We only understand things in relationship to something else. The frame around a painting changes how we perceive it, and the place the frame is hanging in changes it even more: we understand an image displayed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art differently than one hanging in a shared bathroom in a ratty hotel.
When designing an information architecture, we are engaging in a new type of placemaking: one that alters how we perceive and understand information. As with (building) architects, information architects are concerned with creating environments that are understandable and usable by human beings, and which can grow and adapt over time to meet the needs of users and their organizations.
a sense of place
We bring this awareness of place—and the placemaking drive—to information environments as well. When we talk about digital media, we use metaphors that betray a sense of place:
Pay bills on Chase.com
"Visit" a website
"Meet" on WhatsApp
Learn in Khan Academy
places made of information
We also experience information environments as types of places. When you visit a bank’s website and peruse its navigation structures, headlines, section headings, images, and other information elements, your senses and nervous system are picking up semantic cues that tell you that you are now “in a bank.”
It’s worth noting that because banks are also places in the real world, and because their information needs tend to be transactional, we think of their information environments as more place-like than we would a collection of recipes, as shown below, which we perceive as being more analogous to a book or magazine.
composition of semantics
Information architecture defines compositions of semantic elements such as navigation labels, section headings, and keywords, and produces the design principles, goals, and guidelines that capture the intended feeling of the place (e.g., is this a serious, solitary place, or a fun, social space?).
Coherence between different instances of the architecture is achieved by consistent use of language, and by establishing a particular relationship, or order, between the linguistic elements that comprise it.
structure & order
The semantic structures in an information architecture also have hierarchies that indicate the relative importance of individual components within the whole. This first-level order plays a large role in defining the conceptual boundaries and overall perceived “form” of the information environment, much as the primary structural supports of a building tend to define its physical form, use, and adaptability over time.
Another common ordering principle in buildings is rhythm, usually the result of patterns evident in the structural grid. Rhythms and patterns are also important ordering principles in information environments, which change the way we perceive information. For example, how search results are presented can suggest different “beats,” with some environments requiring denser patterns than others. A strong sense of rhythm in information environments that show a constant feed or stream of similar information nuggets, such as Instagram.
Digital information environments have started to evolve typologies. The information structures that underlie bank websites, for example, tend to be similar to those of competing banks. The same is true for airlines, universities, hospitals, newspapers, online stores, and more.
Typologies serve as shorthand to communicate to users what type of place they are in. Much like when we enter a basilica-type building we think, “church,” when we enter a site that has navigation elements with labels like “Banking,” “Loans and Credit,” “Investing,” and “Wealth Management,” we think “bank.”
They make it easier for users to understand and navigate the environment. If you’re designing a bank’s website today, it will probably not be the first such site your users will have encountered. They will bring to the interaction learned behaviors and expectations of how such an information environment should work, and where they can find the information they are looking for.
Finally, having a standard structure to work against makes it easier to differentiate an information environment from those of competitors, as shown below. This may sound contradictory, but when the overall structure is similar for many organizations in the space, small differences—such as the use of particular words or a different tone—help them stand out. These differences can help define the brand of the organization (as long as they don’t go too far afield and “lose” the user).
modularity & extensibility
Information environments are composed of different layers that change at different rates over time. While the page layouts, visual design, and interaction mechanisms of websites can change to reflect popular styles, their semantic structures tend to remain relatively stable. Information architecture is primarily focused on defining these semantic structures, which tend to be relatively long lived, like FedEx's navigation from 2005 to 2015. Users of these systems become used to their semantic structures, and can become disoriented if they change too abruptly.
Given the dynamism of digital information environments, graceful adaptability and extensibility are even more important for information architecture than for building architecture. Any one information architecture can be placed in a continuum that ranges from “very flexible” to “very brittle.” While you would expect that “very flexible” would be the ideal, this is not often the case: suppleness in information architecture usually invites the use of ambiguous language, which is not conducive to clear communication. The ideal is somewhere in the middle, where the environment can accommodate change but is also clear and crisp in its objectives and affordances.
The happiest place(s) on earth
As with the design of physical places, information architecture aims to bring into balance the needs of the user (who wants to be able to find and understand information in a comfortable, familiar setting) with those of the organization that owns the environment (which usually has business objectives to meet, such as a certain sales target) and those of society as a whole.
A carefully designed organizational structure can help users understand new and unfamiliar environments. A good illustration of this principle is Disneyland, the first theme park. As Walt Disney’s ideas and ambitions for the park grew, it became evident that an organizing principle was needed.
The eventual solution that emerged was a design with a central hub, with spokes leading to five distinct thematic “lands”: Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Main Street, U.S.A. Each “land” contains attractions (rides, shows, exhibits), restaurants, shops, and services such as restrooms.
The semantic structures that define the Disneyland experience go beyond setting the context for the place itself: they also extend to the people who participate in it. In Disney parks, customers are referred to as “guests” and park employees are referred to as “cast members.” These carefully chosen terms help to define and differentiate how these people act in the environment.
The themed-lands-around-a-hub structure has also served Disney well over time, as it accommodates organic growth and change within a coherent structure. New attractions are added to individual lands to cater to changing tastes, while reinforcing the themes of their respective lands. Because the park is organized around distinct “lands,” guests can more easily accept and understand these (sometimes jarring) changes: there is an overall method to the madness.
Since the early 1970s, Disney has been building a new Disneyland-style park somewhere in the world every 10 years or so, and these new parks follow the original’s organizing scheme with variations to make them contextually relevant to their time and location.
one of the web's disneylands?
The information architecture of digital products and services functions in a similar placemaking role to that of physical environments. An example of an information environment that shows a structure akin to Disneyland’s is eBay.
Instead of themed “lands,” eBay has categories that focus the user’s attention on a particular set of goods. Some, such as eBay Motors, are effectively subsites with highly specialized navigation structures.
eBay also employs carefully chosen labels to define user roles: at any given moment, you can act either as a “buyer” or “seller,” nouns that constrain your expected range of behaviors to a predefined set.