Web of data — third of five IA Summit 2007 themes

(Here’s the third post on the 2007 IA Sum­mit. You can find the first one that intro­duces the series and describes the first theme ‘tan­gi­ble’ here and the sec­ond one on ‘social’ here.)

Typ­i­cal­ly, IAs have con­cerned them­selves with the design of web sites. The metaphor most suit­ed and used for the web so far has been space. Even the term ‘infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture’ points to this. Nowa­days, besides hav­ing to tack­le the social dimen­sion (as per the pre­vi­ous trend men­tioned) IAs are forced to rethink the spa­tial metaphor in favour of a new one: the web as plat­form. This means design­ing for a web of data, where sites become data sources and tools to view and manip­u­late that data. This is a far cry from the old hier­ar­chi­cal mod­el. Like design for social soft­ware, IAs are still explor­ing this new ter­ri­to­ry.

There was an excel­lent pan­el on this sub­ject (notes and audio at The Chick­en Test), with amongst oth­ers Tom Coates and Matt Bid­dulph (both pre­vi­ous­ly employed by the BBC). Coates’ pre­sen­ta­tions (Native to a Web of Data and Greater than the sum of its parts) are essen­tial resources. He gave a super short overview of what design­ing for the web of data is all about. Matt went beyond screen based media into the realm of phys­i­cal com­put­ing (see the first trend) show­ing some cool exam­ples of Arduino pro­to­types feed­ing into Sec­ond Life.

Jared Spool talked about the usabil­i­ty chal­lenges of web 2.0 and focussed on (among many things) the short­com­ings of RSS and the dan­gers of mash-ups. RSS as a tech­nol­o­gy is pret­ty cool, but no nor­mal user intu­itive­ly under­stands its appli­ca­tion. This is a tech­nol­o­gy still look­ing for a killer app. Mash-ups are typ­i­cal­ly made by enthu­si­as­tic ama­teurs look­ing to com­bine avail­able data sources or inter­faces. This means we’ll see a wave of sites with seri­ous usabil­i­ty issues. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing per se, but still some­thing to look out for.

Social — second of five IA Summit 2007 themes

(Here’s the sec­ond post on the 2007 IA Sum­mit. You can find the first one that intro­duces the series and describes the first theme ‘tan­gi­ble’ here.)

The recent web revival, that I will not name, pushed one trend to the fore­front – social soft­ware. The most chal­leng­ing aspect of design­ing social sites and appli­ca­tions is that you’re not ‘just’ design­ing for sin­gle users, but also for groups as a whole. The IA com­mu­ni­ty is still in the begin­ning phas­es of cre­at­ing a body of knowl­edge about how to best go about this.

Andrew Hin­ton gave one of the best talks of the event, first describ­ing the unique prop­er­ties of net­work-like com­mu­ni­ties of prac­tice and how to design for them. From there he made the point that IA itself is a com­mu­ni­ty of prac­tice, not a for­mal dis­ci­pline, which means it should try to stay open and flex­i­ble.

Bonus: Gene Smith took a stab at the build­ing blocks of social infor­ma­tion archi­tec­tures and came up with this nice mod­el.

Tangible — first of five IA Summit 2007 themes

I’ll be post­ing a top 5 of the themes I noticed dur­ing the past 2007 IA Sum­mit in Las Vegas. It’s a lit­tle late maybe, but hope­ful­ly still offers some val­ue. Here are the 5 themes. My thoughts on the first one (tan­gi­ble) are below the list:

  1. Tan­gi­ble (this post)
  2. Social
  3. Web of data
  4. Strat­e­gy
  5. Inter­face design

1. Tangible

The IA com­mu­ni­ty is mak­ing a strange dance around the top­ic of design for phys­i­cal spaces and objects. On the one hand IAs seem reluc­tant to move away from the web, on the oth­er hand they seem very curi­ous about what val­ue they can bring to the table when design­ing build­ings, appli­ances, etc.

The open­ing keynote was deliv­ered by Joshua Prince-Ramus, of REX (notes by Rob Fay and Jen­nifer Keach). He made some inter­est­ing points about how ‘real’ archi­tects are strug­gling with includ­ing infor­ma­tion­al con­cerns in their prac­tice. Michele Tep­per, a design­er at Frog talked us through the cre­ation of a spe­cial­ized com­mu­ni­ca­tions device for day traders where indus­tri­al design, inter­ac­tion design and infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture went hand in hand.

More to come!

