Published on July 21, 2004
Intelligence is moving to the edges, flowing through networked computers, wireless devices, empowered users and distributed teams. Ideas spread like wildfire. Innovations emerge from uncharted borderlands. Information is in the air, literally. We’re exploring a new world called cyberspace, and we’re navigating without a map.
How do we make informed decisions in the information age? How do we know enough to ask the right questions? 3 billion web pages. 6 billion people. Who do you ask? Who do you trust? How do you find the best product, the right person, the data that makes a difference?
The answers lie hidden within the strange connections between social software, human psychology, convergent architecture, smart mobs, reputation economies, learning organizations, nanotechnology and literacy.
While the task may seem daunting, I believe librarians have a responsibility to ask these hard questions and an opportunity to play a major role in shaping the user experience at the soft edges of cyberspace.
I’ve spent the past ten years as an information architecture evangelist, helping Fortune 500 corporations and large nonprofits to structure and organize their information systems, services and products.
A good deal of this work has involved adapting the traditional principles of library and information science for use in the online environment. At my former company, Argus Associates, we explicitly pursued a mission of proving the value of librarians and librarianship to the design of web sites and intranets.
We lived on the bleeding edge, explaining the benefits of controlled vocabularies and thesauri to skeptical executives and engineers, and struggling to convince managers that an effective search system requires much more than a solid search engine.
Along the way, we had the opportunity to play a role in shaping the emerging field of information architecture. As evidenced by the following definitions from the second edition of our book1, we worked to maintain a fairly broad scope for this new and growing field.
in·for·ma·tion ar·chi·tec·ture n.
- The combination of organization, labeling, and navigation schemes within an information system.
- The structural design of an information space to facilitate task completion and intuitive access to content.
- The art and science of structuring and classifying web sites and intranets to help people find and manage information.
- An emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.
However, despite our best efforts, last year I began to feel constrained by the very walls I’d helped to build. My professional interests were ranging far beyond information architecture, and yet I lacked a good way to describe my new focus.
As I explored the territories surrounding information architecture, I found Jesse James Garrett’s visual, The Elements of User Experience2, to be an excellent map. Jesse reconciles the notions of the Web as both software interface and hypertext system within a multi-layered, multi-disciplinary framework.
And I was encouraged by the AIGA Experience Design community and their willingness to step beyond overly simplistic notions of web usability by advocating balanced solutions that are “useful, usable and desirable.”
And yet, I still felt there was something missing in both the map and the message, and as you’ve undoubtedly guessed, that something was findability.
In an effort to clarify my thoughts on this topic, I wrote an article entitled “The Age of Findability.”3 I argued that even within the small world of user experience design, findability doesn’t get enough attention. Interaction design is sexier. Usability is more obvious. And I promised that “findability will eventually be recognized as a central and defining challenge in the development of web sites, intranets, knowledge management systems and online communities.”
Now, I can build all sorts of return on investment (ROI) cases for findability. After all, the worst usability problem on the Web is that people can’t find what they need. There are huge opportunities for companies to make money and save money by improving their search, navigation and wayfinding systems.4
But my interest in findability extends beyond finance. I’m fascinated by the influence of increased access to information on the learning and decision-making behavior of individuals. I’m convinced we’re in the midst of a transition that is reshaping the sources of trust and authority in our society.
Herbert Simon, a Nobel laureate economist, is credited with the insight that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” In this age of the pathologically short attention span, it’s scary to examine people’s use of information.
A recent UCLA study found that “among very experienced users, the Internet now ranks higher than books, television, radio, newspapers, and magazines as an important source of information.”5
And a Consumer WebWatch study found that people use information design and structure as primary factors in assessing the credibility of web sites. Other factors such as company motive, reputation and information accuracy play smaller roles.6
In other words, people trust web sites that look professional and well-organized. They often don’t look deeper to assess credibility and authority, even when relying on this information to make important personal and professional decisions.
This raises all sorts of strange and disturbing questions. For example, in the wake of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent creation of the USA Patriot Act, many articles have cited the Bill of Rights. Despite the availability of scanned images and the full text of this important document online7, how many Americans have gone to the source rather than trusting a reporter’s interpretation? How many Americans would know how to find it? How many would recognize a forgery? How many forgeries exist on the Web today?
Google is increasingly finding itself at the heart of similarly strange discussions. The SearchKing lawsuit over the way Google ranks search results is indicative of the power the “Google-Opoly” now wields over what people find and don’t find. Users trust Google. Top results are invested with significant authority.
Google is undoubtedly having an impact on the evolution of the English language. I’d be surprised if the folks at the Oxford English Dictionary don’t have a secret threshold number of hits needed for new words to become official. “Blog” was recently added (3.7 million Google hits). I’m sure “Findability” is next (3,690 Google hits). Google is changing authority in ways we don’t fully understand.
So how does this relate to decision making? Consider these excerpts from a Harvard Business Review article entitled “When to Trust Your Gut.”8
“Executives routinely rely on their intuitions to solve complex problems when logical methods (such as cost benefit analysis) simply won’t do.”
“Your mind continuously processes information that you are not consciously aware of, not only when you’re asleep and dreaming but also when you’re awake. This helps explain the ‘aha’ sensation you experience when you learn something you actually already knew.”
Decision-making behavior is every bit as complex and widely misunderstood as information-seeking behavior. In fact, the two are closely linked. While decisions often appear to be made in the moment, our gut instincts are informed by what we have read, heard and experienced over many months and years.
In our daily existence, we choose to which sources of information we will give our attention and trust. Sometimes it’s as simple as relying on the top three Google hits or trusting the web site that looks most organized. And at the critical junctures of our personal and professional lives, these seemingly small (and often superficially made) choices inform the biggest decisions we ever make.
And things are about to get a whole lot stranger as we experience the accelerated intertwingling of physical and digital realms. We’re porting more of our physical reality into cyberspace, and we’re populating our physical spaces with all sorts of new portals into the virtual. Consider the following facts:
- There’s a company called Ambient Devices that embeds information representation into everyday objects: lights, pens, watches, walls and wearables. You can buy a wireless Ambient Orb that shifts colors to show changes in the weather, stock market, traffic and other variables based on user preferences you set on a web site.9
- You can now buy a watch from Wherify Wireless with an integrated global positioning system (GPS) that locks onto your kid’s wrist, so you can pinpoint your child’s location 24 hours a day.10
- Manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble have already begun inserting radio-frequency identification tags (RFIDs) into products so they can reduce theft and restock shelves more efficiently. These tags continue to function long after products leave the store and enter the home or business.11
- Pioneers in “convergent architecture” have built the Swisshouse, a new type of consulate in Cambridge, MA, that connects a geographically-dispersed scientific community. It may not be long before persistent audio-video linkages and “web on the wall” come to a building near you.12
The size and price of processors, sensors and related technologies are approaching a tipping point. Today’s expensive prototypes are tomorrow’s dirt cheap products. Imagine a world where you can track the location of anything and anyone from anywhere at anytime. Simply affix a tiny sticker to your TV’s remote control or to the bottom of your spouse’s shoe, and then fire up your web browser.
Cathedrals of Knowledge
Of course, there is a dark side to this techno-utopian vision of ambient findability. Clearly, privacy is threatened with total extinction. And information anxiety will keep our stress levels sky high. But I’m more interested right now in a different casualty of the digital revolution.
As information becomes increasingly disembodied and pervasive, we run the risk of losing our sense of wonder at the richness of human communication. In the past, we’ve been inspired by our buildings, our libraries which have served as cathedrals of knowledge, celebrating the wealth of information we collectively create and share.
In the future, we must seek novel ways to inspire ourselves and others, by finding and creating beauty in our digital information environments.
Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, and the guru’s guru of usable products, is hard at work on a new book entitled Emotional Design. In a recent essay, he explains his newfound interest in aesthetics. “I’m on a campaign to ensure that our products have beauty and emotional impact as well as effectiveness and understandability...attractive things work better.”13 I’m encouraged by Don’s campaign, but I also see many other paths to inspiration.
I’m inspired by the willingness of folks like Danny Hillis and Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation to publicly tackle big hairy audacious goals like building a 10,000 year clock and a 10,000 year library. I’m inspired by the All Species Foundation, dedicated to the complete inventory of all species of life on Earth within the next 25 years, and by the Internet Archive which is building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form.
Sometimes inspiration comes from rediscovering the beauty we’ve been taking for granted. In Scrolling Forward, David Levy reminds us of the splendor of the written word.
“What are documents? They are, quite simply, talking things. They are bits of the material world—clay, stone, animal skin, plant fiber, sand—that we’ve imbued with the ability to speak...No document, no genre is an island...you can’t see them if you don’t look at them, but you also can’t see them if you look only at them.”
It is this subtle power of context that intrigues me in the realm of networked information environments. We use people to find content. We use content to find people. Information seeking behavior and social network analysis go hand in hand. In today’s knowledge economy, learning and finding are powered by all sorts of invisible links between and among people and documents.
And in the context of e-commerce, I’m fascinated and encouraged by the ability of customer reviews on sites like Amazon and Epinions to empower and inform consumers, increasing pressure on companies to build better products.
Interestingly, these reviews are driven by participation economies that reward the Top Reviewers with attention and trust. Note that the #1 Top Reviewer at Amazon (4550 book reviews) is Harriet Klausner, formerly an acquisitions librarian in Pennsylvania. This just goes to show that librarians were destined to rule the Web.
In all seriousness, I’d like to conclude with a cautionary note, that comes in response to Howard Rheingold’s recent book, Smart Mobs. In this highly entertaining and insightful text, we read about “thumb tribes,” gangs of teenagers and activists, connected in free-flowing networks via SMS text messaging on their cell phones.
I hope that as ambient findability becomes reality, we are able to offset the inherent dangers of group think and mob justice by empowering literate individuals with the ability to find and recognize the truth, make informed decisions, and when necessary act independently. I believe librarians have an important role to play in leading us towards this more desirable future.
Adapted from a keynote presentation for the Online Northwest 2003 conference.
Peter Morville is President and Founder of Semantic Studios, an information architecture and strategy consultancy. Peter is also the co-author (with Louis Rosenfeld) of the best-selling book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. A second edition of the book is expected to be on bookstore shelves in August 2002.