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

Interface Design
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November 30, 2002

Heading to Hong Kong. Tonight I get on a plane headed for Hong Kong. I'll be heading back to the future (second time in Asia in a few months!) for December 6. Any peterme readers over there?
Posted at 08:12 AM PST [17 comments]

November 25, 2002

Smart Mobs and Supernova. Folks interested in all my blathering about Smart Mobs and thoughts on the future of mobile technologies will definitely be interested in a thoughtful discussion taking place on The WELL with Smart Mobs' author Howard Rheingold, following up on many points he makes in his book. Of particular note is participation by people Howard profiles in the book--it's cool to see what they have to say as follow-up.

Also of interest to those who care about these things this is the Supernova Conference, hosted by Release 1.0's Kevin Werbach. Judging by the schedule it should be an invigorating event. Look for me there!
Posted at 05:22 PM PST [0 comments]

November 23, 2002

His cupboard (and whole house) was bare... Pics from my new house. Click "More" to see them all...

IMG_0605 (34k image)

Posted at 10:32 AM PST [22 comments]

November 22, 2002

How Worldly-Wise Are You? Making the rounds is National Geographic's GeoSurvey, which asks 20 multiple-choice questions about world geography. It's gotten notice for how poorly Americans aged 18-24 fare with the rest of the world.

Which is hardly news. What interests me more is a trend I've seen among people I know, many of whom who miss the same telling question. Go take the quiz and then click "More" to read what I'm talking about. More...
Posted at 12:35 PM PST [10 comments]

Closing Escrow is in the Air. Yesterday at 3p I found out my name had been recorded with the county as the owner of a smashing little lot on Russell Street in Berkeley. Huzzah!

It turns out that the day before, Steven closed on his Brooklyn brownstone.

Two blocks from my house is a Berkeley branch library which features a tool lending library. How cool is that?!
Posted at 09:11 AM PST [2 comments]

November 21, 2002

Adam is a house a-fire! Two must-reads for user experience types at

What Lies Beneath, a thoughtful look at what we mean by "business requirements" in the design process.

and, perhaps more interestingly

Nathan Shedroff, the v-2 interview, where Adam tangles with Nathan on the concepts of information architecture and experience design.

Go and read it, and then come back for these thoughts of mine (which I wrote to Adam when he showed me a pre-print):

You two often talk at cross-purposes, so your reactions to one another seem
to not really be responding to what the other said.

There was an odd antagonistic quality that, while it could have spurred some
good, enthusiastic, debate, instead caused a sort of re-trenching in
existing positions. A discussion like this is in part a failure if neither
side acknowledges that the other side has said something that shifts their
perspective a bit. What we ended up with here is more of a debate (Resolved:
Experience Design is an unnecessary term), with arguments presented. In this
context, that doesn't strike me as satisfying.

Nathan has an unfortunately skewed view of Information Architecture and
Information Design, and I don't know exactly from where it springs. Clearly,
he's found himself bitten in the past by people calling themselves
information architects. Also, I suspect Nathan isn't as accommodating of the
deep rigor that IAs bring to projects--even though Nathan's not bad at doing
the Deep Thinking, I tend to think he prefers intuition over discipline.

I don't know if I agree with your assertion that ED ought to have some
"explanatory theory," or really what that would accomplish. And it makes me
wonder if IA has some "explanatory theory," 'cause if it does, I haven't
seen it.

I see "Experience Design" (tho I prefer "User Experience") as an emergent
field, and, as such, lacking the cohesion or rigor of better-defined fields.
And I don't see a problem with this.

I hate this comment from Nathan:
Maybe I'm just being too sensitive, but things feel a lot different from ten
years ago, and not in a good way. Some of the best IAs/IDs I know never
participate in the IA/ID community because of the pervasive attitudes and
the lack of anything new or interesting going on. I think that the IA/ID
community is, mostly, spinning its wheels in terms of growth and
development. It isn't innovating and it is turning more people off than on.
Again, my opinion.

In large part because I don't know what he's talking about. I'm suspect of
his judgment of "the best" IAs/IDs, he's unwilling to really define
pervasive attitudes or sources of this belief, and, if he thinks the
community is spinning wheels, than he hasn't attended the last three
summits. Also, ED is as, if not more, guilty of every single one of these

I do think that "information architecture" is largely about "taxonomy and
site maps," though "information architects" often do more. This is a common
problem I have with the discussion, where information architecture is
defined by what self-appointed "information architects" do.

