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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February 27, 2002

A second chance at getting the word out. On September 18 I blogged a book review of Steven Johnson's Emergence. I was excited for the publishing of the book, and looking forward to its success.

But as that date suggests, Steven found himself a victim of some rather unfortunate timing. The book's promotional efforts fell by the wayside in light of some obviously more compelling events.

But now, nearly 6 months later, Emergence is experiencing a resurgence. I more officially reviewed it for the inaugural issue of New Architect. Jason's been talking it up in the context of bottom-up journalism. And Steven is keynoting O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference, and is featured in a smart interview here.
Posted at 10:40 AM PST [3 comments]

February 26, 2002

Damn that boy is smart. It's been linked elsewhere, but I just had to point to Peter Morville's latest on social networks. Very smart stuff, with nifty design, too!

To which I'd add a pointer to the work of Christopher Lueg, who also has been doing some interesting deep research in this area.
Posted at 08:34 AM PST [1 comment]

February 25, 2002

Designing Like It's 1999. I'm in the office at 8:30a. Working until 9p. Cranking out prototypes. No pre-design user research. Just smart seat-of-the-pants iteration and testing. Final functional specs due in three weeks!

You'd think there were still internet IPOs for companies with no profits. Oh, wait...
Posted at 08:38 PM PST [3 comments]

Woof! Working like dog. No time write. Post later.
Posted at 09:02 AM PST [0 comments]

February 21, 2002

Oh, My Words. I've got a PILE of work responsibilities to attend to, so naturally I'm going to spend too long writing a post about my personal life. (Cue the sounds of mice clicking into the location/address field, keys typing in a new URL...)

In January I attended a retreat, and as part of the introductions, each participant was to put forth a word that had been particularly meaningful to them of late. They tended toward the thoughtful or profound, "optimism", "ethics", "grace", "transition", and often commented in a more societally-oriented way.

As introductions transpired, I pained over what my word would be. And then it hit me... And the word I thought of was immediately followed on by a companion, and the two become inseparable in my mind. And so when it was my turn, I spoke, "I have two words, a primary word and one that follows on it immediately and inextricably. My words are 'dating'.... and 'baggage'."

Starting the last couple weeks of last year, I began dating a fair amount. A number of my female friends related happy stories of dating through's personals, and I figured, "Hell, if the women I know are having a good time with this, I ought to try it out."

I met women first through Craigslist (it's free!) and then Nerve Personals. The rituals of online dating are pretty obvious--it all begins in a flurry of email. Flirty, funny, meaty, frank, you find you're spending an hour or so a day just firing off missives. With Craigslist, pictures are sent. Nerve ads usually have a picture, though it's common for more to be pointed to. (I would just direct the ladies to Which, yes, would "blow my cover"--I could care less about maintaining anonymity, though, understandably, women tend to be much more protective of such identification.)

Eventually, one person (in my case, usually the woman) says, "So, should we meet?", and plans are set. (Some women like to precede the meeting with a phone call, seemingly to more fully make sure the potential date is not weird or psychotic or utterly unsocialized or something). And then dating commences, much the same as it has for the last gajillion years.

One thing I found fascinating about my foray into online personals is that I had *no* bad dates. I've gone out with 6 different women (1 from Craigslist, 5 from Nerve), and the worst that happened was that there was no chemistry, but the interaction was still pleasant.

"But what about the 'baggage'?" you ask, if you've bothered to make it along this far. Well, before this recent dating jag, I hadn't gone out with a woman since my last relationship dissolved in September. Having been my Most Serious Relationship Ever, it left quite a residue that became increasingly apparent as I went out with new women--"These girls aren't nearly as great as her!" This might sound silly, but I'd never really had to deal with such baggage before (before my MSRE, the longest I'd dated someone was three months). So there was a challenge in coming to grips with it, in acknowledging what the baggage suggested, heeding its influence, figuring out what it meant. (Did I mention that this was all exacerbated by my continuing communication with the subject of my MSRE, which had been getting progressively flirty and, concomitantly, fucked-headspace-y? No? Silly of me to overlook that.)

