Levels of information architecture

By Johannes Ernst


I’ve been reading up on what is apparently called information architecture: the “structural design of shared information environments”.

A quite fascinating discipline, and sorely needed as the amount of information we need to interact with on a daily basis keeps growing.

I kind of think of it as “the structure behind the design”. If design is the what you see when looking at something, information architecture are the beams and struts and foundations etc that keeps the whole thing standing and comprehensible.

Based on what I’ve read so far, however, it can be a bit myopic in terms of focusing just on “what’s inside the app”. That’s most important, obviously, but insufficient in the age of IoT – where some of the “app” is actually controllable and observable through physical items – and the expected coming wave of AR applications. Even here and now many flows start with QR codes printed on walls or scanned from other people’s phones, and we miss something in the “design of shared information environments” if we don’t make those in-scope.

So I propose this outermost framework to help us think about how to interact with shared information environments:

Focuses on where on the planet where a user could conceivably be, and how that changes how they interact with the shared information environment. For example, functionality may be different in different regions, use different languages or examples, or not be available at all.
Focuses on the space in which the user is currently located (like sitting on their living room couch), or that they can easily reach, such as a bookshelf in the same room. Here we can have a discussion about, say, whether the user will pick up their Apple remote, run the virtual remote app on their iOS device, or walk over to the TV to turn up the volume.
Once the user has decided which device to use (e.g. their mobile phone, their PC, their AR goggles, a button on the wall etc), this level focuses on what they user does on the top level of that device. On a mobile phone or PC, that would be the operating-system level features such as which app to run (not the content of the app, that’s the next level down), or home screen widgets. Here we can discuss how the user interacts with the shared information space given that they also do other things on their device; how to get back and forth; integrations and so forth.
The top-level structure inside an app: For example, an app might have 5 major tabs reflecting 5 different sets of features.
The structure of pages within an app. Do they have commonalities (such as all of them have a title at the top, or a toolbox to the right) and how are they structured.
Some apps have “modes” that change how the user interacts with what it shown on a page. Most notably: drawing apps where the selected tool (like drawing a circle vs erasing) determines different interaction styles.

I’m just writing this down for my own purposes, because I don’t want to forget it and refer to it when thinking of design problems. And perhaps it is useful for you, the reader, as well. If you think it can be improved, let me know!