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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Frames: Information Vs. Application

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March 29, 2002

Diversion for a Friday. An article on e-literature from a bit back introduced me to the works of poet and scholar Thomas Swiss, whose web-based work is quite good (I particularly like GENIUS). Swiss has written work published in Poems That Go, a site devoted to multimedia poetry.

(Language police: To commence your experience with Thomas' various poems, you are variously encouraged to either "begin," "read," "launch," "stroll," or "enter." A few just begin without need for your prompting.)

Thomas' site also points to an engaging meditation on Web Radio, which I found refreshing in the context of, say, Doc's SF-Bay-Guardian-like harangues about Web radio and copyright. (As in [and only San Franciscans will get this]: Doc:CARP::SFB Guardian:PG&E).

If you've still got some free Friday time, why not take a trip to Piotr Szyhalski's The SPLEEN, a Web art project dating all the way back to 1996, and still a standard bearer in
Posted at 08:41 AM PST [0 comments]

March 26, 2002

Wikka wikka wikka. Go see Scratch. A celebration of the hip-hop DJ, this documentary covers the history of scratching from the 70s on. It's a joyful movie, tons of fun to watch and listen to, cleverly directed and edited to match the message. It's also fairly insightful and informative, breaking down the DJ experience into various components (battles, digging, beat mixing, etc. etc.), so that even a clueless white boy like myself can understand what's going on.

Because I am who I am, seeing it recalled Jason's post on "rip, mix, burn, consume, repeat, faster!", which the DJ ethos is definitely a part of. Where this all crosses over into the realm of information is what's interesting to me... The Web affords us the ability to 'rip mix burn' words, ideas, etc., in a fluid way we've never really had before. Taking bits of thoughts from disparate places and piecing them together to tease out some new meaning.

Posted at 07:31 AM PST [2 comments]

March 25, 2002

Music Recommendations That Work. At the ASIS&T IA Summit, Rashmi and I chatted about recommender systems, a field which she is studying. She mentioned that in a study she conducted, MediaUnbound came out far and ahead of other music recommenders. And in my brief experience, that rings true. The initial interview takes a while (10 minutes or so), but once done, the music it brings back is right on track. You can register to try it out--I had to wait a few days before I was accepted.
Posted at 09:50 AM PST [1 comment]

Tools for Faceted Search and Browse. Endeca is the first commercial search tool I've seen that essentially places all of its utility on the awesome power of facets. Viewing the demo (which uses the concept of wine!), it looks like they thought through a lot of issues with faceted hierarchical browsing. To see it in use, head to Tower Records, and click into music, classical, or video/dvd--the navigation on the left is driven by it.

A couple of thoughts. It's great to see solutions to exposing facets--apart from Travis', I didn't know of any technologies that I could recommend to folks interested in such a system on their site (I'm guessing Flamenco is not yet ready for licensing.)

The Tower Records implementation lags behind Flamenco in some very important ways. First off, it doesn't tell you how many items are within a facet until you've clicked on it. Such information is key for orienting people to the space that they're navigating. Second, the items on the Tower Records site are endpoints--there's no obvious way to browse back up. In Flamenco, the item's attributes are linked so you can continue your wander without having to "start over"--this is key for keeping people in the headspace of continuing the browse, as opposed to having thought they'd reached a dead end, somehow failing, and need to begin again.

Lastly, the Tower Records experience suggests that, maybe, not everything warrants a multi-faceted browse, particularly "media" categories. Sure, I want to find a digital camera that has at least "3 megapixels", is "SLR", and costs "less than $600", but do I really want to find an "ambient" "CD maxi-single" that is "under $15"? Probably not--people shop media categories by taste, not by attributes.

Posted at 08:48 AM PST [3 comments]

March 23, 2002

A new personal record.

This morning, I ate 7 Krispy Kreme original glazed.
Posted at 06:06 PM PST [16 comments]

March 22, 2002

If It's Tuesday, It Must Be The User Interface Conference. Two days ago I capped off one and a half weeks of conference travel--SXSW, ASIS&T IA Summit, and User Interface 6 West. Went from Austin straight to Baltimore, and then even stayed the night in Burlingame so I could more easily get to the UI show. It's nice to be home.

A Quick Rundown -- SXSW was very pleasant this year, more low-key than past years, but, then, so am I. I attended few panels, electing instead to hang out with my buddy Trav much of the time. Ate boatloads of Tex Mex, chatted up a storm with various and sundry, and had an extremely productive shopping outing with Miss Jenville (the pitcher is safe and sound!).

