Information Architecture Research

What do we really know about information architecture? Do we know what works? Can we defend our designs? Are we improving? In preparing for my upcoming seminars, I revisited the role of research in the design process, and surveyed the literature most relevant to the practice of information architecture.

It was hard work. When it comes to information architecture research, the knowledge environment is highly fragmented. But I was able to extract a few gems and gain some new insights.So, for all those information architects who didn’t spend their summer in a research library, here’s a brief summary.

Research in Context

Before we dig into the research itself, it’s worth considering the myriad inputs that shape design. They include:

  • Goals and Scope. The stated project goals and scope which may be conveyed in an RFP or as functional specifications.
  • Constraints. The budget, schedule, project team, and technology infrastructure.
  • Discovery. Project-specific research to learn about your unique blend of users, content, and context.
  • Competitive Analysis. Reviewing what everyone else is doing and borrowing from the best.
  • Expertise and Experience. What you already know, including explicit and tacit knowledge.
  • Guidelines. Published heuristics and guidelines derived from research and/or practice.
  • Published Research. Results of academic or corporate research in human-computer interaction, library and information science, cognitive psychology, etc.
  • Usability Testing. Iterative project-specific testing of prior designs and new prototypes.

The information architect must somehow process each of these inputs and reconcile the differences. That’s the hard part.

What happens when one input contradicts another? Do we trust a guru’s guidelines, a researcher’s results, or our own gut instinct? How do we evaluate benefit to the user against cost of development?

Any literature review should be mindful of the critical role of judgment in determining which research applies in which context.

So, caveats aside, here’s a radically incomplete and idiosyncratic list of freely accessible research papers worth review before you plunge into your next information architecture project.

Information Seeking Behavior

Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men by Edward C. Tolman (1948).

The Design of Browsing and Berrypicking Techniques for the Online Search Interface by Marcia J. Bates (1989).

Metaphors We Surf the Web By by Paul Maglio and Teenie Matlock (1998).

Information Foraging by Peter Pirolli and Stuart K. Card (1999).

What Do Web Users Do? An Empirical Analysis of Web Use by Andy Cockburn and Bruce McKenzie (2000).

Cognitive Navigation: Toward a Biological Basis for Instructional Design by Steven Tripp (2001).

Toward an Integrated Model of Information Seeking and Searching by Marcia J. Bates (2002).

ScentTrails: Integrating Browsing and Searching on the Web by Chris Olson and Ed H. Chi (2003).

The Use of Proximal Information Scent to Forage for Distal Content on the World Wide Web by Peter Pirolli (2004).

From Information Retrieval to Information Interaction by Gary Marchionini (2004).

A Multi-Dimensional Approach to the Study of Human-Information Interaction: A Case Study of Collaborative Information Retrieval by R. Fidel, A.M. Pejtersen, B. Cleal, and H. Bruce (2004).

Structure and Organization

Depth vs. Breadth in the Arrangement of Web Links by Panayiotis Zaphiris and Lianaeli Mtei (1997).

Web Page Design: Implications of Memory, Structure and Scent for Information Retrieval by Kevin Larson and Mary Czerwinski (1998).

Age Related Differences and the Depth vs. Breadth Tradeoff in Hierarchical Online Information Systems by Panayiotis Zaphiris, Sri Hastuti Kurniawan, and R. Darin Ellis (2002).

An Update on Breadth vs. Depth by Kath Straub and Susan Weinschenk (2003).


Reproduced and Emergent Genres of Communication on the World-Wide Web by Kevin Crowston and Marie Williams (1996).

It’s the Journey and the Destination: Shape and the Emergent Property of Genre in Evaluating Digital Documents by Andrew Dillon and Misha Vaughan (1997).

Website Structural Navigation by Noah Lazar and Michael Eisenbrey (2000).

Web Page Layout: A Comparison Between Left- and Right-justified Site Navigation Menus by James Kalbach and Tim Bosenick (2003).

Breadcrumb Navigation: An Exploratory Study of Usage by Bonnie Lida, Spring Hull, and Katie Pilcher (2003).

Breadcrumb Navigation: Further Investigation of Usage by Bonnie Lida Rogers and Barbara Chaparro (2003).

Faceted Metadata for Image Search and Browsing by Ping Yee, Kirsten Swearingen, Kevin Li, and Marti Hearst (2003).

Can Document-Genre Metadata Improve Information Access to Large Digital Collections? by Kevin Crowston and Barbara H. Kwasnik (2003).

Cascading versus Indexed Menu Design by Michael Bernard and Chris Hamblin (2003).

Transitional Volatility in Web Navigation by David R. Danielson (2003).


Stuff I’ve Seen: A System for Personal Information Retrieval and Re-Use by Susan Dumais, Edward Cutrell, JJ Cadiz, Gavin Jancke, Raman Sarin, Daniel C. Robbins (2003).

Milestones in Time: The Value of Landmarks in Retrieving Information from Personal Stores by Merrie Ringel, Edward Cutrell, Susan Dumais, and Eric Horvitz (2003).

Bringing Order to the Web: Optimizing Search by Showing Results in Context by S. T. Dumais, E. Cutrell and H. Chen (2001).

From E-Sex to E-Commerce: Web Search Changes by Amanda Spink, Bernard Jansen, Dietmar Wolfram, and Tefko Saracevic (2002).

Using Categories to Improve Search by Edward Cutrell and Susan Dumais (2003).

What I’ve Missed

I’m sure that I’ve committed many egregious sins of omission, so please share your favorite research articles and sources.

After all, we know from the research that collaborative information retrieval is a pretty good strategy. Let’s share what we find, so we can focus on the hard part of figuring out how to integrate what we learn from research into the practice of information architecture.

by Peter Morville