Thoughts, links, and essays from Peter Merholz
petermescellany   petermemes


Archives before June 13, 2001

RSS Feed

Adaptive Path (my company!)

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.

Click to see where I wander.

Wish list
Show me you love me by
buying me things.

Track updates of this page with Spyonit. Clickee here.

[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.]
Reader Favorites
Interface Design Recommended Reading List
Whose "My" Is It Anyway?
Frames: Information Vs. Application

Interface Design
Web Development
Movie Reviews

June 30, 2001

Let's Continue to Beat up on KnowNow! Doc offers up a smart post titled "Silence is Leaden,", discussing the foolishness of "trade secrets." He cites Be, Transmeta, and, yes, KnowNow as victims of this approach. What's interesting about KnowNow's decision was that when the company first launched, they had a couple of white papers posted about the "Two-Way Web," probably because it's founders were scholars and academics, and as such were used to sharing knowledge. Around the time they landed the KP funding, the white papers came down and the stealth mode shield went up... likely on KP's insistence (which would be more bad advice!). And, as Doc points out, stealth mode squashes discussion, which means your message doesn't get out. In KnowNow's instance, it allowed Bang Networks and Juice to steal their thunder.

Another worthwhile datapoint in this discussion is the now-defunct Interval Research. Paul Allen's R&D think tank was supposed to be a more business-savvy Xerox PARC--they wouldn't let the fruits of their labor drift away like PARC did. Their approach, though, was of a walled-off fort--no one knew what the folks there were working on. I suppose this was so their precious 'trade secrets' didn't make their way into others' hands. As is pointed out in this Wired article on Interval from December 1999:
The lab has also been resolutely private. On the day it opened its doors, it closed them, wrapping itself in a cloud of secrecy. Even outside scientists who collaborate with Interval's researchers typically remain in the dark. "I've been visiting Interval since it opened," says Jim Crutchfield, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute who has worked with Rob Shaw, "and I still have no idea what it does."
However, the nature of such research requires openness, and Interval simply became increasingly irrelevant (and, seemingly, increasingly out-of-touch with technology trends outside their walls). Just think about it--elsewhere, researchers were attending conferences, publishing on the Web, getting the word out, and Interval's were huddled in their labs, keeping mum. Ideas grow through conversation, and Interval's approach stifled that.

Towards the end, Interval made a last-gasp effort of opening the kimono (as that Wired article points out), but it was too little, too late.

More personally, I've seen colleagues in information architecture and interaction design claim that their processes and documents are "trade secrets." As if they have some special sauce no one else has figured out. If you think this, you're wrong. As an independent, I worked in a number of different environments, and I can comfortably say everyone approaches problems pretty much the same way. I become quite upset by the trade-secrets sentiment because our nascent field will succeed only through the liberal discussion of ideas and methods, wherein I hear someone say, "We tried this," and I could respond, "Well, I've tried that, and, hey, what would happen if we used elements A, B, C of your approach, and D, E, F of mine?" Companies worried about protecting trade secrets are simply showing up their lack of confidence in their abilities--anyone whom I know who is any good doesn't worry sharing their methods and approach, because they know that the real value is in the execution, which can't be copied.
Posted at 10:51 AM PST [10 comments]

June 28, 2001

KnowNothing. It's funny to watch the bashing of KnowNow's marketroid copy on Joel and Doc's sites, with pleas to Rohit (whom they both seem to know, at least through email) to straighten it up. (An example of the verbiage: "KnowNow provides Internet-scale event routing solutions that seamlessly integrate information among Web services, applications and users -- enabling the real-time enterprise to fully leverage the Internet to drive revenue, reduce costs and enhance business relationships.")

Thing being, of course, is that the founders aren't actually in charge there. They mortgaged their control in exchange for magic beans from Kleiner Perkins, the VC firm known for it's keiretsu strategies. And with that investment, KP placed who they wanted in the company, and you can be damn sure their Smart Strategic Input lead KnowNow down the obfuscatory messaging path. (They were also likely responsible for keeping KnowNow in "stealth mode" for so long, long enough for its competitors to announce similar products ahead of them and bask in the buzz.)

VC firms, in the last 5 years or so, have a remarkable track record for damaging the companies they invest in (the grow-big/built-to-flip strategy that led to the bubble bursting was VC-driven). The buzz I hear in Silicon Valley is that KP is particularly bad, resting on laurels of past success, convinced that their shit doesn't stink, and lording their standing over their investments. Not all VC is evil--I've heard great things about New Enterprise Associates (though their website could use a redesign), and I know some upstanding folks at August Capital.