I think Nathan's smoking crack if he thinks IAs have "lost stature."
Adaptive Path's experience runs totally contrary to this. And he's smoking
more crack when saying that IAs express "righteous indignation" and
self-entitlement--you've never seen a more chicken-little group of folks
than the attendees of an Experience Design Summit.

He's pretty right that most IAs (that I've met) don't know shit about
information theory. (Hell, my understanding is pretty limited, I'm sure.) I
don't know if that's a problem, though. And, the more that LIS informs IA,
the more we'll have this theoretical framework. Definitely the interest in
Ranganathan suggests that LIS theory is informing our work more.

I do like your back and forth about the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, because
it grounds this discussion in a real-world example most of us are familiar

More comments when the second part is published...

Posted at 10:01 AM PST [13 comments]

November 19, 2002

Nitpicky Academics and the Design of Social Software. Anne has a smart and lengthy post on what are the appropriate models for considering sociality when designing social software. She emailed me, expressing some concern about the rather academic tone of the post, fearing that it was too nitpicky and might be considered irrelevant. Here was my reply to her:

Well, as someone for whom whose weblog serves as an outlet for academic
tendencies, I don't think it's that much of a problem.

First reaction: I'd love to see links to pages about some other cited
authors, etc., to provide context. As a non-academic, I recognize names, but
know little about them.

Second reaction: The Web is an amazing entity in part because it allows for
a fairly seamless bridging of academic and non-academic life. I revel in the
fact that when I'm researching a topic, often the best results come from
".edu", and that there is a host of material that I can slog through to
improve my understanding. It also encourages a dialog across the worlds,
because, well, smart people can't ignore each other, no matter where they
are speaking from.

Third reaction: Some of the crit theory stuff goes over my head, as I'm not
familiar with the source material. Once D&G were mentioned, my comprehension
factor dropped.

Fourth reaction: This is exactly the kind of feedback Mr. Shirky needs. I
tend to think he gets a lot of leeway because he's clearly smart, and good
at presenting his ideas. However, I think there are often flaws in his
thinking that, for some reason, people don't point out. Since he's a
professor, I think he would enjoy this post and its points.

Fifth reaction: I tend to think of sociality as a system. I tend to think of
anything sufficiently large and complex as a system. They can be really
messy systems, but systems all the same. If systems theory can address the
richness of biological evolution (and I think it can), then I think it can
address the richness of human interaction and sociability. It can't
necessarily define or describe it, but it can provide tools for

Sixth reaction: I've long had issue with the "controlling" nature of
information architecture. One of my first best talks was on "Adaptive
Information Architecture", on how we should let human behavior within an
information system drive the information architecture of that system as much
as any authorial control.

Seventh reaction: Make it easier for me. What does your postulating actually
suggest as a direction for moving forward? What are the design implications
of D&G? What is an evocative or performative technology? What use would it


I feel like explaining a bit more about the Clay Shirky comment. I've had the fortune of getting to know Clay, and he's a wicked smart and really good guy. When he writes, I listen. But I've noticed that people tend to accept Clay's writing with little criticism (except for his essay on weblogs, which did engender quite a bit of disagreement). I assume that 'cause Clay is a professor, he'd actually be welcoming of nitpicky criticisms of his theses, as this is pretty much how the academic field advances. In fact, I'm pretty sure he does welcome them, given the email exchange we had after I posted my comments on his weblog essay.

Posted at 09:09 AM PST [0 comments]

November 17, 2002

Stir your brain... With "Connectedland", an inspiring essay about the role of interaction design in our Smart Mobs future. In it, he introduces the term "interaction anxiety," this notion of being overwhelmed by all the human-computer interaction we have to do in our daily lives to connect to others. It's a phrase he riffed from Richard Saul Wurman's "Information Anxiety," which dealt with the angst caused by drowning in a sea of information, afraid that you're not finding the items most valuable for you to further your understanding.
Posted at 09:40 PM PST [0 comments]

Thoughts on AIfIA and Information Architecture. The launch of the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture, has proven a wellspring for discussions on the emerging profession and discipline of information architecture. I've got a few thoughts based on what I've been reading and talking to people about. Here ya go.

The folks behind AIfIA have not done a very good job of handling "community reaction" to the new organization. Let's see here--a group of folks from what could be justly labeled the IA Cabal get together in secret, hash out a plan for an organization to represent the entire profession and discipline of information architecture, and unleash it in the form of a website. They seemed to have expected the community to prostrate themselves before the Institute, crying, "Oh thank you thank you for blessing us with your efforts," and have been caught off-guard by some concern that this is the same old clique promoting the same old stuff, and hey, just who are you people anyway to tell me about what I do?

