The Age of Findability

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The Third Annual Information Architecture Summit in Baltimore compelled my first visit to the new, state-of-the-art terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

As I approached the airport on a cold March morning, perhaps I should have been excited. After all, the $1.2 billion Northwest World Gateway was billed as the terminal of the future. According to Northwest Airlines, I was about to have “one of the world’s greatest travel experiences.”

But in reality, I felt dread. I was late for my flight and desperately needed a restroom and a cup of coffee in exactly that order. What I didn’t need was the challenge of finding my way in a new airport.

After circumnavigating “the largest single parking structure in the world ever built at one time” three times, in search of long-term parking, I finally broke down, asked a security guard, and was told the signs for international parking actually lead to long-term parking. Of course!

Several circles of hell later, freshly sprung from the airport security checkpoint and a full-body pat down, I emerged into the spectacular center of Concourse A. High-arched ceilings soared above. Luxury retail stores lined the hall. Straight ahead, a black granite elliptical water fountain fired choreographed, illuminated streams of water, “representing the connections made via global travel.”

Unfortunately, what I couldn’t find was a sign pointing to one of the 475 public restroom stalls inside this 2-million square-foot complex. To cut a long and painful story short, I was 30,000 feet in the air before I finally got my cup of coffee.

Name that pain
Jakob Nielsen might say this airport has usability problems. Conduct a heuristic evaluation, run a few user tests, fix the worst blunders, and you’re on your way. That’s the great thing about usability. It applies to everything. Websites, software, cameras, fishing rods and airports. It’s one hell of a powerful word.

Lou Rosenfeld might say this airport has information architecture problems. But he probably wouldn’t. While maps and signs fit comfortably into the domain of information architecture, it’s a stretch to include the structural design of an airport terminal or the solicitation of feedback from frustrated travelers. Like it or not, information architecture has boundaries. Unfortunately, our clumsy two-word label isn’t quite as flexible as Jakob’s.

That’s why I say this airport has findability problems. The difficultly I had finding my way dominated all other aspects of the experience. Like usability, findability applies broadly across all sorts of physical and virtual environments. And, perhaps most important, it’s only one word!

Post-Hum(or)ous self-definition
At Argus Associates, we built a consulting firm that specialized in “information architecture” and we wrote a book to explain and explore the topic.

In the past year, our company has been post-hum(or)ously accused of practicing “Content IA,” a pejorative label that bothers me.

It’s absolutely true that we Argonauts brought the strengths and biases of library science to the IA table. And, we certainly focused more on organizing sites with massive amounts of content than on designing task and process flows for online applications.

However, this focus was indicative, not of a love for content, but of a passion for designing systems that help people find what they need.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t declare this passion too openly, because in the 1990s most customers weren’t buying “findability.”

At first, they focused on image and technology. Remember the early days of glossy brochure web sites and hyperactive Java applications? Later, they learned to ask for usability, scalability and manageability. They had felt some pain, but not enough.

In order to create a big tent, we sold “information architecture,” striking a delicate balance between our clients’ needs and wants. But all along, we maintained a deep conviction that, in the long run, the most important and challenging aspect of our work would involve enabling people to find stuff.

So, if you want to label the Argus brand of information architecture, rather than calling it Argus IA or Content IA or Polar Bear IA, I humbly suggest that you call it Findability IA. Or else!

Arrows over boxes
True to form, I’ve always resisted attempts to canonically define information architecture. In an emerging field, the last thing you want to do is prematurely place its identity inside a box, or should I say coffin?

However, information architecture is entering a new stage of maturity. IA roles and responsibilities are firming up. The IA community is taking shape. While we insiders argue over the minutia, a de facto definition of information architecture has emerged and reached critical mass. There’s no going back.

On one level, this is wonderfully exciting. For many of us who labored in obscurity in the early 1990s, this is validation that our vision of the future wasn’t completely crazy.

But this is also frightening. With maturity comes rigidity. We’re finding ourselves trapped inside boxes of our own making. And those arrows that connect us to related disciplines and new challenges are looking mighty appealing.

After all, it’s a tough sell to argue that content management and knowledge management and social computing and participation economics are all components of the big umbrella of information architecture. The IA tent is simply not that big.

And yet, we information architects are fascinated by these topics. We yearn to escape our boxes and follow the arrows.

For me, findability delivers this freedom. It doesn’t replace information architecture. And it’s really not a school or brand of information architecture. Findability is about recognizing that we live in a multi-dimensional world, and deciding to explore new facets that cut across traditional boundaries.

Findability isn’t limited to content. Nor is it limited to the Web. Findability is about designing systems that help people find what they need.

The age of findability
Even inside the small world of user experience design, findability doesn’t get enough attention. Interaction design is sexier. Usability is more obvious.

And yet, findability will eventually be recognized as a central and defining challenge in the development of web sites, intranets, knowledge management systems and online communities.

Why? Because the growing size and importance of our systems place a huge burden on findability. As Lou posits “despite this growth, the set of usability and interaction design problems doesn’t really change…(but) information architecture does get more and more challenging.”

Ample evidence exists to support this bold claim. Companies are failing to deliver findability. For example, a recent study by Vividence Research found poorly organized search results and poor information architecture design to be the two most common and serious usability problems.

This resonates with my experience interviewing users of Fortune 500 web sites and intranets. Some of these poor souls are ready to burst into tears as they recount their frustrations trying to find what they need inside these massive information spaces.

At the IA Summit, usability expert Steve Krug also agreed with this bold claim, noting that his company’s motto doesn’t apply to the challenges faced by information architects. Designing for findability is rocket surgery!

In the coming years, our work will only become more difficult. But that’s a good thing. Consider the following passage from a fascinating article written by business strategy guru Michael Porter:

“Companies need to stop their rush to adopt generic ‘out of the box’ packaged applications and instead tailor their deployment of Internet technology to their particular strengths…The very difficulty of the task contributes to the sustainability of the resulting competitive advantage.”1

That last sentence applies directly to the work we do. We all have a great deal of difficult and important work ahead. There’s an awful lot of findability in our future.

