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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April 30, 2002

What Pendulum? My essay, "The Pendulum Returns: Unifying the Online Presence of Decentralized Organizations", has been published on the Adaptive Path site. It's a moderately 'thinky' piece, laying out the philosophical reasons for why a decentralized organization ought to centralize their web processes and strive for consistency in experience.

Feel free to comment on the essay here!
Posted at 01:19 PM PST [3 comments]

Passel of stuff to read. You know, this morning I found myself taking in Ray Davis' Bellona Times (formerly "The Hotsy-Totsy Club"), and berating myself for not visiting more often. Of particular recent merit: his take on cognitive linguistics, particularly issues of classification.

Via RRE comes "Machined Politics", a story of how some politicians are cleverly utilizing the internet. The point here: the internet *is* changing things, but in small ways, not through a revolution. But the accretion of these tiny shifts will lead to a sea change, be sure.

Via jill/txt comes a link to a thoughtwander on spatiality and digital networks.

And to her own credit, Jill has posted an essay she wrote with Torill Mortensen called "Blogging Thoughts: personal publication as an online research tool." From the essay:
Many professionals keep weblogs, and they often use their blogs to reflect upon their work, to follow developments in the field and to publish ideas. Information architects12 and graphic designers are among the most prominent webloggers, and they often use their weblogs in a highly sophisticated manner. Much of the material processed and discussed in these weblogs is clearly research. University academics have been slower to adapt to the form.

When people ask me, "where can I learn about information architecture?", the best set of resources I can point them to are weblogs and mailing lists. I find this fascinating both in the development of a discipline, as well as in the development of the format for discussing this discipline. I wouldn't be surprised if, 5 years from now, every discipline is using weblogs and mailing lists to advance and test their ideas.
Posted at 09:29 AM PST [3 comments]

April 28, 2002

HAIL THE ALMIGHTY ELECTRON! During internal company meetings, notes are taken on a laptop, which is projecting on a wall. In client working sessions, website architecture diagrams are manipulated in a Visio document that’s projected on to a whiteboard, and occasionally someone scrawls amendments on the projection, which are then recorded by the laptop keeper. Business decisions are conducted over email. New business proposals are written by two or three partners, each of who work on a section, and each of whom comment on the others’ work using Word’s “comments” and “track changes” features. They are then converted to .PDF and emailed to clients. Deliverables are emailed between partners, attached to long emails dissecting them piece-by-piece.

Since incorporating at the beginning of 2001, Adaptive Path, the company for which I’m one of seven partners, has very little paper to show for it. Pretty much, the only papers the company has are legal documents that are required to be in hardcopy form. And, with rare exceptions, all of the “thinking” work of the company is done electronically. Our office doesn’t even have a printer (and only grudgingly do we have a fax).

Over a month ago, Malcolm Gladwell’s essay/book review, “The Social Life of Paper”, ran in The New Yorker. It’s basic thesis, which it shares with the book under review, The Myth of the Paperless Office, is that paper is a remarkable technology for enabling thinking and collaboration, far more so than the computers that were supposedly going to take its place.

I increasingly approach Gladwell’s attempts at explanations and theorizing with skepticism, ever since he was unable to articulate any coherent theory in The Tipping Point. The man tells a good story; he tends to make a poor extrapolation. I recognize that my paperless experience is only a single data point (and I didn’t even talk about reading websites on the john (thanks Wi-Fi!) or situating the laptop in the kitchen so I could follow a recipe I was emailed). But I don’t think my experience is that extreme. I also suspect that, being both a) staffed by young people and b) fairly early-adopter-ish, the experience at Adaptive Path might be more of a trend forecast than simply an outlier on the bell curve of paper use.

A primary example of the importance and resilience of paper in Gladwell’s essay is its use by air traffic controllers. He cites the work done by Wendy Mackay, who conducted ethnographic studies of flight centers, and developed an intriguing view of how paper is used to ease the cognitive load the controllers are facing. You can read her paper here.