What's been most distressing to me is the defensiveness expressed by various AIfIA mouthpieces -- I have not read one admittance that maybe the unveiling of AIfIA was flawed, that if they wanted "buy in" from the larger community, it might have been wise to earlier incorporate voices from outside The Cabal. Additionally, in talking to various folks in The Cabal, many have told me that they didn't think that the unveiling went as well as it should have, but they're not comfortable publicly expressing dissent with The Group. Admitting mistakes can go a long way toward winning over others -- it's not a sign of weakness (as it seems some AIfIA members fear), it's simply a sign of humanity.

I know that various mouthpieces would now say, "AIfIA *is* open to anyone! Sign up and your voice will be heard!" This is disingenuous, as it's very much after-the-fact of the public unveiling, wherein a direction for AIfIA seems to be set, and you can hop on their wagon. But then you dig further into AIfIA, and you realize that no strong direction has been set, and you realize that this finished-looking website is just a facade, and then I think, well, why did they feel like they needed to come across as so robust, so finished, when it's clear that this is very much a work-in-progress? And, again, in talking with members of The Cabal, they've told me that AIfIA is very roughly sketched out, and that there was concern about launching something so polished, but the decision was made and there you go.

This is all particularly ironic, because this procedure has highlighted one of the common problems I've seen with information architects--they're poor at understanding how they are perceived. In this case, they've wanted to have their cake ("We're A Real Organization, With A Mission, and Goals") and eat it, too ("But We're Open to Anything And You Should Join Us And Set Direction").

In a recent essay, Peter Morville has written about AIfIA, and comments on how "scary" it is that many people within the world of Information Technology (IT) don't know anything about information architecture. I don't find this scary. It ties into a point that my business partner Lane has made to me: If you've only got 5 minutes of someone's time, which is more important to get across -- User Experience or Information Architecture?

For me, the answer is easy: user experience. Largely because it's more obvious. As information architects know, explaining what they do, even to smart people in related fields, is difficult. Once given a clue as to what user experience is, folks can understand that improving the user experience of a product will be valuable. That will never be true of information architecture, which, by nature, is more abstract and subtle. (I'm biased, as my company is a "user experience consulting and training" firm.)

Now, information architecture is a key component of the user experience. But I've been wondering if everyone Out There really needs to know about it. Think about other disciplines. Are structural engineers all worked up over the fact that "business" doesn't understand their value? No. Business understands the value of building architects, who in turn understand the value of structural engineers. It's not reasonable to expect everyone to understand everything. Which is why, in picking what to promote Out There, I opt for user experience over information architecture.

What's funny to me is that there are no "user experience" organizations, really. There are a lot of organizations that touch on user experience -- UPA (usability professionals, whose membership publication is called User Experience), ASIST, SIGCHI, AIGA (whose Experience Design community is probably the closest thing to a user experience organization there is).

Note: After writing this post, I took a bike ride, and realized I've been awfully critical of AIfIA. So I wrote the following, originally in the comments section for this post, but I thought I'd promote it to the post itself, just to show that I'm not some relentless doomsayer and stuff:
I've been thinking about this post, and I realize that I've tended to be quite critical of AIfIA from the moment I heard about it. I guess it's my nature to immediately question.

I do wish for AIfIA oodles of success. I think that success will come if AIfIA finds a valuable focus. I think the focus, at least in the near-term, should be on three things:

a) research
b) curriculum development
c) methodology development

Essentially, focus on improving the *practice* of information architecture. I think there's a lot of potential value in such an endeavor.

I'm wary of AIfIA *promoting* IA. I just think that it's not going to prove to be the wisest use of resource, if only because the idea of promotion is, in its nature, so vague.

Posted at 12:51 PM PST [10 comments]

Krispy Kreme's New Coffee. So, while not an insufferable coffee snob, I'm pretty picky when it comes to my brew. Friends know I love my Peet's (Viennese blend being my favorite) -- I enjoy strong, rich, dark, flavorful coffees.

I also adore Krispy Kreme. I found myself there not long ago, and they're promoting their 4 new coffee roasts. Krispy Kreme's prior coffee offering, "America's Favorite Cup of Coffee," was typical diner swill--burned, bitter, unpleasant. But I thought I'd try their new product, and ordered myself a small cup of "Bold," their darkest roast.