UX designers should get into everyware

I’ve been read­ing Adam Greenfield’s Every­ware on and off and one of the things that it has me won­der­ing the most late­ly is: are UX pro­fes­sion­als mak­ing the move to design for ubiq­ui­tous com­put­ing?

There’re sev­er­al places in the book where he explic­it­ly men­tions UX in rela­tion to every­ware. Let’s have a look at the ones I man­aged to retrieve using the book’s trusty index…

On page 14 Green­field writes that with the emer­gence of ubi­comp at the dawn of the new mil­len­ni­um, the user expe­ri­ence com­mu­ni­ty took up the chal­lenge with “vary­ing degrees of enthu­si­asm, scep­ti­cism and crit­i­cal dis­tance”, try­ing to find a “lan­guage of inter­ac­tion suit­ed to a world where infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing would be every­where in the human envi­ron­ment.”

So of course the UX com­mu­ni­ty has already start­ed con­sid­er­ing what it means to design for ubi­comp. This stuff is quite dif­fer­ent to inter­net appli­ances and web sites though, as Green­field points out in the­sis 09 (pp.37–39):

Con­sis­tent­ly elic­it­ing good user expe­ri­ences means account­ing for the phys­i­cal design of the human inter­face, the flow of inter­ac­tion between user and device, and the larg­er con­text in which that inter­ac­tion is embed­ded. In not a sin­gle one of these dimen­sions is the expe­ri­ence of every­ware any­thing like that of per­son­al com­put­ing.” (p.37)

That’s a clear state­ment, on which he elab­o­rates fur­ther on, men­tion­ing that tra­di­tion­al inter­ac­tions are usu­al­ly of a “call-and-response rhythm: user actions fol­lowed by sys­tem events.” Where­as every­ware inter­ac­tions “can’t mean­ing­ful­ly be con­struct­ed as ‘task-dri­ven.’ Nor does any­thing in the inter­play between user and sys­tem […] cor­re­spond with […] infor­ma­tion seek­ing.” (p.38)

So, UX design­ers mov­ing into every­ware have their work cut out for them. This is vir­gin ter­ri­to­ry:

[…] it is […] a rad­i­cal­ly new sit­u­a­tion that will require the devel­op­ment over time of a doc­trine and a body of stan­dards and con­ven­tions […]” (p.39)

Now, UX in tra­di­tion­al projects has been prone to what Green­field calls ‘val­ue engi­neer­ing’. Com­mer­cial projects can only be two of these three things: fast, good and cheap. UX would sup­port the sec­ond, but sad­ly it is often sac­ri­ficed for the sake of the oth­er two. Not always though, but this is usu­al­ly depen­dent on who is involved with the project:

[…] it often takes an unusu­al­ly ded­i­cat­ed, per­sis­tent, and pow­er­ful advo­cate […] to see a high-qual­i­ty design project through to com­ple­tion with every­thing that makes it excel­lent intact. […] the painstak­ing­ly detailed work of ensur­ing a good user expe­ri­ence is fre­quent­ly hard to jus­ti­fy on a short-term ROI basis, and this is why it is often one of the first things to get val­ue-engi­neered out of an extend­ed devel­op­ment process. […] we’ve seen that get­ting every­ware right will be orders of mag­ni­tude more com­pli­cat­ed than achiev­ing accept­able qual­i­ty in a Web site, […] This is not the place for val­ue engi­neers,” (p.166)

So if tra­di­tion­al projects need UX advo­cates on board with con­sid­er­able influ­ence, com­pa­ra­ble to Steve Jobs’s role at Apple, to ensure a descent user expe­ri­ence will it even be pos­si­ble to cre­ate ubiq­ui­tous expe­ri­ences that are enjoy­able to use? If these projects are so com­plex, can they be even got­ten ‘right’ in a com­mer­cial con­text? I’m sor­ry to say I think not…

Design­ers (used broad­ly) will be at the fore­front of decid­ing what every­ware looks like. If you don’t think they will, at least I’m sure they should. They’re not the only ones to deter­mine its shape though, Green­field points out that both reg­u­la­tors and mar­kets have impor­tant parts to play too (pp.172–173):

[…] the inter­lock­ing influ­ences of design­er, reg­u­la­tor, and mar­ket will be most like­ly to result in ben­e­fi­cial out­comes if these par­ties all treat every­ware as a present real­i­ty, and if the deci­sion mak­ers con­cerned act accord­ing­ly.” (p.173)

