I’m often hired to effect transactional change: get prospects to convert more, facilitate content discovery, reduce website bounce rates, etc. These are worthwhile goals. However, they tend to focus on short-term change, whereas information architecture deals with underlying structures that change at a slower rate.

When making information easier to find and understand, we’re also creating contexts that affect how people see themselves in relation to the organization. The distinctions we establish in the environment — how we set up each part of the place as different from the others — undoubtedly impacts transactional change. For example, clearer labeling may decrease shopping cart abandonment by making it easier for customers to understand what step of the checkout process they’re in and how many more are left to go. In this scenario, the customers find it easier to complete a transaction they were already mentally committed to.

However, these distinctions can also drive long-term behavioral change. When Amazon sets up parts of its information environments as being available only to “Prime Members,” that labeling changes more than just the content and structure of its website. Whereas formerly the customer saw herself as a loyal Amazon customer, now she knows there’s a tier of people who are somehow more loyal than her, and who get perks for so being. She, too, can join this club, and doing so influences her shopping patterns in the long term.

Changes to an environment’s information architecture must be considered with a longer-term perspective than UX designers normally deal with. Structural distinctions change not just how we think of the information we interact with, but also how we think about ourselves in relation to that information. The impact of changes to an information architecture is felt well beyond the near-term goals that are the usual focus of website or app redesign engagements.