Usability between information design and information architecture

1. Labelling the field of information design

Many English dictionaries do not define “information design” as such, probably because “information design” is a new concept while “design, like information, is a much overused term, sometimes referring to the superficial attractiveness of an item” (Dujardin & Williams, 2002, p.8).

Defining information design by its complexity of meanings can be more difficult, as practitioners and academics understand it differently. According to Raskin (2000, p.342) “information cannot be designed; what can be designed are the modes of transfer and representations of information”.

Composition authored by a former student

Composition authored by a former student

Nevertheless, Passini states (2000, p.84) that “the term information design means communication by words, pictures, charts, graphs, maps, pictograms, and cartoons, whether by conventional or electronic means” while Holtzman (2000, p.317) defines an information designer as “anyone creating structure in any digital form”. Jacobson (2000, p.6) describes information design as a “young profession”, which serves people in finding their way towards the information they need.

The roots of the information design field go back to ancient times. The profession itself has had different labels and approaches, depending on the communication tools available over centuries. Horn (2000, p.15) states that “information design is the most recent manifestation of the age-old profession of communication assistance”. He writes:

Egyptian scribes sat every day in the marketplace and wrote hieroglyphic letters, reports, memos, and proposals for their clients. At least since then, the business of assisting others to make their communications more effective has flourished. … In any field of human endeavour there is a process of, first, specialization and, then, increasing professionalization.

Nowadays document design does not any longer cover the initial meaning, as it named the activity of preparing and presenting information in general. Writing about the evolution of information design over the past three decades, Schriver (1997, pp.4-5) points out the need of professionals “to reinvent themselves and their documents leaving the word document as a placeholder for a text-like artifact composed in print or in mixed media, the combination of which could only be imagined just a few years ago”.

Referring to the books “Information design” edited by Jacobson (2000) and “Information architects” (Wurman, 1996), Carliner (2000, pp.563-564) states that “neither of these books really presents a practical definition of information design, however”. Furthermore, he lists five definitions published by The International Institute for Information Design which “are no different from the definitions of document design”. His own definition is:

Preparing communication products so that they achieve the performance objectives established for them. This process involves:

  1.  Analysing communication problems
  2. Establishing performance objectives that, when achieved, address those problems
  3. Developing a blueprint for a communication effort to achieve those objectives
  4. Developing the components of the planned communication effort solution
  5. Evaluating the ultimate effectiveness of the effort.

Sless (1998, p.9) argues that “as designers we should think in relationship”. He then gives an evolution overview of the information design concept during the 20th century:

In the early part of this century, most obviously in the Bauhaus, there occurred a transition from the crafting of single objects to design for mass production. By the middle of the century designers began to broaden the conception of design and made a transition that enabled them to take account of an object’s usability. In the 1980s, designers broadened the scope of design methods further and made a transition from designing for usability to designing the long-term relationship between people and institutions. Finally, in the 1990s, information designers are designing rule systems for the production of customised information, and also designing the social rule systems that could make good information design the norm rather than the exception.

An important turning point in defining the information design field is Wurman’s “Information Architects” (1996). According to “Design Matters” (2001, online) Wurman uses actually “information architecture” name as an umbrella term for ‘three fields: technology, graphic design, and writing/journalism.’

Composition authored by a former student

Composition authored by a former student

The “Design Matters” forum (2001, online) held a debate in which experts and researchers were invited to comment and react on a collection of articles What’s in a name?, which featured the pros and cons of (re)naming the field ‘Information Design’. In her commentary Schriver (2001, online) is not in favour of swapping “information design” with “information architecture”. According to her, what information architecture lacks is “the rhetoric of invention – imagining, representing, and drafting visual and verbal content”.

Schriver also argues that the term information design better suits the context because it should:

  1. help people working “in the field” to identify “with the name”
  2. “be broad enough to include everything its members engage”
  3. “generate positive resonance”
  4. “have vision”.

As a field, information design brings together various features from graphic design, information architecture, technology and psychology.

2. Information Design versus Information Architecture

Information design deals with the complexity of presenting information while information architecture implies structuring information. Information architecture might be a basic component of information design as it “is now firmly linked with the design of online information, specifically on the World Wide Web” (Dujardin & Williams, 2002, p.16).

Designing paper documents is not the same as designing information for the Web. Burnett (2000, pp.264-265) warns that scanning paper documents and putting them on the Web “is not likely to be effective”. According to her, paper and online documents are two contrastive categories: “paper documents are linear, static, physical forms of communication” while “online documents are nonlinear, changing, virtual forms of communication”.

