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Adam Greenfield

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In: Interviews

By Meryl K. Evans

Published on April 17, 2002

Editor's Note: This interview of Adam Greenfield is four years out of date. We are planning a follow-up interview with him on what he has been up to lately, but for now you could always just go catch up with him on his site v-2.org.

Digital Web: Recently, you had a job change. Can you give us an update on your current work and how v-2 fits in with it?

Adam Greenfield: Sure. I had been working with a company called DentsuFUSE here in Tokyo, which was the survivor of a joint venture between the Japanese advertising agency Dentsu and marchFIRST. And regrettably, after almost a year of working together, I was forced to conclude that there was simply no room there for the practice of information architecture. The management didn't understand it, didn't know how to sell it, and didn't want to learn.

Fortunately enough, at the same time I was beginning to understand that the situation was an untenable one for me, a friend at the Razorfish office here in town got in touch and told me of their acute need for an experienced IA. And it's early days yet, but I can tell you that the energy in the office is like night and day compared to my old gig. It's nice to have actual projects moving forward for actual clients--high-profile ones, at that--and a management structure that understands and values information architecture.

As to where v-2 fits into all this, well, as ever it's a place where I work through the concepts that are important to me for my work, as well as discussing and engaging ideas completely tangential to that work but still of interest to me for one reason or another.

It's also a great excuse to make connections with various heroes and icons, especially as the site becomes more widely known. Even from the start, I've always been amazed at its prodigious ability to generate opportunities and connections. Everybody should have one, even if it's just a blog.

Digital Web: How did you get started in Web design? What are the most memorable lessons you've learned?

AG: Like many people, I'm guessing--and if I can generalize from my own experience, which is always a little risky, I'd bet this is a greater factor in the evolution of online design than is generally understood--I didn't have any particular interest in designing for the Web until I was exposed to broadband on a daily basis. Until that point, the Web was something I experienced in passive mode, as a spectator and consumer, and generally in a state of frustration.

Fairly or not, I didn't have this exposure to broadband until after I'd already talked my way into being hired to manage the process of getting an e-commerce site built for a high-end design furniture retailer, with a fancy job title and a fair amount of resources at my disposal.

It was, shall we say, something of a crash course. I spent a lot of time bluffing my way through meetings, and falling back on the few safe things I felt comfortable saying. That, and reading Vincent Flanders' Web Sites That Suck everyday--a site that anyone who has a little aesthetic sense quickly grows out of, but which is invaluable for the beginner. Fortunately, after a few weeks of guzzling from a T1, in which I could actually load Praystation and Soulbath and k10k and take a look around at what various people were doing to push the frontier outward, I felt able to draw a few very preliminary conclusions.

One was that very few sites at that point--and this was already '99--made any real use of the Web's attributes as a computational, or a distributed, or a global, or a peer-to-peer medium. There were many brochure sites out there--still are, although I think people are beginning to exploit the possibilities.

Another, somewhat contradictory insight, was that at least to judge from some of the sites that I saw, a thousand years of typographic and graphic design learning and (yes) progress had never happened. Some of this was due to the limitations of HTML display in the browsers available at the time, but a lot of it was just bunk-ass design.

Most importantly, though, I held on to the memory of what it felt like to surf the Web with a dial-up connection. And when I got around to working on the design and implementation of our own site, I made damn sure that those users' needs were reflected in our requirements document.

Digital Web: In your "Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good: The web, design elitism and evolution," you write usability means different things to different sites. How do you define usability for a personal site? For a business site?

AG: Something that frequently gets lost in the Sturm und Drang around this rather loaded term is the idea that it's nonsense to talk about "usability" without reference to a specific audience, its affinities, abilities, limitations and predilections. (That's why information architects spend so much time constructing thick user personae.)

Who's the audience for a purely personal site? Yourself and your friends, right? Maybe you want your own site to feature primary navigational links with two-by-two-pixel click targets, bright yellow against lemon yellow. In orthodox terms, this is pretty clearly a usability no-no. But if you know that only a hundred people are ever going to see the site, and 86 of them are the kind of people who are going to get a kick out of hunting those links down, you're doing pretty well. I doubt many sites get anywhere close to satisfying that much of their audience.

On the other hand, maybe you also want your site to be of utility to a prospective employer. Then the audience changes, and so does the definition of usable. The trouble with Jakob-style pronunciamentos--"this is good usability practice, that is a violation"--is that they hold themselves up as universals, when really they're mostly applicable to mass-audience commerce and information sites. And if we've learned anything in the last few years, it's that the Web perforce lets a hundred flowers bloom.

Digital Web: What are some Web sites that demonstrate a good example of usability?

AG: I've always loved the original 37 Signals--you don't get much cleaner or easier to use than that. I'm a big partisan of the International Herald Tribune site, whose developers obviously spent some time paying attention to the way people actually use and interact with newspapers. I'm hard pressed to name a site that does more to demolish the idea that an experimental interface can't simultaneously be intuitive than Relevare. Google is probably the classic example of a site where less is truly more. And I would be remiss if I didn't at least namecheck the folks at Method, whose sites always have the kind of polish that reflects deep thought about the user's needs and desires.