So that's where I was in late January. Dating, with baggage.

The point of this post: if you're looking for dates, try online personals. Really. Don't be sheepish. It's fun. And, in my experience, Nerve is worth the time and money.

If you have a personal web site, don't assume it will get you dates. Mine never has. (Though, I believe my site has helped 'make the sale' after someone met me through other means.)

Epilogue: After more "dating around" than I'd ever experienced in my life, I seem to be focusing all my amorous attentions on one particularly delightful person, funny as fuck, smart as a whip, cute as a button--and happily, if perhaps atypically, it's not unrequited. She was the fifth of what I called "the Nerve girls". And I haven't bothered to look since.

Posted at 07:34 AM PST

February 18, 2002

Musing on Museums. Marc Rettig, to whom I always listen, pointed me to the web site for a course he's teaching at CMU, the Museum Innovation Project. In it, three groups of students will come up with design ideas for extending the museum experience. And all of it will be cataloged in public view on the Web.

So far, only Team Bubbles has posted anything, and it's clear they've been following their Fearless Leader's sticky-bound ways.

I had been hoping for readings or other pointers in the syllabus. Extending museums has been a well-researched and written-about field, as this archive to the Museums on the Web conferences attests.
Posted at 09:10 AM PST [8 comments]

February 14, 2002

Memories Can't Wait. Judith has a faboo post ("twelve") on memory palaces, hypertext, the semiotics of objects, and loss. Including tasty tasty links. She should think at us more.
Posted at 08:09 AM PST [3 comments]

February 12, 2002

Faceted Searching, The Forbidden Dance! Okay. So what I'm about to say will prove beyond nary a doubt that I'm a big dweeb. Yesterday, I saw one of the best demos I've ever seen--Flamenco, a search interface that exploits faceted metadata. In this instance it's an image browser (that link goes to the actual working prototype) for architects and city planners. They typically use such images for inspiration, collage-making, pinning up on walls, that kind of thing. The interface has been tailored to meet their specific needs and assumes familiarity with the jargon of the profession.

Now typically a 'great demo' means that the technology is all whiz-bangy... That wasn't the case here(for that I go to CHI and see what the Media Lab kids are doing). It was a great demo because:
a) the thing actually works - it looks good and operates well
b) it addresses a real need--better tools for navigating complex information spaces are definitely required, and Flamenco is a great option
c) it's predicated on extensive user research--the interface was developed and iterated through user testing, and is successful because of it... it's not a technology looking for a reason to be
d) it provides a great 'first step' that others will be able to solidly build upon

This paper (.PDF) describes the design and evaluation of Flamenco. (I'm on the review committees for both the CHI-AIGA forum and DIS2002, and this paper is better than anything I read for either of those conferences.) Take the time to read it, and, while doing so, play with the interface.

Marti was gracious enough to post her talk (PowerPoint). It summarizes the paper, and also throws in a few other ideas that occurred to her.

Stuff that excites me:
- Epicurious users showed a preference for the "enhanced search" over the "simple search". And that the design of Flamenco bore this out for image searching... All this fairly rigorous researchsuggests that users aren't afraid of facets, and, in some cases, prefer it. Expose them! (It also suggests that this is true in fairly well-defined domains such as recipes and architectural image browsing... It seems that familiarity is necessary...)
- Wondering about how a person approaches a task is reflected in how they traverse the facets. Marti pointed out that they didn't do any real research on this, but it's a question she wants to pursue. She surmised that a task such as "I want to make a summer pasta" would be represented as an ingredient + occasion search. The idea being that facets can be very task-oriented, thanks to their flexibility.
- Validation for smart user-centered processes. Marti strongly believes that, in this instance, the "search problem" is an interface one, not an algorithm one. And her work is bearing that out.
- The exploratory nature of the interface pretty much eliminates errors. There is no "starting over", no dead ends. You just keep clicking and refining until you find what you want.

