jefflash's blog

Semantic CMS

Victor Lombardi, of Noise Between Stations fame, gives us “Smarter Content Publishing: Building a semantic website to increase the efficiency and usability of publishing systems” in this month's IA-themed Digital Web Magazine.

Victor makes two great points. (Actually, he makes more than two, but there were two main ones that rung true with me.) What I got out of the article -- in my words, not Victor's:

  1. Content management / publishing systems should be efficient and usable. Working on several roll-your-own CMSs, I've tried to focus just as much on having the public-facing design be usable as I have on making the publishing interface/process be usable. The easier it is to publish content, the more likely it is that the content will grow and be up-to-date and accurate.
  2. Content management is as much a process issue as it is a technology issue. So often we see CMS focus on the technology and assorted wiz-bang features, but really, without an appropriate and accepted publishing and approval process, even the best CMS will fail. Usually it's the case where the process is made to conform to the technology, rather than the existing business process being examined and then an appropriate solution being chosen which will require as little change in the business process as possible.
IA and urban design

Lately I've been interested in the connection between information architecture and urban planning, city culture and design, and related areas. Not the connection between IA and (traditional) architecture, but city structures and urban development. (“Information architecture is to the Web what urban planning is to cities.”) I'm obviously not the first one to make this connection, what with things like How Buildings Learn and A Pattern Language popping up on mailing lists and IA book surveys. I recently came across a handful of new (to me) links and thought I'd share:

  • An Information Architecture Approach to Understanding Cities: “Cities are systems of information architecture. Here, "architecture" refers not to the design of buildings, but to how the components of a complex system interact. ... This paper argues that a city works less like a commercial electronic system, and more like the human brain. ... An effective city will be one with a system architecture that can respond to changing conditions. This analysis shifts the focus of understanding cities from their physical structure to the flow of information.”
  • Legibility Enhancement for Information Visualisation (PDF): “Navigation in computer generated information spaces may be difficult, resulting in users getting ‘lost in hyperspace.’ This work aims to build on research from the area of city planning to try to solve this problem.” (1995)
  • Enterprise Architecture: Infrastructure and Integration: “Enterprise Architecture in large organizations is more like City Planning than constructing a building.” (Link is to a page with an abstract and a downloadable ZIPped PPT.) This talks more about enterprise (read: IT) architecture than IA as we know it, but it touches on IA and information management as well. There are some interesting urban design metaphors and correlations.
Know of any more?

Was Jakob an IA?

Speaking of books, I stumbled upon this book cover. (It's a bit small, but if you look close it says Designing Exceptional Web Sites: Secrets of an Information Architect.)

A google search on the title attribltes it to one Mr. Jakob Nielsen, and following the Amazon link takes you to the page for Designing Web Usability.

Was I the only one who didn't know about this? Could Jakob have made IA a household name rather than usability? Things to think about this weekend...

Stu-Stu-Studio

Peter Morville's Semantic Studios announces the launch of a redesigned version 2.0 web site. Most interesting (to me, at least) are the quotes about the 2nd edition of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, including John Rhodes' recommendation: “If you own nothing but the shirt on your back, sell your shirt and get this book.”

Can log files help fix your IA?

The issue of using log files to assess the success of the information architecture and usability of a web site came up on a mailing list recently, and two great white papers were uncovered:

Know of any others?

Chris Farum takes over Boxes and Arrows... sort of

Former Argonaut Chris Farnum has two great articles in this week's edition of Boxes & Arrows:

The Egreetings article is a case study of a project Chris worked on while at Argus Inc., wonderfully written from a very personal perspective, which talks about problems faced during and after the project was completed. Many of the lessons learned are detailed in the User Testing article, which, among other things, tackles the low fidelity vs. high fidelity prototyping arguement head on.

Breadcrumbs -- Good or bad?

InfoDesign points us to Website Structural Navigation, a test of the usefulness of breadcrumb navigation. To spoil the ending:

“The impact is clear—navigation bars are good, but more so for advanced users than novice ones. For large websites, they are invaluable.”

While I'm encouraged with the results, something about this study rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it's the problems mentioned at the bottom of this page that seem like they could skew the results. Maybe it's the fact that users are probably more likely to navigate within a small section (i.e. from Fishing > Trout Fishing to Fishing > Carp Fishing to Fishing > Magazines) than jump from one section to something totally different (i.e. High School Cross Country to Fishing). Maybe it's the fact that breadcrumbs never stand alone, and work best in conjunction with other links. (In the Yahoo example, the bolded Yahoo! Sports link is much more prominent than the breadcrumbs, and I'd be willing to wager that, even when the breadcrumbs appeared, more people would select the Yahoo! Sports link than the Home > Recreation > Sports link.)

So, though the results will provide “proof” for those who seek to back up their belief that breadcrumbs are useful, there are enough flaws for the anti-breadcrumb lobby to jump on.

Serving suggestion: With grain of salt.

SURL Usability News, July 2002

From Wichita (Kansas, USA) State University comes the newest edition of Usability News, a publication of the Software Usability Research Laboratory.

