Thoughts, links, and essays from Peter Merholz
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About peterme

Most of the Time
Oakland, CA

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
Designing the user experience (interaction design, information architecture, user research, etc.), cognitive science, ice cream, films and film theory, girls, commuter bicycling, coffee, travel, theoretical physics for laypeople, single malt scotch, fresh salmon nigiri, hanging out, comics formalism, applied complexity theory, Krispy Kreme donuts.

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[Editor's note: began as a site of self-published essays, a la Stating The Obvious. This evolved (or devolved) towards link lists and shorter thoughtpieces. These essays are getting a tad old, but have some good ideas.]
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Whose "My" Is It Anyway?
Frames: Information Vs. Application

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January 30, 2002

JJG Speaks! And not just in the comments area of my site!

Jesse just posted part 1 of an essay titled "ia/recon", focusing on the distinguishing between the role of information architect, and the discipline of information architecture.

Perhaps needless to say, I pretty much agree with his basic premise. Though, I don't think the issue is as grave as he puts it across. Still, I eagerly await "Part 2."

(I've recently dipped into Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark", which has me wishing Jesse had named his essay's sections, "Fit the First", "Fit the Second", etc.)
Posted at 07:48 AM PST [9 comments]

...Boxes...boxes....boxes everywhere! in a sea of cardboard...
Posted at 07:38 AM PST [4 comments]

January 28, 2002

From the Recurring Patterns of Complex Systems Department. At the retreat I went to the weekend before last, we were each asked to offer a word or small phrase that held special meaning for us. I'll save my word for a later post, but I was particularly intrigued by Clay Shirky's -- "small-world". Specifically, Clay expressed interest in the "small-world phenomenon," which probably has it's most popular expression in the notion of "six degrees of separation" and "Kevin Bacon is the center of the universe."

I've learned to pay attention to what Clay calls out as important, and so I dug around the Web a bit for information on small-world.

A good place to start is "Kevin Bacon, the Small-World, and Why It All Matters". It points out that though the small-world phenomenon began as a way to think of social networks, the essential structure of the network has been found in the ways that neurons interconnect, and in the power grid of the Western United States.

Another good intro is "From Muhammad Ali to Grandma Rose".

There's been research suggesting that the Web exhibits small-world traits.

Those not afraid of math can enjoy, "The Small-world Phenomenon, An Algorithmic Perspective." The author's home page has links to a number of other tasty-looking (though quite wonky) papers.

The sociology department at Columbia is conducting a Small World experiment, whose site includes the essay, "Could It Be A Big World After All?", that calls into question the assumptions of small-world social networks (which is stimulating Columbia's research).

Posted at 04:11 PM PST [8 comments]

January 27, 2002

Heading Into the Heart of the Beast. On Tuesday, I move to Oakland. A 1 bedroom apartment, just north of downtown, on the outskirts of Lake Merritt, near the Piedmont Avenue district. This is my first move in 3 years.

It's spurred by a number of factors.
- For the last couple of years I've been dissatisfied with where I currently live... but my life was too discombobulated to consider moving.
- Oakland's Lake Merritt neighborhood has among the best 'price/performance' ratio in the Bay Area, in terms of finding housing that is (relatively) reasonably priced for what you get, and a nifty neighborhood in which to live.
- During the boom years, I grew increasingly aggravated with what San Francisco was becoming--this also spurred my longings to head east. Since the tide has ebbed, San Francisco is actually getting more pleasant, but I guess my mind had already been made up.
- A change of pace will do me a lot of good.
- I think I'll just be more... comfortable over there. More at home. My mindset, lifestyle, interests seem to be more in line with an East Bay life.

I still have no immediate plans to own a car. I'll be quite near the 19th Street BART station, and on my bike can get to a number of interesting places in less than 15 minutes.

I'll have direct sunlight, something I haven't had in an apartment in, oh, 4 and a half years, if not more.

A fireplace. Not like we really *need* fireplaces in California, but they are awfully pleasant.

More suitable guest arrangements. (I love hosting out-of-town visitors.)

So, uh, we'll see.

And don't forget what Srini taught us: "'East Bay' is Pig Latin for 'BEAST'". (Interesting to see how the meme has spread.)
Posted at 09:16 AM PST [10 comments]

January 25, 2002

Inner Peace through Economics. Really really good, really really long interview with Brian Arthur, a pioneer in complexity theory and economics, talking about all manner of things, including the spiritual aspects of economics. (pointer from Bill Seitz)
Posted at 10:34 AM PST [0 comments]

One sign of the weblog phenomenon. My dad is getting more and more into it.