Where do we go from here?
I wrote this article to explore findabilty as both a word and a concept. I’d be very interested in your reactions. Does findability strike a chord? Are you intrigued by the design of findable objects? Are you ready to become a findability engineer? Or does this pseudo-word annoy you? Is findability overrated? Do you prefer a future filled with expensive, beautiful airports that just happen to be unnavigable? Comments please!

For more information:

  1. “Strategy and the Internet,” by Michael E. Porter in Harvard Business Review, March 2001.
Peter Morville is President of Semantic Studios, an information architecture and knowledge management consulting firm and co-author of the best-selling book, “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.”


  1. In regards to Kelly’s question, I’d agree that “findability” and “usability” are cojoined twins, and if we wanted to split hairs the “findability” is something of a subset of “usability,” just as “usability” is one quality of “user experience.” And like most things in our communities of practice, there’s definite relations to other fields, most notable “wayfinding.”

    But I think there’s a subtle, but important shift in emphasis. “Usability” has traditionally focused on behavior, specifically task accomplishment. HCI really hasn’t paid that much attention to “content” (nor “form” for that matter), which are the three legs of an overall experience.

    With due respect to Sherlock, HCI literature generally doesn’t talk much about how to organize lots of content, especially not in the more LIS-y ways that Peter’s familiar with. For example, how many HCI professionals can talk knowledgeably about faceted classication or polyhierarchies? Not many in my experience. It’s a blindspot because traditional software just didn’t have lots of content the way most websites do.

    So “findability” just becomes another arrow in the quiver that we can use when necessary. Some will use it more often than others.

  2. Isn’t HCI really more about “Do-ability”? Which is also at the heart of Interaction Design.

    Last night I had a dream that I was swimming in a river of jargon (words and acronyms flowing around me) and I was desperately trying to get to shore. Time for a vacation….

  3. Findability is really hard to design for, and us as a designer need to think more as the user in order to come up with better user interface designs, which will make our content for where people need to go more findable. I believe once designers put themselves in the place of the user having to find the content they marked up in there XHTML it will get the findability ball moving faster.

  4. The company I used to work for where I led the information architecture team (10 IA’s running amok!!), in addition to having a digital division, had a print design division. There, I met a fellow who knew a lot about a discipline called “wayfinding” — the art and science of helping people find their way, through airports, museums — any public (or semi-private) spaces. Our disciplines complemented each other and it made for very aspirational conversations.

    It is an interesting contrast between wayfinding in virtual and in physical spaces. There are very real differences — running through an airport, bags flailing, cell phone ringing and a throng of people flowing directly at you is a little different than purchasing a book online — but the underlying principle can be the same: user-centred design.

  5. sherlock_yoda, thanks for the link to Norman’s article. Hadn’t read it before and agree with you that he makes some good points. Perhaps most appealing to me is the difference he points out between analyzing and doing. During the dot-com heyday there was more room (tolerance, $$) for analyzing. I remember talking to an HF/UI manager at somewhere like iXL or marchFirst and they stated “(grads from the CMU HCI program) are strong in design but weak on the science”. He meant it as a ding against their experimental rigour, I took it as a complement that CMU grads were better at getting things done! My guess is that “researcher” is either out of work or learned to do more and analyze less.

  6. I’m still a huge fan of the ‘findability’ meme, and I like this further refinement of the idea… sounds like we’re not trying to say “findability = IA” but that they share some real-estate on the old Venn diagram.
    But what do we say about creating spaces that channel people and their work and interactions without their express initiative? i.e. making information environments that are the equivalent of civil engineering or town planning… or restructuring the inside of an office building to enable collaboration? Since users aren’t initiating the “find” — in fact they aren’t even fully conscious of how the information environment is shaping their decisionmaking and communication — does this stretch ‘findability’ too far?
    Is this not what Architecture is about, in part? I suppose that’s why I keep circling back to Architecture as the most complete analog — because my understanding of Architecture (albeit limited and romantic) is that it’s at its best when its helping people to work together better. Being able to find the objects and information they need is a secondary byproduct. The interactions with the people come first, and finding the information will follow (else, why would anyone CARE to find something created by a colleague, if they don’t even know or understand that colleague’s value, point of view, contribution?)
    We’re creating social spaces, opportunities for community, collaboration, real work, real play, real love and joy. We’re just doing it in what we used to naively call “virtual reality” … rather than “meatspace.” But what we’re discovering is that virtual reality isn’t virtual at all. It is perhaps more crucial, more immediate, more real, because it diminishes the inertia of time and space. In the reality we build cities for, everyone in the world can be there at any time.
    Findability is extremely important, but for me, personally, it’s just one matter in this much larger concern. I keep wanting to call this larger concern “information architecture” but if that’s not what “IA” is, I need to find another rubric.

  7. I’m a fan of “findability”.

    Unlike “information architecture”, it’s
    1. tongue-in-cheek-ness makes it a fun term to use.

    2. It’s meaning is apparent from the word — you don’t have to define “findability” to begin to get the point across to neophytes.

    3. It has a focus that you can get your head around.

    Now, I agree with Andrew that “findability” can’t replace “information architecture”, because there are user needs to support with IA that aren’t so obviously directed.

    However, I do want to take issue with “sherlock_yoda”s extremely reactionary post, which, I think, does little more than betray an ignorance to the depth and complexity of what’s at issue here. This is hardly simple a “spin” on classic usability practice. I could successfully argue that “usability”, as an independent notion, has been rendered meaningless over the last few years.

    And information architecture/findability is complex enough that it ought not simply be expected as a subset of a single person’s skills. While there are those of us whose jobs are to synthesize across information architecture, graphic design, interaction design, copywriting, etc. etc., I’m hesitant to state that anyone who knows “just” information architecture is somehow lacking.