There are a number of good articles (here's the list of all of them), but the two most IA-related are:

Also, buried in their easy-print version is a link to Optimal Web Design, which is FAQ of sorts, listing the questions most commonly asked about designing usable websites along with answers that draw on their body of research. It's like a power shake made with a dash of Jakob, a pinch of the Yale Style Guide, and several heaping scoops of SURL research and common knowledge, useful for short but thorough answers to major questions.

Endeca

This has been mentioned on peterme, but not here, so I thought I'd say a little something about it.

I got a card in the mail yesterday extolling the benefits of Endeca and their “Guided Navigation (SM).” Sounded like another company coming up with a proprietary term for a common technique. And, well, basically, it is.

“Guided Navigation (SM)” is faceted classification. They clean it up a bit, expose the facets in an intelligent way, and have an integrated search, but don't let their service marked slogan make you think they've invented something new.

What they do have, however, is probably the best explanation of faceted classification I've seen, and since many have mentioned the need for a simple FC example/tutorial (CrocoLyle, Parallax), I thought it was relevant. If you already understand FC and can explain it well to others, well, this is probably old news to you.

Their Flash demo with narration (also available without narration) is an easy-to-understand description of FC, applicable for developers, IAs, and business people, and it'd probably even pass the mom test too. (It's also a great example of a good use of Flash.)

I'll probably use the demo because it explains faceted classification at a high level better than I can, but I'll make sure to mention that the idea certainly is not proprietary, and there are other technologies and systems (i.e. FacetMap, Flamenco) that can do the same thing.

eDesign Magazine

I'll be the first to admit I was a bit skeptical when I heard about eDesign, “The Magazine of Interactive Design and Commerce.” After reading the June 2002 issue, though, I'm impressed. This could quite possibly be the best print magazine for information architects and related practitioners.

There are some very cool articles in this issue; JJG is interviewed for the cover story on “specialized design botiques,” there's a great branding feature on National Geographic, and any magazine that features an ad from Frog Design can't be all that bad.

The magazine itself is quite beautiful, a nice mix of aesthetically pleasing communication design and lots of relevant, interesting content.

Most of the articles aren't available online, unfortunately, and there don't seem to be any free industry subscriptions available, but, with so many magazines relying on ad revenue alone, the business model makes sense, and I wouldn't mind paying $30 for six bi-monthly issues, a design annual, and the chance to help a smart and worthy publication stay in business.

Could bad IA get you arrested?

The Intranet Focus Blog is, from what I understand, the only public blog dealing specifically with intranet issues. A recent post entitled Enron — The Intranet Implications talks about how, with all this talk lately of document retention policies and email backups, little attention is paid to how documents are stored, accessed, and kept on intranets.

The entry brings up a good point, but unfortunately leaves the issue of intranet IA hanging a bit:

“In many industries government officials and industry regulators have the authority to enter the premises of a company to look for evidence of malpractice. That would include the intranet. ... if the information archtecture of your intranet is so bad that the investigators feel that they are being impeded in their work you might end up on the end of an obstruction of justice charge.”

Could bad IA really call for charges to be filed? I seriously doubt that the IA would/could be that bad, and a bad information architecture on an intranet would most likely go along with a system of organizing files and documents throughout the company, not just on the intranet. Still, it's an interesting idea, and another reason that it may be worthwhile to pay attention to IA.

Toledo: Home of User-Centered Design

For those interested in the UCD side of things, NPR had a neat segment this weekend on Industrial Design in Toledo, Ohio. In the first half of the century, Toledo was a burgeoning industrial city with a twist — a special program set up in conjunction with the Toledo Art Museum trained industrial designers (not a very common thing back then, apparently) who worked with local companies.

They talk a bit in the segment about how the industrial designers observed how people used products and changed the way they were designed to make them better, easier to use, and more sell-able. John Heskett explains what the addition of industrial design into the process adds to the final product:

It's a very small design change, but it's a very significant one, because someone has been observing people — observing their sensibilities, their problems ... and the change doesn't necessarily have to be a massive one. If you want to make it acceptable to as many people as possible, it makes perfect sense to observe them in detail, to understand them in detail, and to design in detail for their needs.

You can listen to the 7 minute story in RealAudio, read the accompanying article, or check out the Toledo Museum of Art.

Web design 'causes confusion'

This BBC article comes to the shocking conclusion that:

People don't remember websites the way web designers think about it ... designers should organise information on websites in categories that are obvious to users.

I don't mean to be rude, but this sounds like a study conducted by the Center For Figuring Out Really Obvious Things. I'm sure it's a fine study, but it's certainly not news. John Rhodes' has written about Perceived Information Architecture, described a Perceived Information Architecture Test, and even posted feedback about a Perceived Information Architecture test run by (gasp) the BBC themselves. (Of course, John wasn't the first person to come up with the idea of seeing how users thought sites were organized nor the first to suggest that sites should be organized according to the way users think. But I do give credit where it's due...)

