This week’s interview is with Jill MacNeice, an Information Architect in the Office of Strategic Initiatives of the Library of Congress.
What is your professional history?
I grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I went to college at Brown University in Rhode Island, where I studied something completely unrelated to what I do now. I came to DC right after that for an internship and have been here ever since. I started my career as a journalist and the skills I learned from that phase of my work life have served me well. In the early 90s, I got a grant from the National Science Foundation to do a website for kids about science and technology. The public Internet was in its infancy then and there were no standards or best practices. I did everything myself, from creating the content to the coding. And in the process, I discovered this fascinating thing that is now called Information Architecture — the puzzle of how users interact with a site. I knew that was my calling. Since then, I have worked at an international web design agency during the dotcom boom, at Marriott–a fortune 100-company, at Revolution Health–a startup, and now for the government at the Library of Congress.
How do you describe your job to other people?
People don’t generally know what an Information Architect is, so most of the time, when people ask me what I do, I simply say: I do web stuff. When pressed, I will add that I design the interactions between people and computers, that I make sure these interactions are easy and intuitive. This is so that when people try to do something on a web site they get it right with minimal effort and are not left wondering what this means or what will happen if I click that.
It’s a good role for me because I’m the ultimate cranky user. I wish interfaces would do a better job of understanding their users and addressing users’ needs. And by needs, I mean not just information needs, but emotional needs, too. Because we all bring emotion to every interaction we have, whether that interaction is with people…or machines. Part of meeting users’ needs is making content findable, both through on-site navigation and search, and via external search engines such as Google. So I spend a lot of time working on that.
Why did you want to work at the Library of Congress?
I have always been bookish and loved hanging out at libraries. I even had several books published, which no one has ever read (except my mother). When I first came to Washington, I’d go to the Main Reading Room in the Jefferson Building with whatever I was working on and just feel inspired. When I heard there was an opening to work on the Library’s web site, I jumped at the opportunity and am so glad the Library wanted me on the team. I’ve been here 5 years, and have been involved in many terrific projects.
What’s the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the Law Library?
I was amazed when I found out the Law Library has to be open whenever Congress is in session — even when Congress is pulling an all-nighter. Also, running the user testing for Congress.gov beta has been a true education. As a journalist, I thought I knew a lot about the legislative process. But it is so much more complex and nuanced than I realized. To build (or test) a site you have to have a deep understanding of the institution, its processes, and users. I marvel at the incredible job the Congress.gov team has done in putting this site together.
What’s something most of your co-workers don’t know about you?
I make no secret of my outside interests: white water kayaking and studying conga and afro-cuban percussion. But most people do not know that I won the Betty Crocker Homemaker Award when I was in high school, and still have a silver hearth charm to prove it.