Martin Belam talk in Leeds - Q&A session with student journalist Tom Page

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 25 January 2011

Tomorrow I'll be in Leeds talking at the Leeds Community News Hub. The event is free, and you can sign up here. In the run-up to the event I was interviewed by Tom Page, a second year sports journalist currently studying at Leeds Trinity & All Saints University College. Here is the Q&A session we had.

Tom Page: You call yourself an information architect, for those who are maybe unfamiliar with the term could you describe to those what the term means?

Martin Belam: One of the earliest descriptions of IA was "the emerging art and science of organising large-scale websites". Essentially it is about making content easily findable by users, whether that is via the way it is presented and labelled, through search, or through navigation. As a field it has been around since soon after the World Wide Web appeared in 1993, but I think it is fair to say that it is still in development. It forms part of a broader church of job functions collectively known as 'user experience' or 'UX'. These are people who design how a website is experienced, through things like interactions and usability studies, as well as through visual design.

Tom Page: You have worked for many different organisations helping them produce high quality websites such as the BBC; do you think that most journalistic websites are of a similar high standard?

Martin Belam: I think the fact that the websites of big news brands attract big audiences almost forces them down the path of having high technical standards. When major news stories break, we all have to be capable of standing up to the rush. What really makes a news site, though, is the content, and you can't do quality journalism by technology alone.

Tom Page: You blog for the Guardian and also you have your own blog, why do you think there has been a surge in bloggers on the internet and what is your opinion on citizen journalism?

Martin Belam: I've been running my currybetdotnet blog for 8 years now, and during that time I've seen the term 'blog' morph from something closely associated with particular technical platforms, to being a mainstream term that basically covers frequent interactive publishing. People have always been interested in expressing themselves, and blogging has just been another outlet for that.

People have been writing that "blogging is dying" for a few years, but I always think that is like saying "pamphlets are dying" or "leaflets are dying". The usage of different publishing media ebbs and flows as technology transforms distribution channels, but seldom does one form totally replace another - in the way that it has sometimes been suggested that status updates on Facebook and Twitter have killed blogging.

'Citizen journalism' has detractors, but being in the right place at the right time always made you a first-hand witness. We thought they were really reliable people to seek out to tell stories in the past, so I'm not clear what changed about that when they began to self-publish in real-time via mobile devices. Of course, if you are picking up self-published material as a news outlet, then it is really important that you still need to do verification,

Tom Page: Could you describe your role at FUMSI and what FUMSI try to achieve.

Martin Belam: FUMSI is a monthly magazine aimed at information professionals who might work in research departments, libraries, businesses or universities. FUMSI stands for 'Find, Use, Manage, Share information'. I look after the Share section, and commission authors who I think can write useful and practical articles about the way that new technology is transforming the traditional methods of sharing formal knowledge. I enjoy it, as it is a very different audience for me to think of compared to the one at guardian.co.uk or on my blog.

Tom Page: Do you think that there is a need to have clever and intriguing websites or is a simple format and layout the most effective?

Martin Belam: It really depends on what you are trying to achieve. If you want to promote a book with a mystery puzzle - like Stephen King did with "Under The Dome" - then the more complex the better. If you are delivering news, then ease of use and simplicity is king.

Tom Page: You have been involved with a considerable amount work that has gone into the Guardians web content in the past few years such as the iPhone app and the overhaul of the guardian jobs web page, what would you say has been your greatest achievement whilst working there?

Martin Belam: To be honest, it is such a large website, and I have played a small role in lots of different projects, that it is very hard to point at one thing. I enjoy the fact that Guardian News & Media allow me to be very open about my work, contributing to publications like UX Storytellers or writing background pieces like "The Information Architecture behind the World Government Data store" or "Tags are magic!". I guess the thing that makes me most proud is that as a business, during our product development, we now do more of the things that I think are important parts of delivering a good digital user experience, like wireframing, prototyping and user-testing, before starting to code and build.

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