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 29, 2002

I thought dolphins were supposed to be intelligent. Here's the situation.

You're up 24 to 21, with 2 minutes and 46 seconds left on the clock. Due to some bad luck on the kickoff, you're on your 4 yard line. Your star running back has run for over 150 yards and scored two touchdowns.

So. You're deep in your own field, you've got three minutes left, you're winning, and one of the leagues best rushers is on your team.

What do you do?

If you're the Miami Dolphins, you execute three pass plays in a row. As it happens, each of them fails, and you punt from your 4 yard line.


(Actually, I'm guessing "Wha'?" is what many peterme readers are thinking, as in, "He's talking about football? Wha'?" Anyway.)

What on earth was the Dolphins coach thinking? All they have to do is eat up the clock. The best way to do that is with a ground game. They've got a great runner who could no doubt get 4 and 5 yard rushes consistently, and maybe break one open for a longer gain.

And they throw? Three quick plays that return the ball into the opponents hands, who then kick a field goal, send the game into overtime, where they win?

If only for that bout of terrible play-calling, the Dolphins don't deserve a go at the playoffs.

Here's what I'm calling: Raiders and Packers in the Super Bowl. And I think the Raiders win it this year.
Posted at 06:00 PM PST [7 comments]

December 26, 2002

Holiday Movie Report. I've seen three films in this holiday season.

Adaptation. It was: okay. Too all-over-the-place to even warrant comparison to the brilliant Being John Malkovich. Perhaps the highlight were Nicolas Cage and Chris Cooper's performances. They truly "lose themselves" in the role. Meryl Streep is disappointing, but then, I've never understood the plaudits she's earned. I would have liked more about flowers, but I suspect I'm not a typical filmgoer.

I must say I felt cheated by the final third. It was obvious what they were doing, and I enjoyed just how over-the-top it all was (guns, drugs, sex, sappy singing, triumph in love), but the fact that this had nothing to do with what was set up in the prior two-thirds bugged me. The film spent a while developing a rhythm and emotional honesty, and ends up just chucking it, so that the ending, while superficially engaging, rings hollow.

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. It was: pretty good. Beautiful to look at, filled with great fight scenes and costumes and scenery and make up, it, too, suffers from a certain emotional hollowness. It doesn't have the humanity (hobbitty?) of the first film, as it's just a bunch of exposition, leading, of course, to the final movie. The whole forest thing irked me--watching trees lumber (ha!) around just looked silly, not uplifting.

Standouts: Gollum/Smeagol. Wow. It took me a while to get into the Gollum groove, but once I did, I was captivated by the imp and his portrayal. Quite probably the single most interesting character in the entire story.
The Battle of Helms Keep. Wow. Big and bold and violent and chaotic. The rain and the ladders and the black armor and the unceasing onslaught are all beautifully portrayed. Niggles: That you can ride horses through the hordes unscathed (as if orcs or whatever they were are unwilling to harm steeds), and, of course, the arrival of Gandalf.

High and Low. There's been a traveling Kurosawa/Mifune film festival, providing the opportunity to see The Emperors films in the only way suitable: on the big big screen. A kidnap crime caper, High and Low is my favorite Kurosawa film, for so many reasons. Mifune's performance as the shoemaker, with such conflict, such intensity, and yet a charming acceptance, too (favorite scene: when he opens up the toolbag to modify the cases). The tableau staging of the first half of the film, a utilization of wide screen such as I'd never seen before. The dichotomy of heaven (the house) and hell (the city) ("Heaven and Hell" is the original Japanese title). The police procedural, thoughtful, complete, and absorbing, as the cops go step-by-step to track down the kidnapper. The "closing-in" on the culprit, incorporating the hurdy-gurdy of the dance hall, the freakish decay of Dope Alley, the deafening silence of the hideout.

Good God, if you get a chance, see this movie.
Posted at 12:22 PM PST [4 comments]

December 17, 2002

The Donster Responds I emailed Don Norman about the UI Generation Gap (which I wrote about here). He's allowing me to post his reply.


