Building the Beast: Talking with Peter Morville

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Back in 1998 Peter Morville and co-author Louis Rosenfeld wrote what many considered to be the book on the subject “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web,” which helped make information architect into a new job title. Morville and Rosenfeld also helped spearhead the field during the seven years they headed Argus Associates, one of the leading IA consultancies. As the “Polar Bear” book, as it’s affectionately known, goes into its second edition, Boxes and Arrows asked Morville about the making of the new release and his thoughts about how the field has changed since the book was first published. Continue reading Building the Beast: Talking with Peter Morville

The Indie life: Talking with Louis Rosenfeld

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Considered one of the founders of the field of information architecture, Louis Rosenfeld along with co-author Peter Morville, literally wrote what many consider to be the book on the subject “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.” For seven years Rosenfeld and Morville also headed up Argus Associates, one of the best-known IA consulting firms. As the “Polar Bear” book, as it’s affectionately known, goes into its second edition, Boxes and Arrows asked Rosenfeld for his thoughts on the state of IA field.

Editor’s note: We’ll also be featuring an interview with co-author Peter Morville on September 9th. (after Boxes and Arrows returns from the Labor Day weekend.)

We often see interaction design and IA compared. Let’s acknowledge once and for all that information architecture is the more difficult of the two.B&A: So, Lou, I heard that you know a little bit about IA?

Rosenfeld: I know a little about a lot of IA. Though I’m not half-bad at strategic IA, content modelling and some other IA stuff, I’m really a generalist. And that’s after doing this for the better part of a decade.

I hope that people in our field have begun to realize that there really are very many specializations within IA, ranging from thesaurus design to search engine configuration to contextual inquiry. Unfortunately, many of us seem to see IA as nothing more than blueprints and wireframes. That absolutely must change if we’re going to progress as a field.

B&A: You’re a consultant, as are many B&A readers. Do you find it easy?

Rosenfeld: It’s not the easiest job—you never know when your next project will come through. Inevitably, projects come in bunches, punctuating long periods of unsettling quiet with intense periods of insane activity. And all along, you get to pay for your own benefits and other overhead. Nope, not for everyone.

B&A: After the sad demise of Argus Associates, you now work as an independent consultant. Do you believe that working as a consultant has been more rewarding, both in a commercial sense and a personal achievement sense?

Rosenfeld: Sadly, I can’t say it’s been especially rewarding for me. Consulting is notorious for having minimal actual impact: I rarely get to see my ideas implemented, and I don’t get to be part of an incredible team as I did at Argus. The money’s fine, but that was never my motivation; if it was, I would have gone into the family business years ago.

B&A: Which would you prefer; working as a consultant, working in an agency or working in-house?

Rosenfeld: Each has its benefits and drawbacks. Personally, the most important issues are whether the job would allow me to be entrepreneurial and whether I’d get to work closely with colleagues. Being in-house or working at an agency might mean teamwork, but typically don’t make room for new ideas. On the other hand, the consultant’s life is entrepreneurial but lonely unless you go about building a company around your consulting practice.

B&A: A lot of IAs, including those who have lost their jobs, may be thinking about setting up a consultancy. Based on your experiences, what one piece of advice would you give them?

Rosenfeld: Ask yourself one question: are you entrepreneurial? Quick, do it. And answer from the gut. Don’t think about it!

If the answer isn’t immediately “yes,” then be very wary. Most information architects, and in fact, most people do not enjoy the fundamental entrepreneurial task: selling. And to succeed as a consultant, you’ll have to sell and sell and sell.

If the answer is yes, go for it: we need more people out there selling IA. That will benefit us all by raising awareness and by testing out sales, marketing, and promotional techniques that we can all learn from.

If the answer is no, don’t waste your time.

B&A: How do you “sell” IA to a potential client.

Rosenfeld: Every successful salesperson relies on a technique that fits his personality. If you’re comfortable with numbers, lead with those. If you’re a story-teller, tell anecdotes about how IA has helped others. I’m an amateur therapist, so I try hard to get prospects to articulate their “information pain.” Then I describe how IA can solve the problems they’ve already raised. So play to your strengths, though be ready with multiple techniques, as prospects respond to different approaches too.

I’ve also found it quite important to be painfully honest about what IA offers—custom consulting services that can minimize difficult problems, not a silver bullet that makes those problems magically vanish. These services take time and cost money. Good prospects will respect your integrity, and it will form the basis of a stronger working relationship. And prospects who don’t value your honesty aren’t worth your trouble anyway.

Finally, as much as I’d like to ignore the subject, you have to be prepared to make at least a soft case for the ROI (return on investment) for information architecture. That’s what most business people expect, even though much of information architecture’s benefits can’t be quantifiably measured. Try to learn what your potential client’s metrics are; these should help guide your design work, even if they don’t help you develop an airtight case for your work’s ROI.

B&A: Do you try to combine it with a general pitch that includes usability and content work?

Rosenfeld: Naturally, it depends.

Often prospects are searching for single-source solutions, so you might have to package IA with a fuller array of web design or content management services. Partnering with one or more companies that provide complementary services is a good way to do this; that’s what Argus did back in the mid-’90s.

I’m very leery of combining an IA pitch with a usability pitch. Many prospects (and, unfortunately, many information architects) don’t know the difference, and it’s important to correct this misconception. Not only is this a responsible, educational and helpful act on your part, it will also help you to distinguish yourself from usability specialists who might otherwise be perceived as competitors. Reducing the number of competitors is always a Good Thing.

B&A: What’s the biggest concern that clients have when they’re being sold on the idea of IA?

Rosenfeld: ROI. ROI is often a bigger deal for the decision-makers that your prospects are trying to sell IA to internally. And your contacts won’t do as good a job as you will at selling IA, so try your best to make the pitch yourself—in person, whenever possible.

B&A:(B&A contributor) Chad Thornton asked Jakob Nielsen what his thoughts on information architecture were. What are your thoughts on usability?

Rosenfeld: Usability is also a Good Thing. I like usability a lot. Some of my best friends are usability specialists. And I really like my information architectures to be usable.

I’m sorry to be so flip, but usability is up there with Mom and apple pie. I just get grouchy when IA and usability are mistaken for each other. Especially by practitioners. It does neither field any good, and it only confuses the market. So can we all agree to stop it already? Viva la difference!

Part of the problem is that “usability” is a term that’s easily understood, while “information architecture” is not. I’ll line up behind Peter Morville’s suggestion that information architects adopt the term “findability” as a suitable yet different bookend to “usability”. A design can be usable but not findable, and vice versa. Maybe we should start calling ourselves “findability engineers?”

B&A: Usability is finally creeping into the mainstream—especially here in the United Kingdom (where I’m from), with some of our leading web magazines (Create Online, .net) featuring regular usability columns. Do you feel that information architecture is falling behind and that it needs more public exposure?

Rosenfeld: It’s not a race by any means. Both are necessary for good design. In fact, let’s make a pact: usability specialists will henceforth lobby for information architects to be hired for their projects whenever possible. And vice versa.

And really, information architecture will benefit from the success of usability. If usability specialists are successful at pointing out design problems through testing and evaluation, designers, including information architects, will be needed to address those problems.

B&A: What can we, as professionals working in the field, do to help IA grab some of the limelight? Do we need the controversy that surrounds Nielsen’s strong viewpoints or is there something else?

Rosenfeld: Sell and sell and sell.

Woops, I already used that answer. OK, if controversy is a good publicity technique, I’ll try to make a contribution to the cause: we often see interaction design and IA compared. Let’s acknowledge once and for all that information architecture is the more difficult of the two.

Interaction design addresses a finite realm of problems. Huge, but finite, and growing in a linear fashion as new technologies present new challenges.

Besides, Jakob will undoubtedly soon come up with a small set of standard usability solutions to all interaction design problems. [grins]

But sites are being crammed with more and more content. Information is growing exponentially, and the scalar problems we’ll be struggling with in 20 years are going to make today’s IA challenges look like a casual game of tiddly-winks. Another big problem: content that’s good today will eventually go stale. A two-headed monster that’s already starting to plague many of us.

IA design conventions, if they do emerge, will quickly be rendered moot by these scalar problems. Don’t expect Google to ride to the rescue; its current combination of algorithms probably won’t hold up under the strain.

That’s why I think IA represents an increasingly larger problem space than Interaction design, and why information architects should get all the attention and the better seats at the Academy Awards.

B&A: You and Christina Wodtke have both mentioned that we should be giving away our knowledge of IA. This is a very scary thought for people who earn a living from this knowledge. Can doing this really have a positive effect?

Rosenfeld: If I publish an article in Boxes and Arrows on how to perform a card sort, who will read it? Most likely other information architects. Because of it, they may do a better job the next time they’re hired to do a card sort. Hurray! When one of us does good, we all look good.

Who else will read it? There’s a minute possibility that a potential client will, and will decide to run his own card sort exercise instead of hiring one of us. But he’s just as likely to glaze over instead, and delegate it to an information architect. Or he’ll try it, screw up, and decide to hire a professional.

As I mentioned earlier, there is an infinite number of information architecture problems. If we start to share approaches to solving the basic ones, we can all move on to the much more interesting stuff.

B&A: Do you think that IA will become less of a profession and more of a skill set? If so, where does that leave IAs—are we all destined to become teachers, educating designers and developers?

Rosenfeld: That’s a great question, and my answer is yes. All of the above. In 10 years, there probably will be people with the title “information architect,” as well as people who practice IA as part of a different role or under a different title. Not unlike our favorite analogy, the field of architecture, which includes both licensed architects and builders among its practitioners. The important thing is that much, much more IA will be practiced in the future unless some major catastrophe engulfs the planet.

B&A: So who will practice IA? Who should learn the IA skill set?

Rosenfeld: I think a better way to look at this is to ask who is practicing IA right now? Just about everyone who deals with information systems, even managing files on their own computer, knows a thing or two about information architecture. Perhaps an important way to broadly promote ourselves is to associate the frustrations of personal information management with solutions that emanate from this new field of information architecture. If everyone realizes they have IA problems, they’ll value IA experts all the more.

B&A: Is the future in consulting, or should in-house information architects be the better approach?

Rosenfeld: Again, the future is in both. IA generalists will likely predominate in-house, with specialized consultants being called in on an as-needed basis. But this will naturally vary by company size, industry, and other factors.

