The past, present, and future of IA
What is Information Architecture?
The Information Architecture Institute defines information architecture as “the practice of deciding how to arrange the parts of something to be understandable”. Think back to the Dewey Decimal System in your school library; when you needed a specific book, you would look up the title on the library catalog and get a combination of letters and numbers that would guide you to finding exactly what you were looking for.
Aristotle devised an early system of classification in 300 BC when he attempted to organize living things into categories. He was referred to as a taxonomist, which comes from the Greek words ‘taxis’ (‘arrangement’) and ‘nomia’ (‘method’). There were many scientists who studied taxonomy, and it wasn’t until the 18th century that Carolus Linnaeus became known as the Father of Taxonomy when he perfected the classification system. Clearly, organizing data is not a simple task!
A Brief History of IA
Now let’s take a plunge into the brief history of IA to understand more specifically what IA is all about.
During and before the 1970’s it was generally understood that an architect was called upon when someone wanted to build something that was remarkable while at the same time inhabitable and useable. Richard S. Wurman, who later created TED, addressed the IAI conference in 1976 by expressing his interest in the role an architect could play in two-dimensional projects. It appeared that Wurman was concerned with the “static visual design of large quantities of information”.
In 1998, Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville applied Wurman’s idea to technology. They wrote a book titled Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. The book became a bestseller and was named “Technology Book of the Year” by the then-new Amazon. The book attempted to present frameworks for designing organizational structures for large amounts of information on complex websites.
In subsequent editions of the book, new definitions and terminologies were added to explain IA as it relates to technology. The field is complex and defined by many characteristics, so it is often challenging to explain the relationship between IA and technology in simple terms. However, the lack of authoritative and clearly defined standards has led to creative advancements in the application of IA to technology.
IA & AI
It’s no secret technology and innovation have sped up in recent history! We’ve seen IA evolve from architectural 3-dimensional projects into 2-dimensional visual projects, most recently on web-based platforms.
What about all the advancements in artificial intelligence? UX designers have been increasingly incorporating voice interface, a form of artificial intelligence, to provide users with a more enjoyable experience. Can IA be applied to voice interfaces? And if so, how do you design IA for something you can’t see?
We can shed light on this question by understanding the process of IA that is used with chatbot technology. Nancy B. Duan, a designer and information architect, discusses the process of conversational UI and IA. She explains that building a content model provides designers with an “underlying map of related content types that can help create reusable content sourced from a single place.” A content audit is performed in order to do this. Content audits include defining the attributes and traits of your product. Once the designers have an iterated content model, they can identify qualities and attributes that are related to possible user questions about the product.
Content models help designers lay out all the interdependencies and attributes of their products. Once this is complete, the information is organized into hierarchies, which can be done by performing user testing. It is important to maintain multidimensional hierarchies instead of strict hierarchies, and it is important to assure specificity. This is to ensure that users can access options that are hidden in a portion of the decision tree other than the one they are currently in.
The subsequent steps and processes can be read about in greater detail in Nancy Duan’s article, “Designing Conversational UI with Information Architecture.” For the purpose of this article, it is interesting to note that there is a different IA process for the visual web and for chatbots which is a combination of the visual interface and AI. Can similar processes and concepts be applied to voice interfaces, which are non-visual? If not, what are the considerations and challenges to solving this problem?
Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below!