Information architecture is an essential complement to user experience design, concerned with structuring information in ways that help people understand what they're looking at, and find what they're looking for. ✱

Like Marshall McLuhan, I don't necessarily believe everything I say. This is a cocktail-party definition of information architecture, not a canonical one. I crafted this statement very carefully, and I would like to tell you why.

Say What It's For

Defining the damn thing is a trope as old as information architecture itself. As a discipline, information architecture is in a unique position: Being concerned with the structure and orientation of any kind of information, there are very few concrete statements we can make about the social utility of information architecture itself. Whereas modern disciplines are organized into discrete domains of varying importance and concomitant prestige, information architecture crosscuts every one of them, from the most banal to the most critical.

Like any other artificial construct, however, information architecture exists for a purpose: to partition, orient and label bodies of knowledge to enable people to understand and move about them. If your interlocutors need a more concrete example than that, it tends not to take long to expose a most visceral frustration of theirs that could be remedied by applying information architecture.

Anchor It to the Ground

Information architecture is a rich discipline that has deep roots in library science, psychology and cognitive science, semiotics, epistemology, discrete mathematics, and the actual definition of space in the built environment. It also happens to provide the skeletal system to an even newer neologism: user experience design.

Of course, business decision-makers don't care one whit about that litany of academic grandiloquence. But they are beginning to care about user experience. Researchers like Linda Stone admonish us that easy to use won't rise above the noise of contemporary living, and that organizations must act as trusted advisors, endeavouring, through their commercial offerings, to improve quality of life.

UX is on business cards and conference programs because it's on the lips of businesspeople. But it's one thing to acknowledge user experience design as an interface between information architecture and the commercial sphere, and quite another to confer it the status of superset.

The Thin End of the Wedge

The relationship between the two disciplines is more like this: user experience turns information architecture into something broadly worth paying for, while information architecture keeps UX from falling apart. And now for the bonus round.

Baked into the concept of user experience design is the paramount importance of peoples' private interpretations of the events that happen around them. Business writers like Joseph Pine are busy advancing the idea that a organization's ongoing relationship with its customers is best conceived as a simulacrum. Since authenticity is an artifact of perception, he argues, the goal of the business ought to be to render said authenticity for the customer. What happens when it becomes more commercially expedient to deliver just an experience with no additional material benefit?

The most polite word I have for this idea is dissonant. Not merely because I believe that businesses should materially benefit their customers no less than their customers benefit them. I also question the wisdom of any executive who would assume a new role as a purveyor of imperial regalia, unless he was also planning a midnight run.

What we can say about information architecture is that it's of no use if not internally consistent. What we can say about architected information is that it must eventually take on a physical form which maintains this consistency. Such a form may or may not exhibit external consistency—that is the proverbial map may diverge from the literal territory. At that point, as a business executive, your fate depends greatly on what you've promised your clientele.

Information architecture favours empirical reality when not explicitly divorced from it. It has the potential to keep the experience economy honest by promoting understanding among businesspeople and their customers—a goal which is much closer to what motivates the majority of the talented people I've met over the last few years.

Dénouement

UX seems to be what people are paying for, whether it's capital investments, employment contracts or conference tickets. Rather than see information architecture absorbed into the belly of user experience design like a male anglerfish, as a representative of the former discipline, I want to set the terms of that relationship.

So, yes, in addition to a great many things, information architecture is a crucial aspect of user experience design. Huge. Fat. Asterisk. ✱