And it was good. Really. Smooth, good flavor. Not burned or bitter. Not a great coffee, no Peet's or anything like that, but definitely a good complement to their donuts.
Posted at 11:22 AM PST [0 comments]

November 16, 2002

Smart Mobs mini-blog: Keep It Simple, Stupid. A primary reason for the success of "smart mob" technologies is their abject simplicity, at least on the user's end. SMS allows for 160-character messages; file-sharing programs require little more than a search query and a submit; Amazon's various recommendations capitalize on existing behavior.

A common trap that engineers fall into is uncovering problems that don't really exist, and developing complex solutions to them. A case in point is Mojo Nation, briefly and glowingly noted in Smart Mobs. In an effort to overcome the "tragedy of the commons" in file-sharing, MojoNation, added a market mechanism, and required users to contribute as much as they took away. MojoNation had a number of glowing articles written about it, and its founder entered into a public debate with p2pundit Clay Shirky, citing MojoNation's reason for being.

A funny thing happened, though. No one cared. As Smart Mobs states, Mojo Nation ended its operations as a commercial enterprise in February 2002, and turned into an open source project called "Mnet." If you go to, you see that it's turned into something called HiveCache, a way to backup files in an enterprise.

The problem? MojoNation fixed that which was not broken. So far, Clay has been right. File-sharing doesn't need market forces and equitable uploads and downloads. Things are working just fine as they are... In case the creators of Mojo Nation hadn't noticed, software like Napster and Kazaa, with no such procedures in place, are pretty satisfying. Could they be better? Probably. Are they good enough? Definitely.

It lead me to wonder why Howard comments on Mojo Nation so favorably in his book. I have a default reaction toward engineering solutions for problems that don't exist. This might be born of my experience at Epinions, which attempted to create a marketplace for content, in part by having a rather complex set of interpersonal interactions managed explicitly through what is called the "Web of Trust." The premise is, if I trust you, and you trust others, I'm more likely to trust others, so I'm more likely to see content written by you or highly rated by you. The whole point, in the end, is that Epinions will begin to shape its content around who *I* am, providing me a wholly unique experience based on connections I made.

Thing is, apart from a few excessively active members of the community, no one really cared. (In fact, it's becoming clear that most visitors of Epinions don't even care about reviews--whereas we had them right on the product page when I was creative director, they're now a click away.) All of Epinions attempts at placing a framework around user-generated content -- paying for reviews, 4 levels of rating reviews, connecting users through the Web of trust -- have proven unnecessary. As Amazon and CitySearch show, people will write because they have something to say, and they think others will read it and benefit. It's as easy as that.
Posted at 02:00 PM PST [0 comments]

November 15, 2002

I've been remiss. In that I haven't yet pointed people to the weblog of Steven Johnson, author of Interface Culture, Emergence, co-editor and co-founder of the late, lamented FEED, and all around smart guy. Good to see him in the blog party.
Posted at 08:26 AM PST [0 comments]

November 14, 2002

Last Night a Movie Made Me Cry. It wasn't your typical tear-jerker either. It was Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine", a remarkably personal film documentary where Moore grapples with why it is that Americans shoot so many other Americans. We follow his threads of logic, as he tries to figure out causes, and rules out guns (Canada has about as many per capita, but fewer shooting deaths by orders of magnitude), brutal or violent histories (look at European countries), video games or rock and roll (those are played everywhere).

Moore boils it down to a primary cause -- America lives in a culture of fear, fired by a Media that wildly skews representations of how things are, and supported by people who manufacture and market guns, security devices, etc. etc., that play on this unfounded fear.

It's an important and difficult film, forcing Americans to Look At What We've Become. By the end of the movie, I'd been exposed to such an onslaught of tragedy (security tapes from the Columbine shootings, the audio from a 911 call after a 6 year old shot another 6 year old at school, the ridiculousness of the current welfare-to-work program, America's history of violence abroad, etc. etc.), that a dam burst within me, and I just sobbed.

My primary fear is that this film will simply be dismissed. Dismissed by The Right and the NRA-types, who assume that the movie is simply out to get them (it most definitely is not), and dismissed by the left because the left has a history of being remarkably dismissive of those that they could really help. Toward the beginning of the film, Moore talks to members of the Michigan Militia, a group that is easy to dismiss, though who should be heard. They should be heard because their members are straightforward and normal folk, trying to get through life same as everyone else, and they have very real and legitimate concerns about safety, employment, due process, and who have joined this group not out of some bizarre revenge fantasy or conspiracy fear, but because it brings meaning and provides some sense and context for their hopes and fears. The members of the Michigan Militia are exactly the same folks who would benefit most from a liberal agenda, but liberals have cast them aside as crazy gun nuts not worthy of their time.