Information Architects and most people working on the web have known this for a while, and it's kind of disheartening that the BBC only picks up on it when it's a “study” conducted by a university. (At first I thought that maybe the BBC picked up on a SURL newsletter report, but then I realized that SURL is at Wichita State University, while this study was run by the Department of Psychology at Kansas State University. Kansas — hotbed of usability research!)

While it's nice that something like this appears in a “mainstream” publication like the BBC, it makes it seem like the only way this would have ever been found out is because they conducted “a study.” Maybe we should start calling usability tests “studies” and then people will take them more seriously.

I don't mean to rag on Kansas State, since, from their website, it seems like they have a pretty good focus on HCI and human factors. I guess it's one of those things where some publicity is better than no publicity.

Alertbox: Reduce Redundancy

Reduce Redundancy: Decrease Duplicated Design Decisions

Summary: User interface complexity increases when a single feature or hypertext link is presented in multiple ways. Users rarely understand duplicates as such, and often waste time repeating efforts or visiting the same page twice by mistake.

Hmmm. I'm not so sure about this one. His first example talks about footnotes and endnotes in Microsoft Word and how there are too many options. I agree that there are a lot of features and it can be confusing to some people, but I don't understand how it relates to the topic. This feature is presented in one way; there is one way to get to this dialogue box, and the features that are available are indeed necessary. (I know many professors and academic journals are very specific about how they would like their footnotes and endnotes to be presented.)

Now, I could be wrong, but I thought redundancy is good. To copy text, for example, you highlight it and then can go to Edit --> Copy, or right-click (or option-click) and select Copy, or Control-C (or Apple-C). Yes, in a way, the complexity increases for programmers because you have multiple ways to perform the same task, but for the user, this redundancy is easier. Some people like using keyboard commands, some like right-clicking, and some use the menu bar for everything.

He does say that “one of the few cases where users actually benefit from a small amount of redundancy is in the navigational paths through an information architecture,” but then adds, “too many cross-references will create an overly complex interface and prevent users from understanding where they are and what options they have at that location.” How many is too many? Is an interface with lots of cross-references — like Flamenco or Wine.com — bad or effective?

Linking: To the Brand Or to Bewilderment?

This article on ClickZ.com uses airport wayfinding as a metaphor for branding, while delving into chocolates, psychology and linking, all in about 10 paragraphs. There are a number of neat ideas here, but it feels like too many correlations and metaphors are packed together. It would have been much stronger if, instead of trying to tie everything together, he just focused on the idea of designing aspects of environments (signage, linkage) around users.

The author is really talking about IA, whether he intended to (or even knows what it is) or not:

  • “The environment feels good because it not only allows me to find my destination in a hurry but it also imparts a feeling of control. Every time I look about for helpful signage, there it is. When this occurs, it seems the planners must have anticipated my needs before I did.”
  • “For some reason, the intuitive element of sites seems to diminish in proportion to the amount of information sites attempts to expose. Desperate to tell the visitor everything, preferably all at once, the site instead drowns in chaos.”
  • “Often, the result of greater decision-making comfort is more people actually make a choice. Conversely, when a plethora of choices dazzles an individual the result is more likely to be the confused person makes no choice at all.”
[See also: Peter Morville on Findability]

Cooper Newsletter: May 2002

Cooper's May newsletter is out and it features two articles:

The content management article deals with preparing your organization to get the most out of CM by understanding the problem and best solution before buying the software, and the mapping article takes the classic “Which knob turns on which burner?” stove dillema and applies it to software. Useful and interesting as always.

Dilbert on Interface Design

I know that linking to Dilbert comics is not, shall we say, the hippest thing around, and I'm sure there's plenty that apply to any and every business situation, but this Dilbert comic from May 11 is one I guarantee that we'll all see in at least one UI-related presentation in the next year. (Of course, this is probably all-too-often the management's solution to usability problems, and by "this," I mean both closing their eyes and wishing real hard, and also inserting Dilbert comic strips into presetations.)

Preliminary Findings on the Use of Sitemaps

Matt Haughey digs up an old SURL report from 1999 on sitemaps. Though the paper is short, Matt's summary is even shorter:

Guess what? Although you see them on most every corporate website, and most large clients ask me to create one, they only marginally help people find anything online.

There's a related article, too.
Further Googling made me realize that this is on iawiki.net/SiteMap too, which, like much of the iawiki content, is easy to find if you know you're looking for it but not terribly condusive to just browsing.

Removing the Ws from URLs

A completely self-servient posting: My article on removing the Ws from URLs (why you would/should want to, and how) is up on Webword. There's also some discussion over there about it, and I'd appreciate any feedback.

On a broader scale, this is just the first in a large group of the things I've been thinking about lately in the realm of extending usability beyond just usability at the page level for the user, and really talking about the entire user experience, encompassing things like URL design, email language/phrasing, usability on the backend (i.e. usability of content management), external search usability (designing for and controlling relevance -- not just popularity or ranking -- on external [not on your site] search engines), etc. Does this make any sense? There's a lot more to it than where the links go and what the sections are labelled (an admittedly simple definition) but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of focus on it.

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