Interview: Steve Krug

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“Wow! What an interesting notion: consciously making myself into not-Jakob and not-Jared.”In April 2004, Boxes and Arrows sent a set of questions to Steve Krug for an interview to be published in the June edition. What we didn’t know at the time was that Steve is a notoriously slow and methodical writer. Eleven months later, to our great delight, this interview turned up. Thanks Steve!

BA: So Steve, what have you been up to since you wrote Don’t Make Me Think?

SK: Well, it’s going on five years. How much detail would you like?

I still spend some of my time doing the same client work I’ve always done, mostly expert reviews. But the nicest change for me is that now I also get to travel around with Lou Rosenfeld, teaching our public workshops, and I really love doing them. This spring, we’re going to San Diego, Boston, and Denver.

The other big change is that I have a lot more email to answer (or to try to answer). Maybe this would be a good chance for me to offer a public apology to anyone who’s ever tried to reach me by email and not heard back, especially in the last year. If you write me again, I promise I’ll get back to you. The problem is I can’t seem to bring myself to use canned replies, so I end up writing the same answer from scratch again and again, so I always have a backlog. It’d be fine if I was avoiding boilerplate on principle, but it’s really more of a character defect thing.

BA: What was the trigger for your book?

SK: Honestly? I wrote it so I could double my consulting rates.

I’d been doing usability consulting for almost years, and a lot of my clients had taken to introducing me as a usability “guru.” (Don’t get me started on the whole guru thing.) But when it came to billing, I felt a little like the Scarecrow in Oz: if only I had a certificate or a testimonial or something, I would have felt more comfortable charging high-end rates.

So when Roger Black asked me if I wanted to write a book (his design firm, Circle.com, was going to do a whole series of books about web design subjects), I more or less jumped at the chance. I’d always felt that a big part of my consulting work was educating my clients, so I knew I had a book about usability in me—as long as it was a short book. Of course, I was completely unclear on the concept that writing it would eat up an entire year of my life, otherwise I never would’ve started.

The funny thing is, not long after I finished the book I learned from several people who I trusted in the business that I could have doubled my rates anyway, since I was seriously undercharging. Live and learn.

BA: OK, so now you to tell me about the guru thing. How do you feel about being called a guru?

SK: Don’t get me wrong: I think I’m pretty good at this usability stuff. I’ve always been interested in how people learn to use things, and I’ve been at it for a long time now, so at this point I have no qualms about thinking of myself as an expert—saying I do “expert reviews,” for instance. And believe me, it’s a very flattering to have somebody call you a guru. I highly recommend it, if you ever have the chance.

But I think the reason why you hear so much about usability “gurus” goes back to the point I was trying to make in the “Religious Debates” cartoon in Don’t Make Me Think. One of the problems web teams face is that we all have a lot of personal experience as web users, so we all think we know what makes a site good (i.e., the kinds of things we like). As a result, most design discussions are full of strong (to put it mildly) personal opinions, usually disguised as facts (“Nobody like pull-downs”).

And if you’re trying to settle a religious debate (so you can just get the darned thing built), it’s very appealing to have someone you can turn to for definitive answers (hence the quasi-religious term “guru”).

The odd thing is, I wrote a book that spends most of its time explaining that there aren’t many definitive answers, just a few useful guiding principles. But maybe that’s what people really expect from gurus, anyway.

BA: You have a very different persona than the other big gurus of usability: Jakob Nielsen and Jared Spool. Have you consciously shaped your image as a complement/contrast to them?

SK: Wow! What an interesting notion: consciously making myself into not-Jakob and not-Jared.

Not that I haven’t been concerned about my public image. Since the book came out, it’s been important to me that whatever image people have is pretty much like me. I always feel good, for instance, when I meet someone who’s read the book and they end up saying, “Oh, you’re just like your book.”

I guess you’re right, though: if you did the user research on the three of us and came up with personas, they’d be pretty different. (Although I did learn recently from one of Jakob’s interviews that that we were both big fans of Donald Duck comics when we were kids. Of course, Jakob was reading them in Copenhagen and I was in suburban Long Island.)

But I tend to think that all three of our public personas are just reflections of who we really are. (Jakob’s really smart and opinionated and not afraid to stick to his guns, for instance, and I think Jared really enjoys being irascible.)

BA: Have you considered writing another book?

SK: I’ve had another one rattling around in my head for a long time, but given that I practically bankrupted us while writing Think, it’s always been up to Melanie whether I’d do another one. A few months ago she finally said it was up to me (I guess it’s a little like childbirth: the memory had finally faded enough), so I’m working on one now. Another short book.

BA: About?

SK: A how-to book that explains how to do low-cost/no-cost do-it-yourself usability testing.

BA: But that isn’t really true, is it?

SK: Well, no, you’re right. It was true eight months ago when I wrote that answer. But in the meantime I’ve had a change of heart, and decided to do an updated edition of Don’t Make Me Think first, then write the how-to testing book. The second edition of Think is due out later this year.

BA: How is a seminar different from a book? How is your seminar different from your book?

SK: Is this a riddle? Or a wossname…a conundrum? “How is a seminar different from a book?” Like “When is a door not a door?”

I guess the difference is that in the book, I tried to explain how I think about usability problems, and in the workshop I try to demonstrate how I think about them. I do a live usability test to show how you can get lots of valuable insights—usually more than you can use—in very little time, with very little skill. And I do a lot of quick (ten minute) expert reviews of URLs submitted by attendees. People seem to find them very useful.

I think watching somebody do what they do and explain how they do it is a great way to learn how to do it yourself. I used to love watching Pablo Casals teaching master classes on public television back in the early sixties (I guess it was actually called “educational television” at the time), even though I had no interest in ever playing the cello.

One of the things I think is most useful about the workshop is that people see that there really isn’t that much to what I do (as my corporate motto says, “It’s not rocket surgeryTM“), which encourages them to try it themselves. Also, almost every topic that people want me to discuss comes up in the URLs that we look at, and a lot of people get a “free” expert review out of it.

BA: How has the field changed (or not) since your book was published?

SK: Well, a lot of people who got dragooned into doing usability and IA by big web design shops during the tulip mania ended up marooned when it collapsed. So it’s been a tough few years for a lot of people.

I think all of Jakob’s hard work over the years has had an enormously valuable effect: most people in the computer world are at least aware of usability.

On the other hand, though, there’s one thing I don’t think has happened: I don’t think most companies have decided that usability spending should be part of every development budget. I think there’s more usability work going on than there was four years ago, but for the most part companies still don’t expect to spend real time or money on it.

BA: If someone wrote you (and I’ll bet they do) to ask how they can break into the usability field, what advice would you give?

SK: I do get a lot of email asking how to break into the glamorous, high-paying field of web usability. Since the market has been so bad, though, unless they seem to have a fair amount of experience under their belt already, I’ve usually tried to gently explain that this might not be the best time to enter the field, given the number of experienced people who seem to be having a hard time keeping themselves busy.

But I suppose it’s about time for that advice to change again, since the market seems to have thinned out the herd quite a bit. The best advice I can give is to spend a bunch of time watching people try to use stuff (i.e., do some informal usability testing). And I send them to the UPA site, which has some pretty good lists of resources, and tell them to attend the UPA conference, which tends to be excellent. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the degree programs to tell people anything useful about them.

BA: I’ve heard a complaint that the “anyone can do it” approach to usability discredits the value that trained user researchers bring to the table, and causes over-reliance on what may be faulty data gathered badly. What’s your take on this contention?

SK: Hey, what happened to the softball questions? And who said that, anyway? I want names. This will probably end up being a whole chapter in the how-to testing book, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version:

  • Frequent, iterative, small-sample testing is almost always one of the most valuable things you can do to improve the quality of a design. But this happens not to be something that fits very well into the consultant model (especially the “frequent, iterative” part), and most companies don’t have the budget for a full-time usability person.
  • On any project, there are several (or dozens) of usability-related design questions to be decided every day, so having a consultant review things occasionally just isn’t enough. It’s important for team members (and stakeholders) to have some basic knowledge of usability.
  • My experience is that the most significant problems tend to surface in even the worst-run tests, as long as you iterate a few times. (You usually almost can’t help tripping over them.) And since most organizations rarely have time to fix even the most significant problems, finding more than that is often a waste of time.
  • I’ve seen very little evidence that “amateurs” make their products worse by watching people use what they’re building. (I’ve also had some usability professionals tell me that they’re sometimes horrified by the work they see some other “professionals” deliver. I haven’t had that experience myself, but I don’t see that many other people’s work products.)

That said, I always recommend that any organization that can afford to hire a usability professional should hire one, even if it’s only to train [people within the company] to do it themselves.

BA: There has been a lot of buzz lately on ROI of design and usability. What’s your take on that?

SK: Uh, oh. In every interview, there’s one question where I think, “Now I’m going to get myself in real trouble.” My personal take?

“Proving” usability ROI is really hard work. There are good reasons why you don’t see very many usability ROI case studies: they’re very time-consuming and expensive to create, especially one that legitimately controls for confounding variables. And if a company does go to the trouble of creating one, it’s probably going to be proprietary anyway.

But more importantly, I think most companies that need ROI-style “proof” to convince them to “do usability” probably aren’t going to do great work anyway.

BA: You have attended almost every IA summit, and are now touring with Lou Rosenfeld, one of the papas of IA. How do you see IA and Usability fitting together?

SK: Like a lot of people, my knowledge of IA dates back to the day when I first encountered the polar bear book. I read about two-thirds of it at one sitting, and when I was done, the pages were dripping yellow highlighter fluid (literally). Lou and Peter were talking about website design in a way that no one else had, so it was a real page-turner.

For me, one of the differences between the two fields is that information architects can actually build things, whereas usability folks mostly help people tweak things they’ve designed. (Although I have to admit that I get annoyed sometimes when people suggest that usability is just criticism. Most of the practitioners I know are very good at helping people figure out the best design solutions.)

As far as fitting together, I think there’s a lot of overlap. I’d certainly trust Lou to do a usability review of any website, and I think he’d trust me to advise a client on uncomplicated IA issues. But I think I’d also recognize where the issues are over my head, where I need to suggest calling in a pro. If you put me on a desert island with a laptop for a hundred years, for instance (with solar batteries), I still couldn’t construct a faceted classification scheme.

BA: In your opinion, what is one of the most usable sites out there today? Why?

SK: Completely predictable and boring answer, I’m afraid: Google. Someone asked me around the time of their IPO why Google is such a big deal, and I realized that I think it’s because the people who created it were more interested in coming up with something useful than something they could market.

They had a bright idea, and they created something that solves a real problem really well. Not perfect, but practical. And they’re restrained. Like Jeff Hawkins with the Palm Pilot, they fought off feature creep really well. Microsoft seems to have brilliant people and they do great research, but they never seem to have great ideas and carry them out with restraint. They always seem to be looking for the ideal (but cumbersome and buggy) solution rather than something “good enough” and workable. A lot of companies get suckered into trying to solve a huge problem (such as creating robot cars) when what most people really want and need is an adequate solution to a lesser problem (like power steering, or a robust, non-distracting navigation system…or maybe just road maps that are easier to fold up).

Plus I really like Google’s corporate motto “Do no evil.” It helps for your company to be a mensch.

BA: I hear you are using a new Tablet PC. What’re your thoughts on its usability?

SK: It’s actually the first new technology I’ve gotten excited about in years. As my wife will tell you, I’ve always had a pretty serious gadget jones. But for quite a while now, I’ve been pretty jaded. New technology always seems to eat up far more of my time than it’s worth.

I’ve always thought Tablet PCs were a great idea, ever since I wrote the user manual for one back in the late eighties. But it was one of those technologies that always seemed like it was five to ten years away, like artificial intelligence and speech recognition.

When I decided to do another book, somehow suddenly the idea of a Tablet PC seemed attractive for one reason: when I’m writing, I like to sketch lots and lots of illustrations as part of the process of figuring out what I mean. But the sketches always end up on random scraps of paper in the stacks around my office. Somehow, I felt like if I could actually sketch on the computer screen and insert the sketches right in the middle of what I was writing, it would help…somehow.

Adopting the Tablet PC did end up being a lot of work (it always takes a week out of my life when I switch to a new computer), but it’s really changed the way I work with the computer.