However, some poking around on the Web turned up other research by Johan Berndtsson and Maria Normark, namely “The Coordinative Functions of Flight Strips: Air Traffic Control Work Revisited”. And while they have a similarly respectful understanding of the complexity of interactions that paper flight strips are helping to support, they arrive at a much different conclusion: “The flight strips in themselves are not irreplaceable as coordinative tools in air traffic control work; instead, the importance lies in understanding exactly what essential functions they fulfill, and which of their characteristics to reinforce in the design of a worthy successor.”

This, for me, is key. Computers are simply enabling technologies. They can be designed to support the same kinds of tasks that paper supports. While, in the present-day, air traffic controllers have developed a complex communicative and cogitative ritual based on the flight strips, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be transferred to a computer screen. There is nothing particularly sacrosanct about pressed, bleached wood pulp.

In the next part of his essay, while discussing how economists collaborate on reports, Gladwell states that digital documents “lack the affordances that really matter to a group of people working together on a report.” Yet my personal experience, writing reports and proposals with up to 5 other Adaptive Path partners, runs wholly contrary to this.

This is followed by a set of typically Gladwell-ian non sequiturs. Gladwell has never met an interesting tidbit he doesn’t like, and will string them together whether or not it’s pertinent to his thesis. This one begins with a discussion of paper piles. (And, for those who are interested, the research performed by “a group at Apple Computer” can be read here.
(and lord how I fucking love Google!) (and for those who like this piece, you might be interested to know that Gitta Salomon is a principle at the highly acclaimed interaction design studio Swim; Yin Yin Wong is a co-founder of Urbanpixel, a company selling information visualization services, and Richard Mander is a principal at Zanzara, a small user experience consultancy. (There’s a lot of those around!))

(And yes, I’m noting the irony of calling out Gladwell’s tangential tendencies.)

Gladwell’s talk of piles then meanders into a recollection of Melvil Dewey, who seems to warrant mention in large part because he was an “outspoken racist and anti-Semite” (Gladwell, always with the tidbits!).He then discourses on the unintended uses of technologies (Edison designed the phonograph to take memos!), and the messiness of a researcher’s desk.

He then tries to bring it back around, moving from piles to air traffic controllers, with a logical leap that doesn’t really work: “Air traffic controllers are the quintessential knowledge workers.” No, they’re not. They’re human data processors. There is little “knowledge” in their work, besides the processes of how to accomplish their tasks. More than anything else they simply react to situations, and annotate what is transpiring. The work of an air traffic controller might in fact be among the least typical forms of “knowledge work” around. As even Gladwell himself points out at the beginning, flight centers resemble busy restaurant kitchens more than anything else. And how many of us grapple with “mission-critical” information that affects the lives of thousands of people daily?

And Gladwell continues on a similarly sour note. “That is the irony of the P.C.: the workplace problem that it solves is the nineteenth-century anxiety. It's a better filing cabinet than the original vertical file, and if Dewey were alive today, he'd no doubt be working very happily in an information-technology department somewhere.” Sure, computers can store documents like no prior technology, but has Gladwell ever looked for anything archived on a network server? The spatial qualities of real-world file cabinets can often make retrieving archived material far easier than the formless mush that is cyberspace.

And then, this final passage must be reprinted in full:
The problem that paper solves, by contrast, is the problem that most concerns us today, which is how to support knowledge work. In fretting over paper, we have been tripped up by a historical accident of innovation, confused by the assumption that the most important invention is always the most recent. Had the computer come first—and paper second—no one would raise an eyebrow at the flight strips cluttering our air-traffic-control centers.

I have no idea what he means here. This is such a clunky attempt at arriving at a thesis that it borders on the meaningless. Had the computer come first, I’d bet dollars to donuts there wouldn’t be flight strips in air traffic control centers. Computers do support knowledge work, as I think my experience has demonstrated.

