Articles, essays, editorials, white papers

Year-end wrap-up

Must be that time of year, since two usability-related year-in-review pieces came out yesterday:

Both are actually fairly level-headed and practical. Most of these things should be common knowledge for most IAs, but it's nice to see them summarized (and, in Nielsen's case, illustrated). HFI also has footnotes to all the relevant research, which is very useful for those ubiquitous “I'm looking for research that supports my opinion that ...” questions.

What Is A Controlled Vocabulary?

Karl Fast, Fred Leise and Mike Steckel in Boxes and Arrows.

    Finding the right words to communicate the message of your website can be one of the most difficult parts of developing it. Our authors guide you through the concepts behind a well-designed controlled vocabulary and discuss the pros and cons of its development.
Professionalism and respect

Excuse this rant...

Do you think I am preachy? I posted a comment on Lou's blog (towards the end) about the use of ridicule in communication and how I feel that it runs counter to collegiality. The thread had long gotten off the topic of analyzing usage data and some generalizations had been made about IAs that I didn't understand. The particular commenter employed ridicule to make his point and I argued that this profession would benefit from communication based on openness and respect rather than contempt and mockery. I don't think I've ever needed to remind myself of this basic concept, but it certainly felt good to say it aloud. Anyway, I don't think pointing fingers and mocking people openly in public is a good way to win the respect of the community you are conversing with. End rant.

Intranet Search vs. Internet Search

In December's CIO Magazine, Dick Stenmark, head of Internet and intranet search solutions at Volvo Information Technology, takes on intranet search:

The search engine industry and the research community alike often fail to acknowledge that intranets are not just downscaled versions of the Internet, but are instead a whole different environment in terms of both content and culture. We use the same technology to build both, but the contexts in which they operate are entirely different.

The article is fairly short but quite informative and definitely worth a read. Remember, kids, it's all about users + content + context...

Can you purchase wisdom?

Peterme's recounting of an experience with a customer who believed that they could extract wisdom from a software package and vendor is really interesting.

    Part of the reason they bought this software was for the "wisdom" the software was meant to have embedded within. That there was a "wisdom" in how the software presents work processes, and that the company ought to learn from that wisdom and adjust their work accordingly, taking advantage of this "wisdom."
I'm sure there are many CIO organizations out there who think the wisdom (that intangible next step beyond knowledge) can be extracted from a technology in order to inform their users' processes. But this backward approach won't help anyone. The technology has to match the process. That's why, as Peter mentions, software needs to be flexible enough to accomodate these processes. A good lesson learned for enterprise software vendors.

Nice UX cycle diagram in there too.

Eat Me, Drink Me, Push Me

In Digital Web, Christina Wodtke excerpts chapter 8 of Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web. This is the chapter discussing how to take your content and tasks and define them in terms of the interface. Nice examples of how tasks might be translated into UIs.

P.S. That floor plan is the second floor of my house! I diagrammed it in OmniGraffle. :)

Is the Computer Desktop an Antique
    After 20 years of point and click, we're ready to handle multiple interfaces within a single operating system. Bring on the zoom!
Steven Berlin Johnson has written a great article in Slate (with some additional commentary on his blog) about the divergent approaches/directions Apple and Miscrosoft have been taking with regard to desktop and application UIs. With Apple's iApps, the company is implicitly making the argument that the "one interface fits all" model doesn't work for organizing some types of data -- each iApp provides a unique interface for dealing different file types. Microsoft's Longhorn is going in the direction of making one interface work for browsing all kinds of data that might exist on your computer.

Studying information seeking and use

I have been dealing lately with user research based on interviews and product usage data. Some needs related to this work have been bouncing around in my head. What's fascinating to me is that related new literature has recently come across my desk and I've also participated in some conversations recently that have definitely informed how I am considering fulfilling these needs. That any of these seemingly separate things (literature, discourse, my work) should be related is amazing to me.

Here are four related recent articles and discourses that seem to me to have the theme of comparing pre-determined information structure with information usage-based mapping/cognition.

All About Facets & Controlled Vocabularies

Karl Fast, Fred Leise and Mike Steckel have started a series of articles on Boxes and Arrows to make facetted classification and controlled vocabularies accessible to practicing IA's without LIS backgrounds. Look forward to it.

Sites Become Dependent on Google

There's an interesting article in the NY Times that should interest people concerned with search engine optomization. The article reports on some retailers' experiences with Google making or breaking their traffic.

    Google "can be your best friend or your worst enemy," said Dario Ferreira, the owner and operator of


    Sometimes a site's ranking plunges drastically or disappears from Google altogether. Often this means that Google detected some evidence that the site's owner was using deceptive tactics, like building a network of linked sites to create the illusion of popularity and thereby receive a higher ranking.