At SXSW, I caught Home Movie, the latest documentary by the guy who made American Movie. It examines the off-beat homes of 5 very original folks--an alligator farmer in Louisiana, a quasi-mystic tinkerer in Illnois, a cat-obsessed couple in California, converted missile silo residents in Kansas, and a tree-house denizen in Hawaii. Without narrative, it lacks the emotional resonance of American Movie, but it's still very much worthwhile all the same.

Baltimore played host to the ASIS&T Information Architecture Summit, wherein I had no fewer than 3 talks to give. The first was an all-day seminar, given with JJG-Love, on "Company and Customer Insight for Information Architects." The following day, I was up twice--first with Lou Rosenfeld, discussing the topic of "Enterprise Information Architecture", (See my slides (94k PPT) | See Lou's Slides (Over 1MB, PPT), and then with Chiara Fox giving a case study on the information architecture of The latter was the one talk I've wanted to give more than any other for a while--the PeopleSoft project proved to be something of a wonderful dream, and I love telling people about it. (Note to self: All Day Tutorial Based on PeopleSoft IA?).

I ditched the second half of the second day of the conference, missing out on my new appellation (I am "The Bad Peter" in contrast to "The Good Peter"), and instead took a walk through the sleety streets of Baltimore. The first stop was the American Visionary Art Museum, which ended up becoming one of my favorite American museums. They have a fabulous collection of works by "self-taught" artists, some folks just poor or out of the mainstream, others decidedly among the "outsider" art crowd (think Henry Darger). The current exhibit focuses on "War and Peace", and offers up a wide range of perspectives.

The last stop on the tour was beautiful Burlingame, CA to present the latest version of "From Construct To Structure: Information Architecture From Mental Models" with Indi. It went *amazingly* well. Easily the best all-day seminar I've given. Great, engaged crowd, the material proved solid and right at their level. I walked away very pleased.

And now I'm home. With no plans to travel for a long long time.

Posted at 01:41 PM PST [0 comments]

It's Like Vaudeville! Only Without The Cream Pies! A couple of Adaptive Path partners and I are going on the road this year, spreading the gospel of Good User Experience to the masses. We'll be hitting up 5 cities: Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Dallas, and San Francisco. And, perhaps coolest, in each city we'll have a local brilliant person provide their perspective on user experience. And the venues--the coolest! We've tried hard to avoid hotel conference rooms with carpeted walls. And, needless to say, sign up early and SAVE SAVE SAVE! (Is my "sell" crass enough here?) So what are you waiting for?
Posted at 12:51 PM PST [2 comments]

March 19, 2002

You Say "Pop", I Say, "Soft Drink." So, I've found out that not everyone knows of the Web's single most useful resource: The map that shows what people around the US and Canada call carbonated beverages. It's evidence of the Web at its maximum potential.

Sadly, it's also evidence of poor survey design, as only three choices are offered (scroll down on the page to submit your answers)--"pop", "soda", or "Coke". Seeing as how I call them "soft drinks" (a typical California-ism, it turns out.) Also particularly interesting is the number of folks from Massachusetts that call it "tonic."

Looking at the map makes me wonder, how much the red and the blue here match up with the county-by-county results from the 2000 Election.
Posted at 09:19 PM PST [2 comments]

One Link To Rule Them All... Via a mailing list post, our friend Adina (where is that website of yours, hmmm?) points us to a coupla Things Worth Reading. Cory Doctorow's extended mash note to Google, How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Panopticon, and a research paper, Self Organization and Identification in Web Communities, which demonstrates the power of The Link, and which has Math and Algorithms, so you know it's all true!
Posted at 07:11 AM PST [1 comment]

March 18, 2002

The Semantics of File Formats. In the proposal process with a Large Corporation Back East, we (the folks at Adaptive Path) were asked to submit questions about an RFP. We gathered round, came up with a list, typed them into an email and sent it off.

The Corporation sent all the pitching vendors a list of all questions asked by all of them. This was followed by a conference call. After the conference call, I found out from a contact within the Corporation that other people in the Corporation were concerned about Adaptive Path's professionalism.

