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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December 28, 2001

Organizational issues for design. I found the essay in the last post via Phil Agre's Red Rock Eater. I'm guessing he stumbled across it as he as preparing writing this just-published draft: Institutional Analysis for Design". I haven't had time to read and think about it, but check it out.
Posted at 11:25 AM PST [1 comment]

User-centered design-types: Read This Article! "Beyond User Participation:The Politics of Software Development"(.PDF).

The abstract:
The politics of technology design are examined in the context of software design where there has been an emphasis on “user participation” as a solution to poor software design. However, in examining the realpolitik of design, our research shows that the process must be situated in an organizational and market context. Thus, traditional concepts of user participation tend to be limited and need to be expanded to incorporate a broader organizational model of how technology and work are structured. To develop a conceptual model and to prescribe principles of practice, I assess the influence of actors, the constraints of organizations, the determinants of technology, and the limits of knowledge and purposeful action. This paper summarizes in-depth research on the process of software design and the development of a model of technology and workprocess development.

My favorite quote:
Some argue that only by involving users in design can the designer ensure that the software is effective. This nostrum for curing system deficiencies has widespread currency in both the research literature and textbooks and has a great deal of intuitive appeal. It is also very much in the spirit of current thinking about the customer's role in effective design of tangible products in general. However, with respect to software, evidence for approach as sufficient to improve user effectiveness is not compelling. We examined assumptions underlying user involvement and “better design” formulae provides some insight into their inherent limitations.

I've been thinking a fair amount about organizational politics and design. In our practice, Adaptive Path stresses doing as much internal discovery work as you can before starting any design. The reason being, all the design work in the world is pointless if it doesn't get implemented, and the best way to ensure getting your designs recognized is to make sure that they respond to internal issues, that you've spoken to all the appropriate people, that there won't turn up any nay-sayers down the line who haven't been given a chance to contribute. Hell, even with something so basic as user testing, we have extensive stakeholder interviews, so that we make sure our recommendations fit with how the company is operating, and don't just analyze and suggest in a vacuum.

I would argue that that is in fact the biggest problem with Guru Usability. Little to no concern for a company's operations or how the recommendations will be received--instead there are pronouncements from atop Mount Usable, stone tablets reading "Thou Shalt Keep Links Underlined And Blue", and no real effort made to be sure these recommendations are acted upon. Making usability recommendations is easy--getting them deployed is hard.
Posted at 11:18 AM PST [5 comments]

December 26, 2001

Stalking The Wily Spore. Today's NY Times offers a lengthy feature on the anthrax investigations, "Tracking Bioterror's Tangled Course". It's a solid and effective chronicle of the sleuthing, capturing what's been uncovered in the last few months. I've long hated daily news coverage, because its pressures require reporters to spew the little that is known, usually to the effect of further muddying up the waters. The piece demonstrates the futility of such coverage in the face of a significantly complex story.

The feature also points out that we're not particularly close to finding out the source of the spread. Such efforts were doubtless not helped by the Bush administration's desperate and futile attempt to link the anthrax to Iraq (also an NY Times story). It's clear that such activities were simply a Saddam-hunt, and, sadly, a waste of precious time and resources. From the beginning, there's never been one shred of evidence that the anthrax had any international-terrorist ties (apart from timing, which, frankly, isn't really evidence). The inability of our leaders to accept domestic terrorism again rears its ugly head.
Posted at 08:55 AM PST [0 comments]

December 21, 2001

peterme's Komix Korner! Hey kids! Recently I found myself in that wallet-evacuating institution, Comic Relief in Berkeley. Therein, I purchased a number of comix. I will now report on my findings for you, my loyal readers.

The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Volume 1

The highly-anticipated follow-up to Frank Miller's blockbuster The Dark Knight Returns (pretty much credited for single-handedly keeping the comics industry afloat in the mid-80s), "DK2", is, well, okay. It's the first in a series of 3, and most of the book is spent setting the scene--it takes a while to get all the various superheroes into their appropriate roles for this outing. Don't expect to leave the book satisfied--however, I did find myself curious as to what happens.

The art is quite good... Dazzling full color layouts, often with some complexity, forcing you to really take in the pages. If I'm not mistaken, it looks like Miller is strongly influenced by Mike Mignola--the characters have a certain weight, a certain depth, a visual style that recalls the heavy presence of Hellboy.

Now, I'm no superhero fanboy, so I don't know what references I'm not getting, or what background I "should" have, but I do *love* seeing Superman as a spineless toady, and the idea that the Flash in a hamster wheel generates power for a third of the US, and the ways that The Atom travels along particles. Some clever stuff in there.

Eightball #22

The latest from Dan Clowes is also his most expensive--$5.95 for this issue. But, for that price you get a book chock-a-block with stories and Clowes' most accomplished art. In what feels like some kind of homage to Winesburg, Ohio, #22 book chronicles a series of interweaving stories in the small-ish town of Ice Haven, mostly swirling around the disappearance of a small child. Clowes' mines his usual themes of despair, futility, attempts-at-achievement-in-the-face-of-mediocrity, sex, teen girls, etc., but does so in a more understated and narratively-stronger way than before.