I think what needs to be studied are the differences in computer and paper use across generations. Because I think that the primacy of paper in knowledge work is not simply because of the technology’s affordances; I suspect that it’s largely because “it’s always been done that way.” For me, who begin typing on a word processor at age 12, and who has no trouble reading long stretches of text on a screen, I don’t find that paper necessarily supports my knowledge work any better than digital documents. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not alone.
Posted at 09:09 PM PST [23 comments]

April 24, 2002

The Problem With The Media. Continuing my recent shift to turning into some kind of sociology blog (see posts on "urban tribes" and "post-feminism", below), I'm now turning my attention to the media.

Last Monday, I attended a lecture given by Jay Harris, former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News, whose resignation caused quite a stir within the media. Harris stepped down because he felt that the budget cuts coming from Knight-Ridder were too stringent to allow for quality journalism, and he couldn't face heaving the axe.

In a related vein, today's SF Chronicle carries an interview with Harper's magazine editor Lewis Lapham, who laments the state of American journalism, particularly the degree to which it's subject to corporate interests.

Harris' lecture was a fairly predictable rant about the responsibilities of the press to serve "the public trust", to "inform the citizenry", and he repeatedly cited Joseph Pulitzer's metaphor, that journalists are "lookouts on the bridge of the ship of state."

(After Hollywood filmmakers, journalists are probably the most self-congratulatory profession in America.)

In the Q&A session (and when are people going to learn that Q&A is inevitably more interesting than the lecture, and ask the lecturers to speak for just, oh, 10 minutes?), Harris raised a couple of points that have spurred my rumination. Harris lauded the quality of the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times--the usual suspects. And commented on how they are all profitable. Profitability and quality are not mutually exclusive, but there is a breaking point when maximizing profits is given the top priority. This was his issue with Knight Ridder--the Merc could have been profitable with far fewer cuts, but KR wanted to squeeze as much money out of the paper as possible. (And look at this: today, KR announced a higher first-quarter profit, boosted by "superb" cost-cutting.)

This, of course, is a standard problem with capitalism. Dollar signs become the only measure of worth. But "the free press" serves a public role, necessary for the functioning of a democratic state. But the market could care less about the polis. So what to do?

Harris had a couple of suggestions. In response to a question about how can the journalists/editors at a newspaper engage in a meaningful discourse with the publisher/owners of a newspaper (basically, how can the "editorial" and the "money" talk to each other), he suggested basing the discussion on the fundamental principle of citizenship. Which I found an interesting tactic, particularly in these more-sensitive-than-usual patriotic times. If editors can pick up the mantle of serving citizenship, and if publishers recognize their duties as citizens to keep the public informed, perhaps a bridge can be formed between the two parties.

Another suggestion was for grassroots action. If your local paper isn't serving you the kinds of material necessary to stay informed, make a stink about it. The problem with this is, considering how America has pretty much turned into a series of one-newspaper towns, folks don't have a *choice* of where to get their news, they can't "vote with their feet" to some other offering (well, they could turn to local television and radio, but that's hardly a solution). Now, thanks to the magic of the internet, people anywhere can read top quality news at,, etc. And perhaps that's a solution for national and international stories. But where are you going to turn for city council reports? Stories on your mayor? Local politics has a far more immediate impact on our day-to-day lives, yet how well informed are we of their doings?

Anyway. This is a tricky issue. There are no easy ways out or around. Corporations have every right to maximize profits. I would be wary of any legislation or policy that tried to mandate some degree of "quality". But we as individuals need quality information in order to function as responsible citizens. So what do we do?
Posted at 09:18 AM PST [11 comments]

April 23, 2002

Are we entering a post-feminist world? BusinessWeek offers up a book review of Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, a book on how professional women are far less likely to have children than professional men. The book reviewer points out what she finds to be the most illuminating statistic:

