Articles, essays, editorials, white papers

The Commoditization of User Experience

Adaptive Path's Simple Solution series of reports is the first widespread commoditization of user experience practice...and it's worth thinking about what IAs and others should do in a world where $49 buys the fix to a common problem.

This week Adaptive Path launched their new reports. The star of the launch is a free report - Jesse's analysis of U.S. presidential candidate sites. Upcoming reports on Search, CMS, and ROI will make a profound impact in different circles.

But the reports that will have the biggest impact are the two small ones already available from the AP Simple Solutions series - Boutique Software Sites, and Registration & Login. For $49USD, you buy 5 or 8 pages with some explanation, site structure or flow, and wireframes. Forty-nine dollars buys you an IA solution based on design patterns, best practice, and AP's experience. How to integrate that solution or develop your own is something UX practitioners will need to face in the coming months.

Update:I should just add here that this is a good thing. Commodity comes from maturity, and our practice is growing up. There's plenty of other more worthwhile things to do than reinventing the basics of registration.

The scalability of findability - can IA move beyond web sites?

In the IA community we're fond of findability. It's a simple conceptual hook that lets business grok a key aspect of our work. However, findability also sets some arbitrary boundaries for the practice, and runs into challenges once we move beyond single web sites. Taxonomies and facets just don't scale across the web as a whole, and struggle to be globally relevant in cross-disciplinary enterprises like General Electric.

It makes most IAs cringe to think about automatic categorization tools. However, it's also the inevitable future of large scale findability efforts - no IA superhero can manage billion-document findability from traditional top-down or bottom-up approaches evolved to address site level issues.

Automated classification and semantic analysis is important for people who plan IA careers lasting into the next decade. We don't all need to become Autonomy drones, but it's worth keeping a finger on the pulse. One interesting project that is going to go commercial with Factiva is IBM's WebFountain. WebFountain is also different than many alternatives because the idea is to build a platform for findability - letting other people build modules that tailor the WebFountain base for particular uses. While most of us don't have to deal with enterprise architecture and beyond today, staying relevant in the future will require us to understand the issues at play. Rather than dismissing the advance of machine categorization and semantic analysis, we should be prepared to take advantage of new tools that further findability and ultimately the user experience.

How to Make a Faceted Classification and Put It On the Web

William Denton has released a well written paper on faceted classification for the web, created for the Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto. Here's a bit about what you might expect to learn:

This paper will attempt to bridge the gap by giving procedures and advice on all the steps involved in making a faceted classification and putting it on the web. Web people will benefit by having a rigorous seven-step process to follow for creating faceted classifications, and librarians will benefit by understanding how to store such a classification on a computer and make it available on the web. The paper is meant for both webmasters and information architects who do not know a lot about library and information science, and librarians who do not know a lot about building databases and web sites. The classifications are meant for small or medium-sized sets of things, meant to go on public or private web sites, when there is a need to organize items for which no existing classification will do.

Forrester on design personas

Forrester's market report, "The Power Of Design Personas", helps businesses understand the use and potential for integrating personas in software/technology development. To quote the report:

Though increasingly popular, personas remain widely misunderstood. Successful efforts key off of actual user behaviors, read like a story about a real person, and get used by everyone.

Market research plays a big role in communicating important processes and methodologies to business users. In my organization, market reports are among the most used information assets we serve. Seeing UX issues arise in market research literature is a good thing for our disciplines.

Christina Wodtke on building common vision

Building a Vision of Design Success - A common view of vision is that it's something handed down by a leader to the troops. When a redesign goes awry, the troops complain, “There was no vision.” But the problem goes deeper than either scenario; the problem is that there was no shared vision. [Boxes and Arrows]

Revisiting the Visual Vocabulary

The Visual Vocabulary Three Years Later: An Interview with Jesse James Garrett - In October 2000, Jesse James Garrett introduced a site architecture documentation standard called the Visual Vocabulary. Since then, it has become widely adopted among information architects and user experience professionals. B&A chats with Jesse about the vocabulary and thoughts on IA standards and tools. [Boxes and Arrows]

Explicitly creating copyright free networks

Copyright Doesn't Cover This Site - As debate over the legality of online file trading rages on, a University of Maine department takes a contrarian approach to copyright protection, creating a network where content is open to all. By Michelle Delio. [Wired]

I wonder how wireless, ad hoc networks would negotiate similar issues.