B&A: Do you see content management systems (CMS) as a threat to information architects? If the IA is defined by the CMS, where does the in-house IA fit in after the system has been designed and implemented?

Rosenfeld: No, CMS present a golden opportunity for information architects. True CMS (as opposed to document management systems) require schema design, not to mention content modelling and workflow analysis. They often require metadata to support searching, browsing, and administration. All this design will have to be customized to meet the needs of a particular set of users and business owners. CMS vendors’ professional services groups usually can’t handle this melange of custom design and evaluation. That’s where we come in.

B&A: When you meet someone and they ask what you do, what do you tell them? Do you have a prepared line that goes “Well, information architecture is basically…”?

Rosenfeld: I usually point out my wife, tell them to ask her, and make for the devilled eggs. Mary Jean does a much better job of explaining IA than I do. If she’s not handy, I slog through something along the lines of “I organize huge amounts of information on web sites so that users can find what they’re looking for.” Or something to that effect. I find that elevator pitches aren’t usually enough; combining them with an analogy or two helps, assuming your conversation partner is still interested, or ever was in the first place.

B&A: You’ve got a treat for us all that’s due out soon. Can you tell us a little bit about Polar Bear 2?

Rosenfeld: It will be on bookshelves at the end of August, I’m happy to report. It’ll have the same bear on the cover, though she’ll be a littler older and fatter, and hopefully wiser too.

B&A: You’ve already told me that it’s going to be much bigger than the first edition.

Rosenfeld: Yes, it’s about 500 pages, two-and-a-half times longer than the first edition.

B&A: What has changed so much since it was first published in 1997?

Rosenfeld: You, mostly. There really wasn’t an audience of self-identified information architects back in 1998. Writing for a smarter, more experienced audience meant striving for both greater breadth and depth, and lead to Peter and I rewriting almost the entire book (it’s really unfair to call it a second edition). Not an easy task, so yes, we’re relieved it’s done and we can return to leading normal lives.

B&A: What additional topics are being covered in the new book?

Rosenfeld: More of an interdisciplinary perspective, more on the relationship of IA to the broader business context, and lots more useful resources for practitioners. More sophisticated methodology, more case studies, more visuals. More things that I’m sure I’m leaving out. In general, more.

And yet, still not enough; the field is so broad now that it’s really impossible to stuff into a single volume. Disagree? Go ahead and try it yourself.

B&A: Could you have predicted the changes and additional topics five years ago?

Rosenfeld: I’m not sure we could have predicted all of these changes, but we always knew that the field would take hold, grow, and become increasingly complex.

Our book is but one snapshot of information architecture circa 2001/2002; we’re really looking forward to seeing (and reading) many more perspectives.

Paul Nattress is a former UK-based information architect who specialises in web content and has worked in-house for several UK FTSE 100 companies.

Information Ecology: Bayer’s Book of Maps

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Within the Atlas’ three hundred sixty-eight pages reside one hundred twenty full-page maps of the world supported by one thousand two hundred diagrams, graphs, charts, symbols about the planet earth. One of the purposes of information design is to realize a vivid experience of content. The “World Geo-Graphic Atlas” is a demonstration of this challenge. Edited and designed by Austrian graphic designer Herbert Bayer between 1949 and 1952, and endorsed by industrial pioneer Walter Paepcke’s Container Corporation of America (Chicago), the “World Geo-Graphic Atlas” was released in 1953. Within the Atlas’ three hundred sixty-eight pages reside “one hundred twenty full-page maps of the world supported by one thousand two hundred diagrams, graphs, charts, symbols about the planet earth.” Its debut came decades before the impact of desktop publishing on the design process and before the entry of the term “information design” into the evolving lexicon of visual communications.

An atlas is usually a book of maps. They were named for Atlas, one of the groups of gods called Titans in Greek mythology. For participating in a war against the supreme ruler Zeus, Atlas was punished by standing and supporting the sky forever. Many works of art depict Atlas supporting the Earth, not the sky, on his shoulders.1

The Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator first used the term “atlas” for a collection of maps in the 16th century. 2 Atlases have become saturated containers. Extensive editorial (documentation and descriptions) and graphics (cartography and photography) fill an atlas’ large pages. Such an eclectic and dense array of material is both intensive and intimidating. Such material was illuminated in the “World Geo-Graphic Atlas.” From its Preface, Bayer designed the information “in an abbreviated, simplified style with extensive use of the pictorial medium.” Bayer’s rendition of the atlas can be described by the following techniques:

  • Page presence and harmony
  • Multiplicity of views
  • Storytelling

Page presence and harmony


Each spread acts as a poster. The Atlas page size is 10.75″ x 15″. The book’s physicality is monumental. No page acts alone but in concert with another. The Atlas’ pages are complementary: A single seamless surface packed with data. The contrast of content was optimized between facing pages. Each turning of the page unfolded a spectacle. Showcasing a state is a major template. The left side is a microcosm of features, from a display of the state’s bird to a table measuring consumption of natural resources.

The right side of the spread. Click to pop up a very large version of the page (132k)

The right side is a macrocosm through the map of the state. The unified coverage achieves a “state”ment, two pages functioning as a unit of one. The left page naturally transitions into its adjacent counterpart and vice versa. This toggling between two levels of detail provides a dual survey of the land.

Bayer’s orchestration of “the pictorial medium” is lyrical in the Atlas. The grand symphonic poem of the world is broken down into digestible clusters, rhythmic in their visualization. There is a visual lilt to the layouts. The visual composition of data density naturally lends itself to musical play that amplifies the meaning of the content instead of distorting the truth.

Multiplicity of views

Graphical texture is used to illustrate the earth's atmosphere. Click to pop up a very large version of the page (104k)

The graphical texture is thick as shown, for example, on describing the earth’s atmosphere and circulation of air. Texture showing air circulation. Click to pop up a very large version of the page (106k)

The various views of data are matched by the variety of disciplinary views. That is, Bayer gathered and assembled data that crossed disciplines such as geography, sociology, history, astronomy, and geology.3 From the Atlas’ Preface, Bayer states that “There are close ties and overlappings between geology and water supply, between astronomy and glaciers, between population figures and physiographic features, between sunspots and communications.” This texture of multiple forms stemming from multiple disciplines gives each page a contextual ambiance rooted in the liberal arts and sciences. The cultural and physical properties are revealed in the manner of a tapestry whose choreography incites exploration of the subject matter. It also fosters an appreciation for the scientific fields of inquiry in learning more about our habitat through a local or international lens.


The essence of storytelling is creating a path of self-discovery.Narrative is beyond the analogy of the page being the stage. The essence of storytelling is creating a path of self-discovery. In making the story of our world and its ecology as vivid as possible, “significant detail” is presented. Bayer’s handling of the Atlas’ content is like a curator. Concrete details are arranged sensitively to engage the curiosity of the reader as navigator or meanderer. The exhibition of significant details is theatrical. But they not only entertain, they also educate.

“People and places are the twin pillars on which most nonfiction is built. Every human event happens somewhere, and the reader wants to know what that somewhere was like.”4 The writer William Zissner’s words, from his chapter on “Writing About Places” can be applied to the Atlas. Bayer’s handling of concrete detail builds a strong sense of place. The visual organization and treatment is objective but also evokes a setting – the sight and sounds – that fascinates the senses of the reader turned traveler. “The mere agglomeration of detail is no free pass to the reader’s interest. The detail must be significant.”5 Each page of the Atlas is an eloquent passage, not a superficial heap of data. The reader is presented with a passage through time, space, and culture.

Evangelizing Ecology

The Solar System. Click to pop up a larger version of this image.

The Atlas eloquently presents data of the world – its people and places – in a colorful format that is both enriching and enlightening. Bayer orchestrated a sequence that is strong from beginning to end. The Atlas does not only visually capture the landscape of the mid-twentieth century but rewinds to the beginning of planetary movements and of the planets themselves. The typical strategy is to fast forward to the present day and concentrate on the here and now, but Bayer finds relevance in what was, the origins.

A comparison between the growth of the global population to the availability of the earth's resources. Click to pop up a larger version of this image.

Regarding the future, a graphic is found at the end of the Atlas. It shows a comparison between the growth of the global population to the availability of the earth’s resources. The proportion of land to individual is becoming more disproportionate. Tapping into the power of narrative, the visual coda provides an explicit challenge: Take care of the Earth. This coda matches the preamble that expresses a collective conscience in sustaining the challenge.

Visualizing a collective conscious. Click to pop up a larger version of this image.

From the Atlas’ Foreword, Walter Paepcke states, “It is important that we know more about the geography and the conditions of life of our neighbors in the world so that we may have a better understanding of other peoples and nations.” Global empathy through cooperation and collaboration is a key to our world’s survival. In evangelizing the critical value of understanding in an ever-changing information landscape, information design is nothing short but an environmental discipline.

Photos by Ignatius Aloysius, True Ideas

For more information

1 Atlas with Earth on his shoulders.

2 Geradus Mercator coined the term “atlas” for a collection of maps.

3Bayer, Herbert (edited & designed by), World Geographic Atlas: A Composite of Man’s Environment, Chicago, Container Corporation of America, 1953, First edition.

4From On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, p. 116.

5From On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, p. 117.

Nate Burgos Nate Burgos is a designer who sustains growing design webliography “Design Feast”:

Foreseeing the Future: The legacy of Vannevar Bush

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In 1945 a seminal article appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. Titled, “As We May Think,” the article’s author, Vannevar Bush (1890–1974), proposed a new mechanical machine to help scholars and decision makers make sense of the growing mountains of information being published in to the world. This article presaged the idea of the Internet and the World Wide Web and was directly influential on the fathers of the hypertext and the Internet as we know it today. Ted Nelson, who coined the term “hypertext” in 1967, describes Bush’s article as describing the principles of it.

Bush has been hailed as the conceptual creator of “hypertext,” laying out the notion of the modern link 50 years before the web became a public phenomenon.

Bush was a distinguished scientist and a scholar. He served as dean of the school of engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington D.C. and was the President’s top advisor during World War II. He was chairman of the President’s National Defense Research Committee (1940) Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (1941–1947), Chairman of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (1939–1941), founder of the National Science Foundation and was a central figure in the development of nuclear fission and the Manhattan Project.

