An Interview with Boston-IA Founder, P.J. Gardner
Boston-IA (www.boston-ia.org) is a brand new organization bringing together information architecture and Internet accessibility. Designed for information architects, information designers, technical communicators, and other professionals concerned about the usability and accessibility of electronic information, this organization has grown from conception to reality in only a few short months.
I spoke recently with P.J. Gardner, founder of Boston-IA and STC member, about what accounts for the group's rapid growth.
Steve: How did Boston-IA come about?
P.J.: Last winter, I was enrolled in a graduate certificate program at Northeastern University called Accessible Web Design. It's the first program I know of that focuses completely on accessibility. The final project for the first course, Communications and Interactive Media, was to build an accessible web site. As I planned the project, I invented an organization that I would want to belong to, and I developed a site for it. Before I knew it, professor Michael Salvo and my fellow students had joined the organization!
In March, I had an informational interview with Bill Buchholz, chairman of the Information Design and Corporate Communication department at Bentley [University]. I told him about my imaginary organization, and he said, "Make it real." He offered to help, and I took him up on it. I planned the kickoff event, to be held at Bentley in June, enhanced the web site, and enrolled people in my personal network as founding members. Both Bill and Neil Duane, the instructor for our second course in the Accessible Web Design program, agreed to talk. Bentley arranged for the space, and I publicized the kickoff meeting on the mailing lists I subscribed to. Soon word got around, and we had lots of people registering, even beyond the initial mailing lists.
Steve: Tell me about the kickoff event. What did the speakers talk about?
P.J.: We had an excellent evening. The kickoff event was held in Bentley's beautiful academic technology building and its Design and Usability Testing Center. We only had space for 50 people, so, unfortunately, we ended up with a long waiting list. I had no idea that so many people would be interested. We will definitely arrange a larger space for our next event!
The speakers for the evening were Bill Buchholz and Neil Duane, and I moderated. Bill Buchholz teaches information design at Bentley [University]. He provided a definition of information architecture and talked about how there would always be a need for the tasks of information architecture, even if the exact job title is something else.
Neil Duane is an expert in Internet accessibility. His remarks focused on why accessible web sites are good business. He spoke eloquently about why people need accessible web sites and provided a wealth of information about people with disabilities that was new to many of the people attending.
Steve: What do you think accounts for the fast start?
P.J.: Virtually everyone who attended the meeting became a member, and many people have joined through the Web site and e-mail since then. I think the focus of this organization is unique. People are eager to hear more about making their information accessible to a wider audience.
In web site design, an information architect in charge of the user interface has a huge impact, not only on usability but also on the accessibility of the design. That's the individual who sees to it that the web site meets the needs of all its users. I think Boston-IA is taking off so quickly because it fills a need for information about making information accessible that people need right now.
Accessible web sites address the needs of many groups: people who are blind or have low vision, people who are Deaf or have hearing loss, those who have impaired mobility, people with learning or cognitive difficulties, and computer users as they age.
Interestingly, the same techniques that work for disabled people result in more usable sites for all people. Everyone wants clean pages and sites where information is easy to find. Every visitor to a web site wants good content. Visitors also want to find the needed information easily. The information architect is the right person to design a site that meets these standards.
Steve: What other activities is Boston-IA involved in?
P.J.: We arranged a visit to the Accessibility and Usability Group at MIT (formerly the Adaptive Technology Information Center (ATIC) Lab) shortly before the June kickoff event. One of the interesting technologies on display there was JAWS, a screen reader for people who are blind. JAWS goes through the HTML used to create a web page and converts it to spoken words. A skilled web developer, following accessibility guidelines, can create HTML that is especially adapted for screen readers, and a skilled user of JAWS can parse and listen to the contents of a web page quickly.
We were also active in promoting and participating in a breakfast presentation by Northeastern's University College at the end of July, called "Accessible Web Design Is Good Business". The students in the Accessible Web Design program helped determine the winner of the first annual award for Outstanding Accessible Web Design, which was presented to Wells Fargo and Company by University College. The meeting was followed by an optional tour of Northeastern's adaptive technology facilities in the Snell Library.
Steve: What are the member benefits of Boston-IA?
P.J.: We provide resources on our web site to help people learn about accessibility, we allow our members to post personal profiles to help them promote their services or to help find jobs, and we have a members-only discussion group that allows members to share ideas. I am sure we will add lots more benefits as the organization grows. Membership provides discounts at meetings— although our fees are relatively low— and e-mail messages about opportunities to learn more about information architecture, usability, and Internet accessibility.
We will be holding events quarterly, the next one in late September, and we hope to offer workshops on various topics, as well.
Steve: What plans do you have for Boston-IA in the future?
P.J.: I have three focuses in mind:
© 2003 Steven Greffenius. All rights reserved.
Steven Greffenius is a member of Boston-IA and principal of TechWrite Publishing of Westwood, Massachusetts.