And writing good stuff.

I should set him up with a real weblog tool...
Posted at 10:33 AM PST [2 comments]

Our Blogs, Ourselves. So, last weekend I attended an extended salon hosted by Jerry Michalski, and spoke on a wee panel (with Meg, Dan, and David) on "The Weblog Phenomenon." I'm becoming re-fascinated by weblogs because of their phenomenal aspects--their number keeps growing at an astounding rate. It's clearly more than a passing fad. Well, as a formalist and armchair sociologist/anthropologist, I have to wonder, "What the hell is going on here?"

I still believe that the power of weblogs is their ability to immediately put form to thought--that I can get an idea in my head, however poorly baked it might be, and in seconds share it with the world. And immediately get feedback, refinement, stories, etc., spurred by my little idea. Never before was this possible.

Another discussion that's been bloghopping began with David claiming that weblogs are important because we are 'writing ourselves into existence,' and that this process of self-discovery is key. This line of thought was continued across blogs thusly:
Tom Matrullo responds, making references to the locus amoenus, and notions of play.
To which David responds, to which Tom responds.

A separate thread popped up in Jeneane's take on how the act of blogging has transformed herself.

Yet another thread was Halley's response, a far more activist slant on the telling of truth, stories, and taking control of our voices back from the corporations.

Now, I've attempted to codify these threads because they expose one of the things I'm currently loving about blogs... free-ranging discussions hopping from page to page, with little structure apart from the hyperlink... Such discussions can be hard to 'follow,' but I think attempting to 'follow' them misses part of the point. Many folks familiar with BBSes get frustrated that people attempt to carry on conversations across blogs--"Don't you realize this would be much easier to follow on a nice threaded discussion list?" But this doesn't get at the point--which is that the anarchic nature of web hyperlinking is part of the reason we can have these kinds of discussions... There's a free-for-all quality that lets the thoughts roam in all manner of directions, spiralling tendrils across the hypersphere... Standard discussion forums would only constrain this.

Remember: quite possibly the single most important reason the web is so beautiful is because it is so simple and pretty much unstructured. Little links adding up.

One more thing I want to add, though, is that I think all those threads I've posted above only get at half of the issue, and the half, frankly, that I'm less interested in. Weblog writers tend to find themselves and their reasons for publishing endlessly fascinating. Blame it on our rampant egotism. But the Weblog Phenomenon is not merely one of writing--it's also one of reading. All of the reasons for the phenomenon cited above focus on people learning about themselves, transforming themselves, etc. But such omphaloskepsis would not lead to a phenomenon, I think.

There's something more than simply self-expression happening here. Maybe it's what Halley was getting at--maybe it's that other people want to read 'truth,' honesty, the unfiltered thoughts of others.

Or maybe it really is simply about self-expression, and the Web has just made the barrier to entry for reading others' self-expression really really low...

Hrm. I'm rambling here. I'll stop now.
Posted at 10:23 AM PST [14 comments]

Make Way For Progress! If I had known of the troubles facing Jones Diner, I'd have made an effort to patronize the establishment when I visited NYC last weekend... When I lived in New York from 1994-1996, I lived a few blocks from the diner, and would eat there with some frequency--less than 5 dollars got you a very filling breakfast, including some excellent buttermilk pancakes. It is also a delightful look back in American culinary history, what with the counter, the booths, and those pies in the case that never ever seem to change.

If the diner does go away, it will just be another incident in that peculiarly American tradition of continual change. And while it would be a little sad, well, That's The Way Things Are. But I find the comments from the guy who wants to build a new three-story diner on the same spot ("We are all about eggs and burgers. We want that classic diner feel.") so tellingly inane that the various commissions involved should block the new development on the grounds of cluelessness.
Posted at 09:06 AM PST [2 comments]

January 23, 2002

Be True To Your (Public) School. Of the 7 Adaptive Path partners, 6 attended public colleges or universities--namely, UC Berkeley, UT Austin, University of Florida, Cal Poly, University of Michigan Ann Arbor, and, I think University of Ohio (or Ohio State... I can never remember).

I don't know about the others, but I'm actually wholly a product of public education. California public education at that. I hope that I comfortably have the option to say the same about my children. (If/when I have them, many many years from now.)
Posted at 01:47 PM PST [3 comments]

Lights... Camera... Design! Scott Berkun puts forth an argument analogizing interaction design and filmmaking, stressing the importance of collaboration. Given my interest in film, I've often considered the filmmaking model as potentially informative for my work. A while ago, I discussed it in the context of experience design (Scroll to April 15).