I have indeed written about this, but I don't know where. I write too
much to be able to find things again. But I am certain it is in one (or
more) of my books.

I believe that kids appear to be better at a lot of new technologies
than adults because:

1. They are fearless. Adults are hesitant, afraid they might break
something. Kids have no such fears, so they experiment much more -- and
thereby learn more.

Mind you, the adult fear is well founded. Kids break a lot of the things
they interact with.

2. They spend more time at it. Most adults give up after a short time.
SMS is a good example. It isn't that kids are inherently better at SMS
than adults, it is simply that they find that the virtues are so
compelling (instant contact with their gang) that they will master the
typing. But adults have matured to the point that being in continual,
instant contacts, with your close group of friends is no longer
required. Adults know that life is more than that. But guess what --
more and more adults are also mastering SMS as they figure out ways it
can add value to their lives. But also guess what, a lot of adults are
opting for full keyboards. I use SMS a lot, but I do it on my Handspring
Treo, which has a full keyboard. Similarly for the great success of the
RIM devices: keyboards win. (I will occasionally use SMS on a regular
cell keypad, but ugh, why waste my life with that? Keyboard or nothing.)

3. Kids aren't yet burned out. I have learned about a dozen word
processors in my life. I don't want to learn another one. Similarly with
the complex details of working my automobile or my home theater
equipment. I used to read the manuals. I used to experiment. With
today's autos, the number of variables is so large, that the hell with
it. I refuse to spend the energy. I have better things to do with my
life. (The new BMW lets you control around 700 variables. What were they
thinking of? Clueless German Engineers. Will kids plow through all those
variables? Sure, let them do it. Keeps them out of trouble. But adults
are too smart to fall for that crap.

Adults are the smart ones here. Let the technology come to us, on our

Kids haven't yet reached this point of satiation. They will.

4. Kids don't have a clue about how things work. Sure, kids can whiz
through a lot of menus and commands, etc. But I understand what is
happening underneath -- they are clueless. This bothers me. Society
seems to think that because kids have memorized the actions required to
get something working that they understand it. "My kid is a whiz at
technology," they brag. This scares me. This is why China will become
the dominant nation and the US will fall behind. We don't understand
that true knowledge is more than learning how to push the buttons. In
fact, those with true knowledge are not necessarily adept at using the
stuff. Let's not confuse one with the other.


And from now on, I will call him "The Donster."
Posted at 04:05 PM PST [7 comments]

Who'll Be The Next In Line?
First, there was Danny Aiello...

who was then replaced by Joe Mantegna...

who was superceded by Chazz Palminteri

But now America doesn't have it's Default Middle-Aged Italian American Big-ish Guy. The representative of the community who seems to get all those kinds of parts. Who will Central Casting provide?

Some might argue James Galdofini, but he has too much of a distinct personality.

(As a point of reference, Graham Greene was like this for Native Americans. There was a period where you didn't have a Native American in a movie that wasn't played by Graham Greene.)

Posted at 03:57 PM PST [7 comments]

As Goes The Typewriter Repairmen... I love coverage on the state of professional and academic journals. Because it can't help but detail the inexorable march towards the free electronic publication of all such papers. This New York Times article on the launch of two new peer-reviewed online journals (one biology, one medicine) is a case in point.

Before the Web, the journal publishers were in charge, because you needed their system to distribute the materials. Thanks to the Web, those publishers simply have no reason to exist (except maybe to keep back issues available). The degree to which there's no debate here is startling.

The print journals claim they need the subscription revenue to ensure quality. Pah. None of the quality-insurers get paid. Authors write the articles for free, and peers review them for free. It's all part of being an academic.

Because they have no real claim, spokespeople from the print journals make statements like this: "It sounds very sympathetic to say this should be available to the public, but this kind of material is only used by experts." This is a lie.

