“Ambient findability describes a world at the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the Internet in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime.”
Peter’s latest book, Ambient Findability
, was published in 2005. He takes a moment to chat with Boxes and Arrows about what he’s been thinking on findability since the book was published.
Boxes & Arrows: When did you start thinking about “findability” as a concept? How is it different from the concepts you learned and applied in library science?
Peter Morville: I first used the word in a presentation at the 2002 Information Architecture Summit in Baltimore. Soon after, I wrote “The Age of Findability.” For me, findability is about crossing boundaries of discipline and medium.
Findability takes us beyond usability and information architecture into the realms of design, engineering and marketing. And it encompasses wayfinding and retrieval in physical and digital environments.
So findability builds on the foundation of library science and human-computer interaction, but addresses the new challenges and opportunities of social software, collective intelligence and ubiquitous computing.
B&A: What is “ambient findability?”
PM: Ambient findability describes a world at the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the Internet in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime. It’s not necessarily a goal, and we’ll never quite arrive, but we’re sure as heck headed in the right direction.
B&A: In a recent article about authority, you point out that Tim O’Reilly proclaimed the death of taxonomy. Do you agree with him?
PM: No. Unfortunately, Tim is suffering from apophenia. I think he caught it from Clay Shirky. I hope they both get well soon.
People have been predicting the end of hierarchy since the beginning of hierarchy. But it’s not going away. In fact, I dedicate a whole chapter to explore the hyperbole that swirls around social software and the Semantic Web. I make the case for a “sociosemantic web” that relies on the pace-layering of ontologies, taxonomies, and folksonomies to learn and adapt as well as teach and remember.
David Weinberger once noted “The old way creates a tree. The new rakes leaves together.” I’ve always found this to be a brilliant metaphor. Because we know what happens to those piles of leaves we shuffle through each fall. They rot. And they return to the earth. Where they become food for trees. Which come in many colors, shapes, and sizes. And live a really, really, really long time.
B&A: On the sigia mailing list, it was recently pointed out that your book wasn’t findable via the Safari Bookshelf under either “information architecture” or “interaction design.” When will these types of findability problems become nonexistent?
PM: As long as humans use words to communicate, findability will remain imperfect. But in our lifetimes, we can probably expect a few more modest innovations like full-text search, the PageRank algorithm, controlled vocabularies, and user-contributed metadata. Things may get a little better, but don’t expect big advances from the likes of artificial intelligence. Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath for the singularity.
On a practical note, I’m pleased to report the lemur (on Safari) is now filed under:
Internet/Online > Web Design
Internet/Online > Usability
Human-Computer Interaction > Interface Design
Human-Computer Interaction > Usability
Human-Computer Interaction > Information Architecture
Of course, it’s also showing up in all sorts of strange places, but that’s another story altogether.
B&A: In your book, you claim that users are often willing to sacrifice information quality for accessibility. Do users have enough awareness of authority to judge quality?
PM: My article on authority provoked a wonderful discussion on web4lib about this very question. My sense is that many adults lack the information literacy skills needed to cope with a mediascape that enables us to select our sources and choose our news. We grew up in an overly simplistic world of centralized authority with teachers and encyclopedias that taught us “the truth.”
Today’s kids are growing up amidst a web of social facts and collective intelligence where folksonomies flourish and the truth is a virus of many colors. I’m optimistic these kids will develop sophisticated skills for judging authority and quality and deciding who to trust and what to believe.
B&A: With information gaining on us, are we destined to become satisficers? And if so, is this a bad thing? We’re developing our own definitions of authority after all.
PM: We have always been satisficers. It confers competitive and evolutionary advantage. We satisfice to succeed. And I reject the conventional wisdom that suggests our information diet has been corrupted by the Web. To the contrary, the Web has radically improved global information access and source diversity and quality.
I can understand why an academic with access to vast libraries of books, journals, and licensed databases might sneer at the free Web. But these crown jewels of the ivory tower are unreachable by most people most of the time, and they always have been. Amid cries of “let them eat cake,” the Web gave bread and fruit and vegetables to the starving masses.
Of course, Google Print and Yahoo!’s Open Content Alliance are about to steal the crown jewels from the ivory tower, so we can all eat a balanced information diet, along with a healthy dose of free radical memes and mixed metaphors.
“Amid cries of ‘let them eat cake,’ the Web gave bread and fruit and vegetables to the starving masses.”B&A: Do you agree that data is dead?
PM: Data is not dead, but I do agree with David Weinberger’s wicked smart insight about the blurring of boundaries between data and metadata. Just consider Amazon’s Search Inside the Book, which transforms content into searchable, indexed metadata.
Similarly, in social network analysis, I noted that we use people to find content and content to find people. A blog post can serve as destination content and as descriptive metadata that makes the author more findable.
