The web's master builders

Last July, GoTo Auctions was knee-deep in problems. Part of Pasadena, Calif.-based Inc.'s portal site, Raleigh, N.C.-based GoTo Auctions is a "shopbot" for auction sites, allowing users to search hundreds of different auctions for specific items.

GoTo Auctions' flagship application, AuctionManager, had gotten unwieldy. Although it was a powerful program, with terrific functionality, customers weren't using it.

Fortunately, the talent needed to solve the problem was already in-house, in the form of Amber Link, a relatively new employee.

Link had come on board in March, when GoTo acquired start-up As AuctionRover's content director, she had produced its weekly online magazine.

At GoTo, she knew she would need a new role. "Content wasn't really part of their business model," she says.

What GoTo Auctions needed, Link realized, was an information architect.

Information architects design the user's experience as he travels through a Web site. During the first few months after she joined GoTo Auctions, Link had been increasingly involved with information design and user-interface questions. With this user-centric approach, Link knew she could find out why users didn't like AuctionManager and determine what could be done to improve it.

Creating a New Job

At her request, she became GoTo Auction's first information architect. Her first, trial-run assignment: Fix AuctionManager's problems.

"The information architect is responsible for how information is distributed," notes Robert Egert, chief creative officer at Internet consultancy Xpedior Inc. in Chicago. "The goal is to identify the ideal user experience and specify what it will take to create that."

Information architecture is a new profession that's gaining recognition. Like GoTo Auctions, many companies create the title only after someone on staff discovers that an information architect is needed. Others know that's what they need and specifically recruit for that position. Complex e-commerce sites with many different products are especially likely to recognize the value of information architecture.

Salaries for information architects range from approximately US$50,000 to $120,000, depending on experience and the location of the employer.

A related position called user interface designer or user interaction designer performs a similar function but at a less strategic level.

"Information architecture tends to be concerned with the whole, the structure of a site. Interaction design is more at the page level," says Peter Merholz, a user experience consultant in San Francisco. "It's like the difference between the person who designed the supermarket and the person who designed the checkout line bar code reader."

There is no formal training for information architects yet. And the people who fill this position come from various backgrounds: human factors, library science, graphic design, filmmaking and, sometimes, actual structural architecture. Some, including Link, come from editorial backgrounds.

Link says an editorial design job is the perfect training ground for an information architect's role.

When designing a newspaper page, she points out, you put the most important story at the top. Then you think about where you want the reader's eye to travel next and lay the page out accordingly.

"When I first got interested in information architecture, I knew these concepts existed in the world of print publishing," Link says. "I wondered if the same sort of research was being done for the Internet." Information architecture turned out to be the answer. "There's a lot of affinity between the two fields," she says.

Link began her work on AuctionManager by talking to the site's users, something she says not enough information architects take the trouble to do. "A lot of people act as proxies for the user," she explains. "They say, ‘I read their e-mail.'" But that tells only half the story, she says: "By reading their e-mail, you'll find out what you're doing wrong but not what they really want."

As a result of her talks with users, she says, "We did a complete redesign. We wound up building a scalable application that really works." And the project was deemed a success when seller postings via AuctionManager increased 30 percent.

Validating the Need

Now, Link says information architecture is part of GoTo Auctions' development cycle. "Product management finds a need for a new product. With the help of our customer support staff, I validate that need. We talk to people and ask if they even want this feature - it could be really cool but doesn't meet their needs."

Her next step: "I draw out the basic idea of how a user would progress using this feature and do an interface design. Then we prototype those designs and ultimately test them with users," she says.

She says her role is to be a "starting gate" for product development. "Any idea goes through me, so I can make sure we build a great product. I also make sure things don't get out of control, and that we don't overload the user with information."

Egert says the growth of the information architect profession signals a new way of looking at software.

"In the old days, engineers designing pages would decide what they were going to be," says Egert. "They worked, and you could move through them, but they looked terrible. Then they'd get a [graphical user interface] designer. That would be like someone painting the side of a van to pretty it up. It's an inferior way of working.

"Software is an engineering thing. But users don't experience the software, they experience the user interface," Egert adds. "And in this new way of working, the experience is as important as the technology," he says.

Zetlin is a freelance writer in Woodstock, N.Y.

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