But he was also an inventor and invented several types of machines—the profile tracer, the justifying typewriter and the differential analyzer which was used in World War II to calculate ballistics table. As early as the 1930s he was concerned about the glut of information coming out of academia and the government and wanted to improve the way people accessed, stored and communicated information. He recognized the limitations in how that information was accessed. In this landmark article he describes a machine, the memex, which would help someone find information based in association and context rather than strict categorical indexing. “A memex is a device in which an individual stores his books, records and communications and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”1

The article goes on to describe the physical desk as having a set of translucent screens, keyboard, buttons and levers. The desk would also serve its user as a large storage device.

It is because of this article that Bush has been hailed as the conceptual creator of “hypertext”. The article is at its most innovative and interesting in the description of how the memex device was to work for the reader.

The memex “affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.2

This description, some 30 years before the invention of the personal computer and 50 years before the web became a public phenomenon, lays out the notion of the modern link.

George P. Landow, author of Hypertext: the convergence of contemporary critical theory and technology says of Bush, “Bush’s idea of the memex, to which he occasionally turned his attention for three decades, directly influenced Ted Nelson, Douglas Englebart Andreis Van Dam and other pioneers in computer hypertext. […] In “As We May Think” and “Memex Revisited” Bush proposed the notion of blocks of text joined by links and he also introduced the terms links, linkages, trails and web to describe his conception of textuality. Bush’s description of the memex contains several other seminal, even radical, conceptions of textuality.”3

Some of the ideas, the concept of associative indexing, trails and sets of trails are prescient to the modern topical blog. A single author connects documents that are associated by some common theme, annotated with commentary and available for others to read long after the original associations are made.

Bush described the memex reader reading documents and tying them together with links. “Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it to the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. […] He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.”4

Bush goes on to describe the sharing of trails between people and the creation of a “new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of common record. The inheritance from the master becomes not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.”5

The memex and its description have long been hailed as inspiration for the creators of hypertext and even the web. However, the importance of his legacy reaches far beyond this in the description of information organization and associative context. We are only now beginning to develop software and interactive spaces that allow a reader’s associative ability to be more automated and made available to others across the Internet. Through the addition of linking and the creation of trails, as well as personal commentary and annotation, the reader becomes author as well. The modern weblog starts to walk down the path Bush described. Wiki, the software that allows one person to aggregate and publish information and then allows others to modify and add and change the original information is also akin to his vision as well. Bush was as concerned with people authoring content as well as managing associations around existing content, and the fluid nature of the Wiki, the sharing of data and the sharing of the responsibility for the data trails, is a direct descendant of his ideas.

Theodor Nelson, in his essay “As We Will Think” (1972—republished as a chapter in From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind’s Machine in 1992), says that the “famous call for the memex has been generally misinterpreted for it has little to do with information retrieval as prosecuted today. Bush rejected indexing and discussed instead new forms of interwoven documents.”6

Bush’s vision for how we handle and interact with information took a step towards reality with the creation of hypertext and the basic linked web, but those of us working with information and creating information spaces and connections would do well to take another look at his vision and be as inspired to create new and innovative ways to gather and share information as other have been in the past.

For more information:

Photos of Vannevar Bush

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 .

AIGA Experience Design – Past, Present and Future

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Clement Mok, widely considered one of the early leaders of the IA/UE movement, is the current president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. He served as a creative director at Apple for five years before he founded Studio Archetype interaction design and branding agency in 1988. When Sapient “Can those who design experiences find a useful, lasting home within the age-old AIGA?”acquired Studio Archetype in 1998, Mok became Chief Creative Officer. Now consulting, he continues to shape Sapient’s long term strategy as Chairman of its Innovation Advisory Board.

Terry Swack, a 20-year veteran of the design profession as well as a leading digital strategist and designer, is the AIGA Experience Design national chair and serves on the AIGA board of directors. Formerly, Terry was founder and CEO of TSDesign, an Internet strategy and product design firm acquired by Razorfish in 1999. Terry now consults independently, is a contributing reviewer to Internet World’s Deconstructing column and is writing a book on the impact of experience design strategy on business.

In 1998 Terry and Clement, organized the Advance for Design Forum, an initiative of the AIGA. Its purpose was to ‘create a forum for the advance of experience design in the network economy and to define and build a community of practitioners who will shape and advocate for the role of design in a world that is increasingly digital’. In 2000 it formally became the AIGA Experience Design community of interest and now has a national membership with groups established in major US cities and London.

The two are uniquely qualified to elucidate the evolution and future of AIGA ED and to answer the important question: Can those who design experiences find a useful, lasting home within the age-old AIGA?

They recently talked with Erin Malone of Boxes and Arrows:

B&A: What was your original motivation for beginning the Experience Design community of interest?

Terry & Clement: Like many design practitioners in the mid-’90s, Terry and I were thrust into developing and evolving our respective design practices for the growing needs of online initiatives by our clients. Being early converts, we found ourselves in conferences, workshops and seminars preaching the Internet gospel and sharing insights and methodologies on creating order out of the inherent unstructured nature of the Internet.

Repeatedly, we found ourselves with other like-minded practitioners in hallway conversations comparing notes. We rarely had time to see each other’s presentations or have meaningful discourse about the challenges of advancing the practice and the profession. Each of us were making the same mistakes and essentially inventing the same methodology only with different labels. Terry and I were fed up with these chance meetings, and we were hoping someone would organize a conference that will bring together people who we admired and respected from afar, but we didn’t know what organization would do it.

Coincidently, Ric Grefe, the director of AIGA, approached both Clement and I to see if we wanted to develop ‘New Media’ design programming for AIGA. Despite the large number of AIGA members who worked in this arena, we felt this new community and practice was more than just media involving the integration or the complimentary use of different design processes with varying emphasis on different visualization and behavioral manipulation skills and disciplines. There was no obvious home for this community, but we had to start somewhere.

AIGA was willing to incubate this group as Clement and I envisioned it. The attendees of the first Advance for Design summit in Nantucket in 1998 were drawn essentially from our personal Rolodexes. They were from a range of design and design-related specializations: designers, clients and educators from corporations, agencies, user research firms and new media/Internet consulting firms. The background of the attendees represented the composition of the community we wanted to build-eclectic and diverse with a common passion for (big as well as little) design.

Interestingly, the attendees were surprised AIGA would sponsor Advance for Design, but it was clear these practitioners felt equally disconnected from ACM SIGCHI, IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) or AIP (Association of Internet Professionals). So we opted to define our own community and appreciated the AIGA’s support. !!!!!

B&A: Why was it called Advance for Design?

Terry & Clement: It was not a conference or a meeting. All participants were presenters and attendees. The goal was to figure out how to learn and share knowledge among us. In short, to advance the profession and the practice of design … hence the name.

B&A: The AIGA Experience Design community of interest began over four years ago. Why has it taken so long to come into the mainstream IA/UE/UI community?

Terry & Clement: Yes, we’ve had four Advance for Design summits, but the group really did not become an official part of AIGA until after the third meeting. That’s when it became apparent that “Design”- the creating of form, the process, as well as the commitment to human-centered design and user experience-was the common thread. We all contributed to the design of experience. AIGA had already demonstrated its willingness to help develop the group, so we made the affiliation official and gave the group a name. So we see this as a two-year-old organization rather than four.

B&A: Do you feel change, inclusion and acceptance of this practice and organization is happening fast enough?

Terry & Clement: It’s relative to one’s perspective as to what’s fast. Behaviors and beliefs don’t change overnight. It changes at the speed of habit (that’s a Paul Saffo quote). We also don’t believe the practice and the organization are one and the same. Things happen at different speeds out in the world relative to the speed of a volunteer organization. 😉

B&A: How do you reconcile the notion of an Experience Design Community of practice with being sponsored/supported by the AIGA, which has a reputation out there of being solely the home of graphic designers?

Terry & Clement: AIGA has been around nearly a hundred years because it has adapted to the regular transformation of the design profession. “AIGA uses the term “Experience Design” to describe a community of practice-not a single profession or discipline.”AIGA used to be an organization about printing (graphic arts-the GA in AIGA). It changed into an organization about typographic design and publication design. It morphed into an organization for graphic designers in the ’70s and now it’s out to earn the reputation to be an organization about Experience Design.

Those who perceive AIGA as a home of graphic designers may want to look closely at its activities, membership, conferences and competitions. In recent years, it has become a leader in a number of areas that are not part of its traditional perception-visual culture, design for film and television, converging media and brand strategy.

And lastly, for those who simply have problems with the name, AIGA is not unlike SPRINT or IBM. Those companies chose to keep their historical names-through the use of acronyms-despite how they’ve changed over time. I’d wager to say that many people have never heard a mainframe computer referred to as a ‘business machine’. IBM is now the name of the company that invented “e-business”.

B&A: Do you think AIGA ED will ever branch off on its own, as a separate organization?

Terry & Clement: Simply put: AIGA has 12 staff and 17,000+ members. The organization is the membership. AIGA has put no limitations on who the community is or how it evolves. The Experience Design community’s growth is purely a function of who has chosen to be involved and what they believe is important-and it is largely made up of IA/UE/UI folks.

Despite this, we think the more important question is which institutional characteristics will serve practitioners best in achieving a sense of community, the ability to share information and the means to develop effective communication programs that will enhance understanding and respect for the role of the practitioners. These are the needs of a profession. We think the organization should have sufficient infrastructure to survive the ebb and flow of volunteer energy and be able to reach out to those in allied fields who share teams and who will advocate for the highest and best practices. Within this structure, one can be as introspective as one wants without becoming self-limiting on the reach of this new community. At the moment, it appears these conditions are better met within AIGA than on one’s own. There are many organizations with great intents yet no critical mass or influence.

B&A: The concept “A Community of Practice,” which was discussed at last year’s Summit, has a lot of value. How are you evangelizing this notion to the greater field?

Terry & Clement: AIGA uses the term “Experience Design” to describe a community of practice-not a single profession or discipline. Designing effective experiences requires many different types of professionals with a broad range of knowledge.

However, we now better understand the difference between a community of interest and a community of practice. This distinction has become an important question as we move forward in the community’s development relative to other user-experience professional organizations.