Curiously enough, a site I find wretchedly unpleasant to use is Jakob Nielsen's own useit.com.

Digital Web: For sake of clarification, what is information architecture (IA)? Should IA be done in a flow chart program or what?

AG: I used to define information architecture as "the art and science of organizing information in such a way as to facilitate its rapid and intuitive retrieval." I've thrown out that definition now, as being too pedantic and way too restrictive. Now, I say IA is "trying to empathize with what the user wants to do, and facilitating her doing it." Maybe even "Getting out of the user's way."

The tool that most reliably produces sound architecture, as far as I'm concerned, is a functioning ear. IA is something that should be done by talking to people (primarily users, clients, and developers), asking the right questions, and listening carefully to the answers.

Also quite useful is an eye, so you can watch users in their own native environment, trying the use the things we create--you get a lot of insight into "how not to do it" that way. You'll notice that none of this necessarily involves a computer--although I'll admit it's hard to produce really slick deliverables with a 2HB pencil.

Digital Web: Would you say that IA is tied with good usability? Why / why not?

AG: They're two sides of the same coin, or maybe it would be better to say they're the interior and exterior of the same object. A site or an object whose design has resulted from a conscientiously-applied process of information architecture is generally--generally, but not always--highly usable for its intended user base. (Note, again, that nowhere do I imply that either is or should be limited to the Web.)

Digital Web: Can you give example Web sites of well that obviously put a lot of thought into IA? What about one that didn't consider it at all?

AG: Well, I've already named some sites that feel highly usable to me. I think if you asked, you'd find that the people who developed those sites went through some sort of recognizable IA methodology, complete with user personae, scenarios, page schematics, and all the paraphernalia that attend a thoughtful, user-centric development process.

Unfortunately, sites that haven't are too many to mention; naming them would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Still, after everything we've learned.

For example, it's kind of hard to believe in 2002, but most all the major Japanese corporations I'm familiar with have a horrible, counterproductive Web presence--sites that almost seem calculated to frustrate, annoy and alienate their users.

Here's just one example: Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan Ltd. Now, where on this page do you have any indication that this is a chicken restaurant? How about store locations? Menu? Hours? In fact, any of the things you're likely to want to know if you've gone to the trouble of entering this URL in your browser?

Digital Web: The Barbara Walters question. Prior to redesign, your v-2.org site used to be clean and simple text-based design. Looking at it today, it's a bulkier and partial Flash-based design. I admit I had trouble finding my way around. How did you come to the decision to move from a simple, effective design to a "design for design's sake" design?

AG: I'll say up front that this was in large part a mistake, and one that I'm in the process of correcting. What happened was that I screwed up on principle number one of good IA, and misjudged both the composition of my audience and what they wanted from the site.

I had thought that v-2's audience predominantly consisted of visually-oriented designers--whether graphic or Web or architectural--and that they would prefer something with a distinctive design and an unusual interface to the content. As it turns out, people don't come to v-2 to be inspired visually, and they never have; they're there almost solely for the content, and if that content also happens to be presented in a visually-appealing environment, that's a bonus. They've made this pretty explicit. It's been a curious experience, both humbling and gratifying, to be told this: "I love your articles, but I'll go to Presstube, or Rhizome, or Ben Fry's stuff at the MIT Media Lab site if I want to be turned on."

Part of it, too, is an artifact of the social and political circumstances of the site's development. Because I simply didn't have the skills to bring the site I imagined to life, I asked some very talented friends of mine--Sharif Ezzat, Peter Markatos, Jay Hakkinen, Gabe Garner--to work on it with me. The work they did on v-2 is something for which designers would ordinarily bill in the tens of thousands of dollars, and they did it purely for the challenge, and I hope for the fun.

Well, let me tell you, when you-as-client have so indebted yourself to your developers, you really don't have a very loud voice in the process, particularly if you want to keep those friendships. There are decisions that were made that I didn't particularly agree with, but which I simply didn't push very hard on; I figured and still figure that this went hand in hand with respecting the enormous outlays of time and energy these guys made for nothing more than goodwill.

And that's another lesson learned. Next time around, if I need anybody's help, I'll pay for it like anyone else, and I'll feel more comfortable about getting my control-freak on. Better still, I'll build it all myself, and then being dictatorial simply won't be an issue.

Digital Web: How can a small design shop (even with just one principal) go about ensuring IA is figured into the process?

AG: Keep your eyes on the prize, which is user satisfaction. You don't have to know the ins and outs of use cases and task flows, as long as you can construct a reasonably accurate story about why a given user is on your site, what they want to do there, and what factors stand in their way.