As a non-expert who occasionally treks through the essays offered by various academics online, I can testify that this material is used by all manner of folks. In fact, it's one of the amazing things about the Web -- it's breaking down barriers between academia and "the interested in layperson."

Posted at 10:04 AM PST [5 comments]

December 16, 2002

Bid on Some Things.

20Things is currently featuring a benefit auction on a collection of some really fine artwork. Whether you buy it for yourself or for someone you love (there are a number of touching items that would make amazing one-of-a-kind gifts), it's worth checking out.
Posted at 08:43 AM PST [0 comments]

December 14, 2002

2, 4, 6, 8, Let's All Collaborate Anyone who has worked with others knows that the best collaborative tools are the simplest. It is likely that, in the last 10 years, the most creative thinking and innovation has emerged from sessions gathered 'round whiteboards.

Among the topics discussed at last week's Supernova conference was "collaborative business." In a panel moderated by David Weinberger, a bunch of smart consultant types talked about the use of software tools to support people working together. And the picture was bleak. John Parkinson, from Cap Gemini Ernst and Young, said that after helping spend $1 billion in collaborative software, and developing instruments to study its impact, there was only one tool that had a noticeably positive effect on collaborative productivity: e-mail.

What I'm guessing that means is that all the knowledge management, web conferencing, content management, and lordknowswhatelse simply provides no real return on investment (and is likely a loss, since companies pay millions for these tools, and then ignore them and use email).

This made me consider which collaborative digital tools seem to work? What gets people to coordinate, to work together to a common goal? And my answer: dumb simple ones. Email. Instant messaging. Simple bulletin boards like bugzilla. Voice telephone calls. Weblogs. And, when stepping out of the world of business, SMS.

This definitely fit in with Supernova's theme of "decentralization.". Utility and agency is being pushed to the endpoints, where, with little explicit coordination, people use a suite of simple tools to get things done. One of the things that this discussion made abundantly clear is that the solution to enable collaboration is not really a technical one (much beyond the simple tools). It's a management one.

This will likely frustrate the hell of out big software vendors, who want to develop over-engineered software solutions that require many servers and for which they can charge hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because, frankly, those things don't work. And these same vendors simply aren't interested in developing what does work, email applications and IM applications and web bulletin boards. And I suspect we'll see a lot of enterprise software companies go out of business, not because of a hurting economy, but simply because people realize that you can't automate unstructured collaboration, and that it's a foolish way to spend money.

One of the panelists put it best when he said that in supporting collaboration, what matters most is a "governance architecture." In other words, a system for using the simple tools. With a little bit of training and management, companies could see a huge return on the use of simple collaboration tools, far more than trying to buy some type of monolithic solution that requires everyone to work in exactly the same way, and in a way that runs contrary to how they operate now.

Now, all that goodness said about decentralization, it's important to acknowledge that you ought not go overboard. Which the recognition of the need for governance architecture suggests. As does the important role of some kind of knowledge sharing and management within a company. As a Web guy, one thing I've been exposed to is decentralization in the form of intranets, and let me tell you: it's not really a good thing. Different departments create their own intranets, utterly ignoring what else is out there, using their own terminology, navigation schemes, search tools, etc.

If folks simply lived within their own departments and really never ventured outside of them, this would be fine. But the reality is that in order for employees to accomplish many tasks, they need information or documentation or forms from across the company, and the inconsistency in presentation from department to department creates such hurdles that many folks either a) waste a lot of time hunting for stuff; b) don't bother looking for it in the first place; or c) if they *have* to have it, go to the nearby Nerd and ask them where to find it, never figuring out how to do it on their own.

The obvious summary of all this is that it's important to figure out what to decentralize (tools and opportunistic processes?) and what to centralize (company-wide processes and information classification?), and not to get carried away going too far in any one direction.