Anyway, this has turned into a ramble, so I should probably curtail it. Let me just say that Moore's filmic essay is smart, entertaining, disturbing, and tragic, and worth any American citizen's time to see and consider.
Posted at 05:03 PM PST [9 comments]

November 13, 2002

How May You Help You Today? Lane's got a great new essay up on the Adaptive Path site: Self-Service Web Applications: Less Cost, More Value. It's a smart piece about how both customers and businesses gain when companies intelligently offer their customers the ability to manage their own information, and the caveats of exposing your internal processes to the outside world.
Posted at 12:04 PM PST [0 comments]

November 10, 2002

Essays Worth Reading. "An Animal's Place", by Michael Pollan. All about what it means to raise and kill animals, inhumane and humane farming practices, and a remarkably thorough consideration of the animal rights debate.

"The Dramaturgy of Death" (Pulled from Google's cache), by Garry Wills. Given our country's supposed "shift to the right," and in the face of Ashcroft's decision to have the alleged snipers tried in Virginia so as to have Malvo, who is 17, subject to the death penalty, I think it's extremely important to read Wills' essay on capital punishment, the role it serves in society, the fact that it has no effect on deterrence, and the fallacy of "closure".

(I originally read Wills essay in the very good collection Best American Essays 2002. Which also turned me onto the Journal of Mundane Behavior. My favorite essay therein is "Mundanity and the Lyrics of the Beatles."
Posted at 05:26 PM PST [1 comment]

The Marriage of Stewart and Jesse. My post on extending Jesse's elements of user experience, and assigning intervals of longevity, fired a connection to Stewart Brand's brilliant How Buildings Learn, wherein he identifies the 6 layers of buildings, all which happen to begin with S:

6S (14k image)

Posted at 04:47 PM PST [10 comments]

November 9, 2002

Art They Don't Want You To See. It turns out I'm late to this blog party, but Illegal Art is new to me. A collection of video, audio, and pictorial art that uses copyright materials. For me, I'm excited I can finally see Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.

Posted at 09:41 AM PST [2 comments]

November 7, 2002

Further Extending the Elements. I love Jesse's Elements of User Experience because I find that it helps make sense of this discipline, not just by describing it, but by providing a framework that allows for revealing and meaningful extensions.

In the last post, I commented on how Jesse's elements were in synchrony with Peter Morville's IA iceberg. I have also found that they can provide a framework for discussing user research...

elements_with_research (8k image)

In current practice, user research methods are typically considered within a single project. This is typically because budgets are apportioned on a project basis. Such practice, though, gives short shrift to the longer-lasting methods (those in the Strategy and Scope plane). While those methods take longer to do, and thus cost more, the longevity of their results shows that, if used wisely, they are quite cost-efficient. Unfortunately, myopic project coordination usually means that while folks recognize the value of the work, either the cost is too great for the current situation, or, simply, "we don't have time for that."

Web projects and budgets need to operate at different tiers--not all endeavors are equal. This is what I think Jesse's elements makes clear, and I hope extensions as mine bolster that.

And if you haven't already, you really ought to buy Jesse's book.

Posted at 03:47 PM PST [1 comment]

November 6, 2002

Toward a Unified Theory in User Experience Modeling. Last Friday, because I'm a nerd, I attended a talk that Peter Morville gave on Information Architecture and Strategy. In it, Peter presented a model for information architecture that was eerily in line with JJG's Elements of User Experience.
planes_iceberg (11k image)
Posted at 12:55 AM PST [4 comments]

November 5, 2002

Life Imitates The Simpsons. Early election results are getting me down. It looks like the Republicans will be controlling the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of our government for at least the next couple of years.

In local politics, things are going a little better. However, Oakland, where I live, looks to be supporting increasing the number of police officers by 100, supposedly to "prevent crime" or something. Though there is a wrinkle in their plans...

(from the SF Chronicle) "Facing spiraling murder and crime rates, Oakland voters were narrowly approving a measure to hire 100 more cops but rejecting the taxes that would pay for them."