Scott's discussion begins well, but falls down when addressing what I consider to be the crux of issue, which is the role of director. He states that often project managers find themselves in that role, but that's not true--they're more in the role of the film producer, the ones managing budget and resources.

The film director is an ultimately creative role, and is the person most responsible for the project's vision. I think Scott's analysis breaks down because it's extremely uncommon to find a single person solely responsible for the creative vision of an interactive product. Which is a shame, because the best projects I've worked on had just that... There were usually two project leads, one a more administrative lead (the project manager) and the other the creative lead (the creative director).

Now, as Scott points out, everyone wants to direct. He mis-addresses the issue, though, by stating that each discipline wishes it was the director on some particular project. In film, the role of the director is distinct from all the other craft roles--it's not like the DP wishes it was the director or the editor wishes it was the director on this project. The recognize that in the project at hand, they're responsible for their particular area, and that someone else will stitch it all together. The magic of the filmmaking process is recognizing the need for this leader.

One interesting thing about the director analogy is that, in filmmaking, directors can emerge from any discipline, but the best prove themselves to have some facility with all the filmmaking disciplines. Some started as writers, other as editors, other as title-card-designers (Hitchcock), some as actors. It's less important which discipline they came from, than their ability to synthesize the collaborative efforts across disciplines. The same is true in interaction design--I've worked with brilliant creative leads from writing, graphic design, user research, and information architecture backgrounds.
Posted at 07:58 AM PST [1 comment]

January 16, 2002

iPod IA and design. Be forewarned, this is another link to a mailing list. But no damning invective here. Just a pointer to Andrew Hinton's thoughtful post on how information architecture (in general) and faceted classification (in particular) is the core of the iPod's user interface. An elegant solution for a display that offers 6 lines of text. Facets r00l.

I finally played with an iPod, and was delighted to see the return of Apple's Chicago font, designed by Susan Kare for the original interface. Not only a classy hearkening back to Apple's legacy, Chicago serves an extremely explicit function--designed for a 1-bit display, the vertical strokes of the characters are two pixels wide, so that one pixel could be turned off to represent "greyed out" and still be legible.
Posted at 09:40 PM PST [5 comments]

January 14, 2002

I read the news today, and yesterday, and the day before, oh boy....
"Bard of Suburbia" (LA Times)
Feature on Todd Solondz, director of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. Todd may have the most consistently good track record of any active filmmaker (Happiness was probably my favorite film of 1998, if only for the opening scene with Jon Lovitz, which might have been the best bit of film in the last, oh, 5 years), so I'm quite looking forward to his upcoming effort. If nothing else, it'll probably piss people off and freak people out, which is usually a good thing.

"Consuming Rituals of the Suburban Tribe" (NY Times, you are registered, aren't you?)
Magazine article on the use of ethnographic methods in the marketing of consumer products. Kind of light on details, but gets the basic points across. And, happily, disses focus groups. We like it anytime focus groups are dissed.

"Blame Game" (SF Gate)
Pretty good article on the debate on whether or not video games lead to acts of violence. I'm fascinated by how this discussion parallels the Porn Debate from the 80s. I studied the Porn Debate when I was a mass communications major at UC Berkeley, and can say with assuredness that there's never been any shred of worthwhile evidence to suggest that porn leads to any significant behavioral change. And it seems that the same can be said for video games. Any change that *does* occur is extremely short term, but that's true of any media. For instance, After seeing a Jackie Chan movie, my adrenaline is up and I wanna do cool stunts off of walls... That's kinda the point of fantasy and storytelling, no? But it eventually dissipates.

"The Curse of Complexity" (LA Times)
Inspired by the Consumer Electronics Showcase, a story on how setting up home entertainment is becoming increasingly frustrating. Even features a _de rigeur_ Jakob quote. It's funny... While the OS folks are trying desperately to make things simpler (e.g., the task orientation of iPhoto or Windows XP), the product designers for consumer electronics seem hellbent on making things unnecessarily difficult. I'd argue there's a *huge* market opportunity for usable home entertainment products (and one of the reasons why TiVo has such a slavishly loyal customer base).