Posted recently to the SIGIA-L discussion list was link to an article titled Communities of Practice, by Martin White:

‘A community of practice is a way of developing best practice in a given area, established by members who wish to develop their specific expertise through open participation in the creation and exchange of knowledge. Of course best practice changes with time and with business circumstance, and so these communities will also need to adapt …

…. To be successful, online communities must show prompt and relevant benefits to both the employer and the employee. Communities constantly evolve and must be managed to keep them fresh and alive. Every community has a life cycle of infancy, maturity and death. It is possible however with good community management to prevent the death of a community by constantly evolving it with the changing needs of its members, and introducing new functionality, topics or subgroups.’

Martin’s article was written for a business audience (i.e., communities within one organization). This perspective helped us realize the statement’s relevance to us-how we should be looking at the communities within AIGA Experience Design.

It also distinguishes the two terms: community of interest (COI) and community of practice (COP). At the risk of contradicting ourselves, by this definition, AIGA Experience Design is really a community of interest made up of many communities of practice.

We are continuing to examine how AIGA Experience Design can support and advance the causes for discrete types of COPs, and which ones. A clear start are the role and knowledge presentations presented at the 4th Advance for Design, in 2001 (visit to download these presentations – which are all listed in the right column of the page). We will continue to refine those definitions and add tools, models and processes to support them.

B&A: There is a lot of work being done by both of you, by Lou Rosenfeld and others, to create a community that embraces the new collaborative discipline. Do you feel that the AIGA is the right home for this or should there be some sort of triad (AIGA, ASIS, CHI) coalition or even an organizationally agnostic new group created?

Terry & Clement: Given that experience design is about collaboration, we value the opportunity to participate in the group to determine how we collectively can serve the needs of the community. The group will have several meetings in the coming months with the goal of defining some actionable strategies.

That said, we started AIGA Experience Design specifically to build a community that draws from a variety of disciplines. Practitioners will be attracted to organizations that reflect the narrowness of their interests and/or their ambition for broader reach-and this will allow a number of institutions to fill the need. We believe that the interdisciplinary nature of experience design as we see it and the commitment to developing educational and professional standards, as well as communication and advocacy programs, is well supported within AIGA. Rather than agnosticism, we believe that an organization that can advance the community’s interest is the predominant attribute we are seeking. B&A: Recently there was an interesting discussion on the AIGAED discussion list that criticized the Graphic Design field for perpetuating the “Designer as Stylist” perception, through annuals and awards and the cult of personality that is so often showcased in the magazines. What is your reaction to“AIGA Experience Design is the community that brings all types of Experience Design practitioners together to focus on larger issues of business value and collaborative practice and methods.” this? How do you think the ED SIG can help change people’s perceptions of Design and the AIGA?

Terry & Clement: Design having a balanced focus on behavioral, social and visual esthetics is what’s important to us. There will be always be practitioners who will work at the extremes. It will require practitioners, educators and professional organizations to shape and redefine the new center of gravity for design. It’s hard work and it needs to be done if our profession will have any credibility in the marketplace. The ED SIG can’t do it alone. It requires changes at all level. AIGA is the only organization that has the critical mass and numbers to make the meaningful changes.

B&A: Do you think the party is too big? Are we fracturing the discipline too finely? The list on the AIGA ED page consists of:

  • Design planner
  • Design strategist
  • Business strategist
  • Brand strategist
  • Visual systems designer
  • Brand applications designer
  • Creative director
  • User researcher
  • Usability specialist
  • Information architect
  • Information designer
  • Interaction designer
  • Software designer

Terry & Clement: To the contrary- the party is not too big by virtue of being inclusive of those who tend to work together on teams to accomplish a solution within the practice of experience design.

AIGA Experience Design is the community that brings all types of Experience Design practitioners together to focus on larger issues of business value and collaborative practice and methods. Because of this, AIGA Experience Design members are designers who are interested in exploring new boundaries of their professions as they are evolving across multiple disciplines. This includes people who belong to other professional organizations, as well as people who don’t identify with a traditional profession and are looking for a new “home” community.

The list above is from last summer’s summit when we examined experience design ‘roles’ people might play in their organizations or on teams. The words serve to summarize skills and knowledge required to play them. As many of these roles have overlapping skills and knowledge, it’s not as important what they’re called, as long as we know what they do. You’ll find on our new Web site, coming within the next month, an even more inclusive and expanded list of skills-not roles or titles-found in the AIGA Experience Design community (following are just the headings for each section). Members of this community have skills from:

  • the online and digital industries
  • the software industry
  • the communication design and broadcast industries
  • the marketing/research/advertising industries
  • industrial design
  • exhibit design
  • the environmental/interior design industries

B&A: What happened to the Graphic Designer? Is this title good enough anymore? Is it too loaded within the software, IA, HCI field to be a respected member of the team?

Terry & Clement: The titles software engineer, programmer, information architect and HCI specialist are also loaded, so why single out graphic designer? People who call themselves graphic designers might also use terms like designer, visual designer, communication designer or communication strategist to describe their current roles. But in the new Web site text, you’ll find the term graphic designer. 😉

B&A: The joint forum with CHI at this year’s CHI is a great start in embracing the related disciplines. How has the CHI forum been received?

Terry & Clement: Anecdotally, the CHI2002 / AIGA Experience Design FORUM is being received quite well. People are happy to see more design at CHI, and we’re collaboratively happy to accommodate. We’ll know better when the rubber hits the road and we know the final attendance numbers!

B&A: What outcomes are you hoping for when it is all over? What events, conferences, seminars are next?

Terry & Clement: There will be further collaboration, which we expect to discuss at the FORUM.

B&A: Is there anything like this planned with the ASIST community? Was there an official AIGA presence at the ASIST IA Summit in March?

Terry & Clement: I (Terry) attended, but the timing was difficult for others simply because of the scheduling of AIGA’s national design conference the following weekend in DC. A challenge of logistics not interests. As far as collaboration, I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of the planning group you asked about a few questions earlier.

B&A: Where do you see the AIGA ED community going in the next few years?

Terry & Clement: We plan to continue to execute on our mission “to build an interdisciplinary community of professionals who design for a world in which experiences are increasingly digital and connected” by continuing to address the most relevant issues of the community.

B&A: At last year’s summit, there were a lot of design educators there. Has AIGAED been working to develop a recommended curriculum for universities and art schools for this new community of practice?

Terry & Clement: Yes. AIGA is the institution that works with the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) to develop accreditation criteria for four-year and graduate programs in design. In this capacity, we have developed with the ED community a set of criteria for an effective program (focusing on outcomes). The involvement of educators in the community and the publication of Loop, AIGA Journal of Interaction Design Education, are attempts to work with the education community to stimulate thinking about curricular issues.

B&A: How is it being accepted?

Terry & Clement: NASAD and the schools it accredits welcome the guidance. Acceptance in the educational community, however, is not as important as their engagement. In this regard, AIGA and the ED community are attempting to enable the community to become engaged around critical issues to the professional community (and its needs from the educational community). This takes time, but there do not appear to be other comparable efforts going on.

B&A: As a hiring manager myself, I have found the well-rounded skills needed for this role are often lacking in fresh graduates-or they have two degrees and have spent too many years in school. Are there any schools with something acceptable in place?

Terry & Clement: Schools are in dire need of overhauling their curriculum to reflect the realities of the marketplace. This is not a criticism of design schools but also of computer science programs, business schools and engineering schools as well.

B&A: As the AIGA ED gets off the ground, sponsoring conferences and seminars beyond the small Summits, what’s next for the two of you?

Terry & Clement: Clement is the president of AIGA and Terry is a national board member and chair of AIGA ED. We have our hands pretty full, not only planning this year, but also working with Ric and the rest of the board to determine where the organization is going. For more information than that, you’ll just have to get involved and contribute to what you’d like to see happen!

We’d also like to thank you for inviting us to participate in Boxes and Arrows!

For more information:

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 .

Alan Cooper Speaks! Impressions from BayCHI April 2002

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On the second Tuesday of every month, BayCHI, the Bay Area chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) special interest group on Computer-Human Interaction convenes at the research center formerly known as Xerox PARC. Phew! Now that we’ve got that mouthful out of the way, let’s get on with it…

This month we were treated to a one-two punch from Cooper’s man at the helm, Alan Cooper, and their Director of Design Research and Development, Robert Reimann.

“As an Interaction Designer, I’m saddened to hear that “Interaction Design” will be dropped from the name of one of the leaders of our discipline.”A true master of the genre, BayCHI’s own, Richard Anderson, conducted the interview with Alan. For those of you who don’t know Alan Cooper, besides being one of the founders of Cooper Interaction Design, he is also the author of two of the only interaction design books for which you should be ashamed of yourself for not having read, “About Face” and, “The Inmates are Running the Asylum.”

During the interview, Alan touched on three main points:

  1. The difference between Interface Design and Interaction Design.
  2. The establishment of Interaction Design as a discipline.
  3. What comes next for Cooper and Interaction Design in general?

Despite a likening to Attila the Hun (on the Cooper website), Alan seems a pretty likable guy. This was evident, not only from the many laughs he got during the evening, but also from the near-contagious head nodding by audience members.

Much like the axioms that fill his first book, Alan’s speaking style is axiomatic, in that much of what he has to say is just so right on.

The evening’s discussion began with the statement that “terminology is a trap”. It seems that Alan has been trapped by terminology just as many of us have been, which will help explain the surprising announcement about the company that I will later reveal.

That said, I don’t think any of you will be surprised to hear that he considers Interface Design a subset of Interaction Design and Interaction Design a subset of something bigger still. After all, we all agree that it is the behavior and not the design of the interface that ultimately has the greatest influence on the usability of an interactive system, right?

I, for one, was hoping to hear more about the “something bigger” of which interaction design was a subset. Could Alan have been thinking of Experience Design here? It’s hard to say. Clearly Cooper’s Director of Design Research and Development, Robert Reimann, has been very active in the emerging Experience Design community, on the AIGA Experience Design list and elsewhere, but Alan’s focus seems a bit more on the business side of Cooper the company. As it would turn out, his avoidance of naming the “something bigger” was probably at least partially on purpose.

At this point the discussion moved quickly into a review of the establishment of interaction design as a discipline.

An interesting point that Alan made was that after “Inmates” came out, programmers didn’t respond in protest. He said it was more of an “abdication,” which I thought was an interesting choice of words, especially coming from someone who clearly has a lot of respect for software engineers. Alan said that software engineers and their managers simply didn’t understand the affect they had on the people who use the results of their work. Of course, as designers, we see the evidence all around us. The fingerprints of software engineers are all over nearly every artifact in our world.