The visuals deserve special notice--though a good artist, he was always far better with the words and concepts. In this effort, though, he experiments with visual styles (some distinctly reminiscent of Chris Ware), and succeeds masterfully.

Optic Nerve 8 View | Buy

Adrian Tomine continues to find inspiration in the fucked up sexuality of youth. 8 doesn't have much of a plot--it's more of a slice of life of a slutty brazen girl and geeky asexual boy who work together at a coffeehouse. Tomine definitely has an eye and ear which rings true. But the spareness, and aimlessness of his tale makes this the slightest of this lot.
Posted at 08:04 PM PST [3 comments]

Information and recall might not be spatial, but is the Web? So, in previous comments threads on this site, there's been a fair amount of discussion as to the spatial nature of information, much to Stewart's chagrin. Stewart's point there was that "perception and cognition don't go on in a spatial framework," and that utilizing spatial metaphors ("navigation", "information space") is a bad path for thinking through the design of facilitating how people interact with information.

So, I was most intrigued when I saw that David Weinberger, of JOHO fame, had a chapter in his upcoming book (Small Pieces Loosely Joined) called "The Web Place," his attempt to answer the question, "Why do we perceive the Web as a place when, in fact, it isn't?"

Weinberger concludes that
We began by asking why the Web seems so spatial even though it clearly doesn’t exist in space. It turns out that our question was confused, as so often is the case with questions that stump us. The Web feels spatial because it’s “place-ial,” and, because until now all our places have been in space, when we see a place we assume it must exist in space. Then we make a set of assumptions based on taking space as measurable and abstract. What would look anomalous — or just plain weird — in our spatial world makes perfect sense on the Web, once we remember the Web is “place-ial” but not spatial: we can move from place to place but without having to traverse distance; we can arrange places the way we want without worrying about violating the rule that two objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time; the symmetry of nearness can be broken.

So, tying it all together, whether or not cognition occurs in a spatial framework, it seems that our interaction with information on the Web does. Maybe it's this break that is the cause of the problems we witness? Something like, our users have mental models of these document collections as "spaces," yet, "space" doesn't really map to how they think about the information in those documents, and this discrepancy causes a breakdown?
Posted at 04:37 PM PST [8 comments]

December 19, 2001

Someone worth listening to. Peter Kaminski, who is one of the scary-smarter people I know, has recently posted to his site, What is the Network Economy?" It's a good overview of the "new economy," with some thoughts of his, and pointers to more information.
Posted at 09:13 AM PST [1 comment]

Lay The Project Foundation. My biz partner Janice's latest piece has been published, "Groundwork for Project Success." I love this piece, because I think the issues at hand here are among *the most important* in any design project, and are often woefully overlooked, as they're not typically considered "design." At Adaptive Path, we stress these early phases in our work, for the simple fact that if you don't get everyone on board from the outset, all the best design efforts in the world will very likely go for naught. These steps provide insurance for success. Because I hate it when designs I'm working on never see the light of day.
Posted at 08:42 AM PST [0 comments]

December 17, 2001

Taking It All In. In the interview Mark conducted with me, he asked how I reconcile my interest in visual storytelling with my professional practice of information architecture. I loved that question, because it forced me to bridge the screen-by-screen issues of comics formalism with the deep organizational issues of enterprise information architecture.

In my answer, I use the concept of "receptivity" as the fulcrum--the idea being that at all levels of scale, I'm interested in how people a receptive to information, how they process it, take it in, and act on it.

I've been thinking about this notion a lot of late, in order to help clients get their messages across on their sites. There's a common fallacy that if you want to highlight or promote something, put it front and center on the home page. In my experience, though, this often fails, because when someone arrives at the home page, they're not "primed" to receive this information. This is particularly true of sites with active members, where they're frequently returning. I mean, when is the last time you looked at the home page of Amazon? You probably just focused right in on the search box, entered a few words, and hit Go. Or maybe clicked into your account. You're not in a passive-receptive mode there--you're in an active-task-completion mode.

The trick, of course, is to figure out when people will be receptive. On Amazon, it might be at the search results, though, often, folks are still in the 'getting-there' mindset, and don't really relax until they're at the product page. That's when they're willing to take in information... Which is no doubt why product pages are perhaps the most information dense artifacts of typical web sites.

The more I've noodled on the notion of "receptivity", the less happy I've been with that word. The point isn't to have the user simply receive information... The user must be in a state to receive information that they're then willing and able to act upon... I've thought "responsivity" might be more suitable, but that's a clunky word.

I'd also be interested to hear if folks know any of research on what I'm talking about here... Are these proposed states of mind valid? Do people have a cognitive tunnel vision whose scope then widens once a task is accomplished? Is it a correct model of mind?
Posted at 09:08 AM PST [5 comments]

December 13, 2001

Ho ho ho! Christina reminds me that I ought to promote my mousepad:

Buy me!