Boxes and Arrows for November 25, 2003

Yet another great new issue of Boxes and Arrows is out. This time we get a Summary of the 2003 Dublin Core Conference from Madonnalisa Gonzales-Chan and Sarah Rice. Next we have John Zapolski and Jared Braiterman telling us about Designing Customer-Centered Organizations and lastly Alex Kirtland writes about Executive Dashboards.

The Promise and Pitfalls of Social Networking

While I'm not the most well read on the topic of social networking applications, I agree with Stowe Boyd's assessment in Darwin Magazine of social networking software and it's viability in business applications. While investment capital continues to be thrown into commercial services that provide social networking, he believes that the real movers will be those that make the social network visualization and analysis happen for business users "here" inside the applications they find themselves in all the time, rather than requiring users to go view their social network in an external enviroment like a web site.

Wallop: Microsoft social networking tool

Wired on MS Wallop.

Wallop is Microsoft's venture into the red-hot social-networking arena, using the common Microsoft tack of piecing together existing technologies and packaging them for the novice user. Those technologies include Friendster-style social-networking capabilities, super-simplistic blogging tools,moblogging, wikis and RSS feeds, all based on Microsoft's Instant Messenger functionality.

Three Articles From Boxes & Arrows

Three great new articles up at Boxes & Arrows:

Designing Customer-Centered Organizations by John Zapolski and Jared Braiterman
Even with the present downturn in the economy, more companies, from new media to established banks, have larger usability and design teams than ever before. Should we be content that we have come so far?

We Are All Connected: The Path from Architecture to Information Architecture by Fu-Tien Chiou
We’ve all seen blueprints— formally known as contract documents —which architects produce and builders use to construct. No one person knows all the details of the design; the end result is entirely a product of teamwork. But there is one axiom: architects do not build.

Forgotten Forefather: Paul Otlet by Alex Wright
In 1934, years before Vannevar Bush dreamed of the memex, decades before Ted Nelson coined the term “hypertext,” Paul Otlet envisioned a new kind of scholar's workstation: a mechanical desk that would let users search, read, and write their way through a vast database stored on millions of 3x5 index cards.

Managing the information glut

Dennis Berman's article in the Wall Street Journal, "Technology Has Us So Plugged Into Data, We Have Turned Off" talks about a phenomenon called "absent presence" or "surfer's voice". He refers to it as "...a habit of half-heartedly talking to someone on the telephone while simultaneously surfing the Web, reading e-mails, or trading instant messages." Because many of my meetings are conference calls I frequently hear the person on the other end typing while I get the "uh huh" responses. I have to direct specific questions to people that require more than yes or no answers in order to get their attention sometimes. Then I get, "I'm sorry, can you repeat the question?"

Related to computers, this article makes me think of two different problems. One is the ability focus on singular tasks to successful execution or completion. The other is how to get back to one of the many open tasks you have waiting for your attention. One of the ideas the article throws out is that of using software to help people regain their focus on singular tasks after going off on tangents -- responding to IM messages, etc. They suggest a simplistic solution in limiting extra information seeking sessions, e.g. with web reading, news feed watching, to help make the information glut manageable. But, it's hard to call all of that reading "extra" when some of it is business-related environmental scanning and simply beefing up your knowledge on topics of interest.

How can software help this problem? One area of focus seems to be on using visualization to alter the desktop metaphor to some more meaningful UI that presents a stream of information. See Jeff Raskin or David Gelertner on this topic. It's that idea of figuring out what you're working on that's interesting to me. I think of this problem in terms of how I keep track of "to do" items. With a list on paper of the prioritized tasks for the day, I can periodically check on how I'm meeting the day's goals. It's a high-level view of things I should be juggling with the goal of eventually finishing them one by one. In terms of a computer UI, I see Apple's Exposé as a step in the right direction towards helping users visualize what they're juggling at once. Apparently Microsoft's Longhorn may be considering ways to help users make sense of what they're juggling too.

With dozens of devices and applications beeping for your attention, is the only effective way to give business users better signal to noise to just tell them tune out a little and eliminate the number of things they try to watch? Or is there a far off concept for computer users that will make this watching of information and managing of individual processes more manageable -- a solution that is reasonable, usable, and won't be met with too much cultural adversity?

No love for Tufte

Jessica Helfland rips apart Edward Tufte in Design Observer. You'll find a lot of debate in the comments.

He is a statistician by training, a designer by marriage, and a sociologist by default –- giving names to stuff we already know, and getting paid handsomely for it along the way. ... Tufte's appeal to the virtues of cognition is perhaps little more than a poorly veiled attempt at reshaping design parlance with himself as its single and uncontested author. ... Tufte's expertise is not only self-proclaimed -- it is also deeply and irrevocably self-serving.

