of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 26, No. 6

August/Septmeber 2000

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Information Architecture Practice: An Interview with Gayle Curtis, Modem Media

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?

GC: We help companies build online ventures, both new companies working to create a business that is primarily online and established companies seeking to build an online component of their business. My specific role is first to understand the client's business and its goals for the venture - what the client hopes to accomplish through its online component. Second I work to understand the goals and values of the end users of the client's products or services - what they are trying to achieve, what is important to them. Building on this understanding, we work to create a functional interactive information structure that can be used to realize the goals of both the client and the end user.

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

GC: The biggest challenge is designing a structure that works for more than one target user group.  For most of the projects we see there is no single monolithic user group, even though the client or we would like to see it that way. We usually try to identify 2-5 distinct segments within the target user population, each with characteristic goals and values. Sorting out the distinctions is a challenge in itself, but the real work comes when we want to support all segments with a single structure. It would be easy if we could say, "Let's build something different for each segment," but that is not an efficient way to work, and it also skirts the kind of design challenges that lead to really creative solutions.

One example for us was the site for an online magazine targeted to executives of Fortune 100 companies. Here we had a body of excellent content - carefully reviewed abstracts for sites and articles relating to business and technology on the one hand and an online version of a print periodical for executives in various organizational roles - CEO, CFO, CIO, COO, etc. - on the other. These audience segments had different needs and goals, and we needed a structure that would let the visitor move smoothly between the two sections, as well as find selected content in the distinct hierarchical structure of each section. In working toward our solution we used both intensive brainstorming and design work sessions within the design team and user discovery techniques to formulate solutions.

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

GC: The fundamental methodology model for what we do has three phases: understand, create, evaluate. First we work to understand the goals, values, knowledge and resources of both the client and the users. Here we use client work sessions and a suite of user discovery techniques such as ethnographic observation and contextual inquiry. These lead to a definition of the design requirements. The software tools we use here are nothing more exotic than the MS Office suite.

In the create phase we develop design solutions - first for the information architecture and navigation scheme and, second, for the workflow and interaction design. The most often used tools are Inspiration for flowcharts, content structure diagrams and workflow diagrams and Freehand or Illustrator and PhotoShop for storyboarding. PowerPoint is also used to work out interactions.

In the evaluate phase, we focus on prototypes, from paper-based screen sequences to click-through wireframe structures and then to HTML prototypes that have functioning interface elements, such as forms, drop down menus, etc. These prototypes are used to test and iterate the design ideas. The paper prototypes tell us a lot about the information structure and taxonomy. The click-through prototypes tell us about the clarity and intelligibility of the navigation and interaction design. The html prototypes are used to test usability at a task level. The tools we use here are PowerPoint, Dreamweaver or GoLive and the Bbedit text editor. Right now we have a set of 8 to 10 software tools as a basic kit for an information designer.

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?

GC: Professionally, my career path has been very non-linear. At one time I developed technical documents in video, print and exhibit media. Later I worked in computer hardware engineering and user interface design. One of my most challenging research projects required the development of a wayfinding information system for visually impaired travelers. Now as an information architect, I am learning more about coordinating with large teams and understanding large business clients - their business models, customers and decision-making process. In retrospect I see that my academic experience somehow makes sense: an undergraduate degree in psychology and a graduate program in product design. I also now teach a course at Stanford each year in human-computer interaction design.

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

GC: All the information architecture in this company is done as part of a project team. Depending on the size of the project, there will be one or more information designers (ID), with the senior ID developing and carrying the vision of the information architecture. Other IDs may share responsibility for user discovery and task analysis, scenario and workflow development, taxonomy and navigation design, storyboard layout and sequence, and usability testing. On large projects there may be a contract usability specialist who works with the IDs to set up and run the tests and write up the results. The visual designer has responsibility for the visual look and feel, final screen layouts, and the identity and branding, depending on the client.

On the engineering side, there is a buildmaster who is responsible for implementation, one or more engineers who tackle complex functionality and a quality assurance specialist who tests in detail to ensure quality and completeness. A producer acts as overall project manager and primary client contact.

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

GC: Usability testing usually flushes out design problems and validates successful design solutions. A happy, satisfied client is taken as a measure of success from a business point of view, and a client that comes back for more is an even better indication. For the designer, success is seen in the face of the satisfied user.

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?

GC: Right now I'm getting a lot from the ACM publication Interactions. I often refer to Rosenfeld and Morville's Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Apple User Interface Guidelines, Jakob Nielsen's Designing Web Usability and his online Alertbox and useit.com. I also pay attention to the Info-D and SIGIA-L mail lists.

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

GC: An information architecture is a structure that specifies a categorization of information types and a relationship among information elements, all configured to spark human comprehension and serve a human purpose.

Gayle Curtis is with Modem Media/Vivid Studios and can be reached by mail at 111 Sutter Street, 16 th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94104; or by e-mail at gayle@vivid.com

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@ 2000, American Society for Information Science