This point was particularly axiomatic for me because (although I’m a bit weary to admit) I was in Wal*Mart last weekend when I stumbled on a toaster with a button on the top labeled “Cancel.” If that isn’t a case of product design by engineers, I don’t’ know what is!

Alan also covered some of the reasons why builders can’t be designers because of the conflict of interest involved, which readers will remember was covered in, “The Inmates are Running the Asylum.”

This led into a statement that Alan made about the job of the Interaction Designer, which he said was to make sure the appropriate users are addressed appropriately. I liked this definition, but was a bit surprised to hear that he doesn’t think the Interaction Designer should ultimately be held responsible for the satisfaction of the users.

Upon further thought, this assertion seems quite logical. We are after all, as Alan said, merely practitioners. There are simply too many business issues, over which an interaction designer has no control, to be held responsible for something of that magnitude.

This obviously begs the question: then who is responsible? Alan’s contention is that the position should be held by someone at the “C” level (as in CEO or CFO). This was the only time during the evening that Alan mentioned that oh-so-problematic word “experience,” when he reluctantly suggested that the person responsible for the satisfaction of the users might be called the Chief Experience Officer (CXO).

Bringing us to what was, without question, the biggest announcement of the evening, which was that Cooper the company was dropping Interaction Design from their name. The reason “interaction design” is being dropped from the name, according to Alan, is to better reflect all of the work that they do, which, as it turns out, is more and more some sort of business consulting.

What sort of business consulting you ask? Unfortunately, this first half of the BayCHI event was already over time, so we didn’t get to hear, but based on what Alan was alluding to for much of the evening, it’s probably safe to say that a good part of that consulting work will include consulting for companies who are interested in making a place for the Chief Experience Officer in their organizations.

Indeed, Cooperista Jonathan Korman is working on a particularly relevant book – one that will discuss “how businesses can structure themselves to create great products.” In fact, if you haven’t read Jonathan’s article entitled, “Putting people together to make good products,” from the September 2001 Cooper newsletter, you should (after you finish all the other articles on Boxes & Arrows, of course).

While this is a very exciting proposition, it is not a new idea. Certainly many of you are aware that Don Norman has been encouraging members of the design and usability communities to move their way into the upper management of their companies for a number of years.

As an Interaction Designer, I’m saddened to hear that “Interaction Design” will be dropped from the name of one of the leaders of our discipline, but at the same time I’m excited about the opportunities that may arise for fellow Interaction Designers as the result of Cooper’s new mission.

And what else can we all be, except ecstatic, about the idea of Cooper’s consulting work resulting in a company where the issues surrounding users’ satisfaction will be addressed by “C” level managers and design is considered more strategically as a business advantage.

Fellow Interaction Designers, my advice to you is to bone up on your BS (no, not that BS, I’m talking about Business Skills) and prepare for the open highways that Cooper will hopefully pave for us!

For more information:

Brad Lauster works for Stanford University as an Interaction Designer, but is better known for his ruminations about Experience, Interaction and Product Design on his website brad lauster (dot com). You can usually find him traipsing around the Bay Area, attending talks on the subjects of his website.

Unraveling the Mysteries of metadata and taxonomies

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Christina Wodtke of Boxes and Arrows interviews Samantha Bailey (former Argonaut and current lead IA for Wachovia Corporation’s website) about Information Architecture, her dream process and the mysteries of metadata and taxonomies.

B&A: Let’s get meta – you come from the Argus LIS-flavored school of IA. What is your definition of Information Architecture?

SB: I’m going to pull this answer directly from an article I just wrote: “While it is unlikely that any two practicing information architects will give identical definitions of the term, there is consensus that information architecture has organization at its root. Basing my understanding on Morville and Rosenfeld’s approach, I define information architecture as: “the art and science of organizing information so that it is findable, manageable, and useful.” This definition is a “I think good IAs (like many good librarians) are often generalists at heart-people who have a love of learning and a tendency to be interested in practically anything that comes their way.”content-intensive interpretation, indicating my bias that information architecture skills are most critical in content rich environments. It also draws on the information retrieval roots of library science, emphasizing the importance of being able to find that which one seeks, whether known or unknown. Finally, information architecture is a user-centered discipline, understanding that usability is at the heart of a successful information based interaction.”

B&A What skills does one need to become a good IA?

SB: On an ongoing basis and in terms of basic personality traits, good IAs need to be inquisitive, problem/solution oriented, and dedicated to continual learning. The field is so new that there isn’t a set body of knowledge that you can learn in full and then have “mastered.” I think there is certainly a body of knowledge that an IA needs to pursue and absorb, which lays a foundation upon which to build.

In terms of the fields that I think most profoundly influence IA and are the best fodder for ongoing learning: Library and information science (my bias, obviously), HCI, cognitive psychology, ethnography and linguistics are among those I consider most critical.

Additionally, all of us need sales/marketing skills so that we can promote the field and continue inserting information architecture practices into processes that have been around long enough and are well established enough that it can take some work to make room for the IA piece.

B&A If someone wrote you having just gotten their BA-perhaps in English or philosophy-and wanted to become an IA, what would you tell them?

SB: I actually have a BA in philosophy, so it doesn’t appear to get in the way of pursuing IA too much. I guess I’d recommend reading as much as possible; there’s such a rich reading list now, and so many people with great insights. When I first became interested in IA, Lou [Rosenfeld] & Peter [Morville] hadn’t written their book yet, and IA was more nebulous. The ambiguity was appealing to me, as I was attracted to being part of something that was in the process of being formed. At times it also felt somewhat insubstantial; we were making it up, and sometimes there was a lurking sense that it lacked legitimacy for the very reason that it hadn’t been codified.

In addition to the reading, join the SIGIA listserv, find a discussion group, look for a mentor. And of course there is working on actual information architectures: your own site, volunteer projects, student projects. I wasn’t clear about what I wanted to do, career-wise, immediately after college, so I worked for several years. I’m really glad about that, as it made it easier to be confident and to be taken more seriously. After I got my master’s degree and my first “real” IA position, I had real world life and work experience. While it’s important to have rather specific skills in classification and user-centered design methodology, I think good IAs (like many good librarians) are often generalists at heart-people who have a love of learning and a tendency to be interested in practically anything that comes their way. I recommend throwing yourself in the way of whatever learning opportunities strike you as even remotely relevant.

B&A You recently joined a large financial institution. What are some of the differences you’ve seen between being a consultant and being an employee?

SB: There are both similarities and differences. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been in the area of sales/business development. As a consultant, I was never fond of the part of my job that involved business development (e.g., marketing the company, bringing in business via sales calls, structuring projects to enhance future business opportunities, etc). But I knew it was a critical part of my role as a consultant and, more particularly, as a consultant in a small start-up. So, when I joined a very specific department in a large company, I thought my bus dev days were behind me. And, indeed, I no longer have direct sales responsibilities. There aren’t calls to sit in on, RFPs to respond to, proposals to defend, etc., but my sales/marketing role remains a critical part of my new job. In this role, I’m selling something a bit different. Instead of selling a specific company/group of individuals, or a specific methodology or “secret recipe,” I’m now selling information architecture as a discipline that is critical to successful web design and that can be successfully fit into the company’s existing processes without too much pain. So, I’m changing my attitude about business development; from something that consultants or folks in small companies do to something that everyone has to do, in some way or another, all the time.

There is also, of course, the innie vs. outtie issue, that has been discussed on SIGIA. As a consultant, you see the pros and cons of being an outtie depending on the nature of the project- e.g., it can be a benefit to be removed because you’re not bogged down and swayed by existing politics, and yet it can also be a negative, as you may not fully understand the complexity of the environment and can put your foot in your mouth past the ankle before you even realize you’ve goofed. As an innie, there are pros and cons as well, and they’re often of an opposite nature-you have your finger on the pulse of the politics but you may not command the respect that a consultant’s “outsider” status conveys.

The biggest thing I miss about being a consultant is being able to “go home” both in the course of the project and at the end of the project. It was fascinating to be able to see, and sometimes even be part of, radically different organizations, as a consultant, knowing that in the end I was associated with my own, comparatively comfortable and particularly well-loved company. It could be bittersweet at the end of long, successful projects, but I’ve made great contacts and friends from those projects, and it was always fantastic to be able to finish up a project where the personalities hadn’t meshed as well and sink back into my own “family” of colleagues.

The thing that I’m most looking forward to, as an “innie,” is the issue of ownership and follow-through. As a consultant, I frequently left a project after the design phase and before implementation. That impacted the sense of pride and ownership of the final design, as well as the opportunity to influence the implementation process (in essence “eating our own dog food” when design elements that seemed strong on paper or in concept prove weak in action).

B&A What are some of the unique challenges financial sites offer?

SB: There are several. Security and issues of trust exist on virtually all sites, especially e-commerce sites, but with an online banking environment issues of security are paramount, and security needs that impinge upon the technological back-end supercede other drivers.

Another challenge I’m facing is the extremely complex nature of this site due to the fact that Wachovia is the nation’s 4th largest bank. We have both “retail” (the personal finance related banking you and I do) and “wholesale” (complex corporate and institutional banking) elements. In addition, Wachovia Securities is our brokerage arm, so from both wholesale and retail perspectives there are brokerage-related issues beyond traditional banking services. For example, our site is supporting both the features you’d find in an online bank and the features you’d find at a site like Schwab or Vanguard. This size and complexity issue leads to a number of impacts. The two most pressing are 1) it is quite hard to accurately define our users and narrow them into discrete personas and 2) it is very challenging to navigate the internal features of the bank (e.g. wanting to default to the bank’s organizational structure as the site’s organizational structure before gaining clarity as to what the bank’s organizational structure is and how it functions). B&A What’s the relationship between knowledge management and IA? (if any?)

SB: It depends. One thing it depends on is how you define knowledge management. I define knowledge management pretty loosely, first as the pursuit of maximizing your organization’s functionality by enhancing communication “Modern” methods of taxonomic classification are attributed to Linnaeus, who introduced his methodology in the 1700’s. Linneaus was a botanist, and taxonomy is generally associated with biology and systematics.”about and sharing of both tacit and implicit knowledge and second as the process of codifying this into a system/repository. The communication and capture piece may be the most critical aspect of KM, and I don’t know how much of a role IA can play in this aspect of KM. When it comes to codifying knowledge into a system, of course, IA will play a critical role in creating an information system that functions as well as it can.

