The Strategic Value of Information Architecture

Ultimately information architecture is about making distinctions; dividing things into categories. To do this effectively, designers need to take a comprehensive approach to understanding the problem space. This includes not just an organization’s content (including its products and services) and its customers, but also the context it’s operating in: the language people use to describe it, what its competitors are up to, market trends, and more.

These are strategic concerns. Developing a successful business strategy requires more than a deep commitment to the purpose of the enterprise and a firm belief in its ability to succeed; it also requires seeing clearly at the highest levels. Things that are clear in retrospect often emerge from ambiguous beginnings. Information architects are experts at disentangling the most complex of these messes, allowing organizations to see their current context more clearly.

Strategy also calls for envisioning possibilities. As with other design disciplines, IA makes the possible tangible. Specifically, IA makes tangible integrated sets of language structures and processes that influence how people perceive a particular part of the business. This can result in a navigation system for a complex website, but it can also result in a new structure for the company’s sales organization or a new approach to dealing with customer support. Information architecture operates at a more abstract level than other design disciplines, so its output is more broadly applicable.

Yes, IA is often in service to creating information environments that are easier to use; of making information easier to find and understand. But there is more to it than this. The process of understanding the problem space — and of establishing the distinctions that will make the environment coherent — forces strategic product conversations that are often overlooked, especially in fast-moving business contexts. And the act of modeling the information environment is often a powerful catalyst for clarifying strategy at the level of products and for the organization as a whole.