I am sometimes surprised to hear that some practitioners believe there is not a very big difference between Interaction Design (IxD) and Information Architecture (IA). While it may be true that the line between the two is blurred, there is still a clear distinction between them.
If we turn to Wikipedia for help, we will find the following definitions:
“Information Architecture is the art and science of organizing and labelling websites (…) to support usability.”
“Interaction design is defined as the practice of designing interactive digital products, environments, systems, and services.”
You may have encountered many other terms such as web design, web navigation, UX design etc. They are confusing, I know. That’s because they all share the same common-theme. But they are all so different. This is exactly why we need to clearly define each of them. Information architecture spans well beyond interactive design and website navigation. As a matter of fact, navigation is only the tip of a very large iceberg called information architecture.
A clear distinction between the two terms was given by Cooper.
“IA means defining information structures to answer the question ‘how does a user find the information they want?’ (…) On the other hand, IxD means defining system behaviors to answer the question ‘how does a user take the action they want?’”
Today we would like to take a closer look at Interactive design and Information Architecture to uncover the differences between the two. Otherwise, the specifics and deep meanings of each will be lost in a single, intertwined role with reduced value.
The term ‘Information Architecture’ is quite old. It is old in the sense of the progression of technology and old in the sense of the web. I first learned about Information Architecture back in 2008. Fast-forward 6 years. Everybody is talking about how User Experience design has replaced Information Architecture, but many of today’s so-called IxD designers lack the deep knowledge of Information Architects. It is clear that IA will continue to remain relevant, but I am not sure under what form.
There are two main components to website Information architecture:
- The underlying nomenclature, structure and organization of relationships between the site’s content/functionality.
- The definition and identification of site content/functionality.
The most important thing you need to understand is that Information Architecture is not a part of the UI (user interface). Nevertheless, even if IA isn’t visible to the user, it definitely impacts his/her experience on the site. That’s because the information architect looks at technical elements of the website from an objective perspective to answer questions such as:
- “Is that information helping the customer?”
- “How does this software help us better organize information?”
- “What is the flow of users through the website?”
In order to do this, information architecture focuses on several things: target audience, software used on the website, existing data and how it will be represented. In some ways, the profession of information architect is similar to that of a city planner: his overarching vision will shape the website on a larger scale, but he cannot share details without exiting his area of expertise.
Responsibilities of an Information Architect:
- Researching the business & audience. The goal is to obtain as much information as possible about factors that will influence the project (examples: mental models of visitors, how information is used on the site etc.). In order to do this the Information Architect must have access to the results of surveys, card sorting exercises, user-polling and A/B testing.
- Analyzing Data. After the research phase is complete, the IA must analyze the data, create user personas and set goals for the website. Developers, marketers and designers should also be involved.
- Organizing, labeling and developing site structures. As the name suggests, the IA has to architect the site with the help of wireframes, site-flow & hierarchical structure diagrams, top-level aggregated nodes & leaf nodes, site-maps etc.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think about IxD is behavior. Interaction design is about the way users interact with your interface (the front-end of your business) and how they complete their goals. An Interaction Design specialist will be able to answers questions such as:
- “What buttons should I use?”
- “How would a user manipulate these controls?”
- “How will they react to this manipulation?”
- “Are these interactions taking into account all mappings, constraints, feedback and affordances (button vs. menu)?”
The mission of interaction designers is to improve user-experience by creating a seamless interface packed with the tools necessary to complete a goal (example: convert, subscribe, purchase etc.). In order to do this they will have to decide what graphics, menus, or buttons should be used. They will also decide how different types of manipulations will act (example: how widgets will highlight, additional animations, interactive mechanisms, placement of page elements etc.).
Whereas the information architect decides on the structure behind the site (back-end), the interaction designer chooses between different functions (radio buttons vs drop-down lists, menus vs tabs etc.) to customize the site’s front-end.
Responsibilities of an Interaction Designer:
An interaction designer has many responsibilities, some of which span beyond his area of expertise and require the involvement of an entire team.
- Performing usability tests & customer interviews. The results of these tests will be passed on to the Information Architect, who will then analyze them.
- Producing and designing different interactive page layouts, models and workflows.
- Designing navigation maps and process flows to improve the visitor’s experience on the site.
- Preparing documents for visual teams, implementing new products and site features.
- Preparing required story boards, wireframes and meeting integration requirements.
What vs Why (or Interaction Design vs. Information Architecture)
Interaction Design represents the WHAT in the equation. It’s all about creating affordances – including what controls to use and how the users will interact with them. Interaction design is also the ‘WHAT’ of Information Architecture.
IA represents the WHY. According to Andy Fitzgerald, architecture is the over-arching argument over why space is ordered this way, instead of another way.
Every website begins with the ‘WHY’. Following the logical process of architecture, specialists work their way from program to analysis and from analysis to design. As the project develops, specialists will do increasingly less architecture and focus on design elements and user-experience instead. Thus, every detail of the project will be covered.
A common element for both disciplines is the use of drawing tools – even if they are used to different ends. Information architects use them to create complex diagrams that depict the relationship between different bodies of information, and Interaction designers use them to portray widgets or the state of screens.
Both disciplines – architecting & designing / interaction & structure – are intertwined and inseparable. It is impossible to create a good website only with information architecture, because it will lack the specificity and subtlety of good design. Furthermore, a website that relies solely on design elements but lacks the insights and structure provided by information architecture will never be able to reach maximum potential.
There are very few individuals who have mastered Information Architecture and Interaction Design, but there are more than a handful who are extremely knowledgeable in one or the other. This is why the development of a website should planned as a team project, where the IAs and IxDs share their input and expertise.