"Under the Counter, Grocer Provided Immigrant Workers" (NY Times)
Fans of Fast Food Nation will appreciate this article about an immigrant grocer who trafficked in illegal aliens, supplying Tyson Foods with thousands of undocumented workers. Like we needed another reason to believe that meat processors are the most bottom-feeding unscrupulous dollar-chasing fuckwads in industry. My favorite line:
While not speaking extensively about the case, Tyson lawyers have said that corporate officials of the company, which is based in Springdale, Ark., were unaware of any recruitment of illegal immigrants and that the six charged employees had been dismissed or placed on leave. If found guilty, the company could face sanctions and heavy fines.
Of course they were unaware. Because, you know, those "corporate officials" are STUPID.

Posted at 01:17 PM PST [12 comments]

January 11, 2002

Interaction Design, Meet User Experience. A bit back I wrote posted about the great similiarities in the definition of industrial design and interaction design. A coupla days ago, my biz partner Mike pointed his fellow Pathers to a couple of essays from a year 2000 IDSA conference on bringing user-centered design methods from interface design into the industial design process.

The first essay is "Integrating User Interaction Design Processes into the Industrial Design Curriculum" (.PDF). From the abstract:
User interaction (UI) design has become increasingly more important in the design of "intelligent" (software enabled) products in recent years. This paper intends to provide information to industrial design educators interested in incorporating UI into the design process in applied industrial design (ID) courses.
It is the result of research into what industrial designers know and would need to know to design good interactive products. It identifies three challenges for industrial designers in the design of interactive products. It goes on to discuss processes that user interaction designers use that would address these challenges, and it provides examples of projects that integrate UI and ID.

Nothing earth-shattering, but a good primer on the issues.

The second essay is "The Challenge of Understanding and Designing User Experience" (.PDF). The abstract:
One of the most noteworthy developments in contemporary industrial design is a new interest in specifying products, communications, and services to support the design of user experience. As presented in this article, significant developments in the business sector (e.g., the demands of the new economy, the commoditization of quality, etc.), coupled with a more mature understanding of the value of design in everyday life, are fueling this development. Pioneers in design -- including Doblin Group, SonicRim, Razorfish, and others -- are, in fact, already building expertise in the design of experience and will likely be joined in the coming years by a wave of other design consultants.
To take full advantage of the opportunity, this article suggests that new methods and processes for designing user experience need to be developed and articulated. It includes an introduction to a method that is being explored at Arizona State University. Called a(x 4), this method combines elements from ethnographic research and scenario building. A full description is provided, detailing how ethnography and scenario building influenced the development of a(x 4). The article concludes with the results from a unique multidisciplinary workshop conducted at ASU last spring which focused on an informal investigation into the effectiveness of using ethnographic methods (e.g., a(x 4)) to spark the development of provocative design scenarios.

Posted at 10:03 PM PST [12 comments]

January 10, 2002

Special to the kids on SIGIA-L. Funny how when presented a detailed factual argument, ol' Ziya pretty much sputters in reply (though, the fact he has nothing to say doesn't stop him from posting either. That man has the worst case of Male Answer Syndrome I've ever seen on a mailing list. A little Googling demonstrates SIGIA isn't the only realm so plagued...)
Posted at 10:49 PM PST [26 comments]

January 9, 2002

All glowy and white. Went to Macworld today. My first ever, I think. Oh wait--I believe I once worked a MacWorld when I was employed by Voyager. Anyway, it's been a long time. Saw the new iMac--it's nice and all, though I kind of don't 'get' it. Not that I didn't feel techno-lust... gimmegimmegimme an iBook with an iPod and a digital camera.

It was interesting to fiddle with iPhoto--they've done a good job on doing basic photo stuff. I particularly like the scaling interface (I think I'm still more a sucker for a true Zooming User Interface, but that doesn't seem quite ready for prime time). I was surprised by it's blatant task-orientation...

This lozenge bar is the main interface element. For the longest time software avoided being explicit about tasks, I guess for fear of being too constraining. Now, as the tools are getting simpler, the interface design becomes more obvious. You see it in the Start menu of Windows XP, too...

I also visited the OmniGroup's booth, mostly out of curiosity about OmniGraffle, a diagramming program that could pose a threat to Visio as the information-architecture-tool-of-choice. It's definitely a version 1.0 right now, but the guys we talked to were cognizant of what needed to be improved.

Clicking around the OmniGroup site, I found some licensing copy that would make the Cluetrain kids very happy... (for each, you'll find it by scrolling down).