Anyway, a big congrats and thumbs up to the folks at SIMS for their efforts here. I'm hoping we start seeing it influence others very soon.
Posted at 11:57 PM PST [7 comments]

Something to get from the library. Stefan Fatsis' Word Freak is the most enjoyable read I've had in a while. A deep look inside the world of competitive Scrabble playing, Fatsis is able to populate his book with a cast of amazingly quirky characters. (And yes, "quirky" is an overused word, but really the most apt adjective in this case.) Fatsis tackles all manner of Scrabble-iana, including the invention of the game, it's meteoric rise in the 50s, and the cognitive psychology of playing. Also, he takes you on his own personal journey, where the lines between 'reporter' and 'player' get blurred to the point that he's pretty much as far gone as the folks he writes about. It's a fun book, at times even thrilling in its accounts of Scrabble tournaments.

Posted at 08:27 AM PST [4 comments]

February 10, 2002

I am so loving Oakland right now. I must say that I am very happy with my new municipality of residence. On Friday, I went out for tasty sushi, followed by a most delightful show at the Paramount Theater, seeing my favoritest Marx Brothers flick, Duck Soup.

I love the Paramount. It is a massive 1930s-era movie palace, seating something on the order of 3000. Immaculately detailed art deco interiors. You can't bring food into the theater, but you *can* drink cocktails in the lobby before the show. Before the film they play Dec-O-Win, a spin-the-wheel game where winners get prizes for things like Dinners For 2 at a restaurant in Oakland. With each screening you get a Movienote news reel and a cartoon. Though, for our show, it wasn't a cartoon, it was Buster Keaton's brilliant 2-reeler Cops, with live accompaniment on the Mighty Wurlitzer.

All for 5 dollars. It just felt very much like a neighborhood/community outing, this inexpensive entertainment offered to the middle class families in my new city. Unpretentious, just fun.

Then yesterday, I hightailed it on the bike for an exploration of my new environs. As I wrote to a friend in an email:
I took myself a wee nap, then groggily climbed the bike and got some food and coffee at Gaylord's (prolly the best little coffeehouse on Piedmont... though Sunrise looks like it had potential). So fueled, I began my jaunt around Oakland, taking Piedmont Ave to Pleasant Valley (the cross street where Kings X pub is), then a right on PV, which becomes Grand Ave (who knew?). Into the heart of Grand Lake, then up Lakeshore, and into the hills above there--some frickin' beautiful houses. Biked up and around there a while, then let gravity take its course, which put me right back on Lakeshore. Biked around the lake to Park and 18th, and then up Park, past the Parkway. Then headed south and west, makingmy way to International, and then south on International.

International really is. All manner of ethnic stores, restaurants from seemingly every Asian culture, and a fair amount of Mexican, too. Biked down to 29th Avenue, then headed back up 12th, returning to downtown Oakland. Jogged over to the estuary near Jack London Square, for what is easily the most breathtaking view I've had in months. The sun had gone behind San Francisco, lighting the sky with a gradient rainbow, so that it was blue above me, and deep pink/orange on the horizon. Downtown SF was silhouetted, the TransAmerica and Bank of America buildings standing tall. The sky reflected off the water in the estuary, and a passing ferry caused a wake that made little waves lap against the shore. Oakland's docks stood proud in the foreground, the large loading cranes (the Imperial Walker things) looming above it all.


Biked back through Jack London Square, where, you should know, you can rent canoes and kayaks to take into the estuary (you could probably also bring your own). Then shot up Broadway (Broadway begins at Jack London Square), through downtown, and back home.

I'm experiencing Oakland bliss.

Posted at 10:38 PM PST [9 comments]

February 8, 2002

More self-promotional than usual. Darcy DiNucci's latest book, Web Site Redesigns (Adobe Master Class), features a series of in-depth looks at, well, web site redesigns. Included is the Epinions 2.0 redesign for which I was creative director. In the book, you can see all manner of "behind the scenes" documentation and methods that lead to the final product. Darcy's done a great job, and I hope people benefit from her efforts!
Posted at 10:09 AM PST [1 comment]

On the pile. I've run across a bunch of stuff that deserves my reading time, when I can devote it...

