Lou Rosenfeld: It's All About Users

Author and information architecture pioneer says your Web site won’t be a hit until you watch people use it.

July 1, 2006

What is information architecture?

ROSENFELD: IA is the art and science of organizing, labeling, and structuring information so that users can easily find it. People have been doing this kind of work ever since writing was invented. Books, for example, have tables of contents, alphabetical indices, pagination, headings, chapters, sections, covers, and spines to help you find the information they contain. It’s only recently—coinciding with the information revolution—that IA has been recognized as its own profession.

How did you become an IA evangelist?

ROSENFELD: Although people have been doing this work for eons, the field, and its basic concepts, hadn’t been named in any coherent way. The advent of the Internet forced the issue, and those of us fortunate enough to be thinking about these issues were in the best position to come up with names. We needed a common vocabulary. So I suppose we were all accidental evangelists.

How can you tell if your Web site’s architecture is working?

ROSENFELD: You could spend too much money to hire someone like me to tell you. But there are things you can do yourself that don’t cost much. Using a survey or looking at frequent questions you get from your users, determine three to five common tasks consumers want to accomplish at your site. Then find three to five “typical” clients and give them some of those tasks to do. Ask them to think out loud during the process. Don’t help them; just watch, listen, and learn. Consider videotaping the consumers so that you can review the session again. At the end of this exercise, you’ll have a good picture of what’s working, what’s not, and what you might do next.

How does IA relate to search engine optimization?

ROSENFELD: SEO focuses on making sure your content is found on the Web by anticipating what and how users search. IA typically focuses on making sure users can search and navigate within a Web site. Both are quite important, and share many of the same design principles, although SEO’s specific focus on search is a bit narrower. If your organization has bought into SEO, it’s a logical next step to pursue improving the customers’ experience once they’ve reached your site, and that’s where IA comes in. There’s a “sameness” to many real estate Web sites.

How can practitioners keep the features consumers have come to expect but create an experience that distinguishes them from other practitioners?

ROSENFELD: The “sameness” you refer to is a good thing—it means that some useful design conventions have evolved in response to customer needs. So the good news is that real estate professionals don’t have to spend a lot of money on new bells and whistles. But, they might want to spend a little time on inexpensive tasks—making sure it’s easy to display and scroll through listing photos or search a property database—so that features work the way consumers expect them to.

What do you see as the next big thing in IA?

ROSENFELD: One interesting trend involves “mashing up” content from disparate sites into new and useful combinations. An early example is especially relevant to your readers: Paul Rademacher's www.housingmaps.com, a combination of Google Maps and Craig’s List apartment listings. Designing information that might be used on sites other than your own presents a host of new challenges for information architects. —Chuck Paustian

For more on Rosenfeld, visit www.louisrosenfeld.com.

Chuck Paustian is a former REALTOR® Magazine senior editor.