Andrea Gallagher

Andrea Gallagher is a Customer Experience Architect at Scient. On top of a BA in Psychology from Stanford and graduate work in cognitive psychology at the University of Michigan, Andrea also knows a heck of a lot about information retrieval. Which makes her one of my heroes.
-- Lou Rosenfeld

Lou: How long have you been working as an information architect? And how did you find your way into the field?

Andrea: The first "information architecture" I did was in June of 1994, on a Web-based catalog for hot sauce called Hot Hot Hot!. But I did a lot of different work on the Web since then. I've been calling myself an information architect since early 1997.

You could really say I went to school to do this sort of thing. I got my undergraduate degree in psychology, with a focus on cognitive psychology and human-computer interaction. I then did some work designing and evaluating an interface for an online library catalog and became fascinated with the problem of information access and retrieval. In 1992, I began work on a doctorate in cognitive psychology, also taking classes in the then-named School of Library and Information Studies. I wanted to do my thesis research on browsing and searching interfaces for large search engines.

In late 1993 Mosaic started making the rounds. As people immediately started building the most random and interesting web sites, it was obvious that the search engine had just turned into a mass-market product. That summer I consulted for Presence Information Design, the company that built that hot sauce catalog, interned for Apple for a few months, and never went back to school.

Lou: How has your academic background (human computer interaction and information retrieval) helped you in your work?

Andrea: A lot of web design is similar to basic UI design. I get a lot of insight from understanding how human perception works, the limits of human memory, and how people deal with categories and problem solving. The HCI field also provides design methodologies and techniques for evaluating systems that I use every day, though the Web constantly tests these by presenting new tasks for people to do and new issues of scale.

The knowledge of information retrieval, both of how humans try to do it and how the technology works, helps me tackle those new issues. When we add scale, information access issues are woven into every task. Users have to combine search and feature comparison, browsing and project management, information foraging and problem solving.

Lou: What's your greatest insecurity as an information architect?

Andrea: I don't have a strong background in information design, and it is often critically important to be able to represent a complex conceptual model for a web site to a client, design teams, or partners. I always feel as if I'm half an information architect when I need to explain complex concepts that involve information design.

Lou: What's your strangest experience as an information architect?

Andrea: Probably my first experience as an information architect: listening to Ted Nelson describe hypertext and his Project Xanadu in 1991. It was strange and wonderful. It was an epiphany, and I walked out of there an information architect without even knowing it.

Lou: What advice to you have for people entering the field? Are there areas they really need to study? Attitudes they need to bring (or jettison)? What do you wish you'd already known before getting started?

Andrea: Spend as much time as you can observing real people in their tasks, watching how they categorize their world, listening to their questions, and watching them use your systems and other people's systems. Users are the best teachers.

Lou: Finally, what site are you visiting lately that other information architects should check out? Why?

Andrea: Google. I love it, because it fulfills the promise of search engines so consistently. I always end up using the very first hit that comes up in their results. Most of the time, I'm curious about what the other hits will be, so I look at the whole results list. But one of these days I'll just start using their "feeling lucky" button.

One of the promises of hypertext from the start was that there was information in the links - which sites think which other sites are interesting enough to link to. This is basic citation indexing, but applied to a huge and heterogeneous document set. Google finally puts that structural information to use well.