Now there’s an inter­est­ing notion. Hav­ing just come back from a pre­mier venue for the UX com­mu­ni­ty to talk about this top­ic, the IA Sum­mit, I’m afraid to say that I didn’t get the impres­sion IAs are tak­ing every­ware seri­ous­ly (yet.) There were no talks real­ly con­cerned with tan­gi­ble, per­va­sive, ubiq­ui­tous or ambi­ent tech­nolo­gies. Some basic fare on mobile web stuff, that’s all. Wor­ry­ing, because as Green­field points out:

[UX design­ers] will best be able to inter­vene effec­tive­ly if they devel­op appro­pri­ate insights, tools, and method­olo­gies ahead of the actu­al deploy­ment of ubiq­ui­tous sys­tems.” (pp.173–174)

This stuff is real, and it is here. Green­field points to the exis­tence of sys­tems such as Octo­pus in Hong Kong and E-ZPass in the US. Hon­est­ly, if you think beyond the tools and meth­ods we’ve been using to com­mu­ni­cate our designs, IxDs and IAs are well-equipped to han­dle every­ware. No, you won’t be required to draw wire­frames or sitemaps; but you’ll damn well need to put in a lot of the think­ing design­ers do. And you’ll still need to be able to com­mu­ni­cate those designs. It’s time to get our hands dirty:

What ful­ly oper­a­tional sys­tems such as Octo­pus and E-ZPass tell us is that pri­va­cy con­cerns, social impli­ca­tions, eth­i­cal ques­tions, and prac­ti­cal details of the user expe­ri­ence are no longer mat­ters for con­jec­ture or sup­po­si­tion. With ubiq­ui­tous sys­tems avail­able for empir­i­cal enquiry, these things we need to focus on today.” (p.217)

So, to reit­er­ate the ques­tion I start­ed with: are there any UX design­ers out there that have made the switch from web-work to ubi­comp? Any­one con­sid­er­ing it? I’d love to hear about your expe­ri­ences.

IA Summit 2007 — Leaving Las Vegas

I’m sit­ting in the North West Air­lines World Club in Detroit using my eleven hour (!) lay-over to work away all the email and RSS feeds that have been pil­ing up dur­ing the past days of being (most­ly) off-line.

I had a great time at the IA Sum­mit. It was def­i­nite­ly worth the trip. Attend­ed lots of thought-pro­vok­ing talks and met a whole bunch of inspir­ing peo­ple. It’s inter­est­ing to now be able to put the Euro­pean IA scene in con­text of the ‘inter­na­tion­al’ one.

I’m sin­gle-quot­ing inter­na­tion­al, because to be hon­est, I think the IA Sum­mit is a North Amer­i­can event. Of course there were quite a few vis­i­tors and even speak­ers from out­side the US & Cana­da, but I can’t help but feel that the major­i­ty of atten­dees real­ly are not very aware of the tru­ly inter­na­tion­al char­ac­ter of the IA com­mu­ni­ty.

That’s a shame.

One exam­ple is some­thing I real­ly should have fixed dur­ing 5 minute mad­ness: the announce­ment of the Euro­pean IA Sum­mit. Apart from men­tion­ing the event’s name and URL, peo­ple weren’t exact­ly per­suad­ed to come over. It wasn’t even men­tioned that this is in the beau­ti­ful city of Barcelona!

Any­way, I’ll just use this oppor­tu­ni­ty to invite all my Amer­i­can col­leagues to make the trip and get a taste of how we do things in Europe. Seri­ous­ly, I’m sure peo­ple will enjoy learn­ing about the unique issues we’re deal­ing with (I did the oth­er way around). Like Jesse James Gar­rett said: “embrace ambi­gu­i­ty”.

On a dif­fer­ent note, I’ll prob­a­bly be doing a series of posts over the com­ing weeks like I did for the last Euro IA Sum­mit, once I get my notes ordered and fil­tered. Stay tuned.

Packing for the IA Summit

Just fir­ing off a quick post while pack­ing for the IA Sum­mit. Tomor­row morn­ing I’m tak­ing off on my flight to Vegas. For any­one curi­ous about my doings while in the states, your best bet is Jaiku1. SMS-ing the occa­sion­al update should be afford­able and won’t take too much time. No live blog­ging I’m afraid, I will be tak­ing plen­ty of notes2 and promise to do a prop­er write-up when back.