Do query string operators matter in search interfaces?

Research has reported that 90% of search engine users utilize query string operators, while the remaining 10% perform simple queries. Do boolean operators and "must include" (+) and phrase ("") operators make a difference in search engine results? Mostly no but sometimes yes according to this paper in ACM Transactions on Information Systems (Volume 21 ,  Issue 4  (October 2003). Caroline Eastman and Bernard Jansen tested the effects of using query string operators on major search engines in their paper, "Coverage, relevance, and ranking: The impact of query operators on Web search engine results" to determine if these operators improved the effectiveness of web searching. When they say effectiveness, they are referring to relevance and relative precison of retrieval.

The paper attempts to find out if the use of certain query string operators makes any difference in search engine results. They found that implicit OR combination had a negative effect on performance and implicit AND had a positive effect on performance. As of their writing, MSN and AOL used implicit OR while Google appears to be using implicit AND. They found, generally, that most query string operators did not have a great effect on precision in the search engines tested. Precision was as high for simple queries as for advanced queries using query string operators. They did find, however, that in search engines using implicit OR, phrase operators sometimes had a positive effect on performance. [Note that this research didn't test exclusion operators (i.e. boolean NOT or the minus (-) operator). ]

So summarizing, there is limited advantage to using OR, and possibly some advantage to using PHRASE operators in some search engines. But generally speaking, these query string operators provide little or no benefit to users and are counter productive in some cases. Interesting? Maybe. I suppose this is saying that most search engines are doing better to match users expectations when doing simple searches. With 90% of the population using simple searches, those sophisticated algorithms on the back end become more important. They make a note that while it may hold true for general search engines that query string operators are less important, there is a place where they are still necessary in order to achieve satisfactory results -- in IR systems that do not have sophisticated matching and ranking algorithms.

An interview with Joe Clark

An Interview with Joe Clark is a very good read for anyone who is interested in Accessibility. The interview focuses on the current state of accessibility in the US, Canada and around the world. He makes some very compelling points and discusses issues that everyone working on the Web should be interested in. If you haven't had a chance to pick up a copy of Building Accessible Websites I would highly recommend it.

From Digital Web.

Personas: Setting the Stage for Building Usable Information Site

Personas: Setting the Stage for Building Usable Information Sites by Alison J. Head [via InfoDesign (Peter J. Bogaards)], a good article on personas, showing more than telling, with good example personas and a brief case study using BBCi.

Includes pointers, necessary details, and a tutorial featuring a well-explained example.

Text Mining: Making Connections to Help People & Business

Great article in NYTimes(free registrated required) related to information retrieval, categorization/classification, and use.

"Digging for Nuggets of Wisdom"

Marti Hearst is quoted regarding information vizualization, text mining, and such. Most of the focus was on retrieval in homogenous content such as Medline. The reason why I liked the article was it provides an example of how people/business benefit from better IR tools for such disciplines as medicine.

FAST (Faceted Application of Subject Terminology)

Edward T. O'Neill and Lois Mai Chan presented at World Library and Information Congress: 69th IFLA General Conference and Council 1-9 August 2003, Berlin, FAST (Faceted Application of Subject Terminology): a simplified LCSH-based vocabulary -- scroll to find the presentation translated in English, French, German and Russian under heading 126. Classification and Indexing or download the PDF directly.


The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) schema is by far the most commonly used and widely accepted subject vocabulary for general application. It is the de facto universal controlled vocabulary and has been a model for developing new subject heading systems around the world. However, LCSHs complex syntax and rules for constructing headings restrict its application by requiring highly skilled personnel and limit the effectiveness of automated authority control. Recent trends, driven to a large extent by the rapid growth of the Web, are forcing changes in bibliographic control systems to make them easier to use, understand, and apply, and subject headings are no exception. The purpose of adapting the LCSH in a faceted schema with a simplified syntax is to retain the very rich vocabulary of LCSH while making it easier to understand, control, apply, and use. The FAST schema maintains upward compatibility with LCSH, and any valid set of LC subject headings can be converted to FAST headings. FAST consists of eight distinct facets. Authority records have been created for all established headings except for the chronological facet. The initial version of the FAST authority file will contain approximately two million authority records.

Web searches: are they fixed?

Interesting article in Business Week Online regarding paid placements and some potential controversy involving small businesses. I found the link at

Web Searches: The Fix Is In
by Ben Elgin, October 6, 2003

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