A primary reason so many career women don't have children is that they don't have spouses. Only 57% of the high-achieving women over 40 in corporate jobs are married, compared with 83% of male achievers. Overall, high-achieving women either marry early or not at all. Just 10% of the women surveyed got married for the first time after age 30, and 1% after age 35.
This is summed up in a quote from a participant: "The hard fact is that most successful men are not interested in acquiring a peer as a partner."
One of the things I wonder is to what degree is this a generational issue, and the product of moving from a pre-feminist to a post-feminist world. In my experience, I've often dated older independent professional women. And many of them commented on how hard it was for them to date men their age, usually for reasons having to do with the man not accepting them being successful and independent. One ex told me that she "intimidated" her ex-boyfriends, which surprised me because she was the sweetest, least threatening person. But she had a good job with good pay, and her ex-es often couldn't handle dating a woman who made more money than they did.
Now, none of that would have been any problem for me. I seem to have made it a habit of dating only very independent headstrong professionally-minded women. And I don't think I'm alone in my age group. And I wonder if it's because I was pretty much raised in a "post-feminist" world. My mom made the bulk of the money in our household. I was not raised to pay too much attention to issues of "femininity" and "masculinity." I would be totally comfortable as a "stay-at-home-dad" (as long as I could get some work done, there, too!).
So I wonder if men born after 1970 are going to have the same issues as those that are discussed in the book. Not to say that all men after 1970 are "post-feminist" and comfortable with successful women, but I suspect that we're trending in that direction.
Posted at 08:28 AM PST [16 comments]

April 22, 2002

Wisdom of the ages. I've always been a fan of this passage:

I believe I have omitted mentioning that, in my first voyage from Boston, being becalm'd off Block Island, our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion consider'd, with my master Tryon, the taking every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc'd some time between principle and inclination, till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then thought I, "If you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you." So I din'd upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.
--The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Posted at 11:06 PM PST [1 comment]

The cobbler's child gets a new pair of shoes. Adaptive Path has launched a redesign of the website. It's pretty much a soup-to-nuts reworking, with new visual design, new sections, more content, etc.

Probably of most interest to peterme readers is the publishing of our inaugural essay, "Setting Priorities", a detailed explanation of a tool for prioritizing product feature development.

Of interest to The Weblog Community™, the site runs on Movable Type 2.0, modified by Ben Trott himself, turning it into a site-wide content management system.

Posted at 06:53 AM PST [0 comments]

April 21, 2002

What's your urban tribe? Clicking around on that there "Web", engaged in what one used to quaintly call "surfing", I came across a site promoting the forthcoming book Urban Tribes. I was struck by how well the author's thesis describes me:

You may be like me: between the ages of 25 and 39, single, a college-educated city dweller. If so, you may have also had the unpleasant experience of discovering that you have been identified (by the U.S. Census Bureau, no less) as one of the fastest-growing groups in America -- the ''never marrieds.'' In less than 30 years, the number of never-marrieds has more than doubled, apparently pushing back the median age of marriage to the oldest it has been in our country's history -- about 25 years for women and 27 for men.

Made me consider what my "Urban Tribe" was. I don't seem to have one as quite well-defined as what the author is seeking--I have no group with whom I hang out with any predictable frequency or regularity, though I have a large network of friends that keeps me sane. A smaller subgroup I definitely see more often, though not in anything remotely "tribal". That larger network, my "tribe", I suppose, tends to come from a few groups: folks from college (though this group has now spread out geographically widely), folks from "the web industry" in San Francisco (the predominant sector of my tribe), folks from the "information architecture/user experience" field of practice (this group is farther flung), and, to some extent, folks who publish personal websites, commonly referred to as "weblogs".

