Information Theory for IA – Part 2

In part 1, I wrote about Information Architecture (IA) fundamentally moving information from one place to another. While that article touched on some of the practical implications, this part focuses on how focussing on understanding the alignment of users and the capability of the communication channel can  inform and focus the IA work.

What is at stake

Information is the foundation of decision making. Buying a car, hiring a new CEO, treating a patient, or determining where to spend $100,000 on marketing are all fundamental decisions that are not only dependent on information, but also create new information that needs to be communicated. As IA’s our job is to make sure that the right information is where it needs to be when it needs to be there in a way that is easily consumed by the receivers. Failure to deliver the information can mean a failure to take the right course of action.

What to do with this “Understanding”

Understanding the information needs of the users and the channel provides us with the details we need to actually sit down and do the work of information architecture. And there are a number of tools in our toolbox.  Almost all projects will require a portfolio of these tools. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes organizations make is to assume that there is a magic bullet. There is no singular taxonomy, system, training, or interface that will solve these complicated problems.

In the previous post we discussed Shannon’s Information Theory diagram. If we move the boxes around a bit we can think about the IA work into two primary ways.

  • Alignment: Understanding the alignment of the people sending and receiving the information is key to knowing what information, how much information, and when information should be transmitted. For example, do they speak the same language or have the same educational background? If people do not speak the same language then work must be done to translate the information so they can understand each other. Likewise, two librarians can easily work together cataloging books due to their shared educational background. 
  • Channel: Understanding the mechanism moving the information, is essential to architecting the right experiences, integrations, and interactions to enable the information to move from point A to point B. For example, will it be delivered as text or video? And what technical systems are involved?
Slightly modified version of the Information Theory diagram. This diagram shows that alignment needs to occur between the information source and the Destination. The diagram also shows that the transmitter, receiver, and noise source are all parts of the “channel”
Alignment and Channel

Using this framing we can start with two simple questions; 

  • What message needs to be sent?
  • What is the best way to send the message?

As IA’s, these are the questions we need to solve for.  

Answering these questions in an enterprise environment requires a comprehensive understanding of the environment.  We always start with the business case driving the work, user research, the various content, technology, governance assessments. With those we can determine the best places to increase alignment between the sender and receiver of the information and optimize the channel to deliver the information.

Each of these can play a role in moving the information. However, there are different costs associated with each. The role of the IA is to find the right mix.


Taxonomies, metadata, content models, schemas, etc. are all essential tools for moving information. These semantic/conceptual models allow us to define things in ways that support the needs and perspectives of end users. Models are also essential in facilitating the transmission of information across a channel. In the kitchen store example the model would need to define the metadata and taxonomies necessary to describe the kitchen products in a way that allows the users to find them. These models also need to be implemented in the systems storing the product information and exposed in the experiences. 

Modeling helps build alignment by translating between the perspectives of the people sharing information with structures that resonate with users’ mental models, provides alternate labeling of concepts, and supports multiple ways to access information.

Modeling also helps strengthen the channel by:

  • Structuring information so that it can flow between the technical systems and support workflows 
  • Providing context about the information so that it can be easily found and understood.


The site structure, content models, and interaction design of an experience are another part of the puzzle. Experiences need to support the type of information being presented and need to address the needs and expectations of the users.  Experiences with complex information can increase the efficiency of moving the information by breaking it down into consumable components or organizing the information so that  users can approach it from different perspectives. 

Additionally, experiences need to reflect the reality of the people interacting with them. The interfaces need to support different user goals, different levels of expertise, etc.

Building the right experiences can help address challenges with both alignment and the channel.

Education and Training

This is perhaps the most overlooked approach for IAs. For many processes the most efficient approach is to provide appropriate training for the people involved. Librarians go through years of training, the result of which is that they can easily communicate with each other regarding the categorization of information and they can share that expertise with users of the library. For complex information environments, generally internal to an organization, training can be the most efficient way to align an employee with the needs/processes of an organization. Education can take many forms, including virtual or instructor lead classes, intranet portals, reference guides, online help, etc.

Education primarily addresses alignment in that it is an efficient approach for sharing the context of an organization, especially in highly technical or complex environments.

Organizational Alignment

While IA’s are generally not tasked with organizational change, this is an area that can often benefit from a strong IA practice. There are numerous projects we have worked on where the “noise” entering the system originated from an organizational structure that fundamentally got in the way of providing good information. In one instance an organization we worked with had three independent teams creating content for their website, catalog, and in store signage. Each group sat in a different business unit and the result was disconnected and inconsistent information for consumers.  This was a situation where bringing the three teams together in one business unit was the most efficient solution to the information problem.

What now?

As we look at each of these tools it is clear that each requires some effort or energy to implement. The role of the IA, the focus on “moving information” is to determine the right portfolio of tools or approaches that weighs the value of moving the information against the cost of delivering it. Or, as James Gleick said, “Knowledge has a value and a discovery cost, each to be counted and weighed. James Gleick, The Information, p 87

One thing that has been fascinating to me is that this deep dive into Information Theory has had two major impacts in our practice at Factor. 

  1. First, it gave us a better understanding of the nature of IA and information behavior. Whereas before we would talk about taxonomies, user warrant, information models, now we can talk about user alignment and building channels. It turns out that language matters. These ideas have been much more accessible to our clients and provides them with a much clearer map of what we do and why it matters. It has also clarified our thinking and approach and is allowing us to better adapt our process and methodology to the problem(s) at hand. Perhaps most importantly, it makes it much easier for us to inject the users, the people, into the process; too often these problems are seen as technical problems or website problems, when they are really human alignment problems.
  2. And, while this may seem to contradict the previous statement, it has proven out our methodology. We did not need to make any major adjustments or wholesale changes to our approach or our deliverables. Instead, this new perspective has allowed us to better focus our work and better target it to the deeper problems of information, aligning users and building channels.

So, for organizations digging into complex information spaces and problems the best starting place is still comfortingly familiar:

  • What do I want to communicate?
  • What do my customers or employees want?