1. Although all the crazy Amer­i­cans are hooked on Twit­ter like an addict on crack, so to keep up with what’s going on there I’ll need to switch between two pres­ence apps. Grum­ble.

2. A fresh squared Mole­sk­ine pock­et note­book is ready for action.

IA Summit 2007 — one week to go

IA Summit 2007 logo

While we’re on the top­ic of attend­ing events: I’m lucky enough to attend this year’s IA Sum­mit. It’s all the way in Las Vegas (a long flight from my hum­ble coun­try) so there’ll be plen­ty of jet lag to cope with. Also it’s just the con­fer­ence for me, no time to attend the pre-con­fer­ence work­shops (which is a shame real­ly, because there’s plen­ty of inter­est­ing stuff). Regard­less, I’m look­ing for­ward to expe­ri­enc­ing the moth­er­ship con­fer­ence after two years of being at the Euro IA Sum­mit and meet­ing lots of new inter­est­ing peo­ple. Per­haps I’ll see you there?

Spatial metaphors in IA and game design

Look­ing at dom­i­nant metaphors in dif­fer­ent design dis­ci­plines I’m in some way involved in, it’s obvi­ous to me that most are spa­tial (no sur­pris­es there). Here’s some thoughts on how I think this is (or should be) chang­ing. Infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture tends to approach sites as infor­ma­tion spaces (although the web 2.0 hype has brought us a few ‘new’ ones, on which more lat­er.) I do a lot of IA work. I have done quite a bit of game design (and am re-enter­ing that field as a teacher now.) Some of the design­ers in that field I admire the most (such as Molyneux and Wright) approach games from a more or less spa­tial stand­point too (and not a nar­ra­tive per­spec­tive, like the vast major­i­ty do). I think it was Molyneux who said games are a series of inter­est­ing choic­es. Wright tends to call games ‘pos­si­bil­i­ty spaces’, where a play­er can explore a num­ber of dif­fer­ent solu­tions to a prob­lem, more than one of which can be viable.

I don’t think I’m going any­where in par­tic­u­lar here, but when look­ing at IA again, as I just said, the field is cur­rent­ly com­ing to terms with new ways of look­ing at the web and web sites; the web as a net­work, web as plat­form, the web of data, and so on. Some of these might ben­e­fit from a more pro­ce­dur­al, i.e. game design-like, stance. I seem to remem­ber Jesse James Gar­rett giv­ing quite some atten­tion to what he calls ‘algo­rith­mic archi­tec­ture’ (using Ama­zon as an exam­ple) where the IA is actu­al­ly cre­at­ing some­thing akin to a pos­si­bil­i­ty space for the user to explore.

Per­haps when we see more cross-pol­li­na­tion between game design and infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture and inter­ac­tion design for the web, we’ll end up with more and more sites that are not only more like desk­top appli­ca­tions (the promise of RIA’s) but also more like games. Wouldn’t that be fun and inter­est­ing?

Using concept models to design for the web of data

Flickr concept model by mApplogic

I’m lucky enough to be doing some con­cept­ing and inter­ac­tion design work for a social web site. This pre­sent­ed me with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to inte­grate some stuff I found while read­ing on social soft­ware, and the web as platform/network. Here’s how I’ve been inte­grat­ing some of it.

I was inspired by the con­cept mod­el of the Flickr ecosys­tem I saw in Luke Wroblewski’s pre­sen­ta­tion on social inter­ac­tion design (which was done by Bryce Glass) to try and cre­ate one myself. Coin­ci­den­tal­ly there’s a whole chap­ter in Dan Brown’s book (which Peter was smart enough to pur­chase and was lying around the office) on cre­at­ing con­cept mod­els.

One of the things I want­ed to do is make the site play nice with the web of data. To that end, I decid­ed to apply Tom Coates’ 3 basic page types to the design of the site. So what I did was first cre­ate a con­cept mod­el (of course fol­low­ing some research of the site’s busi­ness and user goals) and then look at the nouns and verbs in the mod­el. For each noun I cre­at­ed a sin­gle object view page and a list view page. For each verb I cre­at­ed a manip­u­la­tion inter­face page. Of course, all list type pages would get RSS feeds in the even­tu­al site.

For instance if you have a mod­el that states ‘Review­er rates Book’ then you’d end up with a page for each review­er and book, a page to list review­ers, a page to list books and a manip­u­la­tion inter­face for rat­ing a book.

