Information architecture (IA) is the structural design of shared information environments; the art and science of organizing and labeling websites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability; and an emerging community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape. Typically, it involves a model or concept of information which is used and applied to activities that require explicit details of complex information systems. These activities include library systems and database development.
Historically the term "information architect" is attributed to Richard Saul Wurman, and now there is a growing network of active IA specialists who comprise the Information Architecture Institute.
Information architecture has somewhat different meanings in different branches of IS or IT:
The structural design of shared information environments.
The art and science of organizing and labeling web sites, intranets, online communities, and software to support findability and usability.
An emerging community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.
The combination of organization, labeling, search and navigation systems within websites and intranets.
The difficulty in establishing a common definition for "information architecture" arises partly from the term's existence in multiple fields. In the field of systems design, for example, information architecture is a component of enterprise architecture that deals with the information component when describing the structure of an enterprise.
While the definition of information architecture is relatively well-established in the field of systems design, it is much more debatable within the context of online information systems (i.e., websites). Andrew Dillon refers to the latter as the "big IA-little IA debate". In the little IA view, information architecture is essentially the application of information science to web design which considers, for example, issues of classification and information retrieval. In the big IA view, information architecture involves more than just the organization of a website; it also factors in user experience, thereby considering usability issues of information design.
The role of IA
Information architecture is a specialized skill set that interprets information and expresses distinctions between signs and systems of signs. More concretely, it involves the categorization of information into a coherent structure, preferably one that the intended audience can understand quickly, if not inherently, and then easily retrieve the information for which they are searching. The organization structure is usually hierarchical, but can have other structures, such as concentric or even chaotic. Typically this is required in activities such as library systems, content management systems, web development, user interactions, database development, computer programming, technical writing, enterprise architecture, and critical system software design. Information architecture originates, to some degree, in the library sciences. Many schools with library and information science departments teach information architecture.
In the context of information systems design, information architecture refers to the analysis and design of the data stored by information systems, concentrating on entities, their attributes, and their interrelationships. It refers to the modeling of data for an individual database and to the corporate data models that an enterprise uses to coordinate the definition of data in several (perhaps scores or hundreds) distinct databases. The "canonical data model" is applied to integration technologies as a definition for specific data passed between the systems of an enterprise. At a higher level of abstraction, it may also refer to the definition of data stores.
Richard Saul Wurman says of the term information architect "used in the words architect of foreign policy. I mean architect as in the creating of systemic, structural, and orderly principles to make something work — the thoughtful making of either artifact, or idea, or policy that informs because it is clear."