  8. One of the things I liked about working at Argus was that we really were very interdisciplinary. We adopted many ideas from usability and ethonography, though LIS was the background/core competency for most of us. I found that I also learned a great deal about interaction design along the way.

    “Findability” is a good term for describing one of the things I really like to address. I think it’s important to have someone on a web project team thinking about it (regardless of her/his title).

  9. Sherlock, I may not agree with you 100%, but it’d be pretty a pretty boring world if I did. And questioning IA, or any other discipline emergent or established, ought to be considered a professional responsibility.

    So please don’t stop posting; I really don’t think anyone was offended.

  10. I, for one wasn’t offended by your post, Sherlock, and am always open to reading opinion on all sides of an issue. I hope you and other continue to submit your opinions as it gives readers like myself an opportunity to develop my own understanding, which gives opportunity for the development of new ideas. That’s sort of what John Stuart Mill argued in his treatise “On Liberty”.

    That said, I like Peter’s Findability meme, as the concept does seem to apply (like wayfinding) to various spaces (information spaces, architectural interiors, etc.). It explains very simply the intermediate goal of IA work, to help people find things, which in turn helps people to accomplish their goal of USE.

    Andrew’s point resounds with me as well. Any architecting of space, even when it considers a set of typical user behaviors and cognitive mappings can still be considered subjective and created far outside of the user perspective. An attempt at generalizing the architecture to closely meet as many perspectives as identified in the audience of users of that space is hard work, as Peter says, but is our best option in my opinion. What you would need, I suppose are ROI reports to prove that there IS value in what we add.

    I’m waiting for Peter’s series of essays to evolve into a book some day. Everyone seems to have a book deal these days.

  11. So how would designing for or evaluating “findability” be different from designing for or evaluating ‘usability where user goals include finding stuff?’

    I’d thought of “findability” as sort of implied in “navigability,” too.

    Both of these to say, I’m not clear on the _new_ “depth and complexity” that the concept of “findability” elucidates.

  12. Finding things is a task. I wouldn’t want the presence of a new discipline to cause widespread presumption that a particular task should always be a part of every information system. One particular task should probably not define an “age” as your article title indicates.

    That said, I do feel it could be a valid subset of information architecture practice, and even be one in which there was a high degree of specialization. There certainly remains a lot of work to be done in the area of wayfinding, especially when it comes to developing ways to better translate users preconceptions to systemic taxonomy.

    -Abel Lenz
    -New Tilt

  13. My background is not especially IA and is difficult to make a clear path of it (very personal interpretations). But in the Master Design for interaction that I done they taught me that NAVIGATION was one of the components in other to create the meaning of systems (and not just digital systems). For this reason I don’t know if is a new concept or more a component that needs to be more used in the area.

    As Karin suggest “wayfinding” (more used in virtual reality) is a good start in. Obviously is not the same to create the navigation for dot (null navigation), line, flat or three dimensions lands but to navigate through the different points, locations, spaces there are certain clues and pattern to recognise navigation awareness which are common to any space.

    In my point of view is a basic concept in the creation of interactive products, spaces, experiences… as we get more complex and surround ourselves by more complex systems, we need to allow ourselves to travel from different locations and spaces gaining procedural and survey knowledge (when you have both you have complete navigation awareness) to easily create our own paths and interpretations to extract more personal meanings.

    So, very interesting concept with more complexity and importance than it seems and easy to read article but not so sure about its novelty.

    Roberto Bolullo

  14. To come over all taoist for a moment, “findability” implies a satisfactory conclusion, and “wayfinding” implies an possibly endless but comprehendable journey.

    I b liking “findability” in terms of it’s enormous ‘explaining-to-siblings/parents/romantic-entaglements-what-u-do-all-day-and-argue-about-all-night-on-the-net” value.

  15. My turn! My turn!

    Ok, I have to say that Peter Mo lost me when he made the comparison to Jakob Nielsen. Why? B/c I said to myself, “Sure, he’s right. Jakob would be right. What more is there to say? This is obviously a design problem with usability ramifications.”

    The whole rest of the article just never convinced me that I need anyone more than Jakob to tell me this. As much as we all belittle and demean the J-man I have to say that I completely respect him and what he has accomplished for all of us.

    Someone said that “findability” is a subset of usability, but I would say that is wrong. I would say that IA is an arrow in teh quiver of experience design necessary to make something usable. Having it be findable is one element of usability based on the goal/task analysis. Goal, “pee”; task, “find the bathroom in a busy airport”. Find is a task where the object of that task is the bathroom, and the environment is the airport. I would also caution that “finding stuff” is not the end of all IA. Comparing for example is an important if not as important as finding stuff. Of course you have to find what you want to compare before you can compare it.

    My point is that IA is a valueable tool & discipline, one that is important in the total design process of any experience htat requires organization and language. We are distracting ourselves as professionals when we try to turn existing structures on their side just to fit our tiny focussed world.

    What should we do?
    1. Work w/ Usability Engineers to make sure that they test what is important to us
    2. Be in on task/goal analysis with interaction designers and behavioral researchers so they understand our needs
    3. work with ID’s (and other stakeholders) in teh UX design process to make sure that IA is put to the fore as is appropriate to the project.

    I also want to respond to the article by Norman. I think his article is not meant for us. I believe we have more influence and power if we stick to our little tight defnition of IA. Make it an arrow in a broader sense. For most problems a little IA knowledge goes a long way, but for more complex problems such as CMS or finding a bathroom the purity and respect of a controlled title for IA will help us.

    Now back to doing QA for me. 😉

  16. About usability vs findability — what contains what.

    Allow this hypothesis… i’m not saying you have to agree:

    Usability is about the tool, findability is about the object of the tool.