On a separate note, one also has to wonder who on fucking earth thinks such marketing copy is worthwhile? Like, you see it all over the place, so someone thinks it has value... But who? Has anyone ever said to you, while pointing at such prose, "Now this--this is good writing!" When did such blathering begin? What perpetuates it? It's such a total mystery.

Posted at 12:40 AM PST [26 comments]

June 26, 2001

Getting More ROI From Design. A few of us at Adaptive Path were interviewed for the recent Forrester report, "Get ROI From Design." Notwithstanding, it's still a pretty good report, encouraging businesses and agencies to think about their work in measurable metrics--in order for Design to be taken seriously, it must produce results.

Such "ROI" discussions, and the Forrester report is the same, always focus on how design improves the end-user experience, thus increasing sales/productivity and/or reducing customer service. While this is true, it's only half the story. Good design should improve operational ROI by lowering the costs of development. Take for example my work at Epinions. One of the goals of the 2.0 redesign was to build an easy-to-extend interface system. We pretty much did that, and it made the creative team somewhat superfluous (this was one of my reasons for leaving). Now, Epinions has no creative team (4 fewer employees, so that's a savings of around $250k/year), but the product managers can take the toolkit we developed and continue to build out new features.

The point being, smart design isn't just in the end-product... It's in the process of getting there. And very-easy-to-measure ROI emerges.
Posted at 09:27 AM PST [1 comment]

June 24, 2001

Dude! It's Floating!

Image found here.

This might be the neato-est optical illusion I've seen.
Posted at 12:01 AM PST [8 comments]

June 22, 2001

Walls, The Musical! The Large Things on Walls discussion from a few days ago featured a post by Marc Rettig. Marc has now gone and made publicly available a presentation on how his company uses walls (PDF) for, well, everything. Walls walls walls. Wall craziness. Walls on floors. Walls out of cardboard. Ad hoc slide rules on walls. Stickies like you've never seen them. Fields of stickies. Like a stickies meadow. But on a wall. With no grass. But still. Lots of stickies.
Posted at 04:26 PM PST [0 comments]

June 20, 2001

So Many Books; So Few That Matter. So. I've been thinking about how I'm having trouble finding books that really make an impact on me. For the past couple of years or so, nothing has had the worldview-changing effects of an Understanding Comics or How Buildings Learn. I wonder if it's a function of when I read those books--that I was more impressionable, more likely to be wowed by new ideas. Now that I've got this nifty comments functionality, I call upon the readers of to offer up Books That Have Changed My Life. Here's a start (and I'm too lazy for Amazon links right now):

The Psychology of Everyday Things. For many, including me, it opened my eyes to the importance of user-centered design.
For God, Country, and Coca-Cola. A fascinating portrait of American business history through the actions of a single organization.
A Pattern Language. Less for its thoughts than how it presented them--hypertext in paper form.
Envisioning Information. By far my favorite of his Tufte's three books.
Coming of Age in the Milky Way. The story of astronomy and astrophysics, made compelling through insights into the scientists' characters.
The Annotated Alice. The original books are, naturally, masterpieces, and Gardner's notes enrich them for a contemporary audience.
Catch-22. Also see IRONY.
Click the "n comments" link to add yours!
Posted at 10:06 PM PST [40 comments]

June 19, 2001

It explains something, I think. Today I laughed out loud at this passage from the short story "The Very Rigid Search," in the June 18/25, 2001 issue of The New Yorker, on newsstands now:

"It's a Jewish word, like 'schmuck.'" "What does it mean 'schmuck'?" " A schmuck is someone who does something that you don't agree with." "Teach me another." "'Putz.'" "What does that mean?" "It's like 'schmuck.'" "Teach me another." "'Schmendrik.'" "What does that mean?" "It's also like 'schmuck.'" "Do you know any words that are not like 'schmuck'?" He pondered for a moment. "'Shalom,'" he said, "but that's Hebrew, not Yiddish. The Eskimos have four hundred words for snow and the Jews have four hundred words for schmuck."

Posted at 10:07 PM PST [13 comments]

June 18, 2001

Scott-watch and Comic-watch. Well, as everyone seemingly knows by now, Scott McCloud redesigned his site, and posted a new "I Can't Stop Thinking" about micropayments. Among the joys of Scott's redesigned site is the new Miscellaneous Links page, including some nifty links to comics, other artists, and Scott's great taste in music.

