of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 26, No. 6

August/Septmeber 2000

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Information Architecture Practice: An Interview with Seth Gordon, ZEFER

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?

SG: The company I work with, ZEFER, helps clients define strategy, then build the site that goes with it. We consult and implement across a broad range of services, including strategy, experience design (including rich media and brand development), customer relationship management and supply chain consulting.

I work in the experience design competency, where I spend a lot of time studying how people work their way through transactions, in particular, site personalization and commerce checkout processes. People's experiences with these two areas have a huge impact on the way they ultimately perceive a site. I work with the strategists and technologists to ensure a consistent user experience at every point the customer comes in contact with the company, on- or off-line.

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

SG: How can we architect information if we don't know what information we need to work with? The questions of figuring out what content belongs in a site is one of the hardest parts of the job. If the content is wrong, it doesn't matter how well it's arranged. The content at the start of a project isn't necessarily going to be the same six months down the road. But a solid architecture will be able to flex and scale to handle some content modifications.

I've attached a few images from some content categorization and prioritization exercises we worked on with a financial services client. Multicolored post-it notes are a great way to differentiate between assorted types and sources of content. Color-coding can be used to denote different values of content (to the client or consumer) as well as the technological complexity of gathering and maintaining the information.

In this case we translated the post-its into a wireframe version of the site, which we used for usability evaluations. Actual customers provided feedback on site structure, nomenclature and process flow.

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

SG: There are as many techniques as there are IAs. I've chosen three techniques that have always done right by me. They can turn out very relevant results without forcing you to be overly analytical.

Contextual inquiry / ethnographic research: To help us understand how people think about content and complete tasks, we observe them where they work and where they live (with their knowledge, of course). If we're working on a new business idea and an opportunity to observe people in action doesn't exist, we will bring them to our customer experience center for concept and prototype evaluation.

Card sorting: This is a low-tech approach that usually yields some very interesting results. Basically, we will label index cards, each with a description of a potential content piece for a site. Then, we'll bring in respondents and have each of them create piles of cards which all share similar relationships. Then, we have them create a name for the content pile they created. The results from card sorting let us know how people think about the relationships between different parcels of content, and what titles they think identify the content. We then take these findings and apply them to our work for site architecture.

Validation techniques: To make sure that users think the site is accurate and useful, we run usability tests. We are generally able to gain high quality and accurate results using a sample size of six respondents. I wrote a description of this approach, often called discount usability, which is posted at the CNET site: How to Plan, Execute and Report on a Usability Evaluation


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?

SG: I came to this position with a lot of experience working in "hostile and hectic" environments, including

    • An Internet startup - co-founded a company acquired by USWeb
    • Entertainment - working at Discovery.com when it was one of the coolest sites around
    • Academia - spearheaded the transition of the american.edu Website from Gopher to the Web

Working in these different environments gave me opportunities to look at the Web through several different lenses.

The most important lesson I learned, and re-learn regularly, is how to reconcile business objectives against user wants/needs and resource constraints (time, technology, people). Learning how to strike the best balance isn't something that comes from a book or a nifty matrix, it's the kind of learning that comes from doing.

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

SG: At ZEFER, the size and complexity of the engagements we work on require multidisciplinary teams that have deep expertise in several areas, including strategy, experience design and technology.

The strategists help create and articulate business goals and the best ways to achieve them. The program manager keeps the team on track and on schedule. The technology and design teams help mold all of the thoughts and ideas into a tight site. And, we never forget the client is a key part of the team. They infuse the project with vision, passion and subject matter expertise.

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

SG: I usually mix and match a few measures from the following categories to determine if a project was a success.

End-Customers: When end-customers find the site experience useful and it helps them achieve their goals, we can consider the project a success.

Clients: When clients are satisfied with their experience working with ZEFER, that lets us know the engagement worked out well. On-time, on-budget projects always make clients happy.

Internal: We consider the project a win if our internal team learns and benefits from the work. But, if the team is so fried after a project that the only thing they can do is stare into space and drool. . . .

Metrics : We also measure site success by achieving or exceeding measurable goals, like reducing transaction costs by x$ per, or converting x% of site browsers into customers, or selling so many millions of dollars in merchandise. Just like earnings estimates for a public company - you know if they hit their success metrics.

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?

SG: Food and drink: Talk to other people in this field and you learn interesting things. When speaking with my cohorts, I hear their perspectives on issues and gain exposure to things I'd never considered before. And, bouncing some of my own ideas off these people helps me refine some of my thoughts.  And, so far, they're generally a cool bunch of people to spend time with.

People Watching: More valuable then electronic or print resources is one of my favorite hobbies - people watching. I develop my observation and contextual inquiry skills by spending time each week observing people (myself included) as they try to complete tasks - even ones that aren't at all related to the Web. As I watch, I look for the parts of the process that cause repeated confusion and errors, as well as those that are handled with ease. Last month, I paid close attention to some of the things I see almost everyday. I paid close attention to people hand-rolling a spinach & black bean burritos; using ATM cards at a supermarket point of sale terminal to pay for groceries; and making calls from a cell phone while trying to walk down a busy city street.

And, there are several great online resources:

    • ASIS sigia-l (see box) is a great way to keep tapped into the pulse of the community.
    • www.jjg.net/ia/ - well-organized listing of key discussions on IA. Even without the IA resources, JJG has put together one of the more interesting sites out there.
    • usableweb.com and tomalak.org - whenever I'm asked to give electronic resources, I always mention both of these sites because they are simply the most informative and timely.

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

SG: Organizing information and tasks in ways that are intuitive or transparently learned by users. Presenting information people need, when and where they need it.

Seth Gordon is principal of experience design with ZEFER, 5114 Bradley Blvd., Bethesda, MD 20815. He can be reached by e-mail at seth@gordy.com

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