Licensing information

OmniWeb 4 for Mac OS X can be used for free, but occasionally you might get little flashes of guilt while you use it. If this overwhelms you, why not buy a license at our web store?

Licensed Version

Once you are addicted, you'll doubtlessly want to spend less than $25 to buy a license. Buying a license enables you to add new items to and edit existing items in documents with more than twenty items. Click here to buy, and in the process help pull America out of this pesky recession. We guarantee we'll turn around and spend the money you give us!

Licensed Version

Once you've used OmniGraffle for a while, we bet you'll want to edit documents with more than twenty items, and then you can buy a license to fully enable the app, and help get us that much closer to being feelthy steenking rich. Well, OK, maybe not rich, but successful enough to write some more apps you'll love. And, hey, right now Graffle's about half the cost of some other visualization tools. Also, we're a small company, like those juice guys, so when you buy an app from us it gives you a warm fuzzy feeling in your tummy, like if you ate some sweaters.

Mmmm... sweaters.

Posted at 06:48 PM PST [1 comment]

Tsssss! Getcher Brand Right Here! Well, I'm a sucker for being labelled a "catalyst." My buddy josh lowman (seen with me here) has started a blog on branding. When I first met josh he was a kick-ass graphic designer--now he's becoming all a brand guru 'n shit. Anyway, take a look-see.
Posted at 06:32 PM PST [0 comments]

January 8, 2002

Juicy Comments Alert. While I wasn't looking, a bunch of rich comments were posted to a previous petermeme on the 'place-ness' vs 'space-ness' of the Web. Click in, scroll down, and follow the delightful links.
Posted at 09:15 AM PST [0 comments]

Words, words, words. Last night attended a bookstore reading given by Erin McKean, the editor of Verbatim - The Language Quarterly. No stuck up language mag is this--a click into the archives reveals essays on the use of slang in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, a man's struggle with his name, Wiener, etc. I almost immediately developed a crush on the (married, with child) Erin--cute, short, glasses, ring of pearls, and freely using of words like 'peripatetic.'

Erin also edits the Oxford American Dictionary, and she discussed its use of core senses and subsenses, which are also explained here. An interesting approach the dictionary definitions, reminiscent of prototypes in cognitive linguistics thinking...
Posted at 09:10 AM PST [3 comments]

User-centered design... in the SF Chronicle? Well shut my mouth. Smart product design has been written up in the usually laughable San Francisco Comical. This article discusses the development of Handspring's Treo, with a number of paragraphs devoted to the design ethnography that went into researching mobile devices. Could San Francisco be getting a decent local paper? I'm not holding my breath...
Posted at 12:28 AM PST [1 comment]

January 3, 2002

It's Biopic Madness! Last night I saw A Beautiful Mind. The greatest effect of which was to give me heightened respect for Ali. See, I pretty much liked Ali, but walked away kind of underwhelmed... There was a certain lugubriousness to the proceedings that failed to fire me. Sure, there was some great stuff (the scenes between Ali and Howard Cosell spring to mind), but as a film, it didn't all hang together.

But at least Michael Mann knew what to do with his material. For all it's faults, Ali is a solid piece of filmmaking, occasionally even experimental in ways warranted by the subject matter. ABM, however, is extremely warmed-over mediocrity. Russell Crowe is great, Jennifer Connolly is great, the script is solid. But the filmmaking... Well, suffice to say Ron Howard is a hack. He has no Vision. He's perfectly competent, but he's not up to the material here. It's bogged down by the limits of what he can see and portray. Which is a shame. As are all the critics falling over themselves lauding this film. But I suppose that is to be expected.

Posted at 10:24 AM PST [4 comments]

January 1, 2002

So, like, you know... David Weinberger's latest JOHO features a little snippet on the use of the introductory "so". A writing tic I'm more than guilty of. It reminded me of an older piece by Geoffrey Nunberg that I'd heard on Fresh Air, on the use of "like." In looking that up, I saw that Nunberg recently did a piece on "blogs." Which, it turns out, pissed off Doc a bit back. I don't think it's all that unfair a critique--sure, it takes a particular point of view, and it runs contrary to Doc's notion that blogs are The Best Thing Ever, but, well, Geoffrey is probably more righter--by and large, blogs are little other than the "accretion of diurnal detail." Frankly, Doc's getting a little hoary in his unremitting blog love, but that's another story.

Oh, and hey, peterme readers will likely find stuff of interest clicking around Geoffrey's site.
Posted at 11:14 PM PST [3 comments]

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