As usual, though, it turns out that the most valuable part isn’t what I expected (drawing) but something unanticipated. I’ve been trying to get speech recognition to work for me for years, through half a dozen upgrades of Dragon NaturallySpeaking and ViaVoice, and they’ve come a long way in increasing accuracy. But it turns out that no matter what you do speech recognition is always going to be n% inaccurate, so you’re always going to be making some corrections, which eats up any time you save by dictating. But it turns out that the solution (at least for me) isn’t to raise the bridge (make fewer errors) but to lower the water (make correcting them easier). Being able to select the errors with a pen makes correcting them much, much easier, to the point where it’s almost fun. I dictate all my email now, and I’m trying to use it while writing book chapters. And the handwriting recognition on the Tablet PC is eerily accurate.

I could go on for an hour about the Tablet PC. But I’ve already spent enough time on this interview to write a book chapter, so….

Focus on the Student: How to Use Learning Objectives to Improve Learning

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The idea is simple but revolutionary: learning objectives put the focus on the student and learning rather than the teacher and teaching methods.

If information architecture is a fairly new field, then the practice of teaching information architecture is even newer. Often instructors are experienced information architects who have little to no teacher training, and they must teach students with a wide range of experience and learning goals. Learning objectives are one tool that can make information architecture courses easier for teachers and more rewarding for students.

In IA terminology, learning objectives are the equivalent of a project’s goals. They are statements that describe what the student should be able to do after participating in the learning activity. A learning activity can be anything from a course or workshop to an article.

The idea is simple but revolutionary: learning objectives put the focus on the student and learning rather than the teacher and teaching methods.

The easiest way to illustrate the benefits of learning objectives is to see them in action. Let’s begin with some learning objectives for this article. As a result of reading this article you should be able to:

  • Define learning objectives
  • Describe at least three ways learning objectives can help you and your students
  • Create learning objectives for your course that convey intended learning outcomes
  • Select criteria to assess your objectives both before and after teaching

Why use learning objectives?
An informal survey of information architecture syllabi indicates most teachers use topics and goals. Topics and goals are good starting points but well-formed learning objectives go a step beyond and offer several advantages for both the instructor and students.

Let’s try creating learning objectives based on a few typical class topics in an introductory information architecture course:

Topics

Learning objectives

Content mapping & inventory

Make a content inventory for an existing site

•  Describe situations when a content inventory is an appropriate tool

Diagramming & schematics

Pick a software tool for creating IA documents

•  List uses and limits

Create a site map for an existing site

Create an annotated wireframe

Discuss documentation needs of a production team (designer, developer, project manager, and business lead)

While useful, a topic list doesn’t make clear what students should come away with at the end of the class. They could be required only to know the terms and be able to identify different types of documents. The learning objectives indicate that the students will need to understand concepts, produce documents in given circumstances, discuss how to use the documents, and articulate the needs of their team. These objectives touch on many levels of learning.

Imagine picking a class format and assignments using only the topic list. Now try the same thing using only the learning objectives. By stating a measurable outcome (e.g., make a content inventory for an existing site), the learning objective gives you more direction on what you need to teach than the topic alone (content inventory).

In this way, learning objectives also make both your assessment of student performance and student self-assessment easier. Since learning objectives state a performance goal, you can more easily develop a method for assessing that performance. Again let’s use the sample learning objective “Make a content inventory for an existing site” and its secondary objective, “Describe situations when a content inventory is an appropriate tool.” These clearly state what skills the student must demonstrate.

As the teacher, you must determine how the student can best demonstrate his or her abilities, whether through a group or individual exercise, in-class or take-home test, or another method. The learning objectives can make this choice easier as they require you to have done the thinking up front about the skills your students need to show. Learning objectives also allow students to participate as active, independent learners. Because students are clearly told what they should be able to do, they can assess their own progress and concentrate on their weaker skills. This is especially important for professional students who are looking to gain specific skills and knowledge.

After developing a set of learning objectives, you can see how the objectives relate and build upon each other. It is then easy to see which information and skills should be taught first. For example, in this article, the learning objective “Create learning objectives” is a competency you need before you are able to assess your objectives. Later, we’ll see how taxonomies can help you organize learning objectives to build from simpler to more complex thinking.

Using conditions and criteria
Conditions and criteria of performance can help focus learning objectives. A condition tells how the task will be performed and a criterion tells how well. Conditions and criteria are often too limiting when teaching at the post-secondary level, but they can be useful in certain situations. For example, in the objective “Describe five types of usability testing,” the condition is five. This objective could be more generally stated as “Describe usability testing methods;” the condition adds clarity, which in some cases can help the instructor and students assess whether the objective is being achieved.

The level of specificity of your learning objectives can vary depending on what is most useful for you and for your students. Depending on the environment, your objectives may need to align with competencies, degree requirements, or the school’s philosophy.

Helpful Verbs

Define, list, identify, recall, describe, diagram, draw, discuss, explain, analyze, compare, predict, relate, critique, examine, debate, interpret, illustrate, recognize, propose, design, formulate, construct, create, estimate, revise, assess, summarize

Be careful using these verbs: appreciate, understand, know, realize, see. Check your use by asking yourself how you would know if a student had mastered the objective. It’s hard to judge whether someone understands a concept; what you can judge is how they show understanding by performing an action.

Making learning objectives useful
Once you’ve created a list of objectives, you need to verify their usefulness. The following questions can help keep your learning objectives based in reality:

  • What should the students learn?
  • What’s worth learning?
  • What can these students learn within this class format?

You can ask these questions another way:

  • What should be taught?
  • What’s worth teaching?
  • What can you teach these students in this class format?

Learning objectives will help keep you focused on what you can and should teach.

There are no rules for wording, length, or number of learning objectives, but here are some general guidelines:

  • Base your objectives on the course’s level (introductory to advanced), length (workshop to semester), and breadth (overview to specific topic).
  • Try to create objectives that are action-oriented and start with a verb.
  • Keep in mind that the goal of learning objectives is to list the key competencies; as such, it’s not necessary to have an objective for every skill.

Taxonomies (the educational kind)
The learning objectives for this article focus on cognitive (thinking) abilities. The most commonly used taxonomy for cognitive abilities was developed by Benjamin Bloom and colleagues in 1956 and updated in the late 1990s. The six-level taxonomy is based on hierarchies of thought processes. Each level requires more complex thought than the one before it while also incorporating the levels prior to it. The levels, from lowest to highest, are knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

According to Bloom’s taxonomy, in the beginning you introduce general concepts and specific skills. You then verify that students can recall information and understand its meaning. Later, you explain how the concepts and skills interrelate so that students are able to create more independently and think more abstractly. Finally, you verify that students can apply the knowledge in concrete situations, break the information down into component parts, apply the knowledge in a new way, and judge the value of the information. (There are many resources online and in print that explain these levels in more detail; “Further Resources” includes a few introductory ones.)

Taxonomies can be useful in getting ideas for the types of learning objectives to consider and in checking the completeness of a set of objectives. You can look at each level of Bloom’s taxonomy and make sure your students move from simply recalling information to creating their own ideas.

Let’s look at the learning objectives for this article to see how they move from general to more abstract. The first objective is “Define learning objectives.” This involves knowledge and comprehension, the lowest two levels of the taxonomy. The information that leads to knowledge and comprehension is given directly in the article.

The next three learning objectives (listed below) require you to apply the information to your own problem, corresponding to higher levels of the taxonomy.

  • Describe at least three ways learning objectives can help you and your students
  • Create learning objectives for your course that convey intended learning outcomes
  • Select criteria to assess your objectives both before and after teaching

At this stage, according to Bloom’s taxonomy, you are expected to apply the article’s information to your own situation and judge its effectiveness. You will also synthesize information from this article with skills and knowledge you already have in order to form a new result (i.e., your previous teaching experience combined with what you learned here).

You may also find affective (attitude) or psychomotor (physical) learning objectives useful. Affective objectives are concerned with the student’s interest in, attitudes toward, and appreciation of a subject; they are used less in higher-level classes and are more appropriate where trying is as important as succeeding. Psychomotor skills, such as projecting voice, may also have a place in your class.

Wrap up
Keep these tips in mind when creating learning objectives:

  • Start each objective with a verb.
  • Focus on the outcome and not the process. State what the student will be able to do, not what you will teach or how it will be taught.
  • Include objectives at all appropriate levels of Bloom’s taxonomy: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
  • Verify that the objectives are obtainable for your students.

In the end, your judgment as a teacher and experienced IA will be the final arbiter of learning objectives’ usefulness.

Additional Resources

  • The University of Victoria maintains a good overview of Bloom’s taxonomy with sample verbs.

    http://www.coun.uvic.ca/learn/program/hndouts/bloom.html
  • Astin, Alexander W., et. al. 9 Principles of Good Practice for Assessing Student Learning

    http://www.aahe.org/principl.htm
  • Gronlund, Norman E. How to Write and Use Instructional Objectives. Merrill, 2000.
  • Gronlund, Norman E. Writing Instructional Objectives for Teaching and Assessment. Merrill, 2004.

Wendy Cown’s favorite use of IA is in the education environment,
particularly in making the sciences accessible. She is currently helping
faculty at Columbia University achieve learning objectives through the
use of technology. An IA for seven years, Wendy has worked with
corporate, non-profit, and educational clients and always enjoys seeing a
site go live.

The Visual Vocabulary Three Years Later: An Interview with Jesse James Garrett

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Special Deliverable #9

In October 2000, Jesse James Garrett introduced a site architecture documentation standard called the Visual Vocabulary. Since then, it has become widely adopted among information architects and user experience professionals. The Visual Vocabulary is a simple set of shapes for documenting site architectures. In conceiving the vocabulary, Jesse sought to create a system that was “tool-independent“—that is, readily adaptable to any diagramming software as well as any medium (pen and paper, dry-erase, etc.). The vocabulary was also designed to be portable, fitting easily on letter-sized paper for convenient printing.

Despite the unassuming approach Jesse took in promoting the vocabulary—he posted it to his website—it has earned a reputation as a useful tool for the practicing information architect. So useful, in fact, that it has been incorporated as a template in several diagramming software packages, most notably OmniGraffle. Jesse has evolved the vocabulary over time, welcoming contributions and extensions from people all over the world. Through the work of others, the vocabulary has been translated into seven languages beyond English and is summarized in a cheat sheet.

More information about the Visual Vocabulary may be found at Jesse’s website: http://www.jjg.net/ia/visvocab.

B&A: How has the Visual Vocabulary changed in the last three years?

JJG: It hasn’t changed as much as I expected. When I released the vocabulary in 2000, it still seemed to be in flux—some of the elements were fairly new additions, and I figured it was likely that there would be more in short order. But, in retrospect, the vocabulary was actually more mature than I realized at the time.

B&A: What element or innovation of the vocabulary are you most proud of?

JJG: I think my favorite aspect of the system is the emphasis on practicality throughout its design. At that time, the mainstream school of thought held that any respectable information architect should be producing color deliverables in a professional diagramming or drawing application, and if you want to do any serious, large-scale architecture work, for God’s sake go get yourself a plotter. I saw the resources my clients tended to have, and went in the opposite direction: I wanted to enable anybody with a copy of PowerPoint and a cheap black-and-white inkjet to solve the same kinds of problems.

B&A: Why do you think no other IA documentation standards have emerged in the last three years?

JJG: I suspect that there are a lot of people out there who have cooked up their own ways to express complex (and not so complex!) architectural concepts. They just can’t publish them without making their bosses angry. So I think there are a lot of standards in use out there—they just aren’t public.

B&A: There are several other kinds of IA and UX documents—wireframes, content inventories, personas, etc.—do you think there’s room in the industry for standards for these?

JJG: I think there’s room, but there isn’t necessarily a strong need. In my work, at least, I haven’t encountered a case where I thought a deliverable could be substantially improved by the development of a universal standard.

I’m not dogmatic about the need for standards. Documentation standards only help us to the extent that they enable us to communicate complex concepts without having to invent new means of expression for each new problem. Every once in a while I get email from someone asking me to look at a diagram and tell them if it’s compliant with my system. Although I love seeing examples of what people are doing with my work, I always tell them not to worry about what I think. It doesn’t matter whether your diagrams pass the “JJG validator”—what matters is whether they successfully communicate your ideas to your colleagues.

B&A: What makes the site architecture a deliverable that “could be substantially improved by…a universal standard?”

JJG: Architecture is an abstraction—the information that has to be conveyed is largely conceptual, not concrete like the interface details you might find in a wireframe. So you don’t have the luxury of a straightforward means of representation that you can rely on to be self-evident to your audience. Additionally, the nature of architecture work—describing interrelationships among information and interaction elements—really cries out for visual representation. Having a standard visual way to express those relationships means the architect can spend less time grappling with representing the architecture and more time refining it. Plus, it gives us a common language for sharing our work with our peers, which is important and necessary to the maturation of the discipline.

