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Defining information architecture can be challenging, but discussing the good it does isn’t that hard. When teaching IA, I start by explaining its objectives, which boil down to enabling three things:

  • Findability
  • Understandability
  • Utility

All three complement and influence each other.

Findability is about making stuff easier to find — i.e., making it possible to meet your needs with information you can access.

You interact with lots of information every day. Some is easily accessible. For example, you know who you’re meeting at 10 AM because you wrote it in your calendar. Your calendar is the “source of truth” regarding time-based commitments.

Other stuff isn’t as easy to find. You may not know where something is, what it’s called, or even if it exists. You may have experienced this if you’ve tried to get the perfect gift for a friend: when starting with a hunch, you have a vague idea of what you’re looking for. You become a better searcher as you go along — but it takes some effort.

When teaching this aspect of the subject, I point students to Marcia Bates’s paper on berrypicking (pdf).

Understandability is about making sense of stuff — i.e., usefully integrating new information into your mental models.

You may have found lots of stuff, but its meaning (to you) may be unclear. For a concept to make sense, you must relate it to other concepts you already understand. The systems you interact with can make this easier or more difficult.

For example, a shopping website might allow you to sort products by category or price. Either might be useful, depending on what you want to do. But the key is that you already understand the available categories and price ranges; otherwise, you won’t be able to choose intelligently.

Context plays an essential role in understanding. You understand things differently depending on the place and situation where you encounter them. The exact list of items will mean different things depending on whether you see it in an online store, a restaurant, or a university classroom.

When introducing this aspect of the subject, I point students to Richard Saul Wurman’s Hats issue of Design Quarterly (pdf).

Utility is the newest of the three objectives of information architecture in the sense that I’ve not taught it as much before — perhaps because I’ve taken it for granted since it’s so fundamental. But it’s worth calling out.

Making stuff more findable and understandable isn’t of much good unless it creates value for someone. Utility is about asking: what is this ultimately good for? What purpose does it serve?

Most UX designers think too granularly: they’re focused on making screen-level artifacts more usable or engaging. They’re not incentivized to take in the bigger picture: how the experience enabled by screens, content items, navigation choices, or whatever, furthers the organization’s objectives.

Information architecture operates at a higher level of abstraction: it deals with distinctions and relationships between concepts. As such, it’s well-suited to exploring strategic intent.

When teaching this aspect of the subject, I point students to Lafley and Martin’s strategic cascade of choices framework.

Findability, understandability, and utility — information architecture generates all three. But how? By creating order — that is, by organizing information in particular ways or providing the means for people to do so themselves. But order isn’t a goal per se — it’s in service to making better choices, collectively and individually.

That’s what useful information enables: better choices. Ultimately, information architecture creates clarity so people can lead better lives by choosing better.