple TV, CarPlay, and Apple Watch. Each of these devices brings with it different constraints and possibilities that define what they can (and cannot) do with these information structures (e.g., “Siri, play ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’”), and Mario doesn’t experience them as a consistent, coherent interaction model.