See, we had sent questions in the body of an email. Some folks in the Corporation had felt that the questions should have been submitted in an attached Word document. That thought had never crossed our minds. Perhaps more surprising to us, though, was that every other vendor *had* done this. They all somehow knew.
Posted at 06:17 PM PST [14 comments]

March 14, 2002

Shameless Self-Promotion! In marketing the UI 6 West Conference, the folks at User Interface Engineering interviewed me about some work Adaptive Path did with PeopleSoft. The interview is nowhere to be found on the web, so I'm reprinting it here.

--> Feature: Designing a New Information Architecture
An interview with Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path

Last year, Adaptive Path, working with interactive media agency Lot21, took on a challenging project -- the redesign of three PeopleSoft sites. The redesign involved over 40,000 pages as well as 40 divergent opinions from stakeholders! After four and a half months, the site's information architecture and navigation were transformed to the accolades of both PeopleSoft and their users.

We recently interviewed Peter about this project:

UIE: Before Peoplesoft called you, what were some of their major challenges?

Peter Merholz: Peoplesoft had three independently-operated web sites going off in different directions, telling three different stories, and offering three different sets of information about the same products. So, operationally, there was pain that work was being done in triplicate and not agreeing with other similar work.

On the customer side, there was a lot of pain around the site's navigation. Divisions between the public, customer, and partner sites were blurry. Links would often take users to the other sites
without them realizing it. Then, when users tried to navigate, they didn't know where they were or where to go.

UIE: Can you describe some of the different types of pages and audiences for those pages that made the site complex?

Peter: The most complex part of the basic PeopleSoft site is the product description pages. PeopleSoft offers over 170 different product "modules" that can fit together in seemingly infinite ways. Additionally, there is a whole host of information (brochures, case studies, technical documents, white papers, etc.) about product modules, product suites (certain groupings of modules), and product lines. Not only was the interrelation between products complex, the information for each product could be quite voluminous.

The complexity was compounded by the high degree of interaction between PeopleSoft's offerings. They not only sell products but also offer a bunch of services ranging from consulting to hosting.
PeopleSoft made no attempt to make people aware of these offerings except for a link in the global navigation. We found in our research that users consider such services when in the process of researching the software. We therefore developed an information architecture that put these links at the product level.

UIE: What were some of the problems for users with the old site?

Peter: Finding information about specific products was a challenge. PeopleSoft had biased "product suites" (a desire to sell a lot of products at once), but customers often want information about just one

Also, product information lived on the "public" site. So, users on the "customer" and "partner" sites would get shuttled out to the public site for product information and, as a result, lose their navigational
cues. Sometimes users had to log-in again to get back to the information specific to them. It was messy.

The new singular architecture made the distinction between "sites" far less, instead utilizing roles to filter the kinds of information people saw. Once you choose "customer", everything you see is identified as "customer," even though some of that exact same information is available to the public or to partners.

UIE: What techniques did you use to gather requirements? Which technique was most effective and why?

Peter: We used one-hour telephone interviews with the appropriately targeted user types. Telephone interviews allow you to talk to a large number of geographically dispersed people in a short period of time. You don't get some of the 'fidelity' you'd get from a contextual inquiry, but we've found that for most Web sites, that level of depth is simply unnecessary -- it's like cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer.Particularly with folks engaged with enterprise-level software,there are certain apparent processes at play that we were able to glean from talking with folks about how they do their work. We always make sure to focus on how someone does their work, not what they feel about it.

UIE: What did you learn from the content audit and task analysis that proved to be most helpful in creating the new navigation?

Peter: Everything! The content audit was perhaps the most important in that it showed what content existed across the three sites, and made it very clear which pieces were duplicated (or triplicated). This allowed us to quickly see commonalities across the three sites that aided us in thinking about new navigation.

A big point of our seminar (at User Interface 6 West) is discussing how our task analysis research leads directly to a new high-level architecture. We realized that there were 6 or 7 main tasks per audience, and we used those as a starting point for creating global navigation.

UIE: What diagrams proved to be most useful in the development process?

The mental model diagram was probably the single most useful. Again and again we returned to this visualization of users tasks and mental processes. For figuring out the architecture of the product area, we developed a "crystal-molecule-atom" diagram that showed how the product modules (atoms), belong to a particular product line (crystal), but could be combined in any number of ways into suites
(molecules). And, the most actionable diagram was the Site Architecture Diagram - a huge Visio doc showing all the main pages and their relationships with one another.