B&A: Have you found any design problems the Visual Vocabulary cannot represent?

JJG: I haven’t ever encountered a system I couldn’t describe in the vocabulary. Of course, some concepts are harder to draw than others. One attribute of the vocabulary is that the complexity of the representation is proportional to the complexity of the system being described. Simple and straightforward systems have diagrams that are easy to read; systems in which a lot of variables are being juggled and conditions evaluated make for diagrams that take a good amount of attention to create and read.

B&A: What makes the site architecture such an appealing deliverable for clients?

JJG: I often refer to the architecture diagram as a “trophy deliverable”—of everything involved in a project, it’s the one most likely to be pinned up proudly on a manager’s wall. I think there are two reasons it has such a strong appeal. First of all, it’s a visual deliverable. Written documentation just doesn’t have the same visceral impact. Secondly, it’s often the only deliverable that provides a high-level view of the project. Frequently this is the one document that most comprehensively answers the question, “What exactly are we building here?”

B&A: What techniques do you use when presenting site architectures to clients?

JJG: I always take the time to walk them through the architecture. By the time I’m ready to present the architecture, I have a pretty clear idea of what parts they’re likely to approve without a second thought, what parts will require a little careful framing to get them to understand where I’m coming from, and what parts will really need the hard sell. I plan the walk-through accordingly: get them started with easy stuff everybody can agree on, then work them up to the hard questions by showing them around some areas that introduce the more difficult considerations involved in the architecture.

B&A: The last three years have seen the emergence of more complex websites. What effect has this growth had on IA and specifically IA documentation?

JJG: With the proliferation of large-scale, complex, dynamic sites, IA has moved (further, some would say) into the realm of the abstract. Instead of specifying specific links between specific pages, we’re often developing rules by which such links—or even the pages themselves—can be generated automatically. The documentation has had to adapt to that increasing abstraction. I often find myself using the vocabulary to diagram navigational relationships between abstract classes of pages, rather than specific elements with unique URLs.

B&A: Would you consider introducing a new vocabulary specifically geared toward more abstract problems?

JJG: That’s an area worth exploring, for sure. I don’t yet know where those explorations might lead.

B&A: Is there a Visual Vocabulary book in the works?

JJG: Running Adaptive Path doesn’t leave me a lot of time these days to consider writing another book. But suffice to say there’s a good reason there isn’t much detail on the vocabulary in my first book, The Elements of User Experience. I’d want to make sure I took the time to do it right.

B&A: What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten on the Visual Vocabulary?

JJG: A number of people have emailed me with alternate approaches to this or that aspect of the system. It’s great to see the ways in which people have adapted the system to their needs. Sometimes they’re a little anxious about how I might react to their tinkering, but my advice is always: “Do what works.” Take the parts that can help you do your job, don’t worry about the rest. If you have a different way of expressing the same idea that everyone on your team understands, use it.

B&A: Have you seen an example of work where the author used the vocabulary in a way you hadn’t thought of before?

JJG: There are people out there using the vocabulary to document systems many times larger and more complex than anything I had worked on when I was developing it. I had the idea in the back of my mind that the system should be modular and scalable, but I never imagined the sheer complexity of some of the systems people are now maintaining using the vocabulary.

B&A: The Visual Vocabulary has become so entrenched; its templates are shipping with diagramming products. Did you anticipate this response?

JJG: I think I was more surprised than anyone when applications started supporting the vocabulary. I didn’t know about any of these products before they were released. I literally did a double-take the first time I saw the IA stencil in OmniGraffle. It just goes to show you that things have a life of their own once you release them into the world. You never know where they’ll end up.

B&A: What’s the most requested update to the Visual Vocabulary?

JJG: The vocabulary currently treats the page as something of a black box; anything that happens within or between elements of a page can’t be represented in the system. Among people who deal with problems like pages that are dynamically assembled based on certain conditions, there’s a desire to see the vocabulary extended to address this page-level logic. It’s an interesting problem. I’m not convinced that the vocabulary is the right tool to solve it, but I’d like to take a crack at it.

B&A: Can you give an example of this kind of problem?

JJG: Page logic comes into play when you have content or design elements that change depending on conditions. If a navigational element differs based on user type, or based on some other defined condition, the Visual Vocabulary can represent that. But it’s not designed to describe other aspects of the page that might change based on conditions.

B&A: You’ve devised and distributed other tools for UX professionals—the Nine Pillars, The Elements of User Experience. Do all these tools comprise part of a larger whole, or are they meant to be used independently?

JJG: There’s a sense in which the “Nine Pillars” grew out of the Elements, although that path was not as direct as it might seem. The vocabulary developed on a separate track, following the first IA cocktail hour in San Francisco. We did a deliverables show-and-tell, and my diagrams spurred a lot of questions. I started out composing an email answering those questions, and that eventually became the full-blown description of the system I posted to my site. I wish I could say there’s a master plan at work here, but really all I’ve ever done is pursue answers to questions I found interesting.

B&A: What questions are haunting you these days?

JJG: I’m still haunted by the big question I raised in “ia/recon:” What happens at that point when the “miracle occurs,” when we turn our knowledge and intuition about people into information architectures? How can we, as individuals and as a community, develop the skills to make those conceptual leaps?

B&A: How do you think the Visual Vocabulary will change in the next three years?

JJG: I don’t expect the vocabulary itself to change all that much. I would expect it to be joined by other, similar systems for describing other facets of a user experience solution. The vocabulary was never meant to stand alone anyway—as central as architecture diagrams are to my work, I always considered the Visual Vocabulary one particularly handy tool in my toolkit. I look forward to having more!


Dan Brown has been practicing information architecture and user experience design since 1994. Through his work, he has improved enterprise communications for Fortune 500 clients, including US Airways, Fannie Mae, First USA, British Telecom, Special Olympics, AOL, and the World Bank. Dan has taught classes at Duke, Georgetown, and American Universities and has written articles for the CHI Bulletin, Interactive Television Today (itvt.com) and Boxes and Arrows, an online magazine dedicated to information architecture. In March 2002, Dan participated in a panel discussion on the creation of information architecture deliverables at the annual IA Summit in Baltimore. He also presented a poster entitled, “Where the Wireframes Are: The Use and Abuse of Page Layouts in the Practice of Information Architecture.” Currently, Dan leads the Information Design and Content Management group within the office of e-Government for the Transportation Security Administration, a federal agency dedicated to protecting freedom of movement in the US.

We Are All Connected: The Path from Architecture to Information Architecture

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“Noticing the similarities between physical and virtual environments can help information architects visualize web design elements.”

When I’m asked, “How did you become an information architect?” my immediate answer is, “I was already halfway there by being an architect.” Although I say this partly in jest, it certainly has some truth to it. Information architecture has a great deal to do with traditional architecture—especially in the ability of each discipline to plan and connect various important elements together.

Architecture is commonly defined as “the art or science of building, specifically: the art or practice of designing and building structures and especially habitable ones.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary) Viewed another way, architecture is “(a) a formation or construction as or as if the result of conscious act (the architecture of the garden) and (b) a unifying or coherent form or structure (the novel lacks architecture).”

Similarly, there have been numerous discussions about the definition of information architecture in the IA community. In his book Information Architects, Richard Saul Wurman defined information architect as “the individual who organizes the patterns…creates the structure…the science of the organization of information.” In a broader sense, IA is about creating a set of blueprints for information-related projects and products that builders—designers and programmers—can construct.

The purposes of architecture—from shelter to prestige

Any primitive structure reflects some kind of architecture, even if no one actually drew up plans before the structure was built. Virtually from the beginning, builders knew to fit their structures into the natural surroundings, rather than trying to conquer nature. They used the natural materials available to them and built on the topography they found.

The initial purpose of architecture was to shelter people from undesirable elements such as weather conditions, and to fend off danger such as wild animals. Once those needs were met, people then requested comfort; rather than keeping beasts at bay, the concern became such nuisances as ants and roaches. Aside from protection from rain and snow, people sought heat in winter and relief from it in the summer. Step by step, beyond basic comfort, people wanted convenience, then MTV and broadband Internet connections. Eventually, architecture became prestigious—a symbol of status, business or personal.

Balancing function and form

One way to categorize types of building architecture is by the degree of flexibility in the design. At one end of the spectrum are heavy industrial facilities, such as petrochemical plants and refineries, which are little more than extensions of the manufacturing process. The building is best seen as an enlarged machine, which just happens to also include workers. Architects have very little design flexibility beyond exterior color selection, if that.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial

At the other end of the spectrum are museums, which provide architects with the ability to make much more flexible design statements, to fit the nature of the museum. And to an even greater degree, the goal of most monuments is to convey certain ideas to visitors by creating an environment that they can experience themselves. In these cases, architects have maximum flexibility in the form design.

Similarly, web sites can be categorized by construction type into the following categories:

  • Static: those that use static HTML to present content. Typically, these sites do not offer any way to interact on the site.
  • Interactive: sites where users not only can read but also participate or interact with the site, such as discussion boards.
  • Dynamic: sites like Yahoo!, which provide dynamic content continuously and let users customize their web page content, layout and colors.

Web sites can also be categorized by purpose: personal, non-profit, governmental, educational, commercial, and so on. Driven by the needs of commerce—either to generate revenue (through direct sales or brand building) or to cut costs (by reducing customer service calls)—commercial sites typically offer less design flexibility than personal sites. Within the world of commercial sites, transactional sites tend to have less design flexibility than entertainment sites.

Architectural and web design elements

In traditional architecture, in order to create a barrier between the usable space and external elements, roofs and walls are added to complement the building skin. Within the skin, architects further create room and space. In order to connect buildings or rooms, doors and windows are needed. Columns and beams are required to support these elements.

With the architectural elements identified, how do architects put them together? They adhere to principles and rules, which some call design languages, to lay out the building. These include:

  • Geometry
  • Scale
  • Proportion
  • Rhythm
  • Axis
  • Symmetry

Noticing the similarities between physical and virtual environments can help information architects visualize web design elements. A web page is like a physical room or space, but viewed on a screen. A link—be it a text link or graphical button—connecting one page to another is like a door connecting one room/space to another. Doors can be one-way, like revolving doors, or two-way. Similarly, links can be one-way or two-way. In the virtual environment, the equivalent to the dead-end street is being unable to do anything but use the browser “back” button. The well-known “breadcrumb” is also a physical metaphor transferred to the virtual environment. A site map or an index is just like a directory or map in a complex building or campus. A company logo on the homepage is just like the sign on a building. The label of a link is like a sign on a door that tells you what’s behind the door; it must be clear so users can decide whether to enter or not. Roll-over text (alt tag) is like a window that the user can peek to learn more about the room or space before entering it.

Typically, people can recognize a well-designed building from far away by the distinct characteristics in its silhouette. The Taj Mahal is a prime example. Upon entering the compound, the large cut-outs on the façade mark the locations of entrances and direct people entering the building. As you get closer, you find that the large-scale cut-out only signifies an entrance. The actual entrance is a pair of much smaller doors, and they are of human scale. Once inside the building, it’s finally possible to experience the intricate architectural details. It is this kind of progressive disclosure—from overall view, to full view, to human scale, to detail—that creates the opportunity for a logical and smooth user experience, beginning with a visit that actually starts miles away. A number of creative information design products are based on that principle, among them Relevare.

Overall view—silhouette

Overall view—silhouette

Full view

Full view

Human-scale entrance

Human-scale entrance

Detail view of light and shadow

Architecture has always been defined as the art and science of building. Numerous design theories and principles have evolved, based on art, philosophy, and scientific research. Anthropometrics research helps architects understand the physical dimensions required for certain users and certain tasks for various spaces and rooms. Pattern language is a well-known architectural guideline developed by Christopher Alexander. Pattern language tends to be either totally embraced or totally discounted by different architectural practitioners. The concept of patterns has been adopted by software development community and, lately, by the web development community as well. Jakob Nielsen is Alexander’s counterpart in that field. We read about his 10 heuristics, the magic number 5 for web testing, the top 10 web design mistakes, and so on. While the IA community is also split on Nielsen’s theories, the important thing for web development practitioners is to understand the rationale behind his principles and to apply them to achieve design goals.

Maze

For example, the purpose of a maze is to disorient visitors only to the extent that they are not totally frustrated. A maze designer needs to understand wayfinding in a physical environment: how people navigate and orient themselves in that space. The designer leverages this knowledge in wayfinding, and removes or disguises the sensory cues to make finding ways through the maze more challenging and, hence, more entertaining.