Chad points the world to a PDF on "The Jack Principles" (just fill out the form), a paper explaining the interaction design underpinnings of the game "You Don't Know Jack." Anyone who has played the game is familiar with it's seductive game play. As it happens, YDKJ was a subject in one of the first things I ever posted to

Chad also points to the first three chapters of an upcoming book on interaction design.

The kids over at xblog directed our attention to "Aesthetics and Usability", an academic paper loaded with good stuff. It brought to my mind Andrew Dillon's research, and checking out Andy's home page, I saw that he has published in draft form a paper titled "Power, Perception and Performance: From Usability Engineering to Technology Acceptance with the P3 Model of User Response", which, among many other things, looks at how aesthetics influence a user's acceptance of a product.
Posted at 07:59 AM PST [1 comment]

February 7, 2002

More facet-y goodness. The comments area on my last facets post is hopping. In the meantime, Prof. Marti Hearst sent me a pointer to research and design being done at Cal on a project called Flamenco. Lots of thinky PDFs for your downloading pleasure.

Fellow lost causes can join me in hearing Prof. Hearst talk about this work at the UC Berkeley Digital Library Seminar on Feb 11 from 4p-5:30p. If you're thinking of going, let me know. I'd love to grab a coffee beforehand (mmmm, Caffe Nefeli....)
Posted at 08:41 AM PST [1 comment]

February 4, 2002

What Software Do You Think In? One of the things I've learned about my partners at Adaptive Path is that we tend to 'think in' different forms of software. Janice is all about Excel--she can spreadsheet most anything. For Jesse, it's BBEdit. Jeff seems to favor vi and pine. For me, it's Outlook Express (though I suspect it would be any similar email app...). I use it not just for email, but to keep to-do lists, notes to self, drafts of writing, etc.

Anyway, what software do you think in?

Posted at 09:39 AM PST [46 comments]

February 3, 2002

Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-cets! A long time ago, my best bud Trav and I found ourselves both grousing at standard methods of presenting information, namely hierarchies that forced people down a certain path. We both wanted something more flexible, that allowed the data to speak for itself, and for the user to access it as they chose, not how some person at the other end arbited.

Well, unbeknownst to ourselves, we were talking faceted classification. Since then, we've both studied the subject a bit, and Trav has now whipped up FacetMap, an exploration of such an organization. Hie thee yonder to consider it.

I'm sure he'll correct me if I'm wrong (it's one of the things he does best), but from what I can tell, FacetMap isn't *all that* different from how Epinions presents its products (click "Wine" on the left, then use the categories on the left side to select further down), nor how Epicurious presents its recipes (though Epicurious only exposes one facet at a time once you click in). Still, I found Trav's site valuable, because he bothers to explain to you what he's doing each step of the way. He also presents the text files which make up the database, demonstrating how durn simple faceted classifications are, technically.

Anyway, enjoy, and please discuss your thoughts here.
Posted at 11:16 PM PST [11 comments]

SOFT AND CHEWY. Tonight I enjoyed an Abba-Zaba candy bar, a favorite from my childhood. There was a brief period, in later elementary school (5th grade or so), where Abba-Zaba's became "cool" on the playground, and everyone would run off after school and buy them. For me, it ended up not being a passing fad.

And now that I have you all dreading that is turning into one of those 'accretions of diurnal detail,' well, the reason I'm posting is that, on the black-and-yellow checkered wrapper, is a starburst exclaiming "LONG LASTING FUN!" Which seemed like an odd thing for a candy to promote.

It also directed me to it's manufacturer's web site, The Annabelle Candy Company. The company happens to located in Hayward, just south of my new city of residence. And, you've just got to make sure your speakers are set to "loud" for the page promoting the chewy taffy product I love. And dig that animation!
Posted at 11:05 PM PST [2 comments]

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