of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 26, No. 6

August/Septmeber 2000

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Information Architecture Practice: An Interview with Vivian Bliss, Microsoft

ASISB: Can you describe in some detail what you (or your firm) do for your employer or your clients? If you have a specialization, how would you characterize it?

VB: Information Services (IS) is a group inside of Microsoft with the mission to design, develop and implement information solutions to enable decision-making. As part of this mission, IS is responsible for the general portal to the corporate intranet known as MSWeb, the company's worldwide libraries, global research and reference services, the company museum and the employee newsletter (MicroNews).

I am a member of a subgroup, Knowledge Architecture, or KNAC for short. We are responsible for maintaining the services and platforms that support IS initiatives and projects, as well as developing and maintaining MSWeb and other delivery vehicles for content available from information services and its suppliers. We work with groups throughout Microsoft to provide state-of-the art information retrieval capabilities through full-text searching, taxonomy creation and management, and the development of browsing and navigational interfaces designed to get people connected to the information they need to do their jobs. KNAC's credo is to provide world-class products and services to Microsoft internal customers for information management and information retrieval.

ASISB: Please describe a specific IA challenge that you have solved.

VB: Approximately six months ago we completed a two-stage redesign of MSWeb that began almost a year earlier. This redesign was from the ground up basing our architecture choices on information we gathered from end-users and key stakeholders, plus our own expertise and knowledge of the end-user experience and content. One of the many goals was to reduce the time it takes an employee to find information. A quantifiable measure of success was to reduce the number of clicks. In April 1999, we released MSWeb 4.0. This past December we released version 4.5. Usability studies showed a 47% reduction in the number of clicks, from 13 down to seven. Anecdotal evidence through feedback confirmed our success. 

We accomplished this through a variety of architectural design choices, including the user interface (UI) design and visual representation of information on the home page. Compare the earlier MSWeb to the current version in Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1: MSWeb 3.0 (April 18, 1999)

Figure 2: MSWeb 4.5 Home page (December 17, 1999)

The new design connects the user immediately with information and numerous options for further navigation. The user can "browse" by following organized links or "search" using the MSWeb Search at the top of the page. The browsing choices include the "Categories" and "Key Sites" in the left-hand navigation bar, the "I Need To" drop down box at the top and "view more" links from three of the four main buckets: Event Calendar, News and Knowledge Centers. (This screen shot does not show the fourth bucket "Knowledge Centers.")

The "Categories" are a type of taxonomy. We designed this taxonomy by surveying key stakeholders and users, analyzing search logs and IS' own experience in providing global research and reference services. After initial creation we ran usability tests to make final adjustments.

The Categories can be up to four layers deep. The final nodes are links to intranet pages hand-picked as the best sources for the information that is most often requested. This collection is known as the Best Bets. For example, an employee searching for information on the Matching Gifts program can click through the Categories to find the link to the relevant intranet pages.

Figure 3: MSWeb 4.5 Family/Community Category page.

We have cataloged over 850 intranet sites as Best Bets assigning categories and subject terms from controlled vocabularies. We leverage this cataloging not only in the Categories display but also in MSWeb Search.

MSWeb Search went through radical changes, both visibly and invisibly. The earlier version provided only three basic options: a full text search of the corporate intranet, a few hand-selected shortcuts to useful sites (the predecessor of Best Bets) and a link out to the Internet. The current version is much richer. It brings together seven content stores:

  1. Best Bets
  2. Full text of the intranet (now over two million pages)
  3. A news database
  4. The library catalog
  5. A collection of secondary market research
  6. An events database
  7. A collection of images

Plus a link to MSN for Internet access. A new feature is displaying authorized terms as part of the search results. This information is pulled from controlled vocabularies that we create and maintain.

Figure 4 depicts a screen shot of a search for "asp."

Figure 4: MSWeb 4.5 Search page with results for "asp" displayed under the "Intranet" tab, which covers two content stores: the full text of the intranet and Best Bets.

Explaining all the pieces and the interplay would take much more than a paragraph so I will point out just a few. Invisible to the user who entered "asp," the query was sent to seven different content stores and the controlled vocabularies. Along the way the query morphs into the appropriate search syntax for each destination.

In the controlled vocabularies, "asp" is found as an entry term to two different authorized terms - active server pages and application service providers. This information is displayed in the left-hand bar under "Terms." This exposure provides disambiguation for the user who can then further refine the search by clicking on the preferred definition.

The trip to the controlled vocabularies for the authorized terminology is also used to expand the search query headed toward the Market Research Collection. (See Figure 5.) This collection is a combination of full text and document surrogates, or metadata. Because of this uneven mix, the search is expanded to increase recall. In the search for "asp" the two authorized terms were joined to the search string with an or. In the results, we inform the user of the expanded query sent to the collection.

Figure 5: MSWeb 4.5 Search page with results for "asp" under the "Market Research" tab. Note the expanded search query displayed to the person conducting the search before the first result.

Returning to my earlier example, an employee searching for information on the Matching Gifts Program could choose to search rather than browse through the Categories. Entering "matching gift" in the search box brings the results in Figure 6.

Figure 6: MsWeb 4.5 Search page results for "matching gift."

Notice that a Best Bet can have more than one category attached. This is evidence that we try to accommodate more than one way of thinking to help insure the end-user finds the information.

The pieces I described are just a portion of the architecture choices we made to enable employees to find information. The work does not stop here. We are continually reviewing our user needs and new technologies and ideas on the horizon.

ASISB: Could you discuss your methodology? What tools, techniques and software do you use?

