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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August 28, 2001

peterme - thread killer. On a mailing list devoted to information architecture, Christina raised the issue that businesses rarely stick with the one thing they're good at--they have a tendency to grow and to diversify. This often leads to a mess of a Web presence, reflecting this messy growth. I posted a rather lengthy response:

We at Adaptive Path have seen this as a trend in the kinds of companies that approach us. We've had more than one organization with an ever-growing, ever-unwieldy website come to us and say, "Um. Can you help us with this?"

Such web presences seem to be borne of the decentralization of businesses that occurred in the 80s and 90s. Departments were given autonomy and there was little central 'command-and-control.' And for businesses, this proved very productive. They could build more better faster cheaper. And such decentralization was fine when the primary contact a customer had with a business was a single department or, even, an individual at that company.

Then the Web happened. And customers turned to Web sites to interact with companies. And what did they see? Decentralized quagmires representing byzantine corporate structures that had nothing to do with the user's needs and goals. The web site structure mirrored the organizational chart. Since people inside these companies had no idea how the organization was structured, how could a customer begin to understand?

A parallel development happened (perhaps spurred by this quagmire)--the notion of "customer relationship management." The idea that a company should build a single relationship with a customer, across departmental lines, aware of all transactions a customer has with the company.

So, some companies have recognized that in order for their web presence to succeed, and in order for them to have an approachable customer-orientation, some degree of "centralizing" is necessary. To make the user experience across all interactions with the company consistent and fluid.

Managing this is not easy. At all. For the *business* to continue to thrive, it must remain decentralized--putting everything under a single point of control would make large companies painfully inefficient and a target for competitors. Yet, these departments must acknowledge that working together is good for everybody--it's a rising tide that raises all boats.

One trend we've seen is to have a centralized "web group" that is responsible for maintaining look-and-feel-and-use guidelines for an entire web property. These guidelines must be flexible enough so that the departments don't feel strait-jacketed, or else the departments simply will not use them. Yet they must be rigid enough to provide the seamlessness of experience across the various properties, or they'll be meaningless. Such efforts require an appreciation of and an ability to manipulate organizational dynamics. And such efforts will be different in every org--some require it to be top-down, a directive from the CEO (I think this is how it ended up working at IBM...). In others it catches on by word-of-mouth, where different departments see the success of a centralized solution, and want to take part in it (this seems to be how the MSWeb intranet has taken root).

This post pretty much killed the thread on the mailing list, which is why I'm bringing it here--I'd love to read some feedback from folks to hear how this gibes with your experience.
Posted at 05:52 AM PST [14 comments]

August 26, 2001

The State of Web Surfing. Amy Harmon wrote a New York Times article, "Exploration of World Wide Web Tilts From Eclectic to Mundane", that is mostly notable because it quotes ME ME ME, oh, and, um some other attention-cravers like Steven Johnson and Mark Crispin Miller, but, really, I'm the heart and soul of the piece, and once you read my quote, you can pretty much ignore the rest.

I'm kidding. It's a good piece, though I find it to be an overwhelming stating of the obvious, though I suppose sometimes the obvious needs to be stated, just to put it out there. Personally, I don't find the ever-more-concentrated and utilitarian use of the Web to be a 'bad' thing... It's quite clear the novelty has worn off. I still believe the Web to be an extremely powerful medium, mostly because of its democratic, low-barrier-to-entry nature. Just because the mass of people using the Web don't surf quirky personal sites isn't a problem--they *could* if they choose to, and when the need or interest arises, they will.
Posted at 10:00 AM PST [9 comments]

August 23, 2001

A point from my last post. So, that last post was pretty addled, and had a bunch of stuff in it. One of the key points that I don't think I represented well was exploiting the computational facility for representing data/information in any number of fashions. Yes, it's often talked about separating "content" from "presentation," but usually that goes no deeper than allowing the same words to be seen on different displays.

