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Is IA about sitemaps & wireframes

Is information architecture about site maps & wireframes. No!

A couple of things have been bothering me recently (and I’ve been working in the garden with time to mull them over):

This is a real problem, and it is completely within our power to manage and solve. IA is not about hierarchies, card sorting, sitemaps and wireframes. It is about solving information problems, designing information solutions and thinking about how information embeds itself within people’s lives. Sure, you may need to deliver something to a client at the end of the thinking process, but it does not need to, and maybe should not, be a hierarchical site map and wireframe stack.

So next time someone asks you to produce sitemaps and wireframes, say no! Instead say “I will help you think about the information challenge, solutions to solve it, information structures and how to deliver information to people. At the end, I will document the solution in detail”. If the end result happens to be a simple hierarchy and website page layout, that’s fine. But pitch IA in the right place, not the wrong place.

9 Responses to “Is IA about sitemaps & wireframes”

  1. David Says:

    Hi Donna,

    But, and I say this really to try to help your problem-not just to be mean, isn’t the proof in the pudding?

    Employers hire IAs to do sitemaps and wireframes.
    IA’s write about sitemaps and wireframes.
    Consultancies pitch IA as sitemaps and wireframes

    You can say it is MORE.

    But what seems more honest and sincere is that YOU are more, not IA. You are a holistic designer in the User Experience space who’se community and connections derive the most connection from IA than from other communities around you and so you want to be an IA, or do IA. But you do and are so much more than IA.

    (sitemap & wireframe also includes the following:
    taxonomies, ontologies, and other types of information management through structured and unstructured schemas, controlled vocabularies, etc.
    Thesauri creation
    etc. etc.)

  2. Christopher Fahey Says:

    If you can’t do sitemaps and wireframes, you’re going to have a hard time finding a job under the title “information architect”. Yes, it’s more than that, but without mastering those skills you’re useless to most employers who need to feel confident that the deliverables you will produce will be familiar to and usable by the teams of designers and technologists who will actually use them. That’s part of the point of institutionalizing IA over the last decade or so: to establish widely-agreeable conventions on how to get user experience designs done. It’s both a good thing and a bad thing, IMHO.

  3. Donna Maurer Says:

    Dave, I absolutely agree that I am more than IA (my business card says interaction designer, my site lists both, I do visual design & markup as well), but I still think IA is more than sitemaps & wireframes. There is a bigger information challenge than how to create a hierarchy, and that challenge fits within IA.

    Chris, of course you need to be able to do sitemaps & wireframes to get an IA job. But they are the end of a design process. I know some IAs who can do sitemaps & wireframes but really can’t design ;)

  4. Austin Govella Says:


    You’re not making any point, and I’d love to hear you clarify.

    Sitemaps and wireframes are artifacts that should communicate solutions to information problems (though I hate that phrase).

    If you’re using sitemaps and wireframes to *only* communicate production, then you’re not doing IA. Or, at best, you’re doing IA with NO VALUE.

    The value is the content; not the deliverable. Solutions in site maps and wireframes could just as easily be delivered as narrative, flows, as higher-fidelity prototypes, or interpretive dance.

    Maybe IA needs more dancers.

  5. leisa.reichelt Says:

    This sounds to me like a Big IA, Little IA kind of conversation…

  6. Donna Maurer Says:

    Yay to Austin. Exactly how I think.

    Don’t know that my clients would like me to do interpretive dance, though. I’ll leave that one to you.

  7. Christopher Fahey Says:

    Part of my point was that the simple normalization of IA as “sitemaps and wireframes” has been key in making the practice successful and well-known. Millions of designers and programmers and business analysts now know how to read sitemaps and wireframes, and feel comfortable using them. In some organizations, if you invent a new way to communicate an interaction design idea, you risk creating misunderstanding among those millions.

    Mind you, I agree completely with Donna that it’s *better* to invent communication methods tailored to the problem and the team at hand. I prefer to work that way when applicable. I think the ability to creat new and innovative communication artifacts is the mark of a good IA, but often such artifacts are only useful in an environment full of other highly-skilled and innovative people.

    But I suspect that the success of IA as a defined practice has a lot to do providing tools and methodologies to people who are *not* good IAs. By standardizing how wireframes and sitemaps should work and look, we’ve enabled lots of people who otherwise lack the experience (or even in many cases the raw talent) to invent new communication methods to actually function as IAs in their organizations.

    This whole discussion, and indeed the old “big IA/little IA” discussion, sometimes feels like it’s basically people who have advanced to a high level in their careers trying to change how they are percieved by others, not realizing that that the skills and techniques they are casting aside are still highly relevant to (a) newbies, (b) the mediocre, and (c) people who just happen to deeply love doing the little things.

    It’s like when a 15-year-old calls the toys they played with when they were 10 “stupid”. Or like when I think of some of the music I liked in 9th grade and wonder what I was thinking.

  8. Donna Maurer Says:

    Eek…I hope it doesn’t look like I’m one of those people (that Christopher mentioned). I don’t think like that, but I see my words could read that way. I still do sitemaps & wireframes, but it’s not all that IA is about…

  9. Chris Sainsbury Says:

    Hiya. I actually feel like you’re all debating the point but broadly you agree – wireframes are important communication tools but are not the be-all-and-end-all. As an IA, the most important thing is to provide effective solutions to web problems and ensure they are communicated effectively, however that may be.

    I wrote about this on my own blog recently.

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