VB: To gather information from our end-users and key stakeholders we periodically use online surveys, personal interviews and the ethnographic technique of contextual inquiry and analysis. Before rolling out we personally tested the system in a manner only expert searchers could dream up, ran usability tests in the lab and invited everyone to check out the prototype through a link on the then-current home page. Ongoing, we solicit feedback through MSWeb, analyze search logs and continually learn from our personal interaction with employees requesting information and research.

MSWeb is built using Microsoft products and technologies:  Internet Information Server, SQL Server, Visual InterDev, Image Composer and GIF Animator. We also utilize HTML Assistant and MAPTHIS!, both of which are freeware.

MSWeb relies on other systems we create and maintain. The controlled vocabularies, categories or taxonomies, and metadata schemas are built, stored and captured in the Metadata Registry. We built this database and the accompanying tool based on SQL and principles of Resource Description Framework (RDF). The Metadata Registry is leveraged by the search in MSWeb and in cataloging the Best Bets. It is also available for use across the company by other groups in their own tagging or indexing and as part of a search on their own vertical portals.

Using the MDR to register the many different schemas used inside the company and by external vendors providing content, KNAC can link conceptually similar tags. This is the groundwork necessary to support the future vision of a fielded search across many disparate content stores structured with semantically different tag names.

Currently, we are breaking the different parts of MSWeb into components, leveraging XML ( Extensible Markup Language) and XSL (Extensible Stylesheet Language). The coming of information appliances and smaller clients, such as handhelds and small wireless communication devices, means that MSWeb will not always be displayed as a complete portal on a PC. Soon our internal customers will be able choose one or more of the components to display in the form of their choice. One of the reasons that a colleague, Alex Wade, and I attended the ASIS Information Architecture Summit was to find others facing the same architectural challenge. While most of the presentations and conversation focused on displays on a conventional PC monitor, we did identify a few individuals with similar concerns. I predict that many more information architects will soon be facing the same challenge.

ASISB: What professional and academic experience did you bring to your current position, and what are the most critical things you have had to learn on the job?

VB: My entire life I have been fascinated with the organization, representation, access and use of information. This fascination led me to library and information science. Luckily, I entered the profession at the time when everything was exploding due to the Internet. During my academic career I was exposed to traditional information systems, information systems on the Web, technology, information retrieval and the theoretical underpinnings of knowledge organization, information seeking behavior and information use.  From my prior life in the legal profession I bring very strong analytical skills, negotiation skills and an understanding of the intellectual property issues in cyberspace.

I began my career at Information Services as a research apprentice providing research and reference support to the Consumer Platforms Division.  Soon I heard rumblings of an idea to push metadata beyond the library walls as part of the answer to finding information on the corporate intranet. I grabbed on and have been riding the wave ever since. While in this role I have increased my knowledge in the areas of UI design, back-end technology, database design, thesaurus design and emerging metadata issues and standards, such as XML and RDF.

ASISB: If you do your information architecture work as part of a team, what additional essential skills does your team provide?

VB: KNAC is truly a multidisciplinary team. Looking at the job titles the team consists of a knowledge architect, three knowledge management analysts, senior program manager, Web program manager, Web engineer, systems analyst, apps developer, associate operations analyst, intranet specialist and a Web design engineer.

If we look beyond the titles we see that the team's skill set includes knowledge organization theory and techniques, information retrieval, information management, Web design, UI and application design, database design and administration, usability testing, ethnographic survey techniques, information system testing, reference and research, vocabulary or taxonomy building and maintenance, metadata design and implementation, classification, indexing, cataloging, the ability to communicate with each other and across the company and a good sense of humor.

The majority of the team holds library and information science degrees but that alone does not define us. The team also represents a myriad of other academic accomplishments and life experiences. I work with a bicycle shop owner, an engineer, a forest firefighter, an architect, a pizza delivery person, a helicopter pilot, a mathematician, a professional beer brewer and a fish cannery supervisor. My experience working as a member of KNAC solidifies my belief that "it takes a village" to create and maintain an information system that meets the needs of the users.  

ASISB: What are your criteria for determining whether a project has been successful?

VB: Our goal for an information system is to put employees in contact with the information they need to make business decisions or to carry out their jobs. This goal implies success is when needed information is available, can be found and found quickly. We have yet to find the perfect way to measure this type of success.

Among the imperfect means to measure success are the following:

    • Feedback from our customers
    • An annual survey to our customers and key stakeholders that includes questions specifically addressing user satisfaction
    • Usability testing to determine the effectiveness of site organization, ease of navigation and number of clicks
    • The increase in the number of internal customers using our information management and information retrieval products and services.

ASISB: What are the four or five information sources, electronic or print, that have been most useful to you in developing your skills and professional approach and in keeping up with current developments?

VB: Journal of the American Society for Information Science (and Technology), Communications of the ACM, Search Engine Watch (http://searchenginewatch.com), 

D-Lib Forum (www.dlib.org), World Wide Web Consortium (www.w3c.org).

These resources and many others are publicly available.

Two very important non-public resources are the technical education courses available at Microsoft and Microsoft Research (MSR). Our involvement with MSR helps keep us up-to-date in various areas, including natural language processing, TREC (Text REtrieval Conference) efforts, auto-categorization, information retrieval, organization and display. It is a rare pleasure to be at the same company as Susan Dumais (http://research.microsoft.com/~sdumais/).

ASISB : Looking back to the ASIS Summit, please give us your own definition of Information Architecture in 30 words or less.

VB: Information architecture encompasses all the design and structure from the back-end through the content to the resulting representation necessary to create an information system useful to end-users.

Vivan Bliss is a knowledge management analyst at Microsoft Library. She can be reached there by mail at One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052; or by e-mail at vbliss@microsoft.com


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