Burnett identifies four main characteristics that better portray online documents. They are: website architecture, navigation, usability and look:

  • website architecture refers to the structure of the content which can be sequential, hierarchical or nonlinear
  • navigation guides users through a site
  • usability reflects users’ satisfaction in using a website
  • design means the site’ look and feel.

(Adapted from Burnett 2000, p.265)

3. Usability

Usability enables users to interact with any communication product in order to identify the information they need and expect. Moreover, as Dujardin and Williams (2002, p.25) point out, “usability has to do with the quality of the reader experience, resulting from the effectiveness of the document”.

Hackos and Redish warn (1998, p.395) that a website is usable “if users can understand what they find” and “use what they understand appropriately to achieve their goals”. Furthermore, they emphasize on finding information because “if users can’t find the Web page they need, it doesn’t matter how well designed it is”.

Through his book subtitled “A common sense approach to Web usability”, Krug recommends Web designers to consider three basic rules of usability: 1) design pages for scanning and not reading, 2) omit needless words and 3) make navigation clear and useful for users. He also recommends to “get rid of half of the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left” (2000, p.45) to make the following benefits more obvious: reducing the noise level, content prominence, and short pages. They will allow “users to see more of each page at a glance, without scrolling” (ibid, p.45).

Moreover, the title of Krug’ book Don’t Make Me Think! is actually his first usability rule which embodies a simple meaning: Web pages must be “self-evident, obvious and self-explanatory” (2000, p.10). Burnett (2000, p.265) also develops the same idea when she comments: “In contrast, [with paper documents] online documents are nonlinear, changing, virtual forms of communication that must create their context visually. Because readers can arrive at any Web page from anywhere else on the Web, the context must be immediately obvious”.

Referring to the same context of usability, Nielsen (1997, online) states that “people rarely read Web pages, word by word; instead they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences” and “reading online is about 25 percent slower than reading from paper”. Hackos and Redish (1998, p.347) also stress the positive impact on the users’ understanding when establishing from the beginning “the qualitative and quantitative usability goals for your design”.

A complete usability test has to consider several key criteria of a website: page identifier, transition elements, downloading time, and testing the pages on different browsers. Even all of these are taken into account, an information designer should be careful with the users’ reaction. During a usability test they might be impressed by spectacular graphic elements and their feedback is not always very relevant. Hackos and Redish describe a case when users rejected a product after the usability test. They warn: “looking good is not the same as being useful and usable” (1998, p.391).

4. Conclusions

In the context of Web, designing information is a complex process of gathering, selecting, adapting, transforming and shaping data to make it available and accessible to users while information architecture is about understanding and conveying the big picture of a website.

A successful activity of designing information for the Web has to take into account the audience’ needs, by structuring the content properly in relation to navigation and look. The usability test may come between the initial and final version of a website, in order to integrate its outcomes.

While usability tests are essential to the success of the website they may be not enough. Modern look, but not too sophisticated or spectacular, simple structure, clear navigation, maintenance and a permanent dialogue with audience are vital even if poor information architectures make busy users confused, frustrated and angry.


Burnett R. (2000) Technical Communication, Harcourt Publishers
Carliner S. (2000) Physical, cognitive and affective: a three-part framework for information design, Technical Communication
Cooper K. (2001) The design of an open learning course in The ISTC Handbook of Professional communication and information design, Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators
Dujardin F. and Williams N. (2002) Information Design, Sheffield University
Jacobson R. (2000) Information Design, MIT Press
Hackos J. and Redish J. (1998) User and Task analysis for Interface Design, Wiley
Hoft N. (1995) International Technical Communication: How to export Information about high technology, Wiley
Holtzman S. (2000) Sculpting in Zeroes and Ones in Information Design, Jacobson R. (ed)
Horn R. (2000) Information design: emergence of a new profession in Information Design, Jacobson R. (ed) (2000) MIT Press
Krug S. (2000) Don’t Make Me Think! A common sense approach to Web usability, New Riders
Nielsen J. (2000) How Users Read on the Web, Alertbox, online at
Passini R. (2000) Sign-Posting Information Design in Information Design, Jacobson (ed), MIT Press
Raskin J. (2000) Rationalising Information Representation in Information Design, Jacobson (ed), MIT Press
Schriver K. (1997) Dynamics in Document Design: Creating Text for Readers, Wiley
Sless D. (1998) Building the bridge across the years and disciplines, Information Design Journal
Wurman R.S. (1997) Information Architects, Watson-Guptill

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