B&A Can you tell me the difference between metadata and keywords?

SB: Metadata, at its broadest, is descriptive information about information. In the traditional library world, metadata is most commonly thought of as the big 3 from the traditional card (now online) catalog: Author, Title, Subject. But there are other fields as well-year published, publisher, shelf list number (administrative info for the library). In the online world, we use metadata for administrative purposes (to know when a document is “stale” and needs to be updated or deleted or to know the nature of a file so we know if we have the correct software to open it) and for retrieval purposes (the subject or keyword).
There are roughly 3 kinds of ways to think about, or classify, metadata:

  1. Intrinsic – information that can be extracted directly from an object (e.g., file name, size)
  2. Administrative/Management – information used to manage the document (e.g., author, date created, date to be reviewed)
  3. Descriptive – information that describes the object (e.g. title, subject, audience)

So, metadata can be quite varied-it may support retrieval (author, title, subject), it may support administration (call number, stale date), or both. As you can see, these categories are not mutually exclusive-administrative data could be used for retrieval purposes (if the system supported that usage) and we could debate as to whether “author” was administrative, descriptive or possibly even intrinsic, as with a piece of artwork.

That leaves us with keywords-what are they? Well, they’re a kind of descriptive metadata, generally describing the nature of the information. Keywords may be extracted directly from the text or they may be extrapolated-selected because they describe the text (subject, topic). The context in which keywords are selected and used is important for this reason. Keywords are by their nature fairly granular-a specific word applied to a specific item, often a narrow subset of a document (like a page or a paragraph), but even this granularity can vary in specificity (e.g., does the keyword describe the element in question specifically or generally?). Keywords are typically used for retrieval, as opposed to for administration.

When keywords are applied to html pages-which is generally done for descriptive and retrieval purposes-they are typically applied via a metatag. This may be what has led to some confusion around the difference between metadata and keywords. The metatag fields in HTML were meant to capture all sorts of metadata; and some are used to capture quite a wide array of information. Keyword seems to be the most commonly used/known of the meta field tags.

B&A How about the difference between taxonomies and hierarchies?

SB: Ah, taxonomies vs. hierarchies. Near and dear to my heart – I’ve just written an article on the uses (and misuses) of the term “taxonomy.” You probably know this, but just in case I’ll give a brief history lesson. Taxonomies have been around for a long time – they are hierarchical schemes for classifying things. Aristotle developed a system of classification in 300 BC. “Modern” methods of taxonomic classification are attributed to Linnaeus, who introduced his methodology in the 1700’s. Linneaus was a botanist, and taxonomy is generally associated with biology and systematics. Other disciplines have borrowed the term taxonomy from the hard sciences to describe their classification systems, so it wasn’t a completely novel act when folks working on the Internet stumbled upon it as a good term for describing what they were doing online. I first encountered the term in 1999 while doing some work with Ernst & Young.Management consulting seems to have been enamored of the term in this context early on- and was completely baffled, as I had only been familiar with the term from my biology courses and had never encountered it in my library science/information science work or reading. Doing more exploration, I concluded that when people were talking about taxonomy on the web they were often talking about the traditional LIS definitions for classification schemes, controlled vocabularies, or thesauri. (I went on a brief mission to convince the Argonauts that we should educate our clients about the LIS terms, but it was more or less a failure, so around 2000 I caved and began using the term taxonomy myself. Now, the terms has become so used, I think it has genuine validity of its own on the web.)

On the web, we tend to play fast and loose with terminology, and that’s true here as well. A strict interpretation of the definition of taxonomy would demand that the scheme be a pure hierarchy with one to one relationships. (Items can be in one place and one place only in the scheme-think of the animal kingdom or a family tree – but I’ve met people who are very comfortable with the concept of polyhierarchical taxonomy. Polyhierarchy being the concept that something can “live” in more than one place in a hierarchy. The most common example of this is “piano” in a scheme of musical instruments; it is both a stringed instrument and a percussion instrument.

Here are a couple definitions:

Traditional definition:

“Taxonomy, a sub-field of biology concerned with the classification of organisms according to their differences and similarities, still uses many of Linnaeus’ original categories. Today the major categories are kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.”

Taxonomy on the web:

“A correlation of the different functional languages used by the enterprise to support a mechanism for navigating and gaining access to the intellectual capital of the enterprise.” (One of the more carefully justified definitions of taxonomy comes from research done by Alan Gilchrist and Peter Kibbey of TFPL, a leading taxonomy consulting firm. The definition can be found in the executive summary of the report “Taxonomies for Business: Access and Connectedness in a Wired World.”

B&A What about categories, where do they fit in?

SB: Categories are groupings of like elements (often by subject, but also by other criteria, like form). The groupings that make up taxonomies and classification schemes are categories.

B&A So where does the thesaurus come in? “Right now it’s a very thrilling time – we have a new medium and a new discipline, and a lot of work ahead of us teasing apart what it all means.”

SB: You won’t be surprised to find that I have a classic IA’s answer to this question: it depends. 🙂 A thesaurus is an information retrieval tool that excels at making connections between concepts. Information retrieval thesauri are almost the opposite of the way we think of the thesauruses we were introduced to in elementary school. Those thesauri took a word and exploded in outward, so that when we got absolutely sick of writing “brown” we learned that we could substitute the more exotic “sienna.” An information retrieval thesaurus at its most basic relationship brings concepts together, grouping and clumping like terms. Subsequently the document that mentions the brown crayon and the separate document that discusses the sienna Crayola are both pulled together in the information system that has a thesaurus applied to it.

There are 3 primary relationships that thesauri clarify: equivalent relationships (synonyms, variations; as with brown/sienna above), hierarchical relationships (broader and narrower-or more general and more specific), and associative relationships (related terms). In the classical sense, you only had a thesaurus if all 3 relationships were explicated, but on the Web people have been open to using the word thesaurus when they’re talking about just one or two of the relationships.

B&A Can you get all these things to work together in some way?

SB: Yes! There are a variety of different ways (some of this may be semantic, of course, depending on how strictly you want to interpret the terminology). Here’s an example: you might have a site that employed a high level taxonomy or classification scheme (think Yahoo!). If the taxonomy is polyhierarchical, thesaural relationships could be employed as part of the taxonomy (e.g. Movies: see Film). The thesaurus might also be used to show associated relationships for individual records (e.g., Final Fantasy, see also: Japanese anime). A thesaurus could also be used behind the scenes to enhance the search technology-for example, the taxonomy might only display movies and film but the search engine might use the thesaurus to tell the user who searches for “movie” that the results returned were based on documents indexed by the preferred term “film.” Conversely, the search engine might also use the thesaurus to create search zones-returning results for searches of “8mm” from the documents indexed as relating to film before the other documents.

B&A Does every site need all this stuff?

SB: No, definitely not all this stuff. These are concepts that can be leveraged as tools to support classification and retrieval. It’s basically the same as with search-not all sites need a search engine, for example. Barring the religious war between Jared & Jakob there is the reality that some sites seem to work quite well without search engines (e.g., while other sites are greatly enhanced by them (e.g., Amazon).

But every site needs some of this stuff, perhaps. It’s very difficult to have a functional site that doesn’t have some kind of approach to organization-usually in the form of a classification scheme-regardless of whether it’s a hierarchical taxonomy (a place for everything and everything in one place only), a polyhierarchical taxonomy (a Yahoo!-like scheme where items can be placed in more than one category), or a flat classification scheme (as with the simplest brochure sites), etc.

B&A What about software-can you think of software that could benefit from architecting their information?

SB: A topic worthy of a book, undoubtedly. When I’m looking at information architecture for content I tend to focus on classification, navigation, labeling and search, and there are certainly aspects of most all of these in software programs. Labeling is a huge issue in the functionality of software products, especially because we tend to be dealing with extremely narrow and deep structures with software. Good labels (even in the form of rollovers for icons) can make a significant difference in the users’ ability to understand and use the tools. (An interesting side note here is that generally novice or infrequent users have more success with broad and shallow schemes, something that doesn’t tend to work especially well with software interfaces.)

B&A What is your dream process for creating an architecture?

SB: Dream process, hmmm. Well first it begins with assembling a great team. I’d need to have a sense of the parameters to know what size team to go with, but at Argus we had great success with fairly small teams even for rather significantly sized projects. The best teams are a mix of skills, experience and personality. I tend to be drawn to the bottom-up elements of IA (e.g., content analysis, vocabulary control, indexing, etc.) so I tend to look for people with top-down skills (strategy, heuristics) to balance my approach.

After assembling the team, my dream project would have a dream context -clearly defined scope and goals with clients who value information architecture and are prepared to be advocates in their organization (this would be true whether I was an innie or an outtie; there’s generally some kind of client and stakeholder who can pave the way). But don’t go thinking the dream project would run perfectly smoothly-it would still have enough challenges to keep things interesting. I like projects that are daunting but not impossible.

So, let’s see: team, clients. Then I’d have the team sit down and hammer out a process that had a mixture of things we were comfortable with/had done before and had a high degree of confidence with and a few things we wanted to try out/experiment with. And once we had a rough road map we’d dive in and do the work.

B&A There is a lot of talk about semantic webs and self-organizing systems-automated IA, in other words. Meanwhile our community is talking about getting into Experience Design or getting MBA’s… can you see a future where there are no information architects, just machines and people who know what they do?

SB: I recently had a conversation with Matt Jones, IA for the BBC (his weblog is about this very topic, in a more here and now way. Matt was arguing that he didn’t want information architects at the BBC, he wanted multidisciplinary staff members who were skilled in the discipline of information architecture. I took the position that in a world of ever increasing specialization, coupled with corporate environments that ask people to take on ever more responsibilities, with restricted schedules and budgets, we desperately need an individual in the IA role, both to look out for the IA particular issues and to evangelize. A sort of Lorax role-I am the Information Architect, I speak for the…labeling scheme and the organization structure and the search/browse system and so on and so forth. But that’s today, and you’re really asking about tomorrow.