Design methodology: it’s all about teamwork

We’ve all seen blueprints—formally known as contract documents—which architects produce and builders use to construct. General contractors estimate costs, sign contracts (hence the name), and construct the building based on what’s spelled out in the contract documents. A typical blueprint contains working drawings and written specifications made by landscape artists, plumbers, interior designers and structural, mechanical, civil and electrical engineers. No one person knows all the details of the design; the end result is entirely a product of teamwork. But there is one axiom: architects do not build.

In contrast to web practice today, building architects design and contractors do the construction. In order to communicate the abstract design to the clients and contractors, a review and sign-off process is developed. Later in the process, design documents are subject to most scrutiny at the agency review phase (during which building officials check for code compliance) and at the bidding phase (when contractors read both the drawings and the written specifications to understand how the building will be constructed and to determine how much it all will cost). When cost is of concern, contractors tend to review the design in minute detail. This process ensures that all parties understand what to build before construction takes place.

What can IA learn from traditional architecture?

  • Know your users, client, and context before you design.
  • Include multiple checkpoints and sign-offs during design.
  • Design before you build.
  • Document everything.
  • Test before putting it together for real.

Site planning—not site design

In today’s complex business world, a successful site that will satisfy business goals must balance multiple stakeholder objectives and user goals. Sites need:

Scalability: The site must be expandable to support the growth and evolution of the business.

Personalization: One site doesn’t fit all. In order to meet the specific needs of each individual user, the content and functionality should be personalized to individual users or user groups.

Customization: No matter how much we know about users, personalization cannot be done without customization. Using the real world as an example, a person obtains a 3-bedroom house which meets his requirements—this is personalization. He would typically “customize” the home by filling it with his furniture, hanging a few pictures on the wall, and even painting the house to his taste. Customization provides users the power to make things more attuned to their changing needs.

Dynamic content: In order to provide users with the most valuable content, the information has to be timely, which means dynamic—that is, ever-changing. The “Open” or “Closed” sign hung in front of a business storefront, or “Daily Specials” posted by the store entrance are just a few examples in the physical world of design elements that provide timely information for ever-changing business and customer needs.

Similarly, today’s websites are continuously changing. We can no longer design a site, since it can differ greatly depending on who the users are and when the site is accessed. Instead, we plan the site based on business objectives and user goals. While business objectives and user goals typically do not change often, needs will. A site needs to address these changing needs, and as designers we must plan for that. The site will, we hope, grow without deviating too much from the master plan, of course. This is much like a city planner shaping the city growth by laying out the usage (or zoning) density, site coverage ratio, building height limit, and even exterior treatment. Architects and builders then design individual buildings following these guidelines. Even after they are built, individual buildings continue to grow, as Steward Brand laid out in his book, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built.

Primeval_village

Emergence is what happens when an interconnected system of relatively simple elements self-organizes to engage in more intelligent and more adaptive higher-level behaviors. It’s a bottom-up model; rather than being engineered by a general or a master planner, emergence begins at the ground level. Similarly, the web today is like a primeval village: there is no master plan, no general plan, no zoning ordinance, no architectural guidelines, and no building codes governing what you can build and how you should build it. It is communal architecture. A primeval village that grows organically and adapts to its surroundings, though it may lack visible order, can serve its inhabitants for centuries. Some may even find it beautiful and poetic. On the other hand, a modern community may have planned infrastructure, order, and even style, but some may find it monotonous or lacking in character (i.e., the kind of character that can only grow with human touch and through time). So the question is: Do we actually need a big plan? A small plan? Or no plan at all? It’s a question that may not have a simple answer.

IA in the real world: a case study

Connections often extend beyond the design of just a website, to physical spaces and related sites. As an example, consider the series of projects my company did for an automobile manufacturer. Genex, the web consulting firm for which I work, delivered a range of solutions that span the auto sales and owning lifecycle.

Customer loyalty is at the core of automotive sales, so car manufacturers’ web sites should be designed to foster awareness of the brand, consideration of the brand, preference for the brand, and purchase of the brand (and, idealy, repeat purchases). The “look and feel” of a site is core to communicating the brand’s values and differentiators—the key factors in a consumer’s purchase decision. Of equal importance are the processes embedded in the site that facilitate consumer purchase, including car comparisons, “build your car” functionality, 360-degree views of models, and personalized financing planning tools.

Being able to access information through several channels is also important to car buyers. Recognizing this, Genex designed self-service kiosks at its client’s dealerships to facilitate the on-site sales process by providing consumers with on-demand model and financing information, as well as the ability to submit a pre-approval form for financing. The kiosks were designed to work with different hardware configurations and within various locations at the dealership.

The purchase is not the end of the process, though. Just as important is the customer’s experience as an owner, which can bring that person back into the buying cycle when the time is right. An owners’ portal—providing a range of services that includes service records, maintenance reminders, and financial account management features—is a highly effective means of continuing to engage the customer with the brand.

The dealers also benefit from web technology. Genex designed a dealer portal that tightly connects dealers with customers and manufacturers. Much like a library, it contains information a dealer needs to run its daily business, from marketing and sales to service. Sales leads generated by various sites are funneled into a single application where salespeople can manage them effectively. Dealers can also use the portal to manage parts and accessories purchases as well as pricing. Customers can purchase parts and accessories for their vehicles from the owner’s portal, while dealers can use their own portal to set pricing and manage orders.

Convergence of architecture: “we are all connected”

Stepping back from this real world example, it’s important to keep focused on connections. The physical world is a network where everything touches everything else and everyone touches everyone else. The connection can be physical, financial, emotional or spiritual, but it’s there.

This is even more the case in the virtual world. As its name suggests, the web is a system of connected networks. In our quest for information, we are linked from one site to another and another; there is no beginning or end.

We tend to think that information flows from this superhighway. Indeed, the Internet connects us conveniently to types and quantities of information we have never before experienced. Still, we don’t get all our information from this or any particular channel. Aside from surfing the Internet and reading emails or instant messages, we watch movies and TV, read books, newspapers and magazines, listen to radios, view billboards while driving, talk in person or by phone to family, neighbors, friends, and even strangers. Some of us even write letters to communicate. Most of the time we draw information from firsthand experience—when we do things, visit places, and meet people, we gain information and experience. Knowing that there are connections among the ways people get information, we should at least acknowledge and design for them. Better yet, we should try to create and design the connections themselves, in order to improve this flow of information and bridge any missing links. After all, we are all connected.

Fu-Tien Chiou is the senior information and usability architect for Genex, in Los Angeles. His responsibilities include setting up corporate-wide information design and usability assessment processes, information architecture and user interface design, and mentoring in user-centered-design methodology. He is a licensed architect with a post-graduate degree in environment and human behavior.

Forgotten Forefather: Paul Otlet

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One rainy afternoon in 1968, a young Australian graduate student named Boyd Rayward stepped into an abandoned office in the Parc Leopold in Brussels, Belgium. Inside, he discovered “a cluttered, musty, cobwebbed office into which the rain leaked—and one day flooded—causing the attendant then on hand to have a kind of epileptic seizure.”1 Piled high to the ceiling were dusty stacks of books, files and manuscripts: the intellectual flotsam of a seemingly disorganized old scholar.

The previous occupant, Paul Otlet, had been dead for nearly twenty-five years. A bibliographer, pacifist and entrepreneur, Otlet had in his heyday been feted as a great man, enjoying the company of Nobel laureates and even playing a role in the formation of the League of Nations. But by the time of his death in 1944, he had lived long enough to see his reputation fade to near-obscurity, seen his greatest ambition fail, and suffered the final humiliation of watching the Nazis cart away and destroy much of his life’s work. When he finally died a few months before the end of the war, hardly anyone noticed.

Who was Paul Otlet? Meet the forgotten forefather of information architecture.

The web that wasn’t

In 1934, years before Vannevar Bush dreamed of the memex, decades before Ted Nelson coined the term “hypertext,” Paul Otlet envisioned a new kind of scholar’s workstation: a moving desk shaped like a wheel, powered by a network of hinged spokes beneath a series of moving surfaces. The machine would let users search, read and write their way through a vast mechanical database stored on millions of 3×5 index cards.2

This new research environment would do more than just let users retrieve documents; it would also let them annotate the relationships between one another, “the connections each [document] has with all other [documents], forming from them what might be called the Universal Book.”3

Otlet imagined a day when users would access the database from great distances by means of an “electric telescope” connected through a telephone line, retrieving a facsimile image to be projected remotely on a flat screen.

In Otlet’s time, this notion of networked documents was still so novel that no one had a word to describe these relationships, until he invented one: “links.”

Otlet envisioned the whole endeavor as a great “réseau”—web—of human knowledge.

The Universal Decimal Classification

Although generations of philosophers had tried to solve the problem of classifying human knowledge—including Bacon, Wilkens, and Linnaeus—it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the problem came to a practical head. The industrialization of the printing business, coupled with the advent of cheap binding materials, spurred an explosion in publishing no less disruptive than the advent of Gutenberg’s press 400 years earlier.

Faced with an onslaught of new texts, nineteenth century scholars and bibliographers began to wrestle again with the problem of classification. Catalogers like Panizzi, Dewey and Ranganathan all devised elaborate subject schemes, laying the foundations of modern library and information science.

In 1895, Otlet and Henri La Fontaine established the Repertoire Bibliographique Universel (RBU), an ambitious attempt at developing a master bibliography of the world’s accumulated knowledge. Otlet recognized from the beginning that the success of the whole undertaking would depend largely on the usefulness of its conceptual software, the classification system.

After evaluating the classification systems then in use, such as Dewey Decimal and the British Museum system, Otlet concluded that they all shared a fatal flaw: they were designed to guide readers as far as the individual book—but no further. Ranganathan had voiced the ethos of modern cataloging when he said: “every reader his or her book, and every book its reader.” But once book and reader were matched, they were left pretty well to their own devices.

Otlet wanted to go a step further. He wanted to penetrate the boundaries of the books themselves, to unearth the “substance, sources and conclusions” inside.

Taking the Dewey Decimal system as his starting point, Otlet began developing what came to be known as the Universal Decimal Classification, now widely recognized as the first—and one of the only—full implementations of a faceted classification system.

While Ranganathan rightly receives credit as the philosophical forbear of facets, Otlet was the first to put them to practical use.

Facets of the Universal Decimal Classification

Facts: Empirical observations or assertions.
Interpretation: Analysis or conclusions, derived from “facts.”
Statistics: Measured, quantifiable data.
Sources: Citations or references.

Today, the UDC comprises over 62,000 individual classifications, translated into over 30 languages (one reason for its popularity outside the U.S.). The UDC’s current top-level classes include:

0 Generalities. Science, knowledge, organization, computer science
1 Philosophy. Psychology
2 Religion. Theology
3 Social sciences. Law
4 [Under development]
5 Mathematics and natural sciences
6 Applied sciences. Medicine. Technology
7 The arts. Recreation. Entertainment. Sport
8 Language. Linguistics. Literature
9 Geography. Biography. History

So, for example,

004 Computer science
004.8 Artificial intelligence
004.89 Artificial intelligence application systems
004.891 Expert systems
004.891.2 Consultation expert systems4

In addition to the so-called Main Tables of subject headings, UDC also supports a series of Auxiliary Tables allowing for the addition of facets. These tables provide notations for place, language, physical characteristics, and for marking relationships between topics using a set of “connector” signs such as “+,” “/” and “:”.

The UDC’s capacity for mapping relationships between ideas—for constructing the “social space” of a document—provides a dimension of use not supported in other purely topical classification schemes. As the Universal Decimal Classification Consortium puts it:

UDC’s most innovative and influential feature is its ability to express not just simple subjects but relations between subjects … In UDC, the universe of information (all recorded knowledge) is treated as a coherent system, built of related parts, in contrast to a specialised classification, in which related subjects are treated as subsidiary even though in their own right they may be of major importance.5

The Mundaneum

In 1910, in the wake of the Brussels world’s fair, Otlet and LaFontaine created an installation at the Palais du Cinquantenaire of the Palais Mondial.

Originally envisioned as the centerpiece of a new “city of the intellect,” the Mundaneum was to be the hub of a utopian city that housed a society of the world’s nations.

In 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, Otlet successfully lobbied King Albert and the Belgian government to furnish a new home for the Mundaneum, taking over 150 rooms in Brussels’ Cinquantenaire. At the time, not coincidentally, Belgium was lobbying to host the nascent League of Nations’s new headquarters. Hoping to help his country take center stage in wooing the new organization, Otlet pitched his project as the centerpiece of a new “world city.” Inside the new Mundaneum, he began to assemble his vast “documentary edifice,” eventually comprising over 12 million individual index cards and documents.

