Interview with Susan Teague-Rector, instructor for Information Architecture: Designing Navigation for Library Websites

Susan Teague-Rector works at the University of Colorado, specializing in information architecture (IA) and UX design for University Web Services. Previously Susan led the IA, design and implementation of a new website for NCSU Libraries in 2010; and led IA, design, web programming and usability testing as Web Applications Manager at VCU Libraries. She has presented nationally on Web topics, as well as published in the Journal of Web Librarianship and CRLN. She is the instructor for a Library Juice Academy course next month titled Information Architecture: Designing Navigation for Library Websites. This course is a part of the six-course Certificate in User Experience that Library Juice Academy offers. Susan agreed to do an interview here, to give people a clear idea of what her course will cover and a bit about her background as the instructor and her other interests.

Susan, thanks for agreeing to this interview. First, I’d like to hear about your path through your career that has led you to the point of teaching this class, so that people will know what you are bringing to it. What’s your background?

Hi Rory,

I’m delighted to teach the IA course, to share my love of IA and to get to know everyone in the LJA virtual environment!

I’ve been building websites since the mid-1990s. I started as a “jill-of-all trades” intranet web programmer, database developer, web designer and what I came to know as an information architect (IA). I went back to school for a Master’s degree in 2002, entering the SILS program at UNC-Chapel Hill. Most of my course work centered on structured (relational database) and unstructured data and information. As a grad student, I had the opportunity to work in library systems, at the SAS Institute and at the ‘Documenting the American South’ digital library. My role in all of these positions centered on building web systems that were both usable and discoverable.

Soon after SILS graduation, I joined the VCU Libraries as Web Applications Manager. At VCU I had an amazing team to help me implement web IA and design for the public facing web, a digital repository, numerous search systems and a digital asset management system for digital collections. Outside of work, I co-founded the Richmond User Experience (RUX) users group, where I was able to brainstorm with some top Richmond UX’ers, information architects, librarians and designers.

I joined NCSU Libraries in 2010 to lead their website redesign. I was part of a small web team working in a variety of roles, including project manager, information architect and Drupal developer. While back in NC, I joined the Triangle Usability Professionals Association (TriUPA) as the Director of Technology. I managed the Drupal web site, including IA, design.

I love sharing knowledge and collaborating – my passion is teaching folks about IA, (and talked about it!), a topic this is quite often misunderstood in the web development world.

Well I’m glad to have you aboard. It’s good to have highly qualified people teaching for us. I am intrigued to heard that IA is a topic that is misunderstood in the web development world. I think it may be helpful if you would explain that a bit.

The term “information architecture” has a long history back to 1976, when Richard Saul Wurman first used it. Since the advent of the internet, the role of IA has become a bit more blurry than it was in the 80s or early 90s; In today’s highly interactive online society, IA can mean different things to different people. For example, enterprise information architects often look at how information flows through the organization, and across numerous enterprise systems. They often work closely with database designers, enterprise architects and knowledge managers to manage corporate taxonomies, search systems, KM systems and intranets. A Web information architect often sits on a web team or can even be part of a creative team. They typically need to understand a combination of how users interact with desktop and mobile devices as well as information design, web design and interaction design. Current Web IA deliverables describe not only the labeling and navigation for a website, but also communicate page and content layouts and how a user flows through various pages on a website. Across many disciplines, I’m seeing Web IA roles rolled into interaction design and/or UX design jobs.

Very interesting. So, could you tell us the outline of the class?

I’m planning to try and incorporate both theory and practice into our 4 week session. In the first week, we’ll look at how and where IA fits into web projects, discuss why IA is important, talk about user and business goals and assess the navigation of a website. We’ll start out the 2nd week with the building blocks of IA ñ web navigation schemes, organization schemes and the importance of labeling. We’ll also learn how to create an informal content audit. During week 3, weíll learn about information structures. We’ll then start the most exciting part of IA design: conceptually drafting navigation groups and categories. By week 4, we’ll begin to document our conceptual structure using sitemap documentation. We’ll also revisit the characteristics of “good” IA and briefly touch on page layout documentation.

That sounds good. It reminds me of work that I was involved in as a librarian, when I served on a committee that was redesigning our library’s website. We didn’t have the benefit of a conceptual grounding in IA, and I can see that it would have helped a lot. I remember that we looked at a lot of different library websites for ideas and debated which ones we liked based largely on personal taste. I remember noticing that some library websites we studied were designed along the lines of the organizational structure of the library, and others were designed based on ideas of what users coming to the site are trying to do. I also remember that in the end there is a lot of commonality among library websites. I wonder if you think the commonality among library websites is a matter of conventions that designers should be revisiting, or if they represent the actual functions of library websites? Could you comment on this?

Great point and a topic we will discuss in the course! Many organizations used to lean heavily toward an org chart IA because it’s what most of us know. This has started to change in the past few years (thankfully). Users come to library websites to find information and to complete tasks. For example, a user may come to a library site asking these questions: How do I find that journal article? How do I locate that database? Who is my reference course instructor? etc. They don’t necessarily care if the journals are managed by the Technical Services department, for example. To paraphrase Donna Spencer, the job of IA is to help users find information they need, help them make better decisions, to complete tasks faster and more accurately and to help users discover information that they didnít even know they needed. Typically, org chart IA doesnít really accomplish these goals.

Great IA is fundamentally the intersection of content, context and users. You can’t really design an effective IA without researching and understanding both top user goals/tasks as well the website’s business objectives. In answer to your question about commonality, I would challenge folks to start (if they’re not already), conducting user research about what users actually use and how they access information on a library website. There are many affordable methods/tools to do this that really take the personal taste and opinions out of the equation. For example, conduct an online card sort with website users, analyze analytics – including search, use heat mapping tools, interview end-users, do usability testing.

And that begins to get into how this course fits with the others in the UX certificate series. I interviewed Rebecca Blakiston about the series as a whole recently and asked her something that I’d like to ask you. It seems to me that library institutions are a sometimes a bit behind the curve in understanding that the library website isn’t just a static place where people find out about library services, but a way of providing those services, and increasingly the primary way of providing services. Since that is a developing reality, what are the implications for the design of library websites, and specifically for IA?

There is still a confusion about the goals of a library website. I see many sites still functioning as a clearinghouse to describe all of the inner workings of the organization. Instead of describing services, the building, in-house offerings, we should be designing online interactions. Does the website support even basic user tasks like downloading an electronic book? Once users land on the library website (and this is quite often not the homepage), how does the website enable them to find what they need quickly and efficiently? How does a user interact with the library website on a tablet, a phone or an e-reader? On these devices, can a user checkout a book? Download, save or email an article? Collaborate online with a librarian?

Library website IA, content and design should be there to help guide the user to complete the tasks they need to do. It can only do that if it is useful, valuable, credible and timely. Creating interactions like I’m describing can only be achieved by intimately understanding your users’ needs.

You make a good case for learning information architecture in the library context. I am glad you’ll be teaching this class for us – I think it’s an important aspect of LIS at this point. Best of luck with the class next month and thanks for the interview.

Thanks so much, Rory. I think the LJA offers some incredible courses, including the UX certificate. Iím looking forward to meeting and collaborating with students on IA and web navigation topics in July.

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