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

November 25, 2001

A couple of data points in the discussion of "brand." This past weekend, taking a powder at the home of a restauranteur, I discovered Restaurants and Institutions magazine, "The Leader in Food Service." Apart from my interest in hearing how people in a particular industry talk to and advertise to each other (and, in this case, obsess on things like making sandwiches, the versatility of rice and grains, the wonders of soup), I was intrigued by a feature on the surgence of Krispy Kreme. (Yes, I know "surgence" is not a word, but I'll back-form as I see fit. And verbize in the process, as I just did with "back-form.", you're home for recursively referential wordplay. PUNish me before I do it again.)

Krispy Kreme's fortunes have exploded the past few years--adding stores, increasing sales, and going public with a stock that seems impervious to current market conditions. Much of the strength of their development has come from their amazing brand. A key line from the feature is:
"The strength of the Krispy Kreme brand is that our customers have made it strong," he says. "It's not been through advertising campaigns or contrived marketing or our going out to create an image. The brand is what customers have made it."

Thousands of miles and many industry sectors away lies General Motors. BusinessWeek details changes occurring at the top levels of GM (Subscribers only, sorry), and how the "car guys" are taking over from the "brand guys." From the article:
"The shift marks the first time in years that "car guys" are in charge at GM's key U.S. unit. Zarrella, who spent four years as head of sales and marketing and three as president of North American operations, had championed a brand-management philosophy that relied on consistent brand imagery and strong marketing, rather than innovative styling, to sell cars. The approach has largely failed: During his tenure, the company's share of U.S. vehicle sales slid a disastrous five percentage points, to 28%.

I find these two data points affirming. It suggests that folks are getting that you can't simply shove brand messages at people and expect them to lap it up like thirsty dogs. While this seems obvious, it's surprising how few in Big Corporate America seem to get it.
Posted at 04:16 PM PST [6 comments]

November 22, 2001

peterme in L.A. So, I'm heading to Los Angeles this weekend, and I'll be in the Big Orange for 2 weeks, some time in Pasadena, some time in Mar Vista/West L.A. I think this makes my single longest stay in La-La Land since the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. I'd love to meet up with people, so drop me a line. I'm also desirous of Interesting Things To Do, particularly from a perspective aligned with what I blather about here on the site. I'm thinking things like architectural driving tours, cool museum exhibits (I gotta get back to the MJT...), amazing coffeehouses, non-standard film programs, good locally-made ice cream, etc. etc. Please post suggestions in the comments!
Posted at 11:16 PM PST [4 comments]

Some Light Holiday Reading. I only just now discovered an amazing dialog occurring right here on this site. A discussion about the appropriateness (or inappropriateness) of spatial metaphors when discussing organizing information. (Scroll down a tad). Stewart's and Thomas' contributions are quite heady, riddled with tasty links. Fun for the long weekend!
Posted at 05:21 PM PST [0 comments]

November 21, 2001

A few thoughts on working together. So I'm quite taken with Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph Ellis. Hardly an undiscovered gem (it won the Pulitzer Prize for History writing), but still worth mentioning, as it definitely had an impact on me.

I, like many, if not most Americans, have a naive view of revolutionary history. An understanding of the major players with little more than a totemic sense of the roles they played -- Washington the General and First President, Jefferson the Author of the Declaration of Independence, Madison the Architect of the Constitution, etc., etc.

Ellis' book exposes the complexity behind these, and other, major players, through a delightfully simple conceit, focusing on six key points of exchange to delve into the messy truths behind the revolution, the constitution, and perhaps most importantly, the transfer of presidential power from Washington to Adams to Jefferson.

Of the many things I took away from the book, perhaps the most impressive were the tales of collaboration. We so often think of these men as Great Individuals, for whom ideas simply flowed from brain to paper, or whose behavior was singular and true. But in actuality, these men worked together, and with others, to produce the greatness we're now famliar with.

Our schooling and society does so much to exalt the standing the individual, to suggest that working with others is somehow "cheating," that it's a weakness to suggest you rely on others to succeed, that attribution typically belongs to a single person. This is frustrating for me, someone who pretty much can't do anything even remotely significant or interesting without bouncing half-baked ideas off of others in an attempt to hit upon something that passes muster.

It was inspiring to read how Hamilton helped Washington craft much of his Farewell Address; how Jefferson and Adams worked side by side, then at odds, and then in concert again; how Madison's greatest strength was probably the channeling of others' energies and ideas.