I also wonder just how special the notion of "Urban Tribe" is. Something tells me that such a phenomenon has existed for awhile, if never identified. I mean, back in the 50s, my dad didn't marry. He didn't meet my mom until 1959, when he was 28. He was working in "show business" in L.A., and it probably wasn't uncommon to not get hitched too young, as you tried to "make it." I think it would be interesting to look at such antecedents to urban tribalism, and figure out common threads (maybe the quest for "making it", a la Mary Tyler Moore, is a key ingredient... Are we "never marrieds" longer because more of us are attempting to achieve goals that would be encumbered by committed relationships? I don't know. Thinking out loud here. Anyway, check out the site, see what you think.
Posted at 10:34 PM PST [7 comments]

April 20, 2002

Changing Lanes

Two men are travelling on a train. One sees that the other has a big box with him.
"What's that in the box?" he asks.
"Oh. That's a MacGuffin," the other replies.
"What's a MacGuffin?"
"It's a device for trapping lions in the Scottish highlands."
"But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands!"
"Oh! Well, then, that's no MacGuffin!"

Film nerds are well-acquainted with The MacGuffin, that, well, *thing* that's got all the characters in a fury, but which has nothing to do with the audience's connection with the story. Hitchcock was the primary exploiter of the device, be it the uranium in the wine bottles in Notorious, the secret plans locked in Mr. Memory's head in The 39 Steps, or most delightfully ethereally, the melody from The Lady Vanishes.

In the recently released Changing Lanes, the MacGuffin is a bright red folder that lawyer Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) needs to support a case he's defending. He inadvertently left it in the hands of Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) after a traffic altercation on the FDR. The movie, obviously, isn't about the red folder; it's actually an existential drama about two men who have found themselves trapped in , a series of situations of their own doing, unable to acquire the perspective necessary to understand the context in which their actions take place.

If this seems a bit... muddied for a Hollywood film, it is. There are few easy distinctions made. Gavin and Doyle are both reprehensible yet honorable; well-intentioned and mean-spirited. My guess is that credit for making this work goes to Michael Tolkin, who co-wrote the screenplay. Tolkin's pedigree includes The Player and Deep Cover, the latter being among my favorite films of the early 90s exactly for it's murkiness and unwillingness to make it easy on the audience. (I wonder if it holds up.)

Changing Lanes is not a great film, mind you--I'd rate it as "pretty good", probably something like a 6 or a 7 out of 10. But it does give a lot of food for thought, which I appreciated. Particularly its commentary on our overly time-sensitive society. One little accident, that causes these two characters to be delayed by 20 minutes, sets both so off-track that they take the whole movie to recover. What does it mean that, in our world, being "20 minutes late" can potentially alter your life irrevocably?

The movie also seems to be an indictment of driving in Manhattan (who drives in Manhattan, anyway?). If these good folks had simply taken the subway, none of this would have ever happened.

Posted at 09:26 AM PST [1 comment]

April 19, 2002

Painting with Light. The L.A. Times offers a lengthy feature on an old family friend, Eugene Epstein, and his passion for collecting the work of all-but-forgotten abstract moving light artist Thomas Wilfred. I've seen Eugene's collection a number of times over the course of my life, and the pictures in the story, while helpful, don't do the art justice--they're truly kinetic pieces.

I most appreciate the article for this passage:
Even if Wilfred's works, which he dubbed "Lumia," were not so beautiful, so strangely ethereal in their rotation of colors and shapes, Epstein's enthusiasm would be hard to resist. As he shows a visitor each piece, using a rudimentary Radio Shack remote control to operate the machinery, he stops regularly to express his awe at what is unfolding in light projections on ground-glass screens.

It's amazing that even now, some 40 years after having seen his first lumia, Eugene can hardly contain himself as he views them. Eugene shares a trait I've seen among pretty much all professional astronomers -- a kind of arrested development that allows them to view pretty much everything with child-like wonder. It makes me wonder if it's a necessary quality for the work.

It's delightful to see Eugene's passion continue to burn strongly, and for his efforts to recognize an art he so much admires are now getting recognized themselves.
Posted at 12:01 PM PST [0 comments]

April 16, 2002

Using Conceptual Models in Interaction Design. On a post to a mailing list, Peter asked about using conceptual models in design. It's prompted me to talk about how I did it with the creative team at Epinions.