    Usability, for example, is the interface of the search engine, but findability is everything behind that interface (thesauri, cv, metadata, etc.) and bubbles up somewhat in the labeling used in that interface (which should reflect accurately the vernacular of the data space and the user population).

    If we say that Usability is about *everything* then it really doesn’t have any meaning anymore… it’s plenty broad to say it’s about using stuff, findability is about finding stuff. Sometimes we use stuff in order to find stuff. 🙂

  17. George Olsen asked:
    > For example, how many HCI professionals can talk knowledgeably about faceted classication or
    > polyhierarchies? Not many in my experience. It’s a blindspot because traditional software just
    > didn’t have lots of content the way most websites do.

    HCI is the multidisciplinary field devoted to the study, design, and improvement of computer systems (broadly defined) from the perspective of human users and usage.

    As a multidisciplinary field, it is an umbrella concept which is capable of absorbing professionals with specific disciplinary backgrounds in many different fields, including library science and information architecture. What defines one as an HCI professional is the application of one’s particular skills to the HCI domain, not one’s specific disciplinary background. I believe that most people in HCI are aware of this. There is widespread realization that a more “traditional” and narrowly-defined conception of HCI is inadequate to the task at hand, and an eagerness to bring in more perspectives.

    I use the job title “interaction designer” rather than “usability engineer” or “HCI professional”, but it seems to me that of all the various labels and movements out there in this domain, the rubric of HCI is best suited to absorbing and integrating all of us. HCI can accommodate—nay, NEEDS—people from many different disciplines, just as do other multidisciplinary fields. Where would environmental studies be without biologists and chemists and economists and political scientists and climatologists? It’s the same with us. (Note, of course, that this doesn’t mean IA or other disciplines are going to disappear into the HCI borg, any more than biology or chemistry have disappeared. Multidisciplinary fields draw their strength from the integration of their constituent disciplines, and only rarely displace them.)

  18. Peter, I totally agree that usability is the descriptive here. The solution here is something else. But why findability? Why not just IA? If we are talking about a tool, then a noun out of an adjective (to describe a state) is not right. We are talking about how to achieve that state? How do we make something findable? We use Information Architecture, visual design, information design, & interaction design to make it happen. IA tending to be the one that deals directly with organization, categorization and structure of data to make it into information, and sometimes offering navigation as well (but that is sometimes shared w/ ID).

    Again, why a new term? We can’t even agree on what IA is … why bring in a new term to confuse us even more?

  19. Another term… and a good one. But I think perhaps it (findability) needs a new position to make it fly: as a _result_ of good either a) Good IA, or b) good wayfinding/ environmental design [in the case of a well designed physical space].

    A suggested progression would be:
    (Omnipresent: Business)
    *Experience (realm)-
    *Interaction Design (state within the realm)-
    *Information Architecture (field within the state)-
    #Findability (an organism which appeared, owing its existance to the right environment provided for by well-executed IA, and IA’s productive collaboration with the other fields within Interaction Design [like visual design, web dev/programming, etc]).

    From here, Findability would benefit other states in the realm, by lending to the comprehension of content, which can put things like strategy into play (if you find the info, and the info is right for you, then you are most primed to accept whatever the website is trying to express).

    What’s happening here is something we would like to call a positive Experience (where everything goes right for *real live people trying to do something* on your website) and positive Experience in a capitialistic sense is a good thing for Business who pay our salaries*.

    Does this make sense? I think findability fits in to the mesh, and it doesn’t take a paragraph to explain its importance. People outside the field/realm will appreciate not having *everything* explained to them.

    [ps- anyone interested in paying me a salary in Boston, feel free to email me 😉 And sorry for all the **–#_ etc… and sorry for the self-promo plug]

  20. “If we say that Usability is about *everything* then it really doesn’t have any meaning anymore”

    If we practice participatory and user-centred design then usability is both a belief and an outcome, it is implicit in all aspects of our design practice and not a separate consideration, the goal of all designers/stakeholders not the domain of one specific group of practitioners. Like ethics in design, usability in design is something we aspire to – and achieve through various avenues such as (if you like) findability and interaction design and …

    Usability can be about *everything* and still have meaning.

  21. In response to Dave’s last post: “But why findability? Why not just IA?”

    Because IA doesn’t stretch across boundaries the way findability does. And because there’s some value in separating professions (e.g., IA, ID) from topics of interest (e.g., usability, findability). And, for the record, I was only kidding about “findability engineers.”

  22. Matt > “To come over all taoist for a moment, “findability” implies a satisfactory conclusion…”

    David > “Goal, “pee”; task, “find the bathroom in a busy airport”.”

    George Schneiderman’s broad definition of HCI puts the IA rubric and findability within HCI, which is starting to make a bit of sense to me. It doesn’t really matter what camp you’re in, if your purpose is to facilitate the goals of your user (to pee in this case) then you use whatever arrow in your quiver/tool in your toolbox to support behaviors/tasks that lead to that goal (finding bathroom). Being able to make things findable is just a bit of knowledge you hold. Findability is not the end-goal or satisfactory conclusion. The ultimate goal and real measure of effectiveness is whether Peter got to pee.

    [All this bathroom talk is making me uncomfortable.]

  23. Matt > “To come over all taoist for a moment, “findability” implies a satisfactory conclusion…”

    Man at counter: I want to buy a return ticket please.
    Clerk: Where to?
    Man: Back to here of course!

    Sometimes the journey *is* more important than the destination 🙂

  24. A couple of lunch hour notes:

    1. Usability does not mean everything. It doesn’t mean food, love, and dogs for example. Seriously though, I do not think anyone is saying that usability is everything. What I was suggesting at least is that usability includes findability in it already. Findability to me is similar to the usability notion of learnability. It is another check-off criteria field in usability.