In a wholly other vein, Founding Brothers revealed to me the degree to which the social/political divisions we witness today (hawks/doves, big government/libertarianism, etc.) not only were the big issues of that time, but how their points were baked into the constitution and our current form of government, essentially becoming (to mix metaphors) the DNA of our political system, suggesting that these discussions will continue as long as the country exists.

Anyway. Read the book. Check it out from your local library. I did!
Posted at 03:09 PM PST [1 comment]

November 19, 2001

You Make the Call. Yesterday, I hung out with a woman who claimed that she liked pugs, in part, because they resemble famed Mexican muralist painter Diego Rivera.

You decide.
Posted at 11:31 AM PST [5 comments]

November 17, 2001

OOH! It turns out Meg and I are excited about two of the same things:

  • The opening of a Krispy Kreme in Daly City, a mere 5-6 miles south of my house.
  • That the Charles and Ray Eames Mathematica exhibit is at the Exploratorium.

    The latter brings back such memories. I grew up in Santa Monica, and my favorite museum growing up was the California Museum of Science and Industry (now renamed the California Science Center)--pretty much, every geekboy's dream hang out. Mathematica was on exhibit there, and every visit I'd spend a lot of time gazing at the display on probability, as balls tumbled down pegs and into chutes. (Elsewhere in the museum, I'd be transfixed by the mechanical chutes-and-ladders contraptions, where a ball would start at the top, and, through Rube Goldberg-ian mechanisms, make it's way down, only to be carted back up again... Days and days were wasted watching such things.) Of course, I had no intellectual appreciation for the Design--I just enjoyed the exhibit... I saw Mathematica when it toured in Boston a few years ago, and relished my adult ability to both look upon in wonder AND perceive and understand the beauty of its design.

    Posted at 09:12 AM PST [2 comments]

  • November 16, 2001

    Thoughts on the definition and community of "information architecture." Recently, the SIGIA-L mailing list, the popular stomping ground for information architects and folks practicing nearby, has exploded with discussion around two topics--What Is Information Architecture? and Where Does It Belong, Professionally?

    These are questions I've spent a while avoiding, because they tend to go in circles, and I've opted to be more involved in thinking about methods, processes, and principles for doing this kind of work, not labels and affiliations.

    For the past couple of months, though, I've been thinking about this more deeply, in part because terminology is starting to gel, in part because the conversation continues in a number of different groups, and, finally, because I'm thinking that it is important to start settling these discussions, both because it's important in our communication to folks who are NOT in this discipline, and because it would be a good thing to just move on.

    Answering the first question helps address the second. "Defining The Damn Thing has taken up a lot of energy in the community. Such discussions often point to Richard Saul Wurman's coining of the title "information architect," in 1976 which roots IA in the field of information design and "design for understanding." Wurman's term, though, didn't catch on for twenty years, and I think that's an important fact--to me, it suggests that it was inappropriate for what he was labelling. So that while he might have been first, he wasn't necessarily right. I also believe that the main reason it didn't catch on was that there was already a perfectly good label--"information design." Why confuse matters?

    Another inevitable thread in the discussion involves information architecture as any aspect of web design that isn't graphic design. This ends up including gathering requirements, user research, writing feature requirements, organizing content and functions, drawing up site architecture diagrams, creating prototypes and wireframes, and writing functional specifications. The problem with this definition is that folks who call themselves "interaction designers" do much of this, and have long before "information architect" became a popular job title. Why not leave the interaction design alone?

    (For some thoughts on the "design for understanding" and "interaction design" tributaries in the IA river, I suggest reading Lillian Svec's "Information Architecture Practice at Sapient"(PDF) from the 2000 AIGA Advance for Design Summit.)

    (For further thoughts on defining Interaction Design, I suggest reading this presentation given by Robert Reimann and Jodi Forlizzi and the 2001 Advance Summit.)

    Yet another tangent often seeks to define information architecture in the interests of that particular information architect. This leads to the fallacy that information architecture is what information architects do. Self-appointed "information architects" do all manner of things that isn't information architecture, and folks with other titles (notably "product manager," "web designer," "web master") do information architecture.

    Another fallacy arises when it information architecture is defined as what an information architect *wants* to do. Many IAs express frustration at being strait-jacketed into the online world, wanting their practice to extend to other media, or into organizational consulting, or anthropology, or whathaveyou. This is all well and good--IAs, shouldn't confine themselves... but that doesn't mean that all such activities are information architecture.

    I argue for a more focused definition of information architecture, something of a cross between Argus' "Information architecture involves the design of organization, labeling, navigation, and searching systems to help people find and manage information more successfully," and Jesse James Garrett's "Stuctural design of the information space to facilitate intuitive access to content." The Argus definition comes from a library background, and Jesse's from journalism. Both, though, are focused on finding, managing, retrieving, accessing, and understanding content and/or information. And, I think, both implicitly acknowledge the Web/networked/online nature of the practice.