Also of interest are the forums discussing Reinventing Comics and the issues Scott raised there. Unlike many such public forums, the discussion here is thoughtful and friendly. There are some nifty links to new comics ideas throughout. Oh, and a couple of threads on Hypertext and comics. (Listening, Bernstein? And yes, I owe you an email.)
Posted at 11:37 AM PST [3 comments]

June 17, 2001

Gradualism in web design. Erik (who works here), sends along a link to an article on how eBay addresses design and usability issues. The best comment is almost lost in the sidebar:

"A few years ago, when eBay designers opted to change the background color of every page from yellow to white, they actually changed the shade of the pages in almost imperceptible increments daily for months, until the pages were finally white. "If they'd flipped a switch and gone from yellow to white, everyone would have screamed," said eBay senior usability engineer Laura Borns. "But no one had any complaints about it, because it was so gradual."

Posted at 06:41 PM PST [0 comments]

No, It's Not Guernica. Interfacility's approach to Team-Based Ethnography utilizes an artifact called The Mural(PDF), a tool for bringing together a variety of user-related information (ethnographic data, stories, personae, scenarios, workflows, etc.) in one place. Experience has taught me that Large Things On Walls are really powerful in the design process--they help see the totality in a single space, they foment conversation, and they encourage manipulation, moving things around until it feels right. I think Marijke's definitely on to something here.
Posted at Guernica.';return true" onMouseOut="foo1 ='';return true">11:12 AM PST [7 comments]

June 15, 2001

The Winerization of Evan. Is it just me, or is Evan starting to read more and more like Dave? Is there a condition endemic to developing weblog maintenance software that leads to the quoting of people who agree with you, ending posts with a comment in italics, and prominently featuring song lyrics? I guess we'll really worry when Ev starts quoting the Dead instead of Byrne/Eno.
Posted at 10:36 PM PST [6 comments]

Fun With Furby. Two links for those into creative Furby-hacking.
Reflecting Loop -- a Media Lab student creates a responsive pool that 'reflects' passers-by.
Furbeowulf -- an attempt at massively parallel processing with Furby chips.
Posted at 04:54 PM PST [0 comments]

June 14, 2001

SF Film Fans, Rejoice! The SF Bay Area's Landmark Theatre chain is "now under old management." For those from outside the area, Landmark Theatres is our premiere indie and art-house chain, with a number of venues around the Bay supporting this area's beyond-Hollywood film habit. I discovered much of my love of cinema thanks to the smart repertory programming at The UC Theatre in Berkeley, which was Landmark's first venue. That theater recently closed (combination of seismic retrofit and money problems), and it looks as if Landmark has been suffering from poor management. I hope this restoration of old management helps maintain the Bay Area's standing as the best place for avid filmgoers in America. (Yes, better than New York.)
Posted at 10:14 AM PST [10 comments]

Does the Web have DNA? As someone fond of discussions of the forms of films and comic books, I find the lack of such discourse applied to the World Wide Web disappointing. Taking a small step toward a formal discussion of the new medium is Molly Holzschlag in her essay, "Freedom From Structure." It's refreshing to see such elemental considerations exhibited in a how-to Web design mag--I love that Molly is using her status in that community to breathe some life in the fundamental dialogue. Now, Molly's piece isn't the Greatest Thing Ever, but it's a smart look at the rudiments of the Web, particularly around interactivity and hyperlinking.

For me, one of the most overlooked formal elements of the Web is the network. The idea of drawing value from all these interconnected machines and the activities happening on them. Too many websites still operate on a one-to-many broadcast model. I get excited about the sites that take advantage of The Network by connecting people or groups--eBay, Amazon,, Epinions. Tracking usage and utilizing the results (say, the way Amazon shows you about how "People who bought X also bought..." or their Purchase Circles) should be part of the DNA of Web site development.
Posted at 09:38 AM PST [3 comments]

A slightly different Thanks to Lane, I'm now running with Greymatter. Which means things like built-in permalinks, archives, comments, and karma. I'll probably be fiddling with it for a bit, but it seems good to go. Whee!

Now if only I had something to say....
Posted at 12:04 AM PST [12 comments]

June 13, 2001

Mass Hysteria Shown. I've long wondered why I, who uses a computer a fair amount and has soft wrists, have never had any serious carpal tunnel problems. A new study suggests why, leading me to suspect that all we've seen is classic mass hysteria lo these many years.
Posted at 11:25 PM PST [5 comments]

All contents of are © 1998 - 2002 Peter Merholz.