I'm interested in fundamentally different displays derived from the same data. Too often, data is displayed in a form little different from how it is inputted. But there's no reason for this. This is what I find exciting about LineDrive--it intelligently visualizes cartographic data in order to meet the needs of a particular task. This is what makes SmartMoney's MarketMap so exciting--it's not just a listing of numbers. I guess this is the promise of any data and information visualization, but one we so rarely see well-fulfilled. I think it goes unfulfilled because people aren't equipped to think of data in such fluid ways--we seem to have a bias that a thing is a thing is a thing, and can't be something else.

This was one of the things that excited me about Epinions' potential, and that excites me about Amazon. There's an overwhelming pool of information that provides the basis of the system. But through personalization technologies, the system can present fairly idiosyncratic views into that information--my home page does not look like yours (unless we've expressed similar behavior). True, the visual aspects of the interface are pretty much the same, but the content is different.

Which, I guess, addresses how I wanted to see LineDrive-like manipulations of data used in the presentation of content around specific tasks. Library information retrieval systems exploit metadata to help people find stuff. But they don't know what metadata is interesting to you in your task--so it presents a wide range of stuff, much of it not useful to the task at hand. What if a library knew that I had a task of "getting healthier," and that was why I was looking up books on exercise and nutrition... What kinds of stuff could fall away, what kinds of stuff could be promoted in such an instance?

Fundamentally, the issue at hand is to encourage people to rethink how they approach data and it's visualizations within the computer. I've always been frustrated by interaction design that treated the elements of the screen as these fixed static objects. I think things like ToolTips are fucking great and amazing, exploiting the changeable-pixel-by-pixel nature of displays to provide useful information when needed. I want people to think about how they can take advantage of this near-infinitely adaptable display and do exciting things with it.
Posted at 01:03 PM PST [2 comments]

Tying together some threads in my head [My apologies. This post is something of a mess. Part of me wants to spend more time refining it, but part of me wants to just get it out there, as I've been sitting on it for too long already.]]

As per usual, my brain is swirling with half-baked notions that seem like that ought to fit together, but so rarely do. In the shower just now (yes! bright ideas do come in the shower!) I figured out a way to weave some coherence through some ideas related to information architecture, cartography, and the plasticity of cyberspace.

It's best to start with LineDrive, the driving-directions mapping technology discussed here a bit back. The great thing about LineDrive is that it makes maps usable through simplifying their presentation in ways that suit human perception. The reason LineDrive can do this is because it's highly responsive to the specific task at hand--someone needing to get from point A to point B.

See, most maps are filled with all kinds of information, because the mapmaker can't be certain as to what people will need to do with that information. LineDrive gets rid of extraneous information, focusing on the essentials for the explicit goal. LineDrive is able to do this through the magic of, well, computation. In cyberspace, there is no there there--there is only what the computer makes of it. Typical driving directions interfaces are too wedded to the existing print-model of maps, overloading the visualizations with unnecessary information. LineDrive uses a computer for what it's good for, and through it's algorithms, makes a 'there' that's more likely meaningful to its user.

Information architecture could benefit from such notions. Classic information retrieval systems are unaware of the users' specific task--why the user wants the information, what the user plans on doing with it. They compensate for this by being exhaustive, both in terms of breadth of information, as well as providing as much metadata as is feasible.

But why not have information architectures that are task-specific? So few are. Most information architectures are (sadly) drawn from the structure of the organization. Better information architectures are derived from the qualities of information, its metadata and so forth.

But many, if not most, websites ought to be fairly aware of the tasks that their visitors are pursuing. Few websites are so general purpose as to need to be all things to all people. For the last four months, I've been working on a site for an enterprise-level software company. The basic task of most folks visiting the website is obvious -- research the purchase of enterprise-level software. And there's a fairly well-understood purchase life-cycle process that the web site can respond to.

So, our suggestion is to do that, and user feedback of prototype designs has been quite positive. To make this more concrete, I'll offer an example of a similar site (that I didn't design) - For an article I'm writing, I interview Beth Berrean, an IA at ZEFER who worked on this website. She wrote to me the following:

By breaking down the main goal into a certain life-cycle tasks (evaluate, purchase, install, implement, maintain, extend), we were able to identify a high level navigation that would make sense--solutions, products, services. (sort of a why, what, how thing).