In the library world there have long been whispers that automation will replace the need for librarians-it was even part of Autonomy’s ad campaign a few years ago. I think that there is a human tendency to both intrigue and scare ourselves with the idea that our creations will make us obsolete. And it is true that automation results in dramatic change. However, instead of making librarian’s obsolete, my experience has been that technology and automation often tends to replace the routine tasks, leaving the more subtle, often more interesting, challenges to be performed by people. So, in the big picture, I have no doubt that automation and technical developments will change the nature of our work as information architects over time. But people have been bending their minds to the nature and need for organizing information for a long, long time, whether as librarians or records managers or database administrators. Right now it’s a very thrilling time-we have a new medium and a new discipline, and a lot of work ahead of us teasing apart what it all means. So, yes, I think our work will evolve and change dramatically, but I don’t think the role is going to go away anytime soon.

B&A So what is the future of Information Architecture?

SB: The gazillion-dollar question that leaves me tongue-tied and tempted to blurt out “heck if I know!” But I think your question about semantic web and self-organizing systems hints at the answer-the immediate future requires stabilizing our role in the academic and business communities and identifying the key challenges and problems that we want to solve in the next 10 years. I think we’ll continue to see a weaving of old, new and newer-advancing technology with respected, well understood concepts and evolving thinking. Whatever the future of Information Architecture turns out to be, I’m excited about being part of the work as it unfolds.

Christina Wodtke is the founder of Boxes and Arrows. Her day job is Partner at Carbon IQ, a small user-experience agency in San Francisco, where she designs information architectures and conducts user research in the quest to create more usable, effective and profitable products.

Learning from the “Powers of Ten”

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Charles and Ray Eames.

To most designers, the Eames name brings to mind rows and rows of molded plywood chairs and Herman Miller furniture of the 1950s. But the Eameses were more than just designers of furniture, they were masters of exploration and experimentation into the realm of experience.

The Eameses used many media to model experience and ideas. The model was a key tool in their design process. The model allowed them to walk through an experience and offered a way to visualize the possibilities and the layers of meaning. One of the modeling tools they used quite frequently was film.

Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
Powers of Ten still
© Lucia Eames
Eames Office

Stills from the final “Powers of Ten” film.
Click to enlarge.

Throughout their career, they made over 120 short films.1 They ranged in topic from the world of Franklin and Jefferson to advanced mathematical explanations to the scientific exploration of scale in the “Powers of Ten.” The exploration into film helped them explore an idea, work out the presentation and the layers of information and understand a process or theory. The Eameses often carried an idea through multiple versions in order to find the right approach to a problem.

On the Eames Office website, Lucia Dewey Eames writes:

“A film could be a model, not simply a presentation of an idea, but a way of working it out. Looking back at the way the office worked, there is a constant sense that the best way to understand a process was to carry it all the way through. For example, in the creation of the project that became the film “Powers of Ten,” first came a test known as “Truck Test,” then the production of “Rough Sketch” (8 minutes; color, 1968), which was a model of the idea of the journey in spatial scale. Only by carrying the idea all the way through could one see the right way to approach the problem. And, indeed, the final version of “Powers of Ten” (9 minutes; color, 1977) has quite a few differences. But both films are models in a more important sense: they are models of the idea of scale. Because such Eames models managed to capture the essence of the problem, they were in fact quite satisfying in their own right.”2

In an interview in ISdesigNET magazine, Charles and Ray’s grandson, Eames Demetrious says:

“There may be a tendency to assume the films are a charming footnote: Furniture designers making films. But that is not how it was, not how Charles and Ray saw it at all. For them, the films were an intrinsic part of the process.”3

“The Powers of Ten,” perhaps their most successful film, is one such model into the nature of scale. The first version, developed in 1968 for the annual meeting of the Commission on College Physics, went under the title, “A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of the Universe.” (8 minutes; color, 1968). In 1977, with the help of Philip Morrison, professor of physics at MIT, they updated and refined the work under the new title, “The Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero” (9 minutes; color, 1977). The film sought to visualize the relative size relationships of elements through space and time and expose what happens when you add another zero to the equation.

“The ‘Powers of Ten’ also represents a way of thinking—of seeing the interrelatedness of all things in our universe. It is about math, science and physics, about art, music and literature. It is about how we live, how scale operates in our lives and how seeing and understanding our world from the next largest or next smallest vantage point broadens our perspective and deepens our understanding.”4
—Powers of Ten website

Series of Sketches for the Films
Chart plotting sequences of “Powers of Ten”
Storyboard sketch 1
Storyboard sketch 2
Storyboard sketch 3
Storyboard sketch 4

The film starts by showing an image of a sleeping man at one meter square (100) and gradually pulls back, moving ten times away for every ten seconds of time that passes, eventually reaching the edge of the universe (1025). The camera then zooms forward, into the sleeping man’s hand, finally reaching the inside of an atom (10-18).

Rough Sketch still
Rough Sketch still
Rough Sketch still
Rough Sketch still
© Lucia Eames
Eames Office

Stills from the “Rough Sketch.”
Click to enlarge.

The exploration of information presentation in the “Rough Sketch” and in the final “Powers of Ten,” speaks to the value of models that the Eameses used to explain their ideas about information organization and presentation. The imagery explores both size relationships and time. It explores the visual relationships of elements and developing patterns that emerge at different scales. The control panel (in the “Rough Sketch”) that is always present on the screen visualizes another six levels of information at its peak.

The combination of imagery and the control panels explores the nature of simultaneous presentation of information. The Eameses push the boundaries of what can be taken in and understood at any one time, they play with the notion of information overload and information absorption. The 1968 version (“Rough Sketch”) explores more levels of simultaneous information than the 1977 final version, in which the panel display is reduced to its most essential information and relocated for better comprehension and retention.

Sponsored by IBM, the film was one of the many efforts that the Eameses worked on to bring science, technology and art together in a way the average person could understand.

“Eames approached the problem in universal terms (to please the ten-year-old as well as the nuclear physicist) and, as in designing a chair, sought to find what was most common to their experience. Sophisticated scientific data was not the denominator (although the film had to handle such matters with complete accuracy to maintain credibility), but it was the inchoate ‘gut feeling’ of new physics which even the most jaded scientist, as Eames says ‘had never quite seen in this way before.’”5

Although more than 20 years old, the series of films offers lessons on successful presentation and explorations of layered information. The information problems explored through film, by the Eameses, are really no different than many of the problems facing information architects today. Studying the Eames’ work and their processes may yield effective processes for today’s IA. Using different media and methods in prototyping and modeling of ideas, as well as presenting layers of information in a way that is simple and elegant, the Eameses succeeded in their original goals:

“The sketch should, Eames decided, appeal to a ten-year-old as well as a physicist; it should contain a ‘gut feeling’ about dimensions in time and space as well as a sound theoretical approach to those dimensions.”6

For more information: View All End Notes

Got Usability? Talking with Jakob Nielsen

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Photo of Jakob Nielsen

Jakob Nielsen is the usability guru who hardly needs an introduction. But for the sake of completeness we’ll mention he’s the co-founder of the California-based consultancy, Nielsen Norman Group, and has been crusading against bad web design for years through his biweekly column, The Alertbox, and his numerous books. He’s brought usability to the attention of the general public, but within the user experience community he’s been criticized by those who say he emphasizes a puritanical view of utilitarianism that excludes other dimensions of user experience. Oh, and did we mention he’s the man who launched a thousand parody sites?

So is Nielsen the defender of ease-of-use or the enemy of creativity? We talked to the controversial Dane, and you might be surprised…

B&A: What are some of the toughest design challenges on the web today?

Nielsen: I think to get a really big jump in usability, because I think we can make a website that can show a few things quite well, if you have a few products. We can also do a huge database and you can search it, and it works reasonably well.

But I don’t think we really have a handle on getting the average person through the vast number of things that a website can offer. If you narrow it down and show a few things, yes, if you assume that they are capable doing a lot of data manipulation. But I think there’s a large number of cases that do not fall into one of those two categories. You can go to CNN and see the five big headlines of the day, and that works fairly well. You can go to Amazon and you can buy my book, for example, if you know the name of the book. But in the intermediate case of having a website with 10,000 articles and finding the one that’s right for you, which is quite often the case on a tech support website … basically doesn’t work at all.

B&A: What types of research interest you the most?

Nielsen: How to get usability out to the masses. When I say masses, I mean web designers, not users. Right now we have about 30 million websites, and we will have up to 100 million in three to five years. That’s a large number of design projects. How many usability people are there in the world who are in any way qualified? At the most, maybe 10,000 or so.

Therefore, we know that we’re not going to have this number of web projects done according to the recommended old methodology. So, even what I’ve been pushing in the past—more efficient, quick usability methodologies—is not good enough when you have that number of design projects. We need to have several orders of magnitude improvement in the efficiency of usability to really impact that number of design projects. Can we do things like encapsulate usability knowledge in guidelines such that an average designer can actually apply them?

B&A: What do you feel is the relationship between a usability professional and a designer?

Nielsen: I think they could play two different roles: either that of an editor and a writer, or a professor and a student.

In the more integrated projects, which is the preferred way to do it, I think it’s more like the editor and the writer, where the designer will come up with things just as the writer would write the article, and the editor will make it better, will know what the readers need and how to present it in a good way and help the writer improve their article. I have never met a professional writer who didn’t like to have a good editor. There often seems to be a conflict between designers and usability people, but I think that once you conceptualize it as the usability person helping to improve the design, then I think it goes away.

But you’re going to have a lot of designers who don’t have a usability professional in their team. So the vast majority of them just have to learn what the principles are that work well with users from usability professionals, and then it becomes more of an educational mission. So the relationship is more like that of the professor and the student. The student is the one who has to go do it at the end of the day, but the professor is the one who has the knowledge, having had done all the research in the past and can tell the student what works well.

B&A: How do you react to designers who have strong feelings about usability in one way or another?

Nielsen: I think that designers that don’t want usability are misguided because it’s really just a way of helping them achieve a better design. Some of them just reject the goal of having a design that’s easy to use. If you have the goal of a design as actually trying to accomplish something, then you’re more in the art world, and if the project doesn’t have a goal, then maybe it’s appropriate—design for design’s sake. But if you do design to actually accomplish something, then I’d argue that it has to be easy to use, so I don’t think that it’s appropriate to reject the goal of usability if your project has to accomplish something. Design is creating something that has a purpose in life; art is creating for the sake of creating — that’s my distinction between those two terms.