At the time, the 3×5 index card represented the latest advance in information storage technology: a standardized, easily manipulated vessel for housing individual nuggets of data. So, Otlet’s réseau began taking shape in the form of an enormous collection of index cards, filed away in a sprawling array of cabinets.

The effort met with early success, even attracting a healthy business in mail-order research services, in which users would submit search queries for a fee (27 francs per 1000 cards retrieved). The service attracted over 1500 requests a year on subjects from boomerangs to Bulgarian finance.6

But by 1924, the Belgian government had lost patience with the project, especially after the newly formed League of Nations chose Geneva over Brussels as its headquarters—and thus robbing the Mundaneum of one of its primary raisons d’etre. Otlet had to relinquish his original location, moving the Mundaneum to succession of smaller quarters, even landing briefly, ignominiously, in a parking garage. After a series of fiscal struggles and management missteps, Otlet finally faced the difficult but unavoidable choice of shutting down operations in 1934. A few years later, Nazi troops came and carted away the remnants—to make way for an exhibition of Third Reich art.

After Otlet’s death in 1944, what survived of the original Mundaneum was left to languish in an old anatomy building of the Free University in the Parc Leopold, all but forgotten. Over the ensuing half-century, more than 70 tons’ worth of its original contents were destroyed. Finally, in the mid-1990s, a group of volunteers began resurrecting Otlet’s original vision, hoping to preserve and refurbish the original Mundaneum.

In 1996, the new Mundaneum opened in Mons, Belgium, serving primarily as a museum to preserve Otlet’s legacy and his vision of the “Universal Book.” While today’s Mundaneum serves primarily as a museum and learning center, rather than as a working incarnation of Otlet’s original plan, the new institution does an admirable job of perpetuating his legacy, and reminding us of Otlet’s premonitory vision of a worldwide networked information environment.

The Traité

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In a bitter irony, the Mundaneum’s 1934 closure coincided almost exactly with the publication of Otlet’s masterwork, the Traité de documentation, a manifesto crystallizing 40 years’ worth of writing and research into the possibilities of networked information structures.

Otlet biographer Boyd Rayward describes the Traité as ”perhaps the first systematic, modern discussion of general problems of organising information.”7

With the faceted philosophy of the UDC as backdrop, the Traité posited a universal “law of organization” declaring that no document could be properly understood by itself, but that its meaning becomes clarified through its influence on other documents, and vice versa. “[A]ll bibliological creation,” he said, “no matter how original and how powerful, implies redistribution, combination and new amalgamations.”8

While that sentiment may sound postmodernist in spirit, Otlet was no semiotician; rather, he simply believed that documents could best be understood as three-dimensional,9 with the third dimension being their social context: their relationship to place, time, language, other readers, writers and topics. Otlet believed in the possibility of empirical truth, or what he called “facticity”—a property that emerged over time, through the ongoing collaboration between readers and writers. In Otlet’s world, each user would leave an imprint, a trail, which would then become part of the explicit history of each document.

Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson would later voice strikingly similar ideas about the notion of associative “trails” between documents. Distinguishing Otlet’s vision from the Bush-Nelson (and Berners-Lee) model is the conviction—long since fallen out of favor—in the possibility of a universal subject classification working in concert with the mutable social forces of scholarship.

Otlet’s vision suggests an intellectual cosmos illuminated both by objective classification and by the direct influence of readers and writers: a system simultaneously ordered and self-organizing, and endlessly re-configurable by the individual reader or writer.

Does Otlet still matter?

Jorge Luis Borges’ fictional Library of Babel was a place containing “all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols … the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.”10

For Borges, the universal library was a literary conceit, but for Otlet it was an achievable dream: an “edifice containing all the books and the information together with all the resources of space needed to record and manage them.”11

Otlet also recognized the practical importance of “search and retrieval performed by an appropriately qualified permanent staff.” Substitute the word “Google” for “permanent staff,” and Otlet’s vision starts sounding a lot like the World Wide Web.

While it would be an exaggeration to claim that Otlet exerted a direct influence on the later development of the Web, it would be no exaggeration to say that he anticipated many of the problems we find ourselves grappling with: the explosion of published information, the limitations of current delivery and storage mechanisms, the desperate need for a classificatory framework to help us store, manage and interpret humanity’s collective intellectual capital—and, perhaps, the limits of self-organizing systems.

In the Web’s current incarnation, individual “authors” (meaning both people and institutions) maintain fixed documents, over which they exert direct control. Each document is essentially a fait accompli, with its own self-determined set of relationships to other documents. It takes a meta-application like Google or Yahoo! to discover the broader relationships between documents (usually through some combination of syntax, semantics and reputation). But those relationships, however sophisticated the algorithm used to determine them, remain largely unexposed to the end user, never becoming an explicit part of the document’s history.

Would Otlet’s Web have turned out any differently? We may yet find out. With the advent of the Semantic Web and related technologies like RDF/RSS, FOAF, and ontologies, we are moving towards an environment where social context is becoming just as important as topical content. Otlet’s vision holds out a tantalizing possibility: marrying the determinism of facets with the relativism of social networks.

In Otlet’s last book, Monde, he articulated a final vision of the great “réseau” that might as well serve as his last word:

Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, as a whole or in certain of its parts.12

Notes

  1. Rayward, “The Case of Paul Otlet, Pioneer of Information Science, Internationalist, Visionary: Reflections on Biography,” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 23 (September 1991):135-145
  2. Rayward, “Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Hypertext,” JASIS 45 (1994):235-250
  3. Otlet 1934 quoted in Rayward 1994
  4. Universal Decimal Classification Consortium, UDC flyer
  5. Universal Decimal Classification Consortium, “About the UDC.”
  6. Rayward, “Visions of Xanadu”
  7. Otlet quoted in Day, “Paul Otlet’s Book and the Writing of Social Space “
  8. Buckland, “Information Retrieval of More than Text” JASIS 42, 586-588
  9. Rayward, “Anticipating the Digital World: Paul Otlet and his Paper Internet”
  10. Borges, “The Library of Babel” in Labyrinths, p. 54
  11. Otlet, Traité de Documentation
  12. Otlet, Monde, pp. 390-391

Bibliography

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Library of Babel,” in Labyrinths. New Directions, 1962. pp. 51-58.

Buckland. Michael. Information retrieval of more than text. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 42 (1991): 586-588

Day, Ron. “Paul Otlet’s Book and the Writing of Social Space.“ Journal of the American Society for Information Science, April 1997. http://www.lisp.wayne.edu/~ai2398/newpage4.htm

Otlet, Paul. Traite de documentation. Brussels: Editiones Mundaneum, 1934.
Otlet, Paul. Monde: essai d’universalisme: connaissance du monde, sentiment du monde, action organisée et plan du monde. Brussels: Editiones Mundaneum, 1935.
Rayward, W. Boyd. “The Case of Paul Otlet, Pioneer of Information Science, Internationalist, Visionary: Reflections on Biography,” in Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 23 (September 1991):135-145.

Rayward, W. Boyd. “Anticipating the Digital World: Paul Otlet and his Paper Internet,” Bartels Lecture at the University of Leeds, 2002.

Rayward, W. Boyd. 1994. Visions of Xanadu: Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and hypertext. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 45 (1994): 235-250.

Rayward, W. Boyd. 2002. “Anticipating the Digital World: Paul Otlet and his Paper Internet,” Bartels Lecture at the University of Leeds.

Universal Decimal Classification Consortium flyer. http://www.udcc.org/UDCC_Flyer_2001.doc

Universal Decimal Classification Consortium, “About the UDC.” http://www.udcc.org/about.htmWeb Resources

The Mundaneum, Mons, Belgium
http://www.mundaneum.be/

Michael Buckland’s Paul Otlet page
http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/~buckland/otlet.html

Universal Decimal Classification Consortium
http://www.udcc.org/Special Thanks

Thanks to Boyd Rayward, Francoise Levie and Stephanie Manfroid for their input and encouragement.

Images courtesy of the Mundaneum, centre d’archives, Mons, BelgiumAlex Wright is a writer, information architect, and former librarian who lives and works in San Francisco. He maintains a personal web site at www.agwright.com.

Talking with Virginia Postrel

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“Functionality, properly understood, means doing what the end customer needs and wants the product to do. Adding pleasure may be more important than adding performance attributes. ”Virginia Postrel, former editor of Reason magazine, now writes the “Economic Scene” column for The New York Times, and her words have graced the pages of Forbes, Forbes ASAP, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. Her first book, The Future and Its Enemies, was met with critical acclaim.

Postrel’s new book, The Substance of Style: How the Growth of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, explores the economic, cultural, social, personal, and political implications of the growing importance of aesthetics in business and society. Boxes and Arrows contributing writer Steve MacLaughlin caught up with Virginia Postrel to get her thoughts on the age of aesthetics and what it means for design professionals.

B&A: The issue of emotion and persuasion has been the source of a lot of discussion in the technology community lately. What would you say to those technology professionals who believe that adding aesthetics to what they do is just selling out or taking a short cut?

Postrel: Aesthetics isn’t a substitute for functionality, but functionality isn’t a substitute for aesthetics either. Not adding aesthetics is taking the short cut, substituting the designer’s idea of what’s important for the customer’s. Functionality, properly understood, means doing what the end customer needs and wants the product to do. Adding pleasure may be more important than adding performance attributes. To a programmer, additional computer speed may be a legitimate improvement while a pretty case isn’t. But to many customers, the case adds value while the speed doesn’t. That’s not because speed is unimportant. It’s because personal computers are already so fast that they can do what most people want them to do.

I bought a Visor Edge a couple of years ago mostly because I thought it was beautiful (though part of that beauty came from the flip up cover, which is also quite practical). Only after I had bought it did I discover just how useful a PDA is. I don’t need much functionality for my purposes—just a contacts database and a calendar–but I want a PDA that makes me happy when I look at it. If I were buying one today, I’d get a Palm Zire, which is simple and beautiful.

B&A: In the book you quote Don Norman, the well-known usability expert, and his view that “attractive things work better.” Norman admits that some think this is a “heretical” view, but he has some research to back up his argument. Are there other voices in the design community that believe that being “smart and pretty” is not only possible, but essential?

Postrel: The success of design firms like IDEO and frog demonstrates the value of “smart and pretty” as a strategy. They pay careful attention to how customers are going to use a product, but they don’t treat that functional study as a substitute for aesthetics. Their products work well, but they also look and feel good.

B&A: What would you say to today’s design students who are still being taught the same old rules? How can they prepare themselves for a design career in the age of aesthetics?

Postrel: It’s as much a matter of mental attitude as it is a question of skills. The skills taught in school provide a basis to build on. But the common idea, for instance, that “designers are problem solvers” doesn’t answer the question of what kinds of problems you’re supposed to solve. “How can I provide pleasure and meaning?” is as legitimate and important a question as “How can I make this work?” or “How can I create a product that is easy to manufacture?” Karim Rashid’s Garbino trash can is wildly successful because it’s an almost perfect design. It’s cheap and easy to manufacture in a variety of colors. It’s highly functional–it has handles built in and is shaped so that trash goes in and out easily. But the first thing most people notice about the Garbino is that it looks and feels great.

Thinking about look and feel can actually improve functionality, because it means you get in the habit of empathizing with the end user. It’s really a matter of thinking, “What will make the customer happy?” rather than “What will make me, the designer, happy?” (In the best case, of course, you’re both happy.) The nightmarish interface design that Alan Cooper excoriates (and that I wrote a popular Forbes ASAP column about) isn’t functional for consumers. But it’s easy for programmers.

B&A: You talk about the importance of building a structure for design and aesthetics to work within a company. How can designers help build a foundation for placing greater value on aesthetics in industries that are not known for their stylishness?

Postrel: This is a tough issue of corporate culture and organization, and it’s a long-term process. The first key to success is to avoid a couple of common mistakes that can make communicating with non-designers difficult.

The first mistake is to justify design’s importance by ignoring its unique contribution. Designers say “We solve problems” and “We can do strategy,” and they forget that everyone else is also solving problems and contributing to strategy. The question is what problems can you uniquely solve? Where’s your value-added? If you try to sell yourselves as another sort of engineer, the engineers will just scoff at you—and rightly so.

Yes, you contribute important functional qualities. They’re absolutely critical. But you also contribute style, and style is valuable in the marketplace, because real people—your customers—care about it. Again, the trick is to identify with the customer and to get your colleagues to see that doing that will make the organization more successful.