    2. “Because IA doesn’t stretch across boundaries the way findability does.” But I wasn’t trying to say that IA and findability are even the same type of noun. They describe totally different things, and I think your next line states the way I view it, “And because there’s some value in separating professions (e.g., IA, ID) from topics of interest (e.g., usability, findability).” The exception I take is that usability and findability are on the same level. To me as stated above, findability is a quality of usability.

    In the end we have User-Centered Design, or Use Experience Design. (I know of know real difference between the two.) They are made up of roles:
    Researcher, Designer, Writer, Evaluator all set on the same goal of conceiving, articulating, and finally producing products that meet user & business goals. On the user side of things: experience & usability are the qualities of those goals and findability is a quality of usability.

    The Designer has a set of tools (sometimes those tools require so much expertise that they require a separate individual): Interaction Design, Visual Design, Information Architecture, Technical Design, Storytelling, game design, etc. etc.

    IA does not need a rebirth or a broadening, it just needs to increase the functionality of its API’s to the other forms of design and research so it better plays well with others. It also needs to be a bigger piece of the education of designers creating information and interaction systems.

  25. Peter: I like the articulation of “findability”. After all, you can’t interact with a UI element, restroom, or application if you can’t find it. Discussions of interacting with elements in the natural world, usually begin with the object already found. It may be productive to investigate the opposite of findabilty, which would be UI camouflage. Are there web site designs and application designs that utilize the principles of camouflage without knowing it.

  26. Peter,
    I could cry with frustration. The airport cost $xbillion all they had to do was hire a few old ladies and get someone to follow them as they negotiated the parking lot. Sounds like you needed to be James Bond though!! But don’t get me going on GUIs or Webpages …

  27. in a lighter vein, Peter Morville should be prosecuted for adding one more jargon to the already jargon filled world…the problem exists but do we need a new name for it?…call it usability or information architecture…it doesn’t matter…the problem needs a solution…not a new name…

  28. The fact that the importance of findability is offered in an almost apologetic manner is a testimony to how invested internet professionals are in the finery of the naked emperor of ia.

    Like the emperor’s tailors, “experts” all to often call for more and more gold while describing their work in convoluted and incomprehensible terms. Yet, the better understanding one has of a process the simpler the explanation.

    Findability is the result of asking and answering questions about what visitors might be looking for – and then trying to be clear about where these things are. It’s such a simple concept that it could have been developed by a considerate child. Ah, but simple is not the same as easy.

    For example, Jakob Nielson has become an internet joke because is such disaster if you try to do just that.

    Has he ever asked himself what a visitor to his site might be looking for? As a casual visitor, it seems that useit has something to do with senior citizens, or maybe kids. And what does HCI have to do with user’s mailboxes?

    When I went there – curious on why he has become such a parody – I would have liked to find something about who he is, what he believes in, a way to find more information about his core opinions (if I am interested). His site presents his detractor’s case better than his own.

    and just one more thing. If you have to say “(this is the discussion page)” in small print, you might have an opportunity for improvement. 🙂 cheers.

  29. Dianne wrote:

    > Findability is the result of asking and answering questions about what visitors might be looking
    > for – and then trying to be clear about where these things are. … For example, Jakob Nielson
    > has become an internet joke because is such disaster if you try to do just that.

    I completely disagree with Dianne’s posting. Nielsen’s site isn’t pretty, but as a regular visitor I find it to be very useful and easy to use. His is one of the few sites where I find that the internal search engine actually produces more useful results than just running a Google search on the site. Try running a search on “heuristic”, for example. From the home page the search function is also just about impossible to miss.

    > Has he ever asked himself what a visitor to his site might be looking for? As a casual visitor, it
    > seems that useit has something to do with senior citizens, or maybe kids.

    Assuming that you are correct that his site is not optimized for casual visitors, is it perhaps possible that he has chosen not to target that group? Not every web site has the same target audience.

    As it happens, does have something to do with senior citizens and kids, both of whom are users of both the web and conventional software. The site would benefit from an “About” page which provided a brief overview of its mission and perspective, but it certainly isn’t hard to figure out what the site is all about my just browsing.

    >And what does HCI have to do with user’s mailboxes?

    The page in question begins with a succinct answer to this question: “Summary: Email is a powerful way to reach customers, but overdoing it is risky. Let users know up front that you’ll respect their mailboxes. Otherwise, they won’t give their email addresses, and you’ll lose a unique channel for marketing and customer service” Sounds to me like this has a lot to do with how users interact with computers, and with designing computer behavior accordingly.

    > and just one more thing. If you have to say “(this is the discussion page)” in small print,
    > you might have an opportunity for improvement.

    I think it’s a great approach. It manages to make it very clear exactly what article the page is about, without creating any confusion about the fact that the page doesn’t contain the contents of the article. Is it elegant? Not particularly. Is there opportunity for improvement? When isn’t there? But it’s fundamentally a good solution to the problem. Most content-producing sites don’t provide a discussion forum for articles at all. B&A not only provides such a forum, but does a nice job of it, although I don’t know how scalable the approach is.

  30. George writes: The page in question begins with a succinct answer to this question: “Summary: Email is a powerful way…

    Actually, the page in question reads:

    “Usability for Children (April 14)
    Top Research Laboratories in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) (March 31)
    Protecting the User’s Mailbox (March 17) ”

    Other than the date there is no inherent contextual reason for these being thus grouped.

    Also odd is the fact that these 3 unrelated concepts are in a column labeled “Permanent Content” which includes a bi-weekly column and information about a pending conference. These are things that are “lasting or remaining without essential change?”

    “You keep using that word. I do not think it means, what you think it means.”

    George says: >I find it to be very useful and easy to use. His is one of the few sites where I find that the internal search engine actually produces more useful results than just running a Google search…From the home page the search function is also just about impossible to miss.

    Surely you are not suggesting that a search function fulfills findability requirements.

    With regards to this forum, perhaps flipping the relative position if not sizes of the referenced article and the words “(this is the discussion page)” would keep people from flipping past the discussion and then having to back up (as I did).