Doing this result­ed in a nice list of pages that I could then analyse for com­plete­ness and/or redun­dan­cy. Of course this only works if your con­cept mod­el accu­rate­ly reflects what the site should achieve. If your mod­el sucks, your list of pages will too.

Anoth­er caveat lies in the fact that a con­cept mod­el tends to be very effec­tive for map­ping the func­tion­al aspects of a site, but not very suit­able for cre­at­ing an overview of its con­tent (which is often more push ori­ent­ed). If the kind of site you’re cre­at­ing involves more infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture than inter­ac­tion design you might want to do some addi­tion­al con­tent inven­to­ry work and fold that into the page list.

One last chal­lenge would be orga­niz­ing these pages in a coher­ent whole (beyond cou­pling lists to sin­gle items to inter­faces). I can imag­ine I’d attempt some card sort­ing to achieve that.

Final­ly, for cre­at­ing the con­cept mod­el I used the spe­cial­ized (and free) tool Cmap­Tools which is pret­ty nice in that it goes beyond visu­al­ly mod­el­ling the con­cepts but actu­al­ly track­ing the state­ments you implic­it­ly make when link­ing con­cepts to each oth­er.

Any­one else have expe­ri­ence with try­ing to inte­grate some of the stuff Coates was talk­ing about in their design of a site?

Accessibility (a Euro IA theme)

It’s been a while, but here’s my final post on the Euro IA Sum­mit. Usabil­i­ty has been a design val­ue long cham­pi­oned by HCI pro­fes­sion­als from which IA has part­ly devel­oped. Nat­u­ral­ly, they’ve often been respon­si­ble for ensur­ing usabil­i­ty in projects. There have been devel­op­ments that force IAs to take a broad­er view and see usabil­i­ty as one of many val­ues that go into a suc­cess­ful user expe­ri­ence on the web. Morville realised this quite a while ago and remind­ed us in his keynote of his user expe­ri­ence hon­ey­comb.

Acces­si­bil­i­ty is one of those oth­er val­ues, and quite a few talks dis­cussed it in some way.

For instance Fredy Oré’s talk on the project he did for Dig­i­tal UK (the inde­pen­dent, non-prof­it organ­i­sa­tion lead­ing the UK’s move to dig­i­tal tele­vi­sion) con­tained quite a few exam­ples of how he as an IA was faced with acces­si­bil­i­ty prob­lems. From fig­ur­ing out how to cre­ate a site struc­ture that would sup­port both Eng­lish as well as Welsh to work­ing around the lim­i­ta­tions of a lega­cy CMS, there were many acces­si­bil­i­ty-relat­ed deci­sions to make.

Bogo Vatovec sum­ma­rized the results from a test he did with sev­er­al con­tent adap­ta­tion solu­tions (mobile web brows­ing appli­ca­tions). The state of affairs in this area appeared to be quite sor­did. Opera’s mobile web brows­er came out as the best option cur­rent­ly avail­able. How­ev­er, smart soft­ware will nev­er be the sil­ver bul­let to solve all mobile web-brows­ing woes. We’ll need to build sites to be acces­si­ble for a broad range of devices. I feel we need to go even one step fur­ther and cre­ate alter­na­tive archi­tec­tures specif­i­cal­ly tai­lored for the mobile con­text.

Final­ly Steven Pem­ber­ton flexed his W3C mus­cles and over­whelmed the poor non-techy IAs with a del­uge of infor­ma­tion on new web stan­dards such as XHTML 2 and XForms. The key take­aways for me were that the W3C is still push­ing for a true Seman­tic Web (yes, upper­case). Exam­ple: Pem­ber­ton said XHTML 2 is “micro­for­mats done right”. Also, XForms promise to be a real alter­na­tive for oth­er RIA tech­nol­o­gy, with the main ben­e­fit that it won’t need third par­ty tech­nol­o­gy to be installed on the client.

So again, I expect IAs to be involved in more and more acces­si­bil­i­ty-relat­ed dis­cus­sions. Acces­si­bil­i­ty is one of many design val­ues that go in a user expe­ri­ence. These val­ues should be pri­ori­tised for each project. Some might even put acces­si­bil­i­ty above usabil­i­ty. IAs could do worse than edu­cate them­selves on some acces­si­bil­i­ty basics.

This is the fifth and final post on themes spot­ted dur­ing the Euro IA Sum­mit 2006. The first post was on strat­e­gy, the sec­ond on social search, the third on process & deliv­er­ables and the fourth on involv­ing the client. My first post-sum­mit post can be found here.