The second mistake is to swing in the opposite direction and push the style equivalent of basic research when the marketplace wants style’s equivalent of applied engineering. Among themselves, designers are always looking to push the aesthetic envelope. Professional prestige comes in large part from novelty and innovation, from exploring the frontiers of design. (This is even more true with graphic designers, who face fewer material constraints, than it is with product designers. Interface designers are somewhere in between.)

But the customer isn’t at the frontier. The consumer usually wants to build on what’s familiar—to have something different, but not too different. That doesn’t mean the customer is a rube or a philistine, any more than it means that avant garde designers are useless. Theoretical physics and engine mechanics are different, and both are valuable. So are cutting-edge design and less prestigious, more mundane design. It’s important to remember that “good design” depends on context—good design for whom, for what purpose?

Some of the most difficult websites to navigate, and the most likely to crash, are those created by designers for designers. The Art Center site used to crash my browser every time I visited it.

B&A: You mentioned that interface designers are somewhere between graphic designers and product designers on the aesthetic freedom spectrum because of the nature of their medium. This is a young field that is currently going through some growing pains and a bit of an identity crisis. Any thoughts on what interface designers might become when they grow up?

Postrel: The biggest difference between graphic design and interface design today is not so much the nature of the medium—which is, of course, different—but the relative immaturity of interface design. We haven’t yet seen the coalescing of a “dominant design”—the equivalent to the basic layout of a book page, the arrangement of the steering wheel and controls on a car, the shapes of knives, forks, and spoons, the idea of a suit with jacket and pants (or skirt)—within which designers experiment. The advantage for designers is that there’s a lot of room for creativity and innovation, because user expectations are still developing. The downside is that complete failure is more likely. So is “design” that reflects what’s easy for programmers rather than what really works for the user.

I don’t know what dominant designs will emerge, but interface designers will know the field has grown up when a new design proceeds from basic structures that have proven themselves effective. Designers won’t have to invent the steering wheel.

B&A: In a business environment where everyone is looking for ROI to justify expenses it is usually the marketing or design departments that get cut first. Isn’t this just a short-term band-aid that could be causing more long-term harm to these companies?

Postrel: It may be, though it depends on the particular company’s strategy—Wal-Mart is not Target-—and on what the alternative is. Outsourcing design isn’t the same as not doing design, for instance. And companies that cut marketing and design first may be companies that aren’t using those departments particularly effectively in the first place. They don’t understand the importance of these functions, so they don’t get enough value from them, so cutbacks become justified.

B&A: The book discusses the variety of different groups and stylistic preferences, and how catering to these micro-markets will only become more important in the age of aesthetics. Do you have to be a member of one of these distinct groups to design for them?

Postrel: If you’re designing for a group you belong to—essentially designing for yourself–you have an advantage, because you’ll have tacit knowledge that’s hard to get from the outside. That said, you don’t have to be in a group to design for it. You have to be able to empathize with its members, to understand what they need and where they find pleasure and meaning. That may involve close study and, say, the use of rapid prototyping to get lots of feedback. Or it may be mostly a matter of sympathetic imagination. If you’re successful, of course, the end user may apply your design in ways you absolutely didn’t expect–because you’ve encouraged their imagination.

B&A: A popular phrase in the design world these days is: “Show me the value.” A lot of specialists in the fields of interaction design and user experience design struggle with this issue. What are some ways for them to better express the value they bring to employers or customers?

Postrel: The value of design comes from its ability to provide three things to customers: function, pleasure, and meaning. For interface designers, function is still a frontier. You aren’t designing toilet brush holders, where function is already well understood. But my message to designers of all kinds is not to sell themselves short by only emphasizing function. Designers know ways to create aesthetic pleasure that other specialists, who may understand things about function, simply don’t know. Customers value that pleasure, so they’ll pay more for a pleasurable experience. The trick, of course, is to figure out what *customers* will enjoy and, hence, value, which may or may not be the same things that designers themselves enjoy and value. Designers are often bored with things that still excite customers and want something more cutting-edge. That can make it hard to communicate the value of design to employers. It’s important not to confuse the design equivalent of basic research with the design equivalent of applied engineering. In the short run, value comes from the “applied engineering,” while in the long run new ideas emerge from the “basic research.”

B&A: Throughout the book you talk about the constant backlash from critics who are appalled by the notion of personalized aesthetics that break all of their rules. Are these “experts” just afraid of the inmates running the asylum or do they have some valid concerns?

Postrel: Specialists do know things that the rest of us don’t. They’ve learned patterns that work. This is as true of aesthetics as it is of writing or plumbing. Nine times out of ten, a brochure designed by someone with training in graphic design is going to look better—to the general public, not just to other designers—than a brochure designed by someone with no training. The tenth brochure will either be by an amateur with a great eye or a professional who’s pushing the envelope.

But that’s not the end of the story. Amateurs can learn by doing, and they have access to lots of new sources of aesthetic information, including software that has some of that professional knowledge embedded in it. Over time, I would expect a certain amount of aesthetic training to become part of basic education, just as people learn to write. (Most people can’t write any better than they can design, which is why I have a job, but that doesn’t mean nobody but professionals and gifted amateurs writes.)

Also, there’s a difference between expertise and gatekeeping. Expertise tells you how to achieve what you find aesthetically pleasing. Gatekeeping tells you what you should find aesthetically pleasing. It’s the gatekeepers who are upset—people who want to dictate the one true style, whether they’re arbiters of fashions in clothing or in architecture.

B&A: You tell the tale of a Chicago restaurant that ignored the importance of aesthetics while their competitors really focused on creating a unique dining environment for customers. The restaurant eventually goes under and the stylish restaurants thrive. Does this create an aesthetics arms race where if you are not stylish you risk losing everything, but if you are stylish the best you can hope for is to simply keep up with the competition?

Postrel: In some highly competitive businesses, such as restaurants, that is a likely outcome. The gains will go to the consumers, not to the producers’ bottom lines. But that’s not the whole story, because aesthetic leaders often command a premium, because they make smart, though sometimes costly, investments and manage to stay ahead of the competition. There’s an arms race in microprocessor manufacturing, but Intel is still profitable. There’s an arms race in retailing logistics, but Wal-Mart is still ahead of its competition. An “arms race” in aesthetics simply means that style has become another important part of operations, subject to the same competitive pressures as the rest of the business.

B&A: Have the ebbs and flows of the economy in recent years done anything to stem the tide of the aesthetic age? Is the demand for more aesthetics waterproofed from a struggling economy?

Postrel: The best answer to this question is the first paragraph of the last chapter:

“The aesthetic imperative is here to stay. The indicators may fluctuate with the economy—fewer new companies that need logos, advertising, and websites mean less work for graphic designers; fewer new products mean less work for industrial designers; fewer new hotels or restaurants mean less work for interior designers—but the underlying phenomenon remains strong. Every startup, product, or public space calls for an aesthetic touch. Personal appearance demands new forms of attention and offers new sources of pleasure and meaning. Aesthetic proliferation gives us more choices, opportunities, and responsibility than ever before. We expect look and feel to express, and to help establish, the identity of people, places, and things. What once was good enough isn’t any longer. Function alone does not suffice.”

Another way of putting it is that the total demand for aesthetics varies with the business cycle, as does the demand for other goods. But the relative importance of aesthetics—its proportion compared to other goods—has increased.

B&A: How long might the age of aesthetics last? Do we one day risk becoming desensitized to all this sensory overload? What happens after the age of aesthetics?

Postrel: It’s a long-term trend but how long, I don’t know. That depends to some extent on what other sources of new value-added emerge. Here’s what I wrote in the book, and it’s as far as I’m willing to push the prediction:

“The innovations that today seem exciting, disturbing, or both will eventually become the background of our lives. We won’t notice them unless they’re missing. Like convenience or hygiene, instant communication or rapid transportation, look and feel will simply be part of modern, civilized life. We’ll assume they were always there, like indoor plumbing or recorded music—that we couldn’t possibly have lived without their pervasive presence.

New styles and new aesthetic technologies will continue to develop, of course, and old ones to evolve or improve, but at some point aesthetics will no longer be the frontier. When we decide how next to spend our time, money, or creative effort, something else will top our priorities. Something else will disturb the familiar ways of business and culture. Something else will challenge our conventional notions of ‘real’ value. That something else may be radically new, the product of currently far-fetched technologies. It may be a major improvement in an existing good—a faster, cleaner form of transportation, an instantaneous mode of manufacturing. It may be as ancient as storytelling or exploration.”

We’ve already become desensitized in one sense: We take a lot of aesthetic quality for granted, even though it’s only a few years old. But in another sense, we’re becoming more keenly sensitized, able to notice more subtle changes or differences while also playing with new combinations.


Steve MacLaughlin is an experienced Interaction Architect who has helped develop award winning sites for a variety of Fortune 500 firms, governmental agencies, and educational institutions. Steve has taught the fundamentals of interactive design at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and MIME Program and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. MacLaughlin holds a M.S. Degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University. His new weblog, Strathlachlan.com, covers a range of issues and topics.

Information Architecture: From Craft to Profession

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“The generation, distribution, and management of information are significant factors in today’s “knowledge” economy, and consumers are being presented with, and have instantaneous access to, more information than at any other time in history.”The importance of setting IA in a deep historical context
In my Information Architecture design classes at Florida State University’s School of Information Studies, I quickly learned that most of my students are truly children of the Information Age. They take for granted the broad array of information and communication technologies at their disposal and typically have not yet considered how recently in human history these innovations have occurred and, much less so, how each has influenced the character and place of human activity. This realization influenced my decision to set IA in a deep historical context, beginning with the “invention” of speech and concluding with the World Wide Web. My intent was to deconstruct for them the incredibly dense and complex information environments we live in today with the hope of building their awareness of their complexity. My intent was also to point out how the introduction of each major innovation in information and communication technology, in its own time, influenced human culture in dramatic ways, eventually leading to the Information Age. Another challenge I faced was how to present IA to them as a profession in the process of being born. To do this I decided to place the profession of IA in an historical context and turned to the history of architecture for an analogy. The following analogy is excerpted from the first chapter of my new book.

Information Architecture: From Craft to Profession

For thousands of years, humans have struggled to create, communicate, manage, and preserve information. This struggle is as old as civilization itself, and throughout it extend the roots of information architecture. Being aware of this history benefits our understanding of information architecture and broadens our perspective on humanity’s cultural evolution. From these events of the past, we can also come to understand better today’s information environments and, ultimately, to improve them.

The Architecture Metaphor
The metaphors we use constantly in our everyday language profoundly influence what we do because they shape our understanding. They help us describe and explore new ideas in terms and concepts found in more familiar domains. Because architecture, architects, and the profession of architecture are already well-defined concepts in the minds of many people, the architecture metaphor enables the quick construction of a conceptual model of information architecture. The metaphor capitalizes on common knowledge that architects are highly respected professionals in a very complex field of work; require rigorous specialized education and training; and are designers concerned with the occupants, aesthetics, structure, and proper mechanical functioning of buildings as well as the efficient and effective use of space. Perhaps this is why the architecture metaphor as used to help define information architecture has been adopted by so many so easily: it provides an established framework upon which a new concept—information architecture—can be quickly constructed and understood. In fact, when used as metaphors, other real-world or place-based concepts, such as environment and space, are helpful to both information architects and users in visually summarizing complex information systems.

When using electronic information systems we often hear of information-seeking behavior referred to as “wayfinding” or “navigating.” Both references are based on the commonly used spatial metaphor “information space.” By further extending this metaphor, it is easy to imagine occupants of an information space needing to have a sense of place in order to remain oriented; a sense of space so as to know where it is possible to go; and navigation devices commonly seen in physical environments such as maps, signs, paths, and landmarks for navigation. Information systems have even been referred to metaphorically as information cities, and, of course, we’ve all heard the infrastructure of the Internet referred to as the Information Superhighway. These are all spatial metaphors used to assist in the visualization of technologies and professions that are too new or complex for us to understand easily.

Some information architects believe that the practice of information architecture is very much like what architects do in that “[they] design spaces for human beings to live, work, and play in” with the primary differences being in the materials they work with (Wodtke, C., 2001). Or, that information architects in reality, not just metaphorically, are very much like architects in that they too are concerned with spatial relationships and “setting structure to an element to be built that combines components that are grouped together based on users’ understandings and expectations” (Vander Wal, T., 2001). Architecture and information architecture are, in fact, similar in many ways. Consequently, numerous analogies can be drawn between them, including their histories.