  31. Diane with one N writes:
    >> Actually, the page in question reads:
    > Usability for Children (April 14)
    > Top Research Laboratories in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) (March 31)
    > Protecting the User’s Mailbox (March 17)

    By “the page in question”, I mean the page linked to by “Protecting the User’s Mailbox” (i.e., Which presumably is where you would go if you wanted to find out what protecting the user’s mail box has to do with HCI . . .

    > Also odd is the fact that these 3 unrelated concepts are in a column labeled “Permanent Content”
    > which includes a bi-weekly column and information about a pending conference. These are things
    > that are “lasting or remaining without essential change?”


    > Surely you are not suggesting that a search function fulfills findability requirements.

    A well executed Search function is an enormous part of “findability”. Not the whole ball of wax, but its importance can hardly be underestimated. That may be one problem with analogies between airports and the web. If I want to find a restroom in an airport, I can either search for one directly (which presumably is sub-optimal) or first search for a sign or human being to give me directions. On the web, I can always start my search from a favored portal, which I never have to search for.

    Of course, that’s not all there is to “findability”, not least of all because I often don’t know what it is that I’m looking for. And as you suggest, providing contextually appropriate suggestions is enormously important.

    Also enormously important is being aware of top reasons why people might visit your web site, and providing easy access to such content. It’s amazing, for instance, how hard it can still be to find hours, directions, and admission prices on a lot of museum web sites. Or shipping rates on a lot of e-commerce web sites. These sorts of things clearly should never require a search.

    But for an awful lot of content-rich web sites, I would certainly say that a well executed and prominently displayed site search should be an important part of any “findability” or usability strategy. Most users, after all, don’t know how to execute a Google search on a particular web site.

    Diane–My apologies for misspelling your name. Curiously enough, it was not a typo–I had really thought that was what you had posted as, and made a mental note of it as an odd spelling. Not sure how I could have made that error, and I do apologize.

  32. One more thing.

    Diane writes:
    > Other than the date there is no inherent contextual reason for these being thus grouped.

    Depending upon usage patterns, this can be a great way to organize a web site. It works very well for sites that are targeted to frequent visitors who are much more interested in seeing what’s new than in finding a particular piece of information. This is very nearly the entire organizational strategy for Arts & Letters Daily, in my opinion one of the best sites out there.

  33. Findability is *it*! Great article, and many thanks for publishing.

    But what about print-based media? I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned findability as it pertains to books.

    Indexes and good indexing are keys to findability for *any* document or other publication.

    Getting publishers — of books, multimedia, and yes, even airport or mall information systems — to realize this is often a most ridiculous Sisyphus-like endeavor. Perhaps getting a concept like findability into the mainstream will help.

  34. The term “findability” reminds me of some research I did as a geography student at Rutgers on cognitive mapping and navigation.

    People navigate environments using a variety of cognitive processes. This is true in both built environments (cities and airports, the WWW and online stores) and in natural environments (forests and river valleys). Working strictly from memory and logic, some basic information people use for navigation are orientation (which direction am I facing?), aspect (am I going uphill or downhill?), and distance (how far away is my intended destination?). Cognitive methods for wayfinding include the identification of landmarks and “chunking”. People tend to memorize information in “chunks” — in other words, I don’t necessarily remember the directions from my apartment to my parents’ house in one long segment. I remember different pieces and then string them together in the correct sequence. The way I remember the sequence is by remembering the relationship between the end of one chunk and the beginning of the next chunk in the sequence (there is plenty of writing on this topic, I’m just explaining from memory here to make a point…). I also use landmarks to trigger my memory of the directions — “turn right at the gas station”, for example.

    Finding information is not 100% controlled by usability engineering. As in natural environments such as forests, in some situations, users are not “users” per se, but are simply moving entities in an environment. I believe that the Web has become a vast enough universe of content that we, as “visitors” are traversing territory in an environment that may or may not have been designed (or even could have been designed) to meet our ergonomic needs. As we go from site to site, the territory we traverse is largely disconnected, and usability is often left to serendipity.

    But there is still FINDABILITY. A site (or any node) can be findable regardless of the paths leading directly and deliberately to it. Think of the way marketers use metatags, pay for search term placement in popular search engines, and shell out big cash for the best domain names. This is all part of findability, and it exists with or without user-centered design within a particular web site. The relevant information is self-contained by the element of content. An item can exist in (cyber)space and *be findable*, given the architecture of the entire system (which expands at will), without any navigation design or page layout heuristics at all.

    What I’m really getting into here is a conversation about what *kind* of space is cyberspace. Relative space, absolute space, etc. I think it’s clear that cyberspace is or has both kinds of space (are there other kinds too?), even within a single site ( searching and personalization makes the space relative; directory structure make the space absolute). As an IA, part of the way I approach a design task is by first determining 1) what kind of space a customer might expect and 2) if the information deemed most important to display is findable *enough* in the primary type of construct – relative or absolute. If, say, an absolute construct is the primary type, then building a relative construct is probably a significant added cost, and vice versa. Done meticulously, this exercise can become a cost-benefit analysis for site design and can be an instrument for an IA to show monetary value and affect the bottom line.

    Another interesting question to consider: How can you characterize the boundaries between cyberspace directories (such as the yellow pages and Citysearch) and places in real-space cities? And how does describing these boundaries effect the way we think of, build and use online spaces?

    Apologies for the long-windedness, and thanks for reading,


  35. Since I started working as a web developer, I gravitated directly toward the disciplines of usability and information architecture. I have studied both with equal vigor and early on arrived at a point where I can not separate the two – they simply share too much in my mind.

    “Findability” may be new to those who practice only information architecture. Wayfinding is the term with the same description; it has been around for a long time (originally came from architecture) and has been noted in the web context long ago.