Which reminds me of one of my Top 10 scenes from The Simpsons (better seen than read, but oh well):
    Edna: Oh, "boo" yourself.  Our demands are simple: a small cost-of-
living increase and some better equipment and supplies for
your children.
Audience: Yeah! Give it to them! etc.
Skinner: Yeah, in a dream world. We have a very tight budget; to do
what she's asking, we'd have to raise taxes.
Audience: Raise taxes? They're too high as they are. Taxes are bad.
Edna: It's your children's future.
Audience: That's right. Children are important. etc.
Skinner: It'll cost you.
Audience: No to taxes. My God, they're going to raise taxes. etc.
Edna: C'mon!
Audience: She makes a good case. Good point. etc.
Skinner: [rubs his fingertips together]
Audience: More taxes? The finger thing means the taxes. etc.

Posted at 11:23 PM PST [3 comments]

November 1, 2002

The Science of Regionalisms. Longtime peterme readers know I have a thing for regionalisms, local quirks of language, such as how Minneapolitans play "Duck, Duck, Gray Duck," whereas the rest of America plays "Duck, Duck, Goose".

Some linguistics folks at Harvard are conducting a Web survey on dialects. I answered the entire thing (some 120 questions), and then clicked around the answers to the various questions, which are overlayed on a map of the US. Some favorites:

  • Aunt (ahnt v ant), durn snooty Eastern Seaboard types.
  • Y'all!
  • Milkshake or Frappe?, goofy Eastern Seaboard, again.
  • Name That Sandwich, I just wish I called it a grinder
  • Sneakers or Tennis Shoes?
  • Kitty- or Catty- corner?, Meow!
  • Circles in your car, Minnesotans and Wisconsinites call it "whipping shitties"!!!
  • The Classic -- Carbonated Beverages (see also:

    Posted at 01:47 PM PST [7 comments]

  • A must-read blog... Purse Lip Square Jaw. Written by Anne Galloway, on her way to a Ph.D. in sociology, with a concentration on virtual spaces, she's also an interaction and information designer, obsessed with mobile devices currently, and has a lot of great non-blog material (research, etc.) available for perusing.

    Special to Stacy: She pointed to this article on a historical archaeological dig of Ottawa and its steamy past!
    Posted at 01:01 PM PST [0 comments]

    Smart Mobs mini-blog: Context-Aware Computing: The Return of Ranganathan? Among the more exciting developments with mobile technology is context-aware computing. Our devices will know where we are, and be able to augment our experience in that area in various ways--the ability to write and read notes that others have placed; read the history of the spot you're standing on; find out about any activities of interest occurring nearby, etc. etc.

    The most common criticism of this future is how we're going to be bombarded by unwanted messages, how we'll be notified of specials, discounts, coupons, promotions for merchants near us, that kind of thing.

    While a legitimate complaint, I see that as a minor one compared to what I fear will be the greatest problem--making sense of it all. Such locale-augmentation is meant to assist people, revealing useful information about where you are so that you can know better what to do. However, the amount of "augmentation" of any particular spot can be quite high, and I can't imagine anything more frustrating than fiddling with a device, trying to make sense of your surroundings, and being offered interfaces that are either useless (think of bad search engines) or poorly suited to the actual task (think of any email program).

    And I can pretty much guarantee that frustration will be the norm if we develop context-aware computing in the same fashion as we have most of our information-rich internet technologies. This is because, historically, the people building such devices tend to be technology-focused (look at what we can do! the more we offer, the better!), and not user-focused (what on earth would people want to do? how would they go about doing that?).

    Additionally, they've also not been meaningfully information focused. They'll understand that in order to bring "value" they'll need "content" that "enhances the experience." So they'll buy databases chock full of stuff, and shovel it in, and, in doing so, make every context-aware computing task an arduous information retrieval task.

    This is what lead me to think of S.R. Ranganathan. Considered the father of Indian library science, he developed a system called Colon Classification, which categorized all of reality into five primary facets:
  • Personality—what the object is primarily “about.” This is considered the “main facet.”
  • Matter—the material of the object
  • Energy—the processes or activities that take place in relation to the object
  • Space—where the object happens or exists
  • Time—when the object occurs
    (definitions borrowed from Ranganathan for IAs)

    Perhaps as a testament to Ranganathan's visionary status, faceted classification is extremely difficult to practice in 'the real world,' but is remarkably well-suited to the digital world. In the last couple of years, web designers have increasingly turned to facets (knowingly or not) to organize unwieldy collections of information.

    Even so, his original PMEST classification has not really taken root (to the best of my knowledge). I suspect, however, that we increasingly take our computers with us, we'll find that we're finally ready to take full advantage of Ranganathan's original vision. I can only hope that the device developers understand the importance of smartly classifying the world around us, and incorporate wise information architecture into their products.

    Posted at 11:54 AM PST [4 comments]

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