Posted at 10:22 PM PST [1 comment]

More about, you know, ME! Mark Bernstein interviewed me for a wee profile for the enarrative website. He posed some good questions, which lead me to provide some alternative takes on stuff I ramble about here.
Posted at 11:27 AM PST [0 comments]

Vanity Time Travel. Can be yours, thanks to Google's release of the USENET archive.

A little vanity search revealed that my obsessions, and how I've expressed them, have remained fairly constant since 1992. Lots of posts about movies (Diss of My Own Private Idaho, my introduction to Hal Hartley, why I like Eraserhead and Stranger Than Paradise, thoughts on Fassbinder), my belief that "disgruntled" is the coolest word in English, computers in a cultural context, a delightfully innocent request about getting into "multimedia", my initial query about the Voyager Company, and on and on. It's kinda cool. But spooky.

Posted at 09:40 AM PST [1 comment]

December 11, 2001

Lou Rosenfeld Needs Comments Postings. And permalinks, while we're at it. See, in his latest Bloug post, he talks about the power of the "humble hyperlink." Go over there and read it. Then come back.



Okay. So, you've read it, right? Well, what Lou is basically describing is how Google works, if I'm understanding him, and understand Google.

Google pays attention to not only the connections between pages, but what words are used to click on them to get there. This is why Calamondin is the first Google result for the query Judith, even though her name never appears in the text of her site (it does appear on a mailto link, but I doubt that's why she ranks so highly).

And Lou's request for a magic "MORE" button is akin to Google's "Similar Pages."

In fact, Google having figured out what Lou figured out is part of the reason why they're a magic search engine.
Posted at 07:58 AM PST [11 comments]

December 4, 2001

one thought on information architecture. in talking to the good people at zentropy partners, it came up that of all the disciplines grouped under "creative" in web design (graphic design, interface design, copywriting, information architecture, etc.), information architecture is the only one that never existed before The Web. the others have all evolved, but have antecedents in previous efforts. but there seems to be something about *the web*, or, to abstract a bit, networked, digital interaction, that is fundamentally unique to what has gone before. me? i think i'm going to blame the hyperlink. this has afforded information/content spaces/structures/milieus/entities that people must navigate. which makes me wonder if hypertext types thought in terms of what we call "information architecture." i'm guessing they didn't. in my limited and narrow understanding, hypertext is typically an "authored," as opposed to "designed," medium.

i apologize for the all lower case. i blame lou.
Posted at 10:55 PM PST [16 comments]

December 3, 2001

Not quite a tres bien ensemble. Tonight I went to see The Royal Tenenbaums in a special kinda-pre-release showing (the score hadn't been laid in, and there were some edits left). It's a peculiar film, quite literary in its structure (it's literally divided into chapters, and told as if read from a book), chronicling a key period in the life of the Tenenbaums, where the estranged father attempts a return to mend his reprehensible ways.

The picture is basically good, solidly entertaining, but doesn't add up to much. The storylines end up too diffuse across so many characters, so it's difficult to develop a relationship with them. If this were simply a comedy of set pieces that would be fine, but this film aspires for an emotional resonance that it simply can't achieve in this form.

Still, I don't want to discourage attendance--it's might be the best American film I've seen this past year. There are many elements that are simply great--Bill Murray cast as, essentially, Oliver Sacks; Gene Hackman; the Gypsy Cab that seems to be the only taxi in all of New York; the tennis match; etc. etc. If you go in simply expecting a pleasant and funny and at times sad diversion, you're in for a treat. Just be wary of critics snowed by the films literary aspirations who gush over it.

(As an aside, the movies official website is intriguing. In part because it's still a work in progress... you rarely see things like this launched before their ready. But what most interests me is the "commentary" link for each character. It's Owen Wilson telling you where to click on the screen for goodies. The first time, I found it a startling interface conceit. There's a weird personable-ness to it. Like Owen is talking to *you*.)
Posted at 11:24 PM PST [4 comments]

What's the Big Deal? I find the reaction to David Hockney's hypothesis that many "Great Masters" utilized lenses and tracing to paint their subjects delightfully misguided. It strikes me as bizarre that people would be so invested in the supposed purity of someone else's work (particularly someone long long dead) that they'd find the very idea that Hockney raises to be offensive. It's like their appreciation of these artists is a tenet of faith, not taste, and that someone calling into question the artists' methods is an infidel.

It speaks to these folks (mostly long-winded critics, not that I know anything about being long-winded or critical) know nothing about the creative process. Any creator uses whatever tools he has at his disposal to implement his vision. Would it be sinful to posit that Rembrandt used a straightedge to draw a line? It's as if folks want these artists to be divinely inspired and skilled, to have their talents bestowed upon them as a gift from God.

When I read about this stuff, I simply get excited for Hockney's sleuthing, his uncovering of clues that lead to his theory. How remarkable that he's figured out what he's figured out! And how shameful of those who cast aspersions just because it contradicts a belief that they foolishly held as unassailable.
Posted at 09:39 AM PST [1 comment]

December 2, 2001

An idle question. Does anyone watch The X-Files anymore.
Posted at 06:44 PM PST [19 comments]

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