Monday, February 28, 2011

A Diverse Universe: Information Architecture at BNA

By Larry Lempert

It feels appropriate that images of the Egyptian revolution are swirling in the media as I sit down to write about working in publishing with a focus on information architecture. To be an IA in recent years has been to witness and participate in history in the making, with all the excitement, confusion, leaps forward, and pratfalls that can be expected in the midst of ferment. 
I have a job description that talks about creating content and user experience design for prototypes and emerging products. What I really have, though, is a mission to wave the flag of order and findability in the battle to create information services that professionals will pay good money for. The free Web with its massive amounts of “good enough” information has given my company’s niche—legal, tax, and regulatory publishing—a swift kick in the shins. We wrestle to figure out what makes for added value when so much is available for free. It’s a complicated question, but I’m convinced that order and findability are somewhere in the answer. 
An MLS from the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies (2006) didn’t get me the job I have now. I grew into the job after years on the strictly editorial side of the company, years that gave me experience in molding new products. But the MLS program, which offered a concentration in information architecture, was valuable in the way it firmed up the conceptual ground I was standing on. In a variety of special projects on cross-functional teams, I find myself calling all the time on the principles I learned about. Projects such as: 
  • Designing an efficient system to bring highly related content to the user’s attention when he or she is viewing a particular document. Some publishers’ sites rely on purely programmatic solutions, but we’re trying to add value with expert judgment.
  • Developing a methodology for flexible querying of specialized data sets to support charts built dynamically based on a user’s selection of criteria.
  • Adding taxonomy-based browsing and searching features on comprehensive legal practice area resource centers.
  • Exploring the potential for text analytics to provide advanced legal research tools.
The job offers variety, interaction with emerging technology, and problem-solving challenges to the nth degree. The biggest challenge for me, not an IT person by any stretch, is understanding the technology well enough to serve as an effective bridge between the real IT people and the business and editorial sides of the company.
On tough days I feel the curse of living in such interesting times. But there are good days when I feel the thrill of being present at the very dawn of a new age, doing my own bit, however small, to help manage the digital revolution.    
Larry Lempert is Director of Product Research and Planning at BNA, a publishing company in Crystal City, VA, specializing in legal, tax, and regulatory information services for professionals.

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