Steven Johnson wrote about a related matter with how Apple and Microsoft are diverging in their approach to software development, with Apple pursuing a swiss-army knife approach based on the tasks that people want to perform on various kinds of documents, and Microsoft attempting a one-size-fits-all interface.

(I referred to this approach when I wrote about iPhoto's task-based interface.)

Thinking about collaboration has made me realize I should poke around the literature of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, a sub-field of HCI with quite a history and pedigree.

These Swiss Army Knife notions makes me think back to what *was* going to be The Next Big Thing before the Web became The Next Big Thing -- document-centered computing. Apple developed OpenDoc, Microsoft built OLE (Object Linking and Embedding), but these never took off.

But I wonder, with email, IM, SMS, and even to some extent, weblogs, we'll see a "communication-centered computing" platform emerge.

Posted at 01:26 PM PST [12 comments]

December 11, 2002

Is There A UI Generation Gap? The Supernova conference was kicked off by Howard Rheingold, who put forth a thesis based on thoughts from Smart Mobs. It was a great way to start the show, rooting it in humanisitic and sociological notions, and not simply focusing on the tech.

One thing that came up that I take issue with is this notion that there is a fundamental difference between "the kids"' abilities with new technologies, and their elders. This is a fairly hoary canard. Older folks don't get new technologies, don't understand how to use them, but that younger folks adopt it as if it were breathing. This is often put out there as a way to excuse old people from bothering to understand, and, I think, from excusing product designers from bothering to make products for people over 25.

Both notions, of course, are stupid. I refuse to believe that "the kids" are inherently better with new technologies than anyone else. We're all humans. We all have similar capabilities to understand and interact.

Yet, clearly, "the kids" do seem to have a greater facility with, say, typing on mobile phones and playing multiplayer video games than their elders. So why the difference?

I would argue that, primarily, its simply one of desire. Kids are better than adults with these tools because it satisfies a need that is greater in kids than adults -- connecting with peers. Which means, typically, that kids are willing to spend longer figuring out these stupid things, because the end result--being in communication with peers--is desirable enough to warrant hurdling over bad interfaces. Adults simply have other things that warrant greater attention. I'm guessing adults are far more facile with, say, Quicken, than teenagers are.

I just find this distinction between "those capable kids" and "those over-the-hill adults" subtly pernicious, and fundamentally lazy.

I know Don Norman has talked about this fallacy, too, but I haven't been able to find anything he's written about it.

Posted at 09:39 AM PST [12 comments]

December 9, 2002

The more things change... I'm at the Supernova conference, a digerati meet-up all about exciting technologies and their implications on our future.

And in a room of about 100 people, I count 7 women. (Including Mena and Chris Nolan.)
Posted at 12:13 PM PST [16 comments]

Can you purchase wisdom? Among the things that have surprised me recently happened on a brief consulting gig. We had come to talk to them about a process for user-centered design for their websites (both external and internal). Among the problems they were facing on their internal websites were implementations of enterprise software to facilitate things like tracking human resources issues (vacation days, sick leave) and financials (payroll, accounts payable, etc.) The problem wasn't one of features and functionality -- the software did everything they wanted it to do. The problem was one of design -- learning how to use this system was quite difficult, and often ran contrary to how people currently worked.

In our presentation on user-centered design, we utilize the following diagram as an overview of a process:
cycle (23k image)

Such as it is, the cycle "begins" with "Gathering Assumptions and Requirements." This is the step where you look internally to understand the business drivers of whatever project you're involved with. The thing is, that's pretty much where this company began and ended. They understood the business drivers, got a sense of the features and functionalities they wanted, and then would go out and buy software to solve it.

The problem is, as they learned, that the issues isn't with features and functionality, but with the software fitting into current work processes. What this means is that, when buying enterprise software, companies need to do more work, move forward along the cycle, to "Understand Goals and Tasks." This is where you observe user behavior and needs in order to understand the processes people engage in to accomplish their tasks.