Architecture
Architects are responsible for a major portion of our built environment. They design and create not only buildings but entire blocks and even cities. They plan the places where we live our lives—where we raise our families, work, socialize, worship, play, learn, and dream. Architecture is a holistic field, and aspiring architects are trained in a wide range of skills, knowledge, and sensitivities that are essential to planning, organizing, and managing the design-build process. They have long been highly respected in most cultures of the world. Indeed, rarely is a work of architecture with any historical, cultural, technical, or aesthetic significance mentioned without giving credit to the architect.

Given this present-day context, it is difficult to imagine that a great Gothic cathedral like, for example, Notre Dame de Paris with its dramatic archways, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, large stained-glass windows, and ornate spires would not be the work of a brilliant, highly-trained architect. In fact, no one in 1163 A.D. had yet been trained as an architect; there were no architecture schools and no architecture profession. The individual responsible for the design and construction of Notre Dame was known as a cementer, a stone worker, or simply a master mason.

These are all labels descriptive of a craft. Through a crafts tradition, a master mason would generally have learned his trade by advancing through three levels of expertise:

  1. Mastering various stone crafting techniques,
  2. Mastering the processes of stone construction, and
  3. Mastering the art of design.

Stonecutters, woodcarvers, and metal smiths might all work under a master mason to build, as well as furnish, a cathedral. Consequently, the work of master masons was highly valued, and many enjoyed an elevated status typically not given to craftsmen. In fact, their names were often inscribed along with community dignitaries in prominent places in cathedrals and public works.

Gothic architecture evolved during a time of dramatic social and economic change in Western Europe. In the late 11th and 12th centuries, trade and industry were booming, resulting in improved communications between neighboring towns and cities as well as more distant communities. Taller and larger than most all community structures, Gothic cathedrals were visible from the surrounding countryside and were dramatic symbols of The Church’s powerful influence. At the same time, a new intellectual movement was rising. The outcome of these influences was the end of the isolationism of the feudal era and the emergence of a more cosmopolitan world. This era in history is known as the Medieval Ages. From this rich mix also emerged a profession concerned with designing buildings and spaces that are both beautiful and functional—architecture.

Information Architecture
For perhaps as long as two million years, our ancestors have struggled to communicate information across time and space and to preserve valuable legacies of experience for the benefit of future generations. Throughout this history, great innovations have occurred that dramatically improved humankind’s abilities to create, communicate, manage, and preserve information. Each innovation coincided with major social and economic change. They are often referred to as communication epochs: oral, writing, printing, and electronic. With the exception of the oral epoch, each has built upon its predecessor, leading to the technologically sophisticated, complex, and dense information “environments” we experience today.

Now, we are all living in a time of dramatic social and economic change. A global economy and sophisticated new communication and network technologies have resulted in practically instantaneous communication among governments, businesses, and individuals anywhere on the planet. The great towers and spires that dominate the skylines of today’s cities are symbolic of the powerful influence of The Corporation in contemporary culture. The generation, distribution, and management of information are significant factors in today’s “knowledge” economy, and consumers are being presented with, and have instantaneous access to, more information than at any other time in history. This era in human history is often referred to as the Information Age, and another new profession is emerging to meet the needs of the times—information architecture.

Information architecture is primarily about the design of information environments and the management of an information environment design process. Information architecture’s roots are in multiple fields including visual design, information design, library science, and engineering psychology (more commonly known as human factors). All are occupations focused on the creation, communication (presentation and organization), management (storage, retrieval, and distribution), or preservation of information. Each has its own history, traditions, best practices, technical languages, and technologies. Until the advent of computers and the digitization of all media and the maturation of the Internet, many of these disciplines were worlds unto themselves.

Now, many information and communication professionals, no matter what their field, are being forced by the demands of the marketplace to solve information environment design problems requiring knowledge that spans all these disciplines. Mastery of any one requires a great deal of time, practice, and knowledge. To expect mastery of all is more than can be required of an individual.

Such is the plight of many designers today. Most are too specialized in one discipline to understand fully how to organize and present information in an effective and compelling way when using a variety of media in one integrated, networked, and often interactive, environment. Yet, a rapidly growing and evolving information marketplace is putting these demands on individuals who have not been trained to handle such complex design issues nor have the knowledge to manage effectively teams of individual experts. Master masons must have faced a similar set of circumstances that pressured them to move beyond their craft (requiring highly specific knowledge) and invent a profession that required a more comprehensive knowledge of an entire design-build process using a variety of materials other than stone – architecture. Now, professionals from multiple disciplines, like master masons in the early stages of architecture’s evolution, are moving toward inventing a profession that requires a more comprehensive knowledge of an entire design-build process, using a variety of media and technologies, for the purpose of creating information environments that are beautiful, valuable to users and sponsors, and easy to use—information architecture.

  • Information Architecture: An Emerging 21st Century Profession
  • Earl Morrogh, Florida State University
  • Publisher: Prentice Hall
  • ISBN: 0130967467; 1st edition (November 15, 2002) § 216 pages
  • List price: $34.00
  • Contents:
    • Foreword, Richard Saul Wurman
    • Part I. Information Architecture: An Introduction
      1. Information Architecture: From Craft to Profession
    • Part II. Human Interactions: The Evolution of Communication Systems
      2. Let’s Talk About It: The Spoken Word
      3. Put It in Writing: The Written Word
      4. Hot Off the Press: The Printed Word
      5. Wired: The Telegraph
      6. Just Call Me: The Telephone
      7. Wireless: The Radio
      8. The Tube: Television
    • Part III. Human and Computer Interactions: The Evolution of Computing Systems
      9. ENIAC: Computation Solutions for Scientific Problems
      10. ERMA: Computation Solutions for Business Problems
      11. The Alto: Computing Gets Personal
      12. The PC Evolution: From Mainframes to Minis to Micros
    • Part IV. Computer Networks: Communication and Computing Systems Converge
      13. Internauts: Architects of the Intergalactic Network
      14. ARPAnet: The Birth of the Internet
      15. Email: The First Killer “App.”
      16. WWW: The World Wide Web
    • Part V. Info Ailments: Unintended Consequences of the Information Age
      17. Info Glut, Info Trash, Info Hype, and Info Stress
    • Part VI. Toward A New Discipline: Information Architecture
      18. IA: The Process
      19. IA: The Practitioner
      20. IA: The Profession
      21. IA: Educating Information Architects
      22. IA: Education Theory, A Design Foundation for Information Architecture, by Keith Belton.
      23. Information Architects: Envisioning the Future of IA

The author, Earl Morrogh, is a visiting scholar in Florida State University’s School of Information Studies. He is a writer, designer, and educator who has studied and worked for 30 years in several fields, including architectural and visual design, multimedia design, communications, and education. He considers these areas of professional interest to be interrelated and his knowledge of them essential for informing his research of the emerging profession of information architecture.

Leaving the Autoroute

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I recently had the pleasure of traveling across France via autoroute. In the past, my husband and I had taken all backroads for our adventures, but on this trip we need to get from one in-law to the next in a day, and the autoroute was the ticket. The vast expanses of French countryside are gorgeous and remarkably varied—rolling hills and grassy fields becoming bluffs and cliffs; vineyards become cornfields then become sunflower fields; all punctuated by signs proclaiming the next town. The signs caught my eye. Unlike America, where a sign just has the town name, here each name was accompanied by an illustration of the things for which the town was famous: one town is famous for mustard, one town for knives, one for nougat, one for a type of melon… the first time I saw this I laughed. The idea of a town devoting itself to nougat seemed a bit absurd. But specialization has power. The nougat of Montelimar can be found all over France and is known to be the best. Laguiole is recognized as making fine knives not only in France, but around the world. Everyone knows the mustard from the city of Dijon. By committing all their attention to a single craft, often literally over hundreds of years, each town has received the renown that comes with great work.

But what happens when you leave the autoroute, lured by one of those signs proclaiming the town’s mastery and claim to fame? You find a town—a butcher, a baker, a pastry shop, a pharmacy. Little gray-haired ladies with their baskets heading for shops, men sitting in the café with a glass of Pastis or playing Petanque in the park. Mothers shopping, pushing baby carriages, tourists eating in overpriced cafes with English menus, a church still frequented by worshippers as well as chubby tourists… in other words, each town has all the things a town must have to be a town. Laguiole has its share of knife-shops, but overall it is still a town and supports the inhabitants that give it life. The knife-maker has a place to eat and drink, work and worship, as well as to see friends for a drink and a game of Petanque. Moreover, as he watches the butcher cut a steak from a side of beef or a pastry chef slice apart a cake, he knows more about what a knife should be.

So, other than a chance to reminisce (ah, the oysters of Gujan-Mestras, the macaroons of St. Emilion, the cannelles of Bordeux) what does this mean for us, practitioners of the young and unrefined craft of designing digital systems? What the heck are you raving about, Wodtke? Simply that the passionate debates over specialization vs. generalization are a false dichotomy, and are not serving us. It’s not vs, but and that we should be using. Designers who know nothing of html or image optimization, usability experts preaching without even a basic knowledge of design principles, information architects and interaction designers who don’t understand each others’ skills are weakening themselves, as Laguiole would, if it closed its pharmacy for another knife shop. The health of your craft comes from a rich broad base of knowledge.

Recently a well-known usability expert discovered a clue to improving his own site from a web design list. This tip was one of the most basic pieces of design knowledge you learn when you begin to study design. Yet, this specialist didn’t know it—and moreover, it hurt the usability of product because he was not well rounded. Usability sites are notorious in the crudeness of the design, design sites for their lack of usability. Sites by engineers often miss both, while sites without an engineer’s knowledge load slowly and are buggy. It’s not enough to be a specialist—as they say, when all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. You have to have a broad grounding in the related fields along with a deep understanding of your area of specialization. IBM calls these folks T-shaped people, and seeks them out when hiring time rolls around.

Moreover the world beyond our craft teaches us our craft. Poetry informed my ability to be an information architect—you learn about the subtle nuances each word carries and to craft phrases to ensnare your readers’ emotions. This knowledge informs labeling choices of course, but also the more delicate arts of contextual messaging and categorization. Cooking and collecting cookbooks impart a great deal of insight into what makes instructions succeed or fail; travel has taught me to question my most basic assumptions about user behavior.

I have also cracked a few O’Reilly books and learned basic coding, I have spent time in usability labs learning from users and the researchers who can interpret what that means, I spend time at designer’s elbows asking them to explain color, line and form, I read business tracts — all have had a direct and immense effect on my skill at Information Architecture and Interaction Design. I don’t consider myself a master-craftsman, but I know that if I wish to become one, it means attending to not just my specific skillset, but to the world in which it resides.

You can’t be in expert in everything, obviously. But you can make sure you have enough knowledge to appreciate the craftspeople you work with. So designers, take “Introduction to programming” at the local college. Engineers, attend all the usability sessions and watch what those crazy users do. Usability folks, go read Robin Williams “The Non-Designers Design Book” at least.

If you dream of being an expert, read the Sunday paper cover to cover, from business section to comics page and then read a peer-review journal. Take a painting class, study yoga, cook a complicated meal. Learn from your coworkers, and learn from your friends. Specialize, but remember to be a human being as well. And someday you may be as famous as the mustard of Dijon.

Talking with Jesse James Garrett

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“Many an information architecture has run aground on the rocky shoals of corporate politics.”B&A: Congratulations on the new book. You must be excited to be finished and have the work out there for the community to learn from.

JJG: I’m very gratified by the reception people have given the book so far. The initial feedback I’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive. Also, if nothing else, writing this book has really changed the way I experience bookstores. I have a whole different appreciation for the amount of work packed into even the slimmest volume on the shelves.

B&A: The new book, “The Elements of User Experience”, grew out of the diagram (EOUE) you created a few years ago. What made you decide to expand these ideas into a book?

JJG: When I released the diagram, I really thought only the insiders—people who had to wrestle with this stuff on a daily basis—would find it interesting or valuable. And, in a sense, I was right. But what I discovered was that those insiders were not just using the diagram to talk among themselves. They were using it to help communicate to outsiders about their work. As I heard more and more stories about people using the diagram in this way, I came to realize that there might be a market for a book that did all that explaining on our behalf.

B&A: What are you trying to communicate with the book that is different from the original diagram?

JJG: The big difference is that the book doesn’t make any assumptions about what you already know. The diagram assumes some familiarity with concepts like HCI and the work of Edward Tufte. The book starts from scratch, assuming only that the reader has some experience using web sites. This was a big reason to keep the book so short—so that newcomers to the field wouldn’t get overwhelmed with procedural minutiae, and so that experienced practitioners wouldn’t get bored silly as I recount all these details they already know.

B&A: Who is your primary audience for the book? Once they finish that book, what do they read to learn more?

