Making cents of information architecture

Business to business

When it comes to development, we’ve all taken short cuts over the years. This is especially true with low budget projects. One of the most costly shortcuts is skipping the development of a sound and highly functional information architecture (IA). While this short cut takes several forms, failure to devote enough resources to it and to document it properly costs more then just a few cents.

How do these shortcuts happen? That’s easy, some think they know what IA is, and do it in their heads. Others may know what IA is, but still do it in their heads. This might be fine for a personal project, but what happens when the role of the software is expanded, or when you need to share the IA with other developers. Quickly, additional costs start piling up that shouldn’t be there. To paraphrase that famous TV commercial “You can pay me now or pay me more later.” So let’s take a look at IA.

The hard part is defining what IA is and isn’t. A search of the Web reveals thousands of definitions for IA. Some too vague and others too specific for general use.

One definition that I like comes from Mattie Langenberg (

“Information architecture, as the name implies, is basically about taking content and a structure to present that content to an audience. It is the information architect’s job to ensure that information is well organized and presented in an easily accessible interface.”

I’ve personally used a more streamlined explanation for clients.

“Information architecture is a combination of art and science to organize information into a functional and usable format. Thereby allowing those unfamiliar with the information to easily find what they’re looking for.”

To understand IA, let’s examine one of the most universally recognized instances of IA, the public library. Not the modern public library with computer-based searches on more categories than you can imagine, but the library of a few years ago, the library with rows and rows of index cards.

We may think of libraries using card indices as archaic, they are actually very modern. Long gone are the days of private libraries where books were filed by the preference of the owner, perhaps by the author’s name or perhaps by the title, etc. A visitor to one of these libraries couldn’t be assured of finding what they wanted without the help of the librarian who organized it. Modern libraries quickly adopted the Dewey Decimal System (DDS) developed by the librarian Melvil Dewey back in 1876. His concept of first dividing books into one of 10 categories revolutionized the library world.

Librarians then took DDS as a foundation and developed highly complex systems for organizing books that were easy to use by any layperson. Think about it, for every book in the library, the librarian assigns a number to it (according to the DDS) and creates several index cards, one for title, one for author’s name, etc. Each card contains the same information, but is indexed by different key fields. A user simply needs one key field (author’s name, title, etc.) to find a single book out of tens of thousand within the library.

This IA works wonders if you know the name of the book or author. How about for general research? That is easy, the DDS organizes information into primary categories (one out of 10) and then brakes it down into smaller and smaller units. This system, while developed long before the invention of computers, has no problem handling all the books now published on subjects of computers and computer programs.

This forethought and flexibility is needed when addressing IA and software development. Imagine what it would cost each library if DDS couldn’t have handled all the new topics and subtopics to come in the last 125 years. How many times would they have had to reorganize their systems and redesign their card indices? This may sound silly, but how many times have you had to redesign how your information was organized?

Redesigns, while good for generating long-term employment, don’t leave a good taste in the mouths of those who write the cheques. We need to take the appropriate time and effort in developing a sound IA for each instance just as a librarian would take for organizing the content of a new library.

With this understanding of IA, let’s look at its value in software development. Following the library example, IA is not what the library looks like, not what the shelves are made from nor where they are located within the library. IA is how the books are organized. The index cards are the efficient tools that help you find what you’re looking for.

Organizing the data is the first thing we need to do (i.e., catalogue those books). Too often, we start working on the visual appearance (the user interface). How should the screens be organized, where is the navigation, etc. Where do you put the navigation when you haven’t defined what you’re navigating nor how the information is organized.

IA is the blueprint everything comes from. Your database is the foundation, the data queries are the frame and the screens are simply the drywall and paint. Without the architect’s plan, you couldn’t build a house to withstand everything that nature throws at it.

When we try to cost justify the time and money required to properly investigate, document and develop IA, many business people and information architects themselves talk in the grand scheme of things and the big picture. Rarely do they identify savings and benefits. Since IA is seen merely as a cost, it gets pushed back or worse gets dropped entirely from the project plan. So identify some of the positives of IA and create a positive ROI for the suits of this world. Some of these may include: improved usability, lower maintenance costs and reduced development time.

We’ve now turned the concept of information architecture into something definable, explainable and valuable. As developers, we need to embrace IA, and push for it on all our projects. And if you’re ever in the need of a great information architect, look no further then public library and anyone who has graduated with a degree in library science.