Secondly, we also thought through how these tasks are actually performed and what was needed. Various people are involved in making a decision: a CXO might want to know what other companies had implemented a particular solution and the details around how they had done that; a Developer who would be asked for an opinion during evaluation would want to know what technology standards were implemented.

This gave us our idea for a secondary nav system which makes us the home pages of the solutions and products section--it's a dhtml toc kind of solution that would allow each user type to get to the info they needed as quickly as possible.

More websites ought to take advantage of understanding the basic task in order to present their content in ways that users will be more receptive to. I think it ends up being analagous to LineDrive--by using the tasks as a boundaries and a guide through the content, you can 'draw' the straight clean line, eliminating extraneous information that you might otherwise present.

Thinking farther in the future, I wonder how an explicit understanding of task could help shape our information architectures on the fly. LineDrive draws from the same cartographic data as any other mapmaking software--it just does something smart with it, as opposed to simply reproducing it with a line drawn over it. Could content structures be arranged meaningfully, on the fly, to respond to understood needs?

I'd love to hear more about how others have developed task-based information architectures, their experiences, what has worked and what doesn't. I think there are some interesting research opportunities here, to see if having a task-based foundation for an information architecture makes such spaces more usable than the more standard metadata-based structures from information retrieval.
Posted at 12:04 AM PST [3 comments]

August 20, 2001

I inevitably get that song in my head. An email from Jane about all this maps stuff:

i think you're absolutely right about maps being, in a sense, almost anti-intuitive. you have to learn how to read them. you should check out this great book (if you haven't already) by Dennis Wood, The Power of Maps (1992), in which he dissects the seemingly "neutral" codes of maps and shows them to be absolutely dripping with values and biases. he's also quite an entertaining writer, so the book is a lot of fun to read.

part of my research last year in East Asian History was on early Japanese maps. i was trying to figure out how and why people made maps - or rather, why they didn't make them. modern people like us find them so useful (even if we have trouble reading them) but apparently, ancient people did not. "maps" were not a natural way of seeing the world. in Japan, for instance, early (pre 1600) maps exist, but they are extremely rare - therefore many historians think that although they had the technology to make maps, they didn't, because they didn't need them. this seems strange to modern people, as we would think a feudal land-based aristocracy would need maps of their lands - to show to their heirs, to show to the court when disputes arose, to aid in developing reasonable tax structures, and so on.

then, something strange happens. after 1600 comes a mapping explosion. part of the reason is probably the new style of government (a more centralized authority than had ever existed before), some of it was European influence (Europeans used maps a lot more than Japanese did), but it's still difficult to explain why all of a sudden hundreds and hundreds of maps were produced. these were maps of cities, primarily, sold on street corners for a pittance, usually to tourists. they were updated and put out every year by almost every publishing house in Japan (in the 17th century, by the way, Japan had the largest publishing industry in the world.) there were also nation-wide maps, produced in abundance for the first time, and distributed to various landowners around the country.

what's going on? what is the shift in perception all about? why were people suddenly able to read and appreciate maps? how did they use maps?

i'm not really sure. but such comparative analysis is useful in thinking about the syntax or "codes" of maps. looking at the web-map examples you linked to, i was struck at how "naturalistic" the cartographers tried to make them. it smacks of the same kind of value-judgement coding that Wood discusses. why are we more comfortable with a web-map that simulates a "natural" order? (which, of course, is really not natural at all - we've merely been trained to see water as blue paint and mountains as brown paint.) this is very strange to me. the web is not this way, at least in my perception. and what determines where sites themselves are located, and in what proximity to eachother? why are some sites closer than others? what about sites that fit into multiple "countries" or categories?