A certain professional humility--something I constantly struggle with--goes a long, long way, too. Just because someone's business card says "Marketing Department" or "Receptionist" doesn't mean they're incapable of coming up with the right solution to offer the user at hand. When you're a small shop, it's even more critical to seek out and encourage these perspectives.

Digital Web: How will XML and Web services impact IA and its future?

AG: Hugely. XML, along with its related technologies, XHTML and CSS, will permit content to be far more finely tuned to audiences, in ways that reflect the actual environment and context of use.

This is at the global scale. At the level of specific IA deliverables, we're already exploring ways in which, say, elements of a page schematic can consist of little modules of XML code, so interaction and flow are already inherent in the structure by the time visual design is applied.

(Yes, alert designers and engineers, there are aspects of this scenario about which I'm deeply ambivalent. But for certain types of sites, under certain kinds of development pressure, I think this approach makes a lot of sense.)

Digital Web: At Altsense, you discuss the difference between IA and Interaction Design (ID). How do you define ID?

AG: We need to be careful: there's ID as in interaction design, and ID as in information design (to say nothing of industrial design), and they imply very different ambits.

In that post, I'm pretty clear about my contention that interaction design should be considered a subset of information architecture. I think I say something to the effect that IA started out primarily focusing on the organization of content, whereas interaction design could just as easily apply to a spreadsheet application, or a phone. This would seem to make IA the more parochial in its concerns. And, as a matter of fact, Razorfish's formal delineation of job responsibilities for an information architect focuses on things like site mapping and page architectures and search vocabularies--all things which are more or less bound to the Web paradigm.

But, (and I'll stress that this is a rather contentious issue in the IA community, and that I am fairly far to one side of the spectrum of contention) I think everything in the world is information, and that therefore what each and every single design project needs is someone to think about the flow of information to the user and back.

Digital Web: On sites design by the beginning designer, what frequent Web design issues do you see?

AG: I'm gonna beg off on answering this question, because I really do try to live by the idea that in matters of taste there is no dispute. (Everyone who's jumped out of her seat by now, in a rush to call bullshit on me: I did say "try.")

Digital Web: What are the basic key things every Web site should consider to ensure it's well designed?

AG: I'm wary of that "every"--Curt Cloninger's lab404, say, is going to have divergent needs from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, or Dischord Records, or your neighborhood Greek restaurant--but I can say this: Know your audience. Err on the side of restraint. And don't try to accomplish too much.

Digital Web: As someone who has experienced working in different cultures (US and Japan), does creativity mean the same thing in different cultures? What does it mean to you?

AG: I don't think it means the same thing to any two people, but the word certainly doesn't have the same resonances in Japan as it does where I'm from. In Japan, a site or an ad or a T-shirt or a video can be essentially identical with the four hundred and twenty-three that preceded it, "plus alpha," and still be considered a work of daring and imagination. That's probably not going to fly in Barcelona, or Brooklyn, or Bermondsey.

As for me, creativity simply means finding the right way to solve the problem at hand. Sometimes that will mean something new and untried and frankly radical and sometimes the appropriate means will incorporate a tactic or a technique that's been around since the Paleolithic. Creativity is knowing when to use which tool in your armamentarium.

Digital Web: Your articles at v-2 and elsewhere are inspiring and innovative. From where do you get your inspiration?

AG: Thanks, that's very generous of you to say so.

Uhh, this is going to come from out of left field for those that don't know me real well, but Lester Bangs is probably the single biggest influence on my writing. He was a rock critic--if you saw Almost Famous you'll remember Phillip Seymour Hoffman's dead-on evocation of him--who never shied from injecting himself into whatever story he was nominally writing about. What Lester wrote wasn't always pretty and it wasn't always right--sometimes it was perilously close to indefensible--but what he had in passion and integrity made up for any lapses in taste tenthousandfold. When I encounter a site--any kind of product, really--that's designed with arrogant, ignorant, or contemptful neglect for the people who have to use it, I think of how Lester would have torn into it, and smile.

I can never get enough of the graphic design work that Josef Muller-Brockman was doing in, good god, the 1950s, which still looks clean and contemporary, and lends itself especially well to the Web (or so I would have it). I always have at least one copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style floating around. The architects John Pawson and Herzog & de Meuron are touchstones.

But mostly I get my inspiration from that incomparable and inexhaustible wellspring of same, the natural world. It's subtle, it's patient, and if it takes what is probably an uneconomic amount of time to search the space of potential design solutions, I'll die a happy man if I can ever produce designs one-one-thousandth as graceful and elegant.

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Meryl K. Evans, content maven, is a WaSP member even though she's far from being a WASP. The content maven writes a column for PC Today and blogs for the Web Design Reference Guide at InformIT. Meryl provides the home for the CSS Collection and she's the editor of Professional Services Journal, meryl's notes :: the newsletter as well as other newsletters, so tell all your friends, families and animals to subscribe. Her ancient blog keeps cluckin' since its arrival on the web in 2000.

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