    For years I have used the word “findability” to describe the desired end results of usability and IA efforts to clients. As someone noted before me, it is a simple and understandable word that needs no explanation.

    Simply put, findability is nothing new, nor is it a new specialty of IA – no more than IA is a new specialty of usability professionals.

  36. I have to agree with Sherlock on this one. He really articulates the key problem that I have with this discussion and much of what takes place on the AIGA Experience Design thread – the desire of the IA community to reinvent the wheel. Or should I say, rename the wheel.

    Product Design now needs to be called “Experience Design.” No one wants their skillset to be a subset of another discipline, so they try to invent more and more clever names for something that already exists.

    I have worked as a “User Interface Designer,” a “Senior User Interface Designer,” an “Information Architect” and, currently, a “Product Manager.” Regardless of the titles; however, what I am actually doing is Product Design. I take into consideration things like User-Center Design principles, Information Architecture, User Interface issues, usability, business need, competitive products, etc.

    In a nutshell, I consider both the business and customer needs and create (or at least attempt to create) a product that meets both. It’s pretty simple, actually. And it’s nothing new.

    Do I need to have a dedicated IA on staff? Or a usability team? Or, worse yet, do I need to label myself an “Experience Designer?”

    No. I simply need to able to apply my knowledge of those areas when it is appropriate to the Product Design process.

    Just my take.

  37. Might I suggest “findability” is a _quality_ that can be an important design consideration, rather than necessarily a specialty or job title. And it’s because it’s a quality that it cuts across multiple fields, including print and building architecture among others.

    It’s similar to “learnability,” “legibility,” etc. Sure we can consider them all components of “usability,” “good design,” or whatever term you prefer.

    But while the latter are broad strokes, something like “findability” is focused and concrete, which I think makes a useful concept since it’s easier to tell if you’ve achieved it.

    It’s also got the advantage of being something that’s readily understood by non-practitioners. We need more of these sorts of terms to help us communicate to them.

    (But while we’re hairsplitting, to me there’s an interesting difference in overtones between “findability” and “wayfinding” even though they’re largely similar.

    “Wayfinding” suggests me moving through space to a destination, while “findability” suggests my being able to locate an object. I don’t “wayfind” my way to my misplaced car keys, I “find” them.

    Not that either term is better or worse, but just more/less appropriate in certain contexts.)

  38. George,

    Very good point about findability being a quality as opposed to a practice. As such, “findable” describes an object rather than a system or an environment.

    Are there well-formed opinions about the differences between the practice of information architecture for the design of containers or expressions of discreet media objects (e.g., a news story as expressed with NewsML and NITF) versus the practice of IA for the design of virtual environments (e.g., an online banking web site)?

    To stay on topic, which type of architecture is more instrumental in creating “findability” — the architecture of the content, itself, or a particular environment where it may be made accessible? (As an aside, this question may not be that important for many interactive applications, but I think it’s more relevant to companies who are concerned with the valuation of their media assets.)

    Thanks in advance to anyone who picks up on my questions.


  39. A couple of years ago I wrote an article for government web developers on… well, what I really wanted to call it was “findability” but it is ordinarily known as search engine optimization or search engine marketing. Unlike commercial sites, government sites (and many nonprofits) aren’t really trying to market anything or compete with anyone. They are posting stuff they think people want to know about, and the issue for them is just how to let people know it’s there – how to make it findable for the people who need it, including people who may not know to come to their web site to look for it. I think that “findability” expresses well an important concept, and that in the web arena, findability issues extend beyond the individual site.

  40. There is a very timely article posted at that exactly makes Peter’s point. . .good timing

    Sweeping America’s Attic
    Panel Urges Change At History Museum

    “As it is now, the museum does not seem to meet any obvious test of comprehensibility or coherence,” states the report by the Blue Ribbon Commission on the National Museum of American History. . . “Indeed, in the most basic physical sense, visitors frequently have difficulty orienting themselves. Even some curators who have spent their entire professional lives in the NMAH building get lost.”

  41. While it might have taken a while to actually read through ‘every’ word of the posts thus far, it seems that no one picked up on what I consider the most significant message of Peter’s piece: that the skills apply outside of the universe we continually insist on limiting them to, by definition. This is EXTRAORDINARILY unfortunate in that we do ourselves great professional harm. What we do, regardless of what we call it, can and should be applied to EVERY design that involves human interaction.

    Peter did raise another interesting point. He gave a very specific example of a different perspective of ‘find’. On the internet the ‘big find’ is about accessibility to things unseen. As in the vein of Einstein’s theories of space and time, LIS skills are required to move the results to the individual, since the individual can’t effectively get to each of the ‘things’. But in this example the individual HAS to get to the thing: you can’t park the car without getting to the right spot, and unless you’re Adam Sandler, you’d really want to get to the bathroom before going to the bathroom. This is inherently a different sort of ‘find’ than LIS skills are best applied to, but these are the skills of our discipline, nonetheless.

    While I like to divide our skills into two broad design focuses — finding and doing — the airport scenario really better fits the skills of the ‘doing’ designers. But again, still part of our ‘overall’ discipline.

    I was a bit disappointed that so many posts insisted on moving the skillsets back to the Web. The sides of the box are really not that tall once you crawl out of them…

  42. As peterme correctly pointed out my ignorance way back in this discussion, I’d like to ask any IAs out there a question:

    1) Which techniques/tools/skills would you say are unique to IA (and therefore justify IA as a separate discipline)? I don’t believe you could include: personae, contextual design, goal-centred design, general navigation (a field amply covered by early CBT and usability research), observation, etc….I ask again – what is truly unique to IA?
    2) Which techniques are just borrowed from Information Science or Libranianship and have just been altered for the web medium? What argument is there to see IA as a separate discipline to information science or Librarianship?