When we were redesigning the site, we had some time to step back and develop conceptual models for the product. These were key in creating a coherent design with integrity. Every design decision that we made was "filtered" through these models, which ensured that the site felt like a single piece, not just a cobbled together set of features. There's more I can say about it, and I have, in Darcy DiNucci's "Web Site Redesigns", which features an in-depth case study of the Epinions redesign. For the sake of this post, I'm just showing the models, and two emails that I wrote to the design team of the implications I felt the models had for design.

I've placed these models behind the "more" link, as there's quite a bit of stuff here.

Posted at 03:38 PM PST [5 comments]

I read the news today, oh boy. Three items in the SF Chronicle caught my attention.

- "Supreme Court strikes down ban on virtual child pornography". Interesting because this appears to be the first time in his career on the high court that Judge Clarence Thomas has disagreed with Antonin Scalia. (Note: an earlier version of this post labelled Thomas and Scalia with uncalled-for epithets. But, well, I just can't stand those two. They've done everything they can to eviscerate sensible readings of the constitution. Anyway.)

- "Welfare reforms not ending poverty". Headline says it all. Stuff like this that makes me think Bill Clinton did sell the Democratic party up a river. Maybe I will continue to vote Green.

- "Tech visionaries push the Semantic Web: Concept is increased automation capacity". I love proclamations like "As a result, programs could automatically do many tasks people now handle. For example, with a few simple commands, someone interested in attending an out-of-town business convention could direct his or her computer to schedule the trip, book plane tickets, generate a map from the airport to the convention center and reserve a hotel room within a set price range." Yes, and any day now, computers will be speaking to us in natural language. They've been telling me so for 40 years!

Posted at 09:09 AM PST [4 comments]

April 15, 2002

Almost too clever. "Press one for land, two for sea". Hee.
Posted at 11:54 AM PST [2 comments]

Brain tasties. Whitney posted to a mailing list about Serendip, an ever-evolving website dealing with issues around brain and behavior, complex systems, biology, and more. Lots of good stuff to click around and read.
Posted at 09:53 AM PST [0 comments]

Well, what happened?

"You were probably the cutest kid ever." - BJ Merholz (admittedly biased)

Posted at 09:48 AM PST [5 comments]

April 9, 2002

He's kind of reminscent of a lanky Lurch, really. So, a couple of months ago I moved to Oakland, and yesterday I had my first celebrity sighting!. Though, a celebrity that I, and maybe 50 other people would recognize on the street.

As I'm walking down Piedmont Ave., running errands, I espy a lanky, balding, downcast man ambling towards me. Almost immediately, I recognize the personage: Dan Clowes!

The funny thing is, he looks creepier in person

(For those who don't know, Dan writes the best comix out there.)

I knew he lived in the neighborhood, so I wasn't terribly surprised. I suspect he's not used to being recognized, and when, after we passed, I looked back, I saw him looking back, too, and I thought he might have wondered if he'd been "noticed".

Anyway, it all seemed oddly typical that this was my first brush with Oakland greatness.
Posted at 08:58 PM PST [8 comments]

Scary, in a scary way. I'm swamped with responsibilities, so please excuse my updating negligence. For folks here for the IA thang, there's a good discussion occuring around the "dis-content" post. I'd love to see more comments!

But what I'm posting about is this Alternet story that landed in my inbox, 18 Tales of Media Censorship, about the new book, "Into the Buzzsaw", which is
a collection of essays, mostly by serious journalists excommunicated from the media establishment for tackling subjects like the CIA's role in drug smuggling, lies perpetuated by the investigators of TWA flight 800, POWs rotting in Vietnam, a Korean war massacre, the disenfranchisement of black voters in Bush's election, bovine growth hormone's dangers and a host of other unpopular issues.

I studied mass communications at Cal, where I was introduced to the evils of the corporate control of media, and the astonishing amount of "self-censorship" that occurs therein. This book seems to capture part of the reason I couldn't happily engage in such a career.

