of The American Society for Information Science

Vol. 26, No. 6

August/Septmeber 2000

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Information Architecture Practice: An Interview with Steven Ritchey, Sapient

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?

SR: At Sapient we help clients define their Internet strategies, and we design, architect, develop and implement solutions that execute those strategies. As an information architect, I define and document a website's structure, navigation and interactivity by translating client business rules and user needs into functional requirements. My blueprints contribute to the overall strategic direction, vision and scope of a project. I also work closely with experience modelers to analyze and model user tasks and usage scenarios.

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

SR: I use a wide variety of techniques and tools to do my work, depending on the kinds of information I'm trying to gather and structure. Other factors come into play, too - the size and proximity of my team, our client's needs and our project's timeframe and budget.

 To learn about users' needs, behaviors and mental models, I've conducted interviews, observations, card sorting sessions and participatory design sessions. To record findings, I've used tools as simple as pen and paper and as fancy as usability labs equipped with digital video and 2-way mirrors.

 To communicate visually, I've relied heavily on Visio in the past. I find it to be fast and relatively easy to use but not particularly helpful when I need to create subtle visual distinctions. Since I came to Sapient, I've been inspired by the effective (and beautiful) blueprints some of my colleagues are creating with Illustrator, so I've started learning to use it.

 I've noticed, however, that most amazing breakthrough moments happen when we're using "messy" techniques and tools - brainstorming sessions with lots of rough sketching and diagramming on white boards and arranging post-it notes on any flat surface available. I'm starting to believe that a company or team's appreciation of information architecture is most clearly demonstrated in their investment in whiteboards and post-it notes!

 A lot of my communication is verbal rather than visual, so I use Word and PowerPoint, depending on the audience and purpose. For large matrices and lists, I use Excel. 

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

SR: Like many other information architects I've met, my background is in liberal arts. I earned a BA and an MA in English, but after a year of coursework for a Ph.D. in American lit, I finally decided an academic life wasn't the future I wanted. I got into technical writing and found myself writing online help and text for websites. I quickly grew frustrated. The "band-aid" online help I wrote couldn't fix the horrible user interfaces it "supported," and the text I wrote was difficult to find because navigation and page structures weren't designed to support users' tasks. 

 About this time, I met and starting working with Thom Haller, a leading evangelist of information architecture in the Washington, DC, area. Thom helped me think beyond words and page layout to examine the larger issues of how people approach and use information, how audience and purpose affect information structures. As I helped Thom build Info.Design, an information architecture consultancy, we read, taught and thought a lot about information architecture. 

 In the meantime, I got a job at the World Bank as a communications specialist, but really shaped my role into that of an information architect. I got into knowledge management and intranet work and met a lot of great librarians, who led me to think more carefully about how people browse and search for information and how categorization shapes users experiences of information.

 From the World Bank, I moved from the .org world into the .com world when I worked at marchFIRST (formerly USWeb/CKS) and now Sapient. As an information architect in companies like these, I've had to learn a lot. I've become much more aware of clients' business needs and found that many clients don't have their Internet strategy (or even business strategy) thought out clearly before they decide they need to revamp their site or build a new site. Sometimes, holes in their strategies don't become apparent until I begin my detailed work of structuring a site, so I have frequently found myself playing the role of the business consultant, basically asking a lot of questions to get them to clarify their goals. Since I've been at Sapient, I've been working with brilliant digital business strategists who help me position my work within business frameworks.

 I've also had to learn to think visually. With a background in music and literature, I could conceptualize information over time, but not over visual space. In the past year, I've been spending a lot of time with visual designers, reading and looking through design books and just paying more attention to visual design and choices around me.

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

SR: At Sapient I do all my work on multidisciplinary project teams. I've had to do information architecture solo before, and I definitely prefer a team approach. I'm smarter, more creative and usually faster when I'm working with other people. The solutions we create as a team serve our clients and end users better than those we would have come up working in isolation. Also, I can't imagine dealing with the complexity, tight deadlines and frustrations of our projects without the support of a team.

 One of the things I love most about the Internet business is the craziness and fun that happens when smart people have to solve tough problems quickly. My professional life would be bland without that collaboration and camaraderie.

 Since project teams at Sapient are multidisciplinary, I work with a wide variety of people from several disciplines. Here are some of the ones I work with most closely:

Experience modelers are usually trained in ethnography, so they know how to systematically examine what people think, how they behave and why they use products and services. Experience modelers shape their observations into models that help us understand how an experience is organized for users. This helps us structure content and interactivity that will support users' goals and tasks. Experience modelers are also great at designing usability tests that effectively measure how well a design meets users needs.

Business and brand strategists help clients discover how their business can take full advantage of the Internet. They help clients define (or create) their Internet and brand strategy, which helps ensure that we develop the right kind of products at the right times for the right audiences.

Content strategists help clients select and/or develop content and content management systems that support the client's business objectives, express the brand and help users achieve their goals. 

Visual designers develop the brand's visual identity and create visual concepts for sites. They also help the entire team communicate ideas visually with clients.

Site developers translate the information architecture and visual design into front-end user interfaces and templates. They consistently help us understand what's possible technically and they frequently come up with elegant functional solutions to information problems.

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

SR: A project is successful if . . .

The users can accomplish goals that support my client's business, they want to return to the site (or device) when they have a similar need and they associate their positive experiences with the strengths of my client's brand.

The clients are delighted by the "final" product(s), trust Sapient as their partner and look forward to working with us again.

The site positions my client's company or organization strategically within its industry or field.

The team solved problems as creatively, intelligently and quickly as possible. We learned from mistakes, delivered our best possible work to our client, were open and respectful with each other and had fun. We learned new things about our client, our client's industry, the Internet, Sapient and ourselves.

The project was completed on time and on budget.

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?

SR: For general news and ideas about the Internet economy I read the Industry Standard every week and receive several of their daily e-mail newsletters. I also occasionally read Business 2.0, Fast Company, Red Herring, Wired and Silicon Alley Reporter. I'm a huge fan of Forrester reports for hardcore Internet trends and research, but I also read reports from Jupiter and Gartner. I also enjoy and learn from people on two e-mail listservs: the Info-Design Café (affiliated with the International Institute for Information Design) and the recently created ASIS-IA list. I frequently find great research in the ACM's SIG-CHI online library.

 More than all these sources, I value my broad network of colleagues and friends spread across many disciplines, companies, professional and academic settings. They point me toward resources, ideas and possibilities that I never would have found (or knew I needed) on my own.

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

SR: Information architecture is the practice of creating plans that describe the underlying organizational structure for a system of content and interactions.

Steven Ritchey is senior information architect at Sapient Washington DC, Washington Tower, Level 9, 1200 South Hayes St., Arlington, VA  22202-5005. He can be reached there or by e-mail at sritchey@sapient.com

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