UIE: Thanks Peter. We're looking forward to learning more about this project and your techniques at the conference.

Peter: My pleasure.

Posted at 07:49 PM PST [2 comments]

March 11, 2002

Speaking of Game Design... The Game Design Track at the upcoming Game Developers Conference looks great. Too bad the conference is a) so expensive and b) conflicting with other responsibilities. Sigh.
Posted at 12:00 PM PST [0 comments]

The Pause That Refreshes. So, at SXSW, I'm currently attending a panel on "The Black Art of Interactive Narrative". The ringleader seems to be Mark Meadows, always worth listening to. And, it turns out, he's about to publish a book, Pause and Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative, which, clicking around the site, looks sooper-dooper compelling. It's definitely On The List.
Posted at 11:44 AM PST [0 comments]

March 10, 2002

News Programming? Aisle three. In a discussion on a mailing list, someone refuted this quote from Robert McChesney...:

"Fewer than ten transnational media conglomerates dominate much of our media; fewer than two dozen account for the overwhelming majority of our newspapers, magazines, films, television, radio, and books."
...with the fact that, well, we now have hundreds of channels broadcasting all manner of stuff, in all manner of languages... 50 years ago, we had 3. How is hundreds fewer than three? How are we any worse off?

Now, I believe that "The Media Monopoly" is very real and true. Yes, there used to be 3 channels (plus local independent stations), and now there are 150. However, what I think the point is to look at the ownership status of those 150. And if there are only, what, 10? 12? companies that own them, then the supposed bounty of 150 voices is really just more ways for a smaller group of companies to talk at you.

Lemme suggest a physical goods counterpart. I recently shopped at a grocery store. I was offered 10 different types of Wheat Thins™ Snack Crackers. This is more than the 1 type I was offered before.

Now, I could revel in the bounteous choice I have, except for one thing. I know that Nabisco pumps out 10 varieties of Wheat Thins Snack Crackers (and Ritz, and Triscuit, etc., etc.) not to offer me choice, but in order to lay claim to ever more shelf space. Thus crowding out other players in the crackers market. So, while I have more choices within the World of Nabisco, there are potential choices outside the world of Nabisco I'm not privy to, as they can't get space on my shelf.

Now, that last paragraph is based on stuff I'd read and heard in the past, but no solid research. I have found some interesting stuff through Google:
A great testimony from a representative of the Independent Bakers Association, showing how slotting fees are pushing out the small guy. Gives a history of the practice, and the ramifications. It all sounds very familiar to anyone trying to get a bit of radio spectrum...

"Shelf Fees Squeezing Retailers".

And a google search on "grocery store slotting fees" turns up interesting stuff. Tailor query as you desire.

Posted at 02:57 PM PST [1 comment]

Desperately in need of FacetMap. Cinema Treasures offers an amazingly comprehensive database of classic movie theaters from around the world. It organizes them through a series of facets (Location, Function, Style, Status, etc...), but doesn't go far enough. To see all the single screen theaters in California, you can't choose "California" and "single screen"; you have to find "California", and then sort the number of screens, and click through the list to the single ones.

Still, a nifty resource for the traveler seeking movie palaces.
Posted at 02:06 PM PST [0 comments]

March 4, 2002

Gilles Skimpy Jellyfish. That's my "Authentic Indian Name". Care of the website for the Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour web site. Which collects a bunch of rather bitingly satirical pieces from a Native American perspective. And others which are just plain silly funny, like this decorating tip using moose.
Posted at 10:10 AM PST [8 comments]

Cognition, film theory, and narration. In an AIM chat this morning, tpodd pointed me to the website of film theorist David Bordwell. There's a bunch of writing up there I wanna read, in particular a lengthy essay on "A Case for Cognitivism".

When I have time.
Posted at 10:07 AM PST [1 comment]

March 1, 2002

Obfuscation as competitive advantage. In the fast-paced iterative design process I'm currently engaged in, we're having a round of user tests each week, in order to get feedback on the latest design rev. After lining up a full day of test subjects, our recruiter sent a note detailing a wrinkle that emerged:

[Test Subject 5] cancelled because he decided that offering his
insight could potentially not be in his best interest, claiming that
simplifying the services would allow for more competition.

This isn't the first time we've heard this from our client's customers. A few actually believe it's in their best interest to keep the experience difficult, because they've mastered it, and their competitors haven't.
Posted at 07:03 AM PST [6 comments]

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