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American history around the time of the Revolution, figuring out how to marry top-down task-based information architecture processes with bottom-up document-based ones, finding a good dentist in San Francisco Oakland
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Biological metaphors for information processes? On "The hell," you say! Posted on 10/21/2001.

Though it's been a few weeks since I finished the book Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart, it's thesis has stuck with me more than other things I've recently read. Written from an anthropological viewpoint by Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O' Day, it presents a smart and earnest attempt for situating information technologies in our lives.

The book begins with the authors presenting themselves as the reasonable medium between drooling technophilia (of a Nicholas Negroponte or Bill Gates) and abject technophobia (of a Neil Postman), and these might be the weakest chapters. There's a boatload of theory to wade through, the setting up of strawmen, all getting in the way of what I think is the book's single, simple, strongest point--to understand the impact of technology on society, we need to study it from a rational, humanist perspective.

(For those who want to follow along, chapters 1, 2, and 4 are available online.)

The book really comes into its own when proposing the metaphor of the "information ecology":

We define an information ecology to be a system of people, practices, values, and technologies in a particular local environment. In information ecologies, the spotlight is not on technology, but on human activities that are served by technology.
This stance is familiar to anyone approaching user-centered design from a contextual perspective, but I find the adoption of the biological metaphor particularly powerful. It properly addresses the complexity of such a system, the innumerable points of interaction, the importance of the local.

The book further succeeds with their ethnographic case studies, particularly the ones focusing on the ecologies of a corporate library and a teaching hospital. They demonstrate how the "ecology" provides a robust framework for thinking about the interaction of people and technologies in these realms. A framework that I think could be quite powerful in the work that I (and others who practice information architecture) do.

The book stops short of discussing how to incorporate ecological notions in design, but ways of continuing down that path are pretty clear. I think, fundamentally, an ethnographic approach with this ecological framework can lead to a better understanding of just exactly *what* to design. The problems and obstacles in current processes will be highlighted, and thus addressed. Perhaps more importantly, such an approach provides answers for why so many technological solutions fail--they don't take their ecology into account, and thus don't "fit", and tons of time and money are wasted on pursuing a foolish endeavor. I keep returning the notion that much of the money loss in the current tech bust could have been avoided had just a little time been spent up front assessing the utility of all the products being developed. That the 3G wireless debacle in Europe (billions spent, no one buying) could have been foreseen; the same goes for Iridium.

We as smart, human-centered designers have a marvelous opportunity right now, as companies lick their wounds over foolish investments and vow never to make such mistakes again, to promote our understandings and methodologies as efficient and effective ways for developing truly marketable products with far less risk. I believe that modelling information ecologies and demonstrating how new design solutions will fit has remarkable potential moving forward.

6 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "The World, When It Was In Black and White."
Next entry: "Ah, Push It. Push It Real Good."


Great analysis...I think another concept that I'm trying to see map to information ecology is the notion of business ecology. If we really examine the topology of user experience design with other models of ecologies such as business, user, information and of course all the other x,y,z ecologies you can't really pin everything down. :) Yes it's a great opportunity, but you have so many layers to sift through...
Posted by Madonnalisa @ 10/21/2001 01:16 PM PST [link to this comment]

God, that's eerie. I just checked _Information Ecologies_ out of the library 2 days ago to use in a discussion I'm preparing for my doctoral seminar. :) Memes!
Posted by Xy @ 10/21/2001 08:49 PM PST [link to this comment]

cool.... thanks peter!
Posted by matt @ 10/22/2001 12:43 AM PST [link to this comment]

"That the 3G wireless debacle in Europe (billions spent, no one buying" - to be fair Peter, it hasn't launched commercially anywhere in Europe, so no-one can buy it if they wanted to right now...
Posted by Matt @ 10/22/2001 01:47 AM PST [link to this comment]

Oh great, another book to buy. I like the idea flow of much that I have read on this in a very short time. It echos a lot of what many companies have found: information gathering needs consistancy, which stems from a homogenized thinking about information; understanding how people think about the information and how they use it; understanding how people share and use the shared information; understanding how the sharing and use of information has changed based on environmental cues (moving to cubes, flatter org chart, high turn over, managment entering from outside the organization); employing easy to use information capturing systems that echo what people do naturally in that environment; employing a system that interacts with the employees as the biological system does, or closely mirrors that method.

I have worked in environments that get this to some degree and their effectiveness in what the do has increased. The systems that organization that have some understanding of this process and holistic approach to information and the tangential currents information and systems create are far different than those organizations that do not try to get a handle on their information.

Creating systems prior to understanding the flows in an organization is expensive and usually leads to non-productive (low ROI) solutions (oxymonron). Knowing how an organization reacts to a new system and how they react to the implementation processes is highly important to examine also. Some organization react to any new system as if it were a poorly constructed dam and their information flows will create their own streams around, under, or errode the dam.

I completely agree with Madonnalisa in that there are a great amount of layers to examine, document, and synthesize into some understandable order.
Posted by vanderwal @ 10/22/2001 06:01 AM PST [link to this comment]

Has everyone read the report on "Retail Egologies" put out by Argus? It includes some suggestions of how to use an "egological" outlook in design.
Posted by Andrew Otwell @ 10/22/2001 08:59 AM PST [link to this comment]

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