    The reason being, "information architecture" was meaningless before the Web. The fact that RSW's definition didn't take hold until 1995 shows that. I think not acknowledging that dilutes any worthwhile definition of information architecture. I do think information architecture is a great label for what is a genuinely new problem, of designing and structuring online, networked, information spaces. I don't see any reason for us for information architecture to include information and interaction design--both already exist as happy distinct entities. Obviously, IA must integrate with these, and other disciplines, and any worthwhile study of information architecture will incorporate that. But, and let's be clear, they are *not* information architecture.

    Now, I do think having an umbrella discipline and term is important, because it's clear to everyone that information architecture, as I'm defining it here, is a facet of a much larger activity of designing a complex, information-rich tool/space/whathaveyou for others' use. And I think we've already got that umbrella discipline -- "user experience." A term that's been around since at least 1991, and defined to address the design of all elements that touch a user of a designed system.

    I think it's foolhardy to have information architecture == user experience (as many have argued), because then it glosses over the very real problem of designing information spaces to facilitate access and understanding, a problem which clearly deserves its own label.

    All that said, it leads to wondering, "Where does Information Architecture Belong, Professionally?" And given the line of reasoning presented here, I would argue, very simply, ASIS&T, since it's devoted to library and information science and thus clearly bound with the issues of design and structure of information spaces. Interaction designers already have an amazingly professional society, ACM's SIGCHI. And those who want to look at the bigger, umbrella picture can find a home within the AIGA's Experience Design community. (I, like many others, have issues with ED being supported by the AIGA, an organization I feel otherwise no commonality with. But I've been involved with the ED's efforts for a few years, and they're approaching matters very intelligently.)

    I'm done.

    Posted at 08:56 AM PST [26 comments]

    November 10, 2001

    Vernacular Thesauri. At the ASIS Annual, I attended Cynde Moya's presentation on "Subject Access to 'Pornography' for Serious Research Purposes." She's a budding sexologist with a library science degree, and has run into a number of problems trying to research the subject, with poorly maintained archives, studies that aren't specific about their materials, etc.

    Her talk got me thinking about community-generated, or "vernacular" thesauri. One of the biggest problems in any information architecture is to utilize nomenclature that will be readily understood by your users. So often, terms are too ambiguous or jargon-y, and, in web terms, users won't be confident about what they'll get when they click a link.

    Non-corporate porn sites have developed an amazingly robust and startlingly specific set of terms (I don't have to go into detail, do I?) that lead folks to exactly what they want (unless the page designer is being intentionally misleading... not that that ever happens). Anyone creating a porn taxonomy would be foolish not to draw from this wordstock.

    In the session, I asked Cynde about such vernacular vocabularies and what she thought about them--she had heard of similar developments in the non-porn world, specifically on eBay, where the collector community is evolving its own terminologies.

    It's become something of a hoary cliche to advise folks who want to innovate in Web design to look at what's happening with porn... Though here, the point isn't to try to emulate the design; instead, learn from how it's community operates, and wonder how such processes might relate to other, perhaps-less-prurient, realms.
    Posted at 09:39 AM PST [4 comments]

    November 8, 2001

    Putting our money where our mouths are. Many months ago, when I first announced Adaptive Path's presentations, comments were posted on my site asking for us to release the materials. I couldn't commit then, not knowing what the group wanted to do.

    Well, A couple of days ago, we at Adaptive Path made our presentations, and all sample documents, available for download.

    The first big one is The Complete User Experience Design, a two-day presentation which we developed as a team, so if it at times feels like you're reading/hearing 7 voices, you are. The talk sets forth our approach on how we tackle user experience, and comes with a buncha sample docs for your downloading pleasure.

    The second big one is From Construct to Structure: Information Architecture from Mental Models, a one-day workshop on a particular part of our methodology--turning an understanding of users' tasks into an organizational framework for a website. It's meant to feel like a "zooming in" of a part of the two-day presentation, and is supported by a bevy of Real Live Documentation taken from a Real Live Project (though we can't name the client). I spent a boat load of time preparing this one, so I'm curious as to what y'all think, and would love the feedback.

    Share and enjoy!

    Posted at 01:28 PM PST [7 comments]

    November 5, 2001

    In D STOP C STOP Limited connectivity STOP Write more later STOP END
    Posted at 02:59 PM PST [0 comments]

    All contents of are © 1998 - 2002 Peter Merholz.