Articles, essays, editorials, white papers

Cataloguing Cultural Objects: Guide to Describing Cultural Works

The Visual Resources Association has recently published the Cataloguing Cultural Objects (CCO) in the hopes of developing guidelines or standards for describing and retrieving information about cultural works.

CCO provides guidelines for selecting, ordering, and formatting data used to populate catalog records. CCO is designed to promote good descriptive cataloging, shared documentation, and enhanced end-user access. Whether used locally to develop training manuals, or universally as a guide to building consistent cultural heritage documentation in a shared environment, CCO will contribute to improved documentation and enhanced access to cultural heritage information.
Trumping Google? Metasearching's Promise

Information services organizations (libraries) continue to be challenged by information seeking behaviors and expectations of web search engine users. In a recent Library Journal article, Judy Luther discusses issues related to metasearch engines. In the article she writes, "For many searchers, the quality of the results matter less than the process -- they just expect the process to be quick and easy." Anecdotally, I've found this to be true of users I've encountered within my organization. For more exhaustive and relevant searching, these searchers can turn to researchers for help -- that is, real subject matter experts who know the sources and how to search them.

Searching multiple databases is a special kind of problem because the databases don't always share the same controlled vocabularies or use the same protocols (e.g. Z39.50, XML). But there is great advantage to users viewing intermixed and deduped search results from multiple sources. The search engine DogPile or the SpotLight federated search engines of the California Digital Library are good examples that show how this works. At the SLA conference, federated search seemed to still be a buzzword among search vendors.

See also the related article on federated search by Roy Tenant.

Enterprise IA Roadmap from Lou Rosenfeld

Lou Rosenfeld shares some thoughts from his current Enterprise Information Architecture seminars with his EIA Roadmap - a diagram showing the progression of IA within the enterprise. As well as laying out a course for pursuing IA within an organization, it acts as an interesting measure of capability and maturity of IA within the organization.

Speaking of EIA, I've been thinking about the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) that measures competence in software development. When there finally is a central UX advocacy organization, it would be interesting to see what kind of UXCMM would be possible. There is already the Usability Maturity Model but that lacks integration across UX disciplines (IA, ID, etc.) If you're interested, here's more details on the UM model. [34 pg pdf]

Enhanching the softer side of IAs

Great article on the soft skills we need as IAs to win/influence folks with whom we work with.

Soft Skills for Information Architecture by our very own Jeff Lash over at Digital Web.

A little play on an axiom that stuck out for me and I know will help me get through the requirements and design process:

Grant me the strength to improve the features that I can
Accept the features that I cannot
And give me the wisdom to know the difference

Putting it Together: Taxonomy, Classification & Search

A good overview of the current state of the art in combining taxonomies and search from Jeff Morris in Transform magazine. Combining taxonomy and classification with search gives people a map of the resources available to them. This kind of taxonomy, classification and search combination is becoming essential for the major search vendors. [thanks Infodesign]

Starting with the easy steps

Synonym Rings and Authority Files - In part 3 of the continuing series on controlled vocabularies and faceted classification, the CV tagteam champs Karl Fast, Mike Steckel, and Fred Leise explain synonym rings and authority files and how their use can bridge the gap between natural language and complex controlled vocabularies (taxonomies and thesauri). The techniques presented, unlike the complications of full faceted schemes or ontologies, are accessible and feasible for a wide variety of projects. Worth checking out if you're wanting to implement a lightweight approach to vocabulary control. [Boxes and Arrows]

The origin of personas

Alan Cooper shares the background of Cooper's personas, but fails to acknowledge the considerable contributions of others to the concept. In particular, Geoffrey Moore describes very clearly the technique of archetypal users working through scenarios in 1991's Crossing the Chasm, and Victor points out other contributors to the technique from within the Bay Area's HCI community.

Whatever the origin, personas provide a valuable tool, and while I don't think they take weeks of study and months of practice to apply, we too often just "make them up". That sort of fictionalization can actually be worse than no personas at all.

Free Forrester Paper - web usability downfalls; personas; more

Forrester Research has made their TechStrategy Brief Web Sites Continue to Fail the Usability Test available for guest users on the site. For the price of your time signing up for a guest account, you'll get a 7 page article they would normally charge $200 or more for. Don't be deceived by the title - the paper addresses more than usability testing, and is a good-but-brief introduction to personas and scenarios from a recognized industry source (good for the boss or a client - you might want to download the 'briefcase' - a zip file with the PDF article, some source data, and ready-made slides).

Kