Humans today have the shortest attention span in the history of the world. It’s literally worse than a goldfish, which is insane.
The amount of stimuli that we are confronted with on a daily basis has grown so much that building simple experiences has become more crucial than ever. People don’t have patience for bad UX, which means that we as UX designers have to be able to simplify information down to the essentials.
That’s where information architecture comes in. Information architecture is the organization and structure of content and information. The goal of IA is to help people understand what they see, find what they need, and complete tasks. It’s all about clearly and logically organizing information.
For example, almost all grocery stores are organized in the same way, regardless of the store brand or where the store is located.
This is because they use the same information principles and layout. That way, regardless of what store you’re in, you feel comfortable and generally know where to find things.
For example, you know that you can find milk in the dairy section, which is usually located at the back of the store. Just like you also know that ketchup is located in the condiment aisle. Could you imagine a store that organized everything alphabetically? Ketchup would be located near Kellog’s cereal.
Ham would be next to Hammers. It wouldn’t make sense. 🤦
IA draws its inspiration and roots from 3 common methodologies: library sciences, architecture, and cognitive psychology.
IA owes its beginnings to library and information science. The Oxford dictionary defines library science as the study of “collecting, preserving, cataloging, and making available books and other documents and information in libraries.” Both cataloging and archiving are necessary for IA.
Cataloguing is the process of creating metadata (or the description and identifiers of the content of something) and then attaching that metadata to your content so you can find it later.
Archival is about building a repository of all of this content in such a way that it can be edited or removed later to maintain the integrity of the archive. Are you familiar with the Dewey decimal system? It’s how libraries organize their sections and books. It makes it easier for librarians to find the books they're looking for. This was developed because they needed to be able to locate and retrieve books quickly for cataloguing and archival.
For example, if you need to find a fantasy book and you know the author's name, you’ll easily be able to find it. The Dewey decimal system was the standard that was created and recognized by librarians to be able to find what they need and complete tasks.
Sound familiar? This is the goal of IA.
The second methodology is architecture.
IA having roots in architecture makes perfect sense. It’s in the title for Pete’s sake. Architecture is all about building something off of a solid foundation and eventually creating attractive, intentional structures.
IA is about the same thing, but the structures aren’t physical. They're information.
Last, there’s cognitive psychology.
Merriam Webster defines cognitive psychology as "the branch of psychology concerned with mental processes (such as perception, thinking, learning, and memory) and the overt expression of behavior." IA helps people get the information they need, when they need it.
How do you create something that does that without first understanding how someone thinks about the information and what they do to get that information?
Here are 3 of the main elements of cognitive psychology that lend themselves to IA: Mental models, cognitive load, Gestalt principles.
A mental model is the way a person thinks or believes about the thing they're interacting with. Each person see the world through our own mental models. Information is easier to find when it’s in a place that matches where the user expects it to be. As a basic example, e-commerce websites use the concept of a shopping cart to help people understand what they're doing when they're buying something on a website. This gives users a physical experience that matches one of their existing mental models and makes the online experience feel more familiar and understandable.
Showing too much information can overload a person’s ability to understand what they're seeing. This is all about simplifying and showing the right amount of information so users can process what's in front of them.
The Gestalt principles are all about the visual perception of things in relation to each other. Basically, our brains try to organize and simplify complex images, designs, and information by arranging the parts into a whole rather than just seeing them as individual elements. Understanding and applying these principles effectively is important because they help you make designs that follow how humans actually perceive and understand shapes.
At the end of the day, for digital products, IA is all about organizing information on-screen in a way that is useful, findable, and helps users complete a task in the simplest and most intuitive way possible.
The field of information architecture is vast and complex, which is why there are people who specialize just in IA or a subspecialty of IA like search schemas or taxonomy.