    I look forward to understanding your discipline more…


  43. IA as I personally practice it works something like this:

    Keep in mind, I work as part of a cross-disciplinary team. We don’t have “design” or “programming” departments. Each project has somebody from each discipline involved through every stage of the process.

    1. Use existing tools to learn about users and needs (especially contextual inquiry-like approaches)
    2. Use existing methods to model each of the interviews and observations.
    3. Use existing market & brand & IT research for my client’s business as part of the landscape too.
    4. Put it all together in a sort of blender and look for patterns, collaborating as a team (this uses existing methods of pattern recognition brainstorming, etc.).
    5. Extrude a conceptual, abstract architecture of functionality and content out of those patterns. (This, as applied to shared information environments, is pretty new as far as I know — I’m sure this kind of thinking and activity has been done before, but in the context of people on the ‘Net, can’t be more than 7 or 8 years old… I believe the ‘Net makes it different, fundamentally. It’s this point in the project where I feel I’m lending the greatest value.) This is where major decisions about content areas & categories, contextual proximity, etc. are made. It’s also decided if it’s even necessary to have a robust search function or controlled vocabularies, and if so it’s where we start defining those.
    6. Refine the conceptual architecture (blueprint) into a concrete, technologically enabled framework on paper, choosing the applications and such that will make the conceptual solution come into being. Build flowcharts and logical workflows/diagrams where necessary. (this is nothing especially new… good application developers have been doing it for years)
    7. Until this point in the project, I’ve been the “design lead” of sorts. Leading these activities has been primarily my responsibility. But at this point, when it’s going right, the Interaction Designer takes the lead for the team, starting to create wireframes and such.
    8. From there it moves to coming up with a visual style… Photoshop usually hasn’t been a big part of the job until this point.
    9. Next is production and delivery and maintenance.

    I remain as a resource through these final stages as well. Invariably, the more granular aspects of architecture need to be refined to accomodate the design as it evolves. I often conduct usability testing etc, but that’s more of a side-responsibility.

    In the midst of all this, I’m involved in deciding parts of the client’s online strategy and how it integrates or enhances brand, ROI, efficiency, etc. Often I make recommendations on how to reorganize or enable internal resources to better make use of the Web solution we’re creating.

    So… as Ecclesiastes makes clear, there is nothing new under the sun. The activities themselves are all borrowed from other disciplines, for the most part. And the way in which I do this stuff changes and evolves, hopefully for the better. But I act as the overseer and director of the user experience, shaping cyberspace based on user and business needs and feedback.

    What is new isn’t the concrete, discrete techniques, but the *context* in which they are used. I believe that the recent ubiquity of globally shared information environments has changed the context radically. For me, IA is about repurposing all these older techniques into a workable discipline for making these environments better and better.

    Now… that’s what *I* call Information Architecture… but I’m starting to believe that it’s a highly personal, perhaps inaccurate vision of what it’s all about for others. If I’m ever really totally convinced of this, I’ll surrender the name and figure out something else to call myself.

    Thanks for the question…it’s forced me to put more of this into words than I’ve bothered to do otherwise!

  44. Sherlock,

    I can no longer resist the temptation to respond to your provocative posts.

    On the topic of findability, you say:

    “For me, findability is just a subset of goal directed design or user-centred design.”

    My problem is with your repeated use of the word “just.” Web sites are not just software applications. When you’re dealing with tens or hundreds of thousands of documents and applications, it’s not just about designing and testing the interface. Interface stands on the shoulders of infrastructure. Findability precedes usability. You can’t use it if you can’t find it.

    You express concern about:

    “librarians trying to muscle into the usability field” and information architects who “claim ownership.”

    Don’t worry. We tend not to be the most aggressive people on the planet and we are small in number. There will always be more information designers than architects. Put simply, there will always be more pages than sites. You are in the majority. There’s no need to feel threatened.

    You ask IA to:

    “justify itself as a separate discipline.”

    This is a complex and highly political topic to which I can’t do justice in this context. You should read Jesse’s ia/recon:

    When it comes out this summer, you should read the 2nd edition of our book:

    Somehow we’ve managed to write 500 pages *just* about IA.

    And I would be interested in your defense of usability as a discipline. To be honest, I’ve never thought about usability that way. Like findability, usability is a goal that cuts across many disciplines.

    Finally, thanks for provoking an interesting discussion, even if it wasn’t all that tightly related to the point of my article.

  45. very abstruse conversation, well outside my ken, but… my issue of findability is how to get designers to find me by name on my rep’s website or in a directory. it sems as if the arbiters of the web are behaving like the major brandholders in grocery stores, making it inevitablethat people will fall back on the easy to find 20 varieties of coke or pepsi and never find the exact item, or professional, they want to find. i have a very rpominent name in many national magazines i illustrate for, but show up well down the ranks in google or alltheweb. wish i knew how to lick this conundrum without becoming a techie myself. eric

  46. I strongly agree that the concept of findability is a good one. It is a good way to distinguish a specific area of concentration that will be critical in the success of many technologies. However, I am almost always opposed to the creation of new terms when their meaning is only moderately different than terms already in use. IA has taken years to catch on and become a term that people outside the discipline understand. To coin a new term only forces those users to learn and understand another term. This type of terminology bloat is a huge contributor to the phobia around new ideas in technology. People like things that are tangible and clear. By constantly altering the terminology, we ensure that no one outside the discipline will ever have a handle on the topic. Any complete discussion of IA should include the topic of findability but I don’t see a reason to treat it as a new and separate discipline.

  47. “If we say that Usability is about *everything* then it really doesn’t have any meaning anymore”

    If we practice participatory and user-centred design then usability is both a belief and an outcome, it is implicit in all aspects of our design practice and not a separate consideration, the goal of all designers/stakeholders not the domain of one specific group of practitioners. Like ethics in design, usability in design is something we aspire to – and achieve through various avenues such as (if you like) findability and interaction design and …

    Usability can be about *everything* and still have meaning

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