What surprised the client was that they thought this was the responsibility of the vendor. Part of the reason they bought this software was for the "wisdom" the software was meant to have embedded within. That there was a "wisdom" in how the software presents work processes, and that the company ought to learn from that wisdom and adjust their work accordingly, taking advantage of this "wisdom."

This totally took me aback. How on earth could this enterprise software tell you how to do your work? It's your work! And, this is what the client learned, in a painful way. That software can't come in and change how people work--such software will simply be ignored, be rejected. Companies have to step up and take more responsibility for the integration of software within their organizations, because no one else knows how those companies work. This is something that content management system vendors have had to deal with, and has lead to a solution of separating the content/data and the presentation.

Remember, the problem with the software wasn't features or functionality, it was how those tools were presented. Unfortunately, the design of the system was hardcoded (which is shocking, since it is served through a web browser).

What will be clear, moving forward, is that enterprise software companies will have to follow the lead of CMS and provide a greater degree of flexibility in how people can interface with their tools.

Posted at 10:26 AM PST [12 comments]

December 7, 2002

The Ballad of Adam and Nathan, part 2. Adam has posted the second part of his interview with Nathan Shedroff. I commented on the first part here. Following are my comments on the second part, sent to Adam after he showed me a preprint of the piece. They are much briefer.

I'm going to be annoying and say that "good user experience" is both a
bottom-up (emergent) and a top-down (authorial) phenomenon. I tend to
believe this is why good user experience happens in teams, where different
folks can take different perspectives. I don't think there will ever be a
truly transcendent or even "good" user experience that simply emerges from
paying attention to the details. I think it requires a Big Picture
perspective, a real Vision, to provide Insight that leads to experiences
that make the quantum leap from "workable" to "good."

I find the Cirque du Soleil discussion distracting. CDS is *not* experience
design. It's theater. If theater is a subset of ED, than I don't know what
ED is. Now, this does lead to a fundamental break that I know I have with
Nathan -- he tends to laud "experiences" that are totally dictated by the
creator. He loved that the last summit was in Las Vegas, supposedly a
high-water mark of experience design activity. Which is telling, because the
experiences offered in LV are largely, well, fascistic. Over-determined.
Discouraging of independence.

Posted at 05:33 PM PST [12 comments]

December 5, 2002

More pics from Hong Kong...
IMG_0609 (59k image)

Including our exciting ride up the ESCALATORS!

Click "More..." to see them all. More...
Posted at 04:21 PM PST [5 comments]

That's Coo'. Jen's little brother Liam used to best be known as one of the hands on America's favorite stoner sock puppet program, The Sifl and Olly Show. But thanks to the release of his song "The United States of Whatever" in the UK, he's becoming a pop star in his own right.

Liam's produced a video perfect for the song, so you should click on this link and watch it an enjoy it (RealPlayer required). (My favorite scene is when he's "wearing his leather"...

Posted at 02:15 PM PST [0 comments]

It's comforting to know you're not alone in your bizarre interests. I received email a couple days ago from someone researching the meaning of poontang, and stumbled upon my attempt to do the same. I've added his notes to that page.
Posted at 05:48 AM PST [2 comments]

December 4, 2002

Pics and thoughts from Hong Kong. iPhotoiPhoto-mailtmp-6 (80k image)

I'm really enjoying Hong Kong. Much more than I thought I would before coming here. Originally, I feared it would be oppressive and overwhelming like Tokyo, but instead I've found it surprisingly manageable, even with the massive edifices sprung up all over the piece, and the throngs of people everywhere.

Click "More..." for more thoughts and pictures More...
Posted at 04:42 PM PST [5 comments]

December 1, 2002

Gack. Amazon wishes sent to the wrong place! I just realized that since last February, has been sending wish list items to my old address. There've been 7 items sent, none of which I've received. If you sent me something and I didn't acknowledge it, that's why! My apologies. (I've now fixed the address, which I'll have to remember to change in a few weeks...)
Posted at 06:32 PM PST [6 comments]

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