Whether they want to get usability from someone who knows about it, or whether they want to find it out themselves … can be debatable. How did any of us become usability specialists in the first place? Only by doing a lot of the research and studies. Any designer could do that as well if they bothered. They don’t have to get it from us, but then I would argue that they would need to do it themselves.

B&A: Is there a particular reason you advocate for using guidelines? I’ve heard people say that it comes off as overly dogmatic to simply have a huge list of guidelines.

Nielsen: Experience says that usually these work — usually, but not always. Usability guidelines always need to be applied with a certain amount of understanding as to when they apply and when they don’t apply. If a set of guidelines is written well, then usually they will apply, and it will be the exception when they don’t apply. You have to acknowledge that on one hand it may be that only 90 percent of the guidelines apply … so you can’t violate all guidelines, you can only violate some if you have a good reason to do so.

Some people may not understand the difference between a guideline and a standard. A standard is something that is 100 percent firm, and a guideline is something that is usually right — that’s why it’s called a guideline.

B&A: What’s the difference between a standard, a guideline, and a heuristic?

Nielsen: You get even more vague when you get into the area of heuristics. Heuristics are things that are rules of thumb, so they are very vague and very broad. At the same time, they are very powerful, because they can explain a lot of different phenomena, but that explanation has to be done with a lot of insight, and that is what’s more difficult. One of the lessons from a lot of my research is that heuristic evaluations indicate how to adjust an interface relative to these general principles of good usability. It’s fairly difficult to do well. Anybody could do it to some extent, but they couldn’t necessarily do it very well, and you have to have a large amount of experience to do it well.

On the average design project today, they don’t have that amount of usability expertise on their team, and therefore we’ve got to give them something more complete that it’s easier for them to deal with. It’s a matter of the usability of the usability principles, really. If we make them more specific, they become more concrete, they’re easier to interpret, and … easier for the designers to judge when they do not apply.

B&A: What’s the difference between someone doing a heuristic evaluation solo versus doing it in a team?

Nielsen: The way I developed heuristic evaluations back in the 1980s was meant to be an interaction between solo and the team, because you first do it individually, and then you combine a few people who have done the heuristic evaluation. That’s done very rarely, because it’s rare that a project team will have that many people on board who really know about usability.

“(I)t’s not a matter of intuition. It’s a matter of being very good at pattern matching, being able to spot small things, and hold together the big picture of what that really means.”

A common mistake about heuristics is thinking that it’s just a list of complaints. It’s not a list of complaints, it’s a list of issues relating back to the underlying fundamental principles. When you say that this button is wrong or this flows wrong, you say it’s wrong because it violates this well-known usability principle. And then, of course, people can argue. They can say, “no, it does not violate this principle,” and then you would have a discussion about that, which is a great method of illuminating and getting insight into the design.

B&A: What are the most important skills for a usability specialist to have?

Nielsen: I would say experience. It’s an unfortunate thing to say, because you can’t acquire experience other than by doing it. This is a discipline where you will always start off being bad and you end up being good. You only get to be good by slogging through several initial projects where you didn’t do that well, and then you get better and better. I think that being a truly great usability specialist comes from having 10 years of experience and having seen a very large number of different designs, different technologies, different types of users — a very broad variety of experience.

The benefit of usability, though, is that it is such a powerful method, and the return on investment is so huge that even if you don’t do that great a job at it —maybe you don’t get a return of 100-to-1 and you only get a return of 20-to-1 — that’s still a huge return investment. Even the very first usability project someone does, and they mess up everything, it’s still going to be positive, and it’s going to be a great learning experience for them personally, and their team is going to get value out of the investment as well. Just keep doing it and doing it and doing it.

It’s very much of an analytical and interpretive discipline as well. Intuition is completely the wrong word to use — it’s not a matter of intuition. It’s a matter of being very good at pattern matching, being able to spot small things, and hold together the big picture of what that really means. That’s where experience helps you — it helps you to do pattern matching and match patterns you’ve seen before, and the more things you’ve seen before, the better you can do that.

There’s definitely a big evangelizing and propaganda component as well, so having good communication skills is very important too.

B&A: Are there any usability specialists you particularly admire or whom you took guidance from?

Nielsen: I did actually. I’ll say that two of them are actually colleagues at my company, Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini. They are two incredibly great people. Another one I’d like to mention who’s now retired is John Gould. He worked at IBM in the 1980s. He developed a lot of the early approaches and for any question you could come up with he’d say, “OK, you can do a study of that.” He was just such an empirical guy that it was incredible.

Another person is Tom Landauer, who worked at Bell for many, many years. I was privileged to work with him for four years when I worked there as well. He was very much on the measurement side: “We can quantify this. We can estimate these things.”

I’d like to mention one more person … I never worked with, Ted Nelson, who was the guy who kind of invented hypertext. He got me into this feeling that we shouldn’t accept computers being difficult, that computers can be a personal empowerment tool. I read a lot of his writings when I was in grad school. His writing is really what got me going in this area in the first place back in the 1970s.

B&A: How many users do you yourself observe in the average month?

Nielsen: I probably sit with too few users, actually. Probably less than 10. It ought to be many more. In my own defense, I’ll say that I’ve done it for many years, and the learning is cumulative. I run a lot of projects where someone else will sit with the user, but I’ll still monitor very closely what goes on. I would still say that it’s very important to sit with the user as well. People should continue to do that forever — you never get enough of that. In particular, for someone who’s starting out in usability, I would say 20 or 30 a month would be a good goal to have, so that you can try to run a study every week.

B&A: Will there be new methodologies for user research in the future, or will we keep refining the ones we have right now?

Nielsen: I think mainly we will keep refining the ones we have. Of course, you never know if some completely new thing will come up, but I think it’s not likely. The classic methodology was developed in the 1970s and early 1980s. John Gould was one of the big people doing that and I learned a lot from him. That was pretty much established by then: how to do measurement studies and all that.

“Usability has very much seemed like a black art … Many things are testable, but at the same time we have to broaden the scope to make it even cheaper, even more accessible, get even more people doing it.”

Then, in the late 1980s, I reacted a bit against my own mentors and said, “These are all great methods, but they take too long, and a lot of projects won’t do them if they’re not at a big, rich company like IBM.” So, we developed discount usability methodologies, which was a faster way of doing these things.

Since 1990 there hasn’t been that much change. I think it’s pretty slow-moving because it doesn’t relate to technology, which changes all the time. It relates to humans and the process of accommodating human needs, which doesn’t change very much.

B&A: Do you ever feel like discount usability methods can be misused?

Nielsen: I think there could be cases where someone does a heuristic without truly understanding the principles. Or you might have someone who tests one user and says, “Let’s go with that.” But in general I think that the methods are so powerful that they actually hold up pretty well even if they’re abused.

I read recently somebody who had criticized the idea of doing studies with a small number of users with the argument that you cannot judge the severity of the usability problems because you don’t have enough instances of observation to know the frequency with which it occurs. This is a circular argument, a self-fulfilling prophecy because you are accepting in their argument that the only way you can judge the severity of a problem is by having a statistically accurate assessment of it’s frequency. I’m arguing that after having had observed it a few times, you can, with the insight that comes from experience, estimate the severity pretty well — good enough anyway. The real issue in severity ratings is that you’ve got to do a cost-benefit analysis.

B&A: What’s your take on information architecture?

Nielsen: The first question I have is what it really even is. I tend to operate under the definition that it’s the structuring of an information space. I view that as being different from information design, which has to deal with how you present the information once you’ve found it, or interaction design, which is a matter of flow through a transaction or task. I know that some people like to use the words information architecture to apply to everything, which is what I would tend to call user experience. That’s purely a matter of what terminology you feel like using. I tend to think that user experience is built of these components: how are things structured, how it is presented, how do you flow through it, and other things like how is it advertised.

B&A: What’s next for you and the Nielsen Norman Group?

Nielsen: Trying to drive usability more broadly toward that larger set of design firms, really trying to encapsulate it to make it more portable. Usability has very much seemed like a black art. I myself have often said, “Well, you can just test that.” Well, that is true. Many things are testable, but at the same time we have to broaden the scope to make it even cheaper, even more accessible, get even more people doing it.

There’s another trend as well which is tackling deeper issues that have been neglected in the past that need to be more in the forefront. Things like users with disabilities, international users, much more focus on task analysis and field studies — those are some of the other things we’re pushing now.

Recently I’ve been pushing the notion of doing discount field studies. Field studies don’t need to consist of five anthropologists taking a year to do a project. We’ve had a seminar at our conference on simplified field studies, which I personally think is a good seminar. But, empirical data shows that people don’t want to do this. You can go to the conference and see people crammed into sessions on everything else, but then you go into the field studies seminar and there’s only 30 people or so. We are pushing it, but we’re not getting enough acceptance of this idea of the simplified field study.

B&A: Who do you think does a good job dealing with content online?

Nielsen: Very few actually. I can’t come up with any great examples — it’s still so print-oriented. My own articles aren’t that great either, actually. I’m very verbose in my writing style. It needs to be very punchy and very short, and it’s very hard to write that way.

There’s more linking happening today with all of the weblogs, which is kind of nice, but I think the commentary is often not that great. The reason is that I think weblogs tend to emphasize this stream of consciousness posting style, which I don’t think is good—that’s not respectful of the readers’ time. What’s good about weblogs is that they’ve broadened the number of authors, but at the same time they’ve removed that feeling that the writing is really being edited.

B&A: If you weren’t doing usability, what do you think you’d be doing?

Nielsen: I would probably be a university professor of something or other. When I think back to when I was a kid, I had a lot of different interests and things I was good at, which I think was one of the reasons I ended up in usability. You have be good at communicating, you have to know about technology, you have to understand interaction and human behavior. There’s all these different angles that pull together very nicely in usability. It’s good for a person who’s broad in the types of things they’re good at.

I might have ended up as a historian, I might have been a mathematician, I don’t know. I think that being a professor is the most likely. The reason I got into usability is that it’s a discipline that gets interesting when you go into the actual practice of it. There’s actually not that much theory, and it’s not that exciting actually.

Chad Thornton works as a Usability Specialist in the User Experience Group at Intuit. He has done similar work at Achieva, the American Museum of Natural History, and Pomona College, where he received his degree in Biology.