JJG: I’ve got two main audiences in mind for the book: newcomers to the field, those who may have web design or development skills who want to know how to bring a user-centered approach to their work; and decision-makers, the people who have to decipher what the heck these web people are talking about. Each of the main chapters has a list of additional books for those who want more detail on a particular topic. In addition, I’m putting together a resource page at jjg.net/elements/resources that will point to further reading on the web.

B&A: Can senior practioners benefit from the book?

JJG: The main benefit of the book for the more experienced practitioners is as an evangelical tool. The book will give you some ways of expressing the value and importance of your work that you may not have had before.

B&A: Where did the idea for the original diagram come from?

JJG: Well, the whole story is in the book, but the short answer is that I was the first information architect in an organization that was traditionally design-oriented, and I felt I needed a tool to help me gain the trust and support of my colleagues. I toyed with the idea some, couldn’t make it work, and gave up on it entirely—or so I thought. My subconscious had other plans.

B&A: Did your series of articles, ia/recon, influence the book?

JJG: There’s one section of the book, in which I talk about the relative value of generalists versus specialists, that’s strongly reminiscent of ia/recon. That part probably would have been different, or maybe not in the book at all, if I hadn’t done recon first. But overall, the book covers pretty different territory; ia/recon is very much inside baseball—you have to be familiar with the issues facing the community to get the most out of it. The book is very much directed at outsiders to our community, people who may not have much interest in the issues covered in the essay.

B&A: Has your work with Adaptive Path affected your perspective on User Experience? Are the roles more fluid or more defined?

JJG: I now have a broader understanding of the different ways of looking at a user experience problem than I had before we started Adaptive Path. Within the partnership, we’re more or less interchangeable—we’ve really gone out of our way to make sure that knowledge doesn’t get compartmentalized.

B&A: What’s the hardest project you ever worked on? What made it so challenging?

JJG: The most difficult projects I’ve faced have been cases where I didn’t have direct access to the people making the final decisions about my work. Many an information architecture has run aground on the rocky shoals of corporate politics. As much as we may want to withdraw into a world of pure problem solving, we have to acknowledge that the most successful architectures are the ones you can actually convince someone to implement.

B&A: Do you have to do IA on every project? Is usability needed on all design projects?

JJG: People get hung up on specific techniques too easily. Look past the technique to see the problem the technique is intended to address. If “doing IA” means diagrams, nav specs, wireframes, then no, you don’t always have to do IA. But if “doing IA” means thinking about the structure of your site, then absolutely, you need to do IA every time.

B&A: If you had to hire an IA or an interaction designer for a typical ecommerce site, who would you go with?

JJG: One big frustration that I have with the current state of our discipline is that I can’t identify the people doing the best work. Everybody says Amazon’s interaction design is a big factor in the company’s success—why don’t I know the names of any of the people responsible for it? Why do most consultancies hide their talented staff, whose expertise makes their success possible, behind a faceless corporate identity?

B&A: If you had unlimited budget to redesign a giant site—say Amazon—what would your ideal UX group consist of? What would your process be?

JJG: Mmm, unlimited budget. There a few things I’d include in the process. Deep research—really get inside the heads of users. Controlled real-world deployment of alternative approaches to defined segments of the user base, gathering detailed metrics on actual user behavior. Constant iteration, creating a steady stream of incremental refinements.

B&A: Should designers learn usability? What about ID and IA?

JJG: The more everybody knows about all aspects of the problems we face, the better off all of us will be. Less time spent explaining things means more time for coming up with creative solutions.

B&A: Are there some roles better filled by consultants and some by in-house folks?

JJG: I’m not sure that you can say definitively that some roles are better filled by consultants, but I would say that some projects are better handled by consultants. If you need to take a step back from day-to-day operations and plot out the long-term direction of your user experience strategy, consultants can give you a perspective you can’t get on your own.

B&A: Has your perspective/definition of the different elements of user experience changed since the creation of the original diagram? Did the work on book change any of the original definitions or did you just refine what was already defined?

JJG: There are some aspects of the diagram that I wish I had expressed a little more clearly. The book has given me the opportunity to elaborate on and refine those definitions. The underlying ideas remain the same, though. I toyed with the idea of updating the diagram to more precisely match the book, but in the end I decided it would be best to leave it intact. The document’s flaws are not worth fussing over, and anyway the execution always falls short of the conception.

B&A: Do you consider yourself an information architect?

JJG: Absolutely, though I wouldn’t suggest that my job description should be applied to all IAs. My job involves a lot of different skills now—I’m as much entrepreneur and management consultant as anything else these days—but IA is still my favorite part of the work I do. The information architecture community is my home turf. Plus, I figure that if enough of us keep writing “information architect” on our tax forms, somebody will sit up and take notice.

B&A: If you could ask Jakob Nielsen one question, what would it be?

JJG: What would you do if you had to create an interface without being able to test it?

B&A: Microsoft uses your document “EOUE”—does this scare you?

JJG: It doesn’t scare me. It should scare Microsoft’s competitors.

B&A: Why did you use Fisher Price people instead of Weebles in your book diagrams? You know, “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down…”

JJG: Any resemblance between my illustrations and any toy figures, past or present, is purely coincidental. Besides, Weebles are too hard to draw—they just end up looking like eggs, not people.

B&A: How did journalism influence your brand of user experience design?

JJG: A journalist and an information architect face exactly the same problem—how to give shape to the pile of information in front of you in a way that will make it easy and natural for people to comprehend. I can’t imagine any better preparation for the work I do now.

B&A: Do you own any color of clothes other than black?

JJG: No. It makes clothes shopping easier.

B&A: Now that the book is here, what’s next?

JJG: Right now, I’ve got to make it up to my partners in Adaptive Path for letting me take time off to write this book. We’re cooking up some ideas for 2003 that I think the community will find very exciting. In the meantime, I’m eager to get back to doing some IA work. That’s what it’s all about for me.


Erin Malone is currently a Product Design Director at AOL in the Web Properties division. She has been a practicing interaction, interface and information designer since 1993. She can be reached at .

Ranganathan for IAs

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An Introduction to the Thought of S.R. Ranganathan for Information Architects

“Ranganathan aimed big—he was looking for the fundamental laws that underlie experience and it quickly became an obsession.”

S.R. Ranganathan was the greatest librarian of the 20th Century. No one else even comes close. His ideas influenced every aspect of library science (a term he is credited with coining), and because he was such a complete and systematic thinker, he was gifted in the development of all areas of the field, including theory, practice, and management. Yet, as impressive as his accomplishments were, Ranganathan didn’t start out with the intention of becoming a librarian at all.

He was born in Madras, India, in 1892, trained as a mathematician, and eventually became a lecturer of mathematics at the University of Madras. In 1924 the university offered him the position of librarian. One of the conditions of the appointment was that he attend training in London to learn contemporary methods of librarianship. It was during this trip that he met W.C. Berwick Sayers, who taught him about classification theory, and it was on this trip that he began observing libraries throughout the city.

In 1925 he returned to India a different person. His desire to build libraries and improve librarianship became a passion. The basic methods Ranganathan used to develop his ideas emerged from his background in mathematics and his beliefs in Hindu mysticism. He would examine complex phenomena, break his observations into small pieces, and then attempt to connect the pieces together in a systematic way. This method has often been called the Analytico-Synthetic method. Ranganathan used this methodology for classification, management, reference, administration, and many other subjects. Francis Miksa stated it well: “Ranganathan treated library classification as a single unified structure of ideas which flowed from a cohesive set of basic principles” (Miksa, 1998) Ranganathan aimed big—he was looking for the fundamental laws that underlie experience and it quickly became an obsession. Girja Kumar reports, “There had not been a day of the life of Ranganathan since 1924 when he did not breathe, think, talk, and even dream of librarianship and library science” (Kumar, 1992) Kumar further reports, “[Ranganathan] spent two decades as librarian of Madras University. Never did he take any vacations during this period. He spent 13 hours every day for seven days a week on the premises of the library.” (Kumar, 1992) He wrote his 62 books in the evenings, during his off hours.

In addition to the almost uncountable number of books and articles Ranganathan authored, he also created several professional and educational organizations, primarily in India, and he participated in library movements around the world.

For most librarians today, he is primarily remembered for two contributions: the Five Laws of Library Science and the Colon Classification.

The Five Laws of Library Science
The Five Laws are the kernel of all of Ranganathan’s practice. They are:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his or her book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The Library is a growing organism.

While the laws seem simple on first reading, think about some of the conversations on SIGIA and how neatly these laws summarize much of what the IA community believes. Ranganathan saw these laws as the lens through which practitioners can inform their decision making and set their business priorities, while staying focused on the user. Although they are simply stated, the laws are nevertheless deep and flexible. They can also be updated to include the field of IA in a variety of ways.

1. Books are for use.
Websites are designed to be used, they are not temples or statues we admire from a distance. We want people to interact with our websites, click around, do things, and have fun.

2. Every book its reader.

3. Every reader its book.
Maybe we can modify these two to say “each piece of content its user” and “each user his/her content.” The point here is that we should add content with specific user needs in mind, and we should make sure that readers can find the content they need. Laws 2 and 3 remind me of the methodology taught by Adaptive Path. Make certain our content is something our users have identified as a need, and at the same time make sure we don’t clutter up our site with content no one seems to care about.

4. Save the time of the user.
This law, when we are talking of websites, has both a front-end component (make sure people quickly find what they are looking for) and a back-end component (make sure our data is structured in a way that retrieval can be done quickly). It is also imperative that we understand what goals our users are trying to achieve on our site.

5. The library is a living organism.
We need to plan and build with the expectation that our sites and our users will grow and change over time. Similarly we need to always keep our own skill levels moving forward.

Colon Classification
Besides these laws, Ranganathan is also famous for the Colon Classification system, a widely influential but rarely used classification system. This is his greatest achievement and where he developed most of his most famous ideas, including facets and facet analysis. The system is again based on Ranganathan looking for “universal principles” inherent in all knowledge. His belief was that if he could identify these, organizing around them would be more intuitive for the user.

For Ranganathan, the problem with the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress classification systems is that they used indexing terms that had to be thought out before the object being described could fit into the system. With the explosion of new information early in the 20th Century, the enumerative, or pre-planned, systems could not keep up. Ranganathan’s solution was the development of facets. This idea came to him while watching someone use an erector set (Garfield, 1984).

Rather than creating a slot to insert the object into, one starts with the object and then collects and arranges all the relevant pieces on the fly. This allows for greater flexibility and a high degree of specificity.

The fundamental facets that Ranganathan developed were: Personality, Matter, Energy, Space, and Time. (Amaze your librarian friends by referring to these by the acronym PMEST!)

  • 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

Ranganathan believed that any object (for him this meant any concept that a book could be written about) could be represented by pulling relevant pieces from these five facets and fitting them together. All of the facets do not need to be represented, and each can be pulled any number of times. The notation for each facet was separated by using a colon, hence the name of the system. Arlene Taylor provides a good example that uses all five facets. Imagine a book about “the design of wooden furniture in 18th century America.” (Taylor, 1999)

The facets would be as follows:

  • Personality—furniture
  • Matter—wood
  • Energy—design
  • Space—America
  • Time—18th century

The book is described by combining the relevant pieces from each facet. “Wood” is a piece of that description which covers an area that none of the other pieces cover. The power comes through combining the pieces together to form the whole. In this case, it is a one-to-one ratio, which would be rare in real life. Also, keep in mind that the specifics of how the Colon Classification works are complex (be skeptical of anyone who claims to understand them), and are generally beyond the realm of the practicing IA.

(Stay Tuned: Boxes and Arrows has plans to write in more detail about facets in the future.)

There is, however, much that the practicing IA can take from Ranganathan. Besides exploring concepts such as the Five Laws or practices such as facet analysis, Ranganathan was also a diligent evangelist of getting information to people who needed it, and he thought deeply about the problems he faced from all sides. There is still a lot that needs to be done to build up the field of information architecture; Ranganathan may help us the most by serving as inspiration.

  1. Miksa, Francis L., The DDC, the Universe of Knowledge, and the Post-Modern Library. Albany: Forest Press, 1998; 67
  2. Kumar, Girja, S.R. Ranganathan: An Intellectual Biography., New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1992; 45
  3. Kumar, 93
  4. Garfield, Eugene, A Tribute to S.R. Ranganathan: Part 1. Life and Works, http://www.garfield.library.upenn.edu/essays/v7p037y1984.pdf; 40
  5. Taylor, Arlene G., The Organization of Information., Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1999; 180

Mike Steckel is an Information Architect/Technical Librarian for International SEMATECH in Austin, TX.