October 16, 2004

Pity the Poor User

I've begun reading Tracing Genres through Organizations by Clay Spinuzzi. I bought it because I think genre theory is potentially the most-important-yet-least-appreciated topic in information architecture.

Clay approaches the issue from his background in rhetoric, and the practice of technical communication. Still, he spends his first chapter laying out a cogent and fairly persuasive critique of user-centered design practice. The gist of it is this: the writings promoting user-centered design theory and practice overwhelmingly cast the user as a victim, subjected to the evils of a system over which they have no control. By studying these victims, the heroic user-centered designer can provide a far superior system that takes into account the actual work practices of the users. Clay recognizes that: a) it's condescending to treat users as victims unable to influence their work situation, and b) UCD simply replaces one form of centralized control with another.

Though I find elements of his arguments flawed, I think calling into question the gospel of user-centered design is a necessary tonic.

The most interesting insights the chapter offers are:
a) an acknowledgment that users are often quite innovative in how they overcome challenges in their local work environments, and are often heroes themselves.
b) that UCD doesn't typically address the fundamental problem, which is the monolithic nature of any designed system. Yes, it sucks when systems are developed without any insight into user behavior, but having a monolithic system designed according to the principles of UCD sucks only marginally less, because such approaches inevitably don't take into account the immense variety of small local innovations that people develop to get their work done. There's an assumption within UCD that one-size-fits-all; the methods (particularly the modeling) lead to singular solutions that attempt to collapse variegated field research into a simple set of requirements from which to build.

Another name for that approach is "lowest common denominator."

This relates to the problem of cluster analysis in how its output enforces a single view of content organization, though there's plenty of evidence to suggest that different folks utilize different approaches.

Posted by peterme at 03:10 PM | Comments (5)

My current favorite Flickr tag.


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October 10, 2004

Poontang update.

A informative email has lead to updating my "What I Know about Poontang" page, which retains it's Classic Peterme style.

Posted by peterme at 08:51 PM | Comments (1)

FBI: Celebrating Fanatical Suspicion

I continue to be appalled at the lionizing inherent in naming the Federal Bureau of Investigation's headquarters the J. Edgar Hoover Building. Hoover was, let's face it, an evil man, or, if not evil, deserving of no end of contempt. The Chronicle today has an article on how Hoover targeted Mario Savio, the spokesicon for Berkeley's Free Speech Movement, and in the past offered a special report, "Reagan, Hoover, and The UC Red Scare", delving into how Hoover targeted UC president Clark Kerr, surreptitiously destroying his career.

And it doesn't take much to find Hoover's other contemptible deeds.

Posted by peterme at 10:17 AM | Comments (1)

Does Cluster Analysis Cut the Mustard?

Malcolm Gladwell's article, "The Ketchup Conundrum" offers an intriguing look at the intersection of marketing and cognitive science. The basic thesis revolves around how a seemingly infinite variety of products have emerged to satisfy discrete differences in consumers' desires -- so whereas 40 years ago, if you wanted mustard, you got French's, now the mustard market is sliced and diced along a variety of vectors -- color, spiciness, tanginess, etc. -- with a product to suit most everyone.

Originally companies made One Type of Product, aiming for that which satisfied the most people -- think of it as the lowest common denominator. In the 60s there were developed research techniques that demonstrated there is almost never a platonic ideal in food. Different people have different tastes. From the article: "There was no such thing as the perfect Diet Pepsi. They should have been looking for the perfect Diet Pepsis."

To get a bit technical, the research analysis method is referred to as multidimensional scaling.

It's relevant to the work I do, because, too often, information architects strive for that platonic ideal, which I think is borne of the tools we have at hand. On an information architecture mailing list, there has been a discussion about card sorting and cluster analysis. We use these tools to get a sense of the relationships that people draw between different types of content and topics -- in card sorting you have people group concepts in piles, and in cluster analysis, you analyze those piles across many subjects to evoke patterns that can help you in designing a website's structure.

(It was on the mailing list where I learned the term multidimensional scaling, in a response from Nathan Curtis.)

Concern has been raised on the list about whether cluster analysis is sufficient -- it produces a single hierarchical presentation of the concepts, an analysis that, frankly, attempts to meet that lowest common denominator. I think we can learn from the packaged foods industry that such an approach falls short.

In fact, I'd argue there's an irony that information architects, who work in a medium as malleable and multivalent as hypertext, which ought to mean it's a lot easier to tailor content, presentation and organization to different audiences, confine themselves to One True Organizations, while the PACKAGED FOOD INDUSTRY, some seeming dinosaur of mass production, provides the variety of approaches that people seek.

The problem, as I see it, is having access to the tools that enable this richer analysis. We can't all have expensive statistical software applications to perform this kind of analysis. Ideally, the tools to make this happen will become affordable and offered in such a way that they allow for play and exploration.

It's also yet another data point that we have to get away from hierarchical structures to more faceted ones -- allowing users to make their own "hierarchy" as they move through our information spaces.

[Side note to IAs -- the vast amount of noise notwithstanding, SIGIA-L still has the occasional nugget such as this. I so wish I could unsubscribe, but then I would have missed this!]

Posted by peterme at 08:36 AM | Comments (4)


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Pity the Poor User
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FBI: Celebrating Fanatical Suspicion
Does Cluster Analysis Cut the Mustard?
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