Alternet appears to be a treasure trove of good stories. I should check it out more often.
Posted at 06:47 PM PST [2 comments]

April 7, 2002

Who wants reality? "Realism May Be Taking the Fun Out of Video Games," bemoans an article on the lifelike detail of today's digital playground. It reminded me of one of my first peterme essays, "Interface Lessons From Video Game Design" (dig that older design!), where I blather on about the power of abstraction in encouraging immersion.
Posted at 10:28 AM PST [3 comments]

April 5, 2002

'tis the season of my dis-content. Of late, I have had a lot of reason to consider the Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville's notion of information architecture being where "business context", "users", and "content" meet.

Taken from

I agree that the design and development of any information architecture must take into account the business realities in which that system exists, and the needs and abilities of that system's users.

However, the placement of "content" in this model bugs me. It doesn't really belong there. There is nothing inherent about "content" that ought to inform the final outcome that shouldn't already be part of "business context".

By overplaying content, the model exposes Peter and Lou's librarian roots. Sure, in a library context, the librarians are having to wrangle content produced outside their organization and offer it up in a meaningful fashion. In that case, you could argue that there is a "given" of a body of content to manipulate.

But that's the exception, not the rule. In my work experience, all the content is produced from within the organization. And a failing of current web site practice is that we treat existing content as a "given" to be shoveled to users via the web site. And models like Peter and Lou's that put content on equal footing to business context and user needs, only end up promoting that.

Within a closed system such as an enterprise's Web site, content should be the *product* of the merging of business context and user needs. I would argue that instead of having a separate circle to acknowledge the realm of existing content and content production, that should instead simply be subsumed into business context--it's just another attribute of the current existing business practice, that there is a body of content available for re-use.

Posted at 11:15 AM PST [19 comments]

April 3, 2002

I hate passwords, too. Bonnie Nardi, a design anthropologist, speaks out on what collaboration software can and ought to support. I first saw Bonnie at IA 2000, where she gave a great talk on ecological design, ideas she had earlier written down in her important work, Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart.

One of the things that seems so obvious, but clearly isn't considering the way computers behave, is how she points out how things like passwords and firewalls are so obstructive. IT types have convinced us that we NEED these things, and security wonks have sold us on the THREATS out there, but, really, much of what they do is simply block the free flow of ideas, or prevent people from using their own systems ("Which password did I use here, again?"), and I believe that the degree of security folks are forced to place on their own system is far too draconian.
Posted at 09:59 AM PST [10 comments]

April 2, 2002

Seeking Meaning. A wee story.

I drag myself and my bike onto the elevator on the 6th floor. Stopping at "3", a couple of guys get on--Mormon missionaries, by the looks of it (backpack, suit, name tag). They strike up chit chat about the bike, and then, when my back is turned fiddling with something, one asks, "What does that signify?"
I turn around to see what he's addressing. "What does what signify?"
"The rolled-up pant leg. You see that on a lot of bicyclists. Does that mean something?"
"Oh, no. It's so we don't get get our pant leg caught in the chain."
After a few more pleasantries, we head on our separate ways.

I was struck by how the first assumption was one of symbolism, not function. And it made me think of this great book, MOTEL OF THE MYSTERIES. Written and illustrated by David Macaulay, it depicts the future archaeological discovery of "Usa", and relentlessly imbues meaning on the most pedestrian of artifacts. (Click on the remote control on this page to get a taste...)
Posted at 08:23 AM PST [6 comments]

Google finds the darnedest things. When you search on the phrase "Fluffy butt". This search term came up when a friend used it as if it had a specific meaning. I'd never heard it before. 100 results on Google later, and I still don't know if there's a meaning to the phrase "fluffy butt." It's usually used in the context of dogs and cats. Whatever the meaning, it *is* nice to say, no?
Posted at 07:38 AM PST [4 comments]

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