Jane's email reminded me of something I've wondered about Japanese film. I'm a big fan of Kurosawa, and have caught one or two Ozu flicks. A staple of their cinematic presentation is employing telephoto lens--in many, if not most, shots, every thing is in perfect focus, flattening out the screen. Attending some art museum some time ago, I wandered into a Japanese art wing, and saw that in traditional Japanese art, depth is shown not through vanishing points, with things getting smaller in the distance, but through vertical placement--the higher something is, the farther away it is. This suggested to me that, perhaps, Japanese directors used telephoto lenses as a way to approximate this. But maybe I'm wrong.

Jane, by the way, has a way nifty personal website, featuring a blog, journal, essays, etc. She tends toward erudite obsessions with pop culture. She also plays in a band.

The song that inevitably comes to mind when I read or hear the word "Japanese" is "Turning Japanese."
Posted at 10:56 PM PST [3 comments]

August 15, 2001

Look closer. I've written before how Zooming User Interfaces intrigue me. I think they're a model that can best take advantage of human cognitive capabilities. Doing some research, I found some good introductions to the topic:
Introduction - from a report on the effect of zooming speed in such interfaces
Zooming User Interface Page - With a bunch of links to interesting examples

As well as an application of Zooming User Interfaces:
Padprints (238k PDF), a web-browser history tool exploiting treemaps and zooming user interfaces.

On a tangent, the title of this post is derived from the marketing of the movie American Beauty, the DVD of which I rented from Netflix (my favorite web service, now that Webvan is gone). The DVD is great--the director's commentary is superb and insightful, and the storyboard-to-final scene comparison with the director and cinematographer is quite revealing.
Posted at 10:00 PM PST [7 comments]

A little concerned by the implications. What does it mean when the only "alternative" top-level domain that seems to have any presence is ".tv"?
Posted at 09:41 PM PST [0 comments]

August 12, 2001

Heaps o' interaction design links. A veritable treasure trove of linky love for y'all...

From RRE:
  • Interaction Spaces for 21st Century Computing - Terry Winograd's take on where interaction design is heading in the ubiquitous world
  • Designing for Communities
  • Sticker Shock - The Rising Costs of Scientific Journals - I'm finding the whole debate around the publishing and costs of scientific journals fascinating. In large part because it's so overwhelmingly clear that scientific journals are a vestige of an earlier economic reality, now superceded by networked publishing. A lengthy look at the discussion can be found here.

    Maneesh, creator of LineDrive, pointed me to this lengthy presentation on treemaps, a form of data visualization he feels to be of some value.

    Jess pointed me to Dodge Magazine, which, on page 19 (yes, you have to page through) has an intriguing display of transit maps.
    Posted at 11:48 PM PST [0 comments]

  • Where the lungs are as high as an elephant's eye... My new favorite phrase is "harvesting organs." It's getting an awful lot of play recently. Bush's statements on stem cell research are the most prominent, followed by the debate around human cloning. It gets treated in engaging depth in this week's New Yorker article "As Good As Dead", a lengthy feature on the slippery definition of 'brain death,' and the development of this definition in order to, well, harvest organs from otherwise "live" bodies. Written by Gary Greenberg, perhaps most noted for his epistolary relationship to the Unabomber.

    Anyway, whenever I hear the phrase "harvesting organs," I picture farmers in fields, plucking livers, pancreases, etc.
    Posted at 11:09 AM PST [2 comments]

    August 11, 2001

    The birth of 'brand image,' and other things. "Consuming Interests" is an article on the history of "deep" market research developed by Chicago practitioners in the 40s and 50s. It's an enlightening piece, depicting the genesis of applying social science research to product marketing. Back then, products were usually simple enough that their design didn't require much "user" understanding--but communicating the value did. Now that product complexity is rapidly increasing, applying social science to product development makes more and more sense. This article shows that the business world has a history of embracing such efforts, when it's shown that it makes a positive impact on the bottom line.
    Posted at 10:28 AM PST [2 comments]

    August 9, 2001

    Read Good Stuff. "The Art World Starts to Pay Attention to Video Games" -- New York Times article on art and video games, a subject discussed here a bit back. I found it interesting that this piece got placed in the "Technology" section of the paper, not the "Arts" section. I s'pose the NYT is less forward-thinking than museums.

    "The Promise of the Daily Me" -- a really excellent and in-depth feature on the history and promises of online journalism. A great primer of the subject, a must-read for anyone interested in what will happen to newspapers.
    Posted at 09:06 AM PST [0 comments]

    August 7, 2001

    Matt's lookin' out fer ye. Some great links to be found over at Matt's site. One points to an article, "Wayfinding is Not Signage," which points out that there is more to communication than just visuals, and also that the most important element to successful wayfinding is the construction of a space that makes sense in the first place. (This was reminiscent of Don's point (I forget in which book) about how explanatory signs posted on devices rarely help, and just show up the device's bad design.)

    Matt also leads us (in a link he got from Lou) to Marti Hearst's chapter "User Interfaces and Visualization" in the forthcoming book Modern Information Retrieval. I'm a fan of Prof. Hearst's work, ever since reading her "Next Generation Web Search" article, which has a great introduction to metadata and multifaceted classification. She's the principal of a research project, FLAMENCO, attempting to design such metadata understanding into search interfaces.
    Posted at 09:29 AM PST [2 comments]

    Some links 'n things to tide you over. I feel poorly for not providing more petermeme goodness. It's a combination of Lots Of Work and that I've been noodling on a petermeme concept (task-based information architecture) that I'm having trouble getting into a cogent statement.

    So, here's some nifty stuff to keep you busy...

    Feature on Phoebe Gloeckner -- Phoebe is a brilliant comics artist. A Child's Life And Other Stories is a collection of raw, honest, and disturbing stories about the coming of age of Minnie, Phoebe's alter ego. Her background as a medical illustrator gives her comics work an eerie verisimilitude while still being quite cartoony. She's finishing a new book, Diary of a Teenage Girl, a combination diary/comic book. She has a personal site worth poking around.

    Oliver pointed us to a story on how multi-tasking is counterproductive, because of the limitations of human attention. I wrote about this a bit back (scroll to April 26th). One of the researchers in this recent study is David Meyer, a principal investigator in the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory. I found a potentially interesting paper, "Virtually perfect time sharing in dual-task performance: Uncorking the central cognitive bottleneck" (769k PDF).

    Outside this box, I've been very much enjoying the short stories of George Saunders, collected in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia. Funny, disturbing, haunting stories written with an amazing command of contemporary English. I find his stories inspiring... They make me want to take up a pen and write.
    Posted at 12:27 AM PST [0 comments]

    August 2, 2001

    On living alone. A friend, who prefers co-operative living, claimed in a discussion we had that living alone is unnatural. As someone who lives alone, I asked for his reasoning. There were two parts--1) human are socially interdependent beings and 2) 'living alone' is a recent phenomenon, our genes are not equipped for it, as they developed in an environment where we lived in groups. The first part, while definitely true, is somewhat orthogonal to the issue of living alone--barring hermitude, solo residents interact with others. The latter, well, was a more interesting claim, but one that's not backed up by any data whatsoever. Not that I could back up an opposing claim with data--I just didn't know of any archeological findings that dealt with early humans living alone. (If you know of any, please add them to the comments).

    One problem with the second part, though, is that even if there is historical evidence supporting the claim that humans only very recently lived alone, it's not proof of any natural-ness. A desire for "living alone" might have always been in our genotype, but only relatively recently has affluence allowed us to pursue that option. I think it's telling that, given an option for any number of living situations, a large number of people *choose* to live alone... That suggests a certain 'natural-ness' to me.

    The Web didn't turn up much on the subject. A brief article on "Living Alone in the 90s" features a telling graph--for people under the age of 35, rates of single residence plateaued in 1980, whereas for those older, they have continued to increase... Suggesting "living alone" is more often the result of divorce or widowing than anything else.

    There are some US Census numbers around the incidence of living alone, showing how it's drastically increased in the last 60 years, which, I suspect, is directly a result of our aging population.

    If anyone out there has pointers to research or data on this topic, I'd be most grateful if you posted them in the comments area.
    Posted at 09:29 AM PST [15 comments]

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