    But site owners say Google can sometimes be overzealous in its fight against manipulation, and some say they live in fear that a small mistake or a technical glitch will get them booted from the search results and wipe out their income.

Accessible text on the web

The MCU: Understanding web typography - an introduction - In this article I attempt to cut a swathe through the complexities of Web typography; explain the possible pitfalls; and provide some guidelines for creating accessible and easy to read web pages.

Thanks, Library TechLog (Matthew Eberle)

Slogans for IA's

James Spahr offers some sassy slogans for IA's. He doesn't actually call them sassy, but the alliteration gives it some added sass. The last one would make a nice punchy tagline for an IA action/adventure sitcom.

This is XFML

Mark Pilgrim dives into XFML, with a nice description of how XFML can be used to describe content from different points of view, like looking into the center of a gemstone from each of its multiple faces (facets). As with the concept of topic maps, this example illustrates how description can be done post content publishing when you use a format like XFML. This is the power of what Peter V's created, coupled with the facetmap tool. The descriptions and relationships of content can be overlayed on top of the content. Nice description and example using facetmap.

Ten Taxonomy Myths

The Montague Institute gives us 10 taxonomy myths to dispel, so you can get past the hype and correctly grok how taxonomies will really work for you.

    Taxonomies have recently emerged from the quiet backwaters of biology, book indexing, and library science into the corporate limelight. They are supposed to be the silver bullets that will help users find the needle in the intranet haystack, reduce "friction" in electronic commerce, facilitate scientific research, and promote global collaboration. But before this can happen, practitioners need to dispel the myths and confusion, created in part by the multi-disciplinary nature of the task and the hype surrounding content management technologies.
Who's more important?

Here's an interesting question that's come up for me. Say you have a user population that subscribes to services you offer. Those groups can be categorized, e.g. in my case by business unit. You have statistics for each of the user groups and can describe:

  1. the number of subscribed users in each group
  2. the amount of money spent by each group
There are other dimensions as well, e.g. subscription to particular products by user group, but these are the simplest to compare. So the question is, what's more important do you think? Who has the most users or who pays the most money? I know there's more to consider than these two dimensions, but I found it interesting in the data I'm looking at, because the group with the most users does not spend the most money on products.

Cognitive Models for Web Design

Tanya Rabourn discusses information foraging, a theory that attempts to explain human information seeking behavior based on the food foraging theory from biology and anthropology. According to Pirolli and Card, "Information foraging theory analyzes trade-offs in the value of information gained against the costs of performing activity in human-computer interaction tasks." The advantage in using this theory as the basis for modeling information seeking behavior comes in the form of understanding users' cognitive mapping of knowledge and knowledge relationships and understanding attributes of information navigation such as scent. Tanya discusses 3 new tools which would benefit this area of study: 1) ACT-R, which uses network modeling of knowledge to model interaction, 2) analyzing user paths from web server log data and creating user profiles from that analysis, and 3) collaborative filtering or foraging for information groups.

Tanya's essay gives a concise summary of the literature and discusses some new methods for applying the theory. My eureka moment came last night when I saw James demonstrate his latest OmniGraffle experiments, which use web server logs to to create what he calls self-organizing site maps -- diagrams that show paths traveled between nodes/pages on a site to reveal real users' information seeking behavior. In a sense the relationships that emerge reveal the collective user base's cognitive map. It can be used to show where information scent was weak or strong and where content structure doesn't map to user peceptions.

I've been wanting a better way to test the information architecture of sites based on actual information use, and it's not until I read Tanya's essay and saw the visualization that James came up with that my brain was able to churn on this concept. It's nice to know smart and creative people.

Information Needs Analysis

Lou talks about selecting IA components to fulfill information needs.

    Each user has a different type of information need depending on what he's trying to find and why he's trying to find it. If we can determine the most common information needs a site's users have, we can select the few best architectural components to address those information needs.
What's Your problem?

Tom pointed to What's Your problem?, in which Mark Bernstein observes that a lot of IAs say that most web sites suck and that "Trying to establish a profession on the foundation of a myth is, I think, a tactical error."

    I've been reading a lot of Information Architecture lately, and one idea is weirdly pervasive -- the notion that most Web sites are bad. Everywhere you look in the literature, you see warnings about unusable sites, idiotic sites, disorganized and chaotic sites. Sites that suck.
Click here

Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman takes "click here" link text to task, showing examples used in popular media sites. Click here to read it. :)

    The words “click here for...” and “click here to...” serve no purpose within links. Unfortunately, many news sites still use them. According to Google, “click here” is on about 8,970 pages at alone.
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