B&A: In your book, you point out that the information in the Encyclopedia Britannica has a findability problem. If its findability were greater, would Wikipedia have a viable competitor on its hands?
PM: I think of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a wonderful educational resource for kids. It explains important topics in a traditional manner that is clear, simple and safe. But I never use the EB, even though I have free, electronic access through my University of Michigan affiliation.
I did a great deal of research for my book. And I made extensive use of licensed bibliographic and full-text databases. But the Wikipedia was the single most useful source. Findability is only part of its success. It’s also strong in quality, currency and breadth of coverage.
As the world’s largest, most popular encyclopedia, the Wikipedia illustrates the efficacy of open source content creation and the power of collective intelligence. So, in short, the answer is no. Wikipedia has nothing to fear from EB.
B&A: Did you think about the findability of information within the book itself? What did you do to make it more findability-friendly?
PM: As I note in the preface, the book is meant to be read in linear style from start to end. We included some wayfinding devices like page numbers and a table of contents, but they’re not central to the user experience.
However, if we ever do a second edition, I’d push for a more detailed index, so I could use it to find what I wrote. In the meantime, I rely on the free Search on Safari (see the red box in the lower left) for detailed lookup.
Of course, as an author, what I really want for Christmas is to have my book indexed by Google Print and Yahoo!’s Open Content Alliance. I hope you’re reading this Tim.
B&A: What bugs you as being unfindable? What kind of information do you wish were more findable?
PM: A few weeks ago, I visited our local shopping mall for the first (and last) time this year. I went in search of shoes, but the store where I found them last time didn’t have my size. So I had to drag my body around the meatspace of the mall, and the whole time I just kept wishing that I could Google the Mall, and go home. I ended up finding the shoes online at Amazon.
B&A: I’m assuming you monitor how findable you are as a person. What do you do to ensure that you yourself are more findable online?
PM: Semantic Studios and findability.org are designed with findability and search engine optimization in mind. And my email address has been public for years, which means I can easily be found by friends and clients and stalkers and spammers. Sometimes, the real trick is becoming unfindable.
B&A: With the influx of wireless devices and new affordances, you note that the “user experience is increasingly out of control” and you suggest that we lose the C in HCI. Can you explain?
PM: The complexity of user experience in today’s environments is not expressed well in typical models of human-computer interaction. HCI approaches are optimal for applications and interfaces where designers exercise great control over form and function. HII (Human Information Interaction) approaches are optimal for networked, transmedia systems where control is sacrificed for interoperability and findability. At the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the Internet, users may find and interact with objects through a variety of devices and interfaces. The context of use is difficult to predict and impossible to control. And so, the emphasis shifts from interface to experience, and from HCI to HII. Or at least that’s what I’m hoping to argue at CHI 2006. Wish me luck!
B&A: In your book, you often refer to William Gibson’s quotation, “The future exists today. It’s just unevenly distributed.” Do you have any predictions on where we might look for signs of ambient findability?
PM: Everyware is everywhere but we take this magic for granted. The fact that I can surf the Web at the beach and check email while driving is amazing, but what we’re really searching for is the impossible. I’m reminded of Howard Rheingold’s observation in Smart Mobs:
“People for whom pervasive computing is an abstraction will understand very clearly that the traditional barriers between information and material have changed when the air they breathe might be watching them.”
Of course, not long after this becomes possible, it will be considered mundane. We’re only fascinated by the future because we can never get there.
B&A: For many years, you were associated with the venerable polar bear. How does it feel to be associated with a lemur?
PM: What’s important is that the two get along well together, though the cheeky lemur sometimes gets a well-deserved cuff behind the ears.
Laughing Lemur Contest
Entries will be accepted through December 11, 2005.
Peter Morville is widely recognized as a founding father of information architecture. He co-authored the best-selling book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, and has consulted with such organizations as Harvard, IBM, Microsoft, and Yahoo!. Peter is president of Semantic Studios, co-founder of the Information Architecture Institute, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan. His work has been featured in many publications including Business Week, The Economist, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal. Peter’s latest book, Ambient Findability, was published in 2005.
He blogs at findability.org.
Liz Danzico, editor in chief for Boxes and Arrows, is currently director of experience strategy for AIGA. She plays the role of managing editor for the online journals specifically, and, generally, oversees all online content and tools. She’s also the publications manager for the AIGA Press, a partnership with New Riders Publishers, publishing books that explore where design, business, and culture overlap.
Liz is an adjunct professor at the New School University, where she teaches design history. In past roles, she helped build and manage the information architecture team at Barnes & Noble.com. Prior to BN, she enjoyed being at Razorfish, where she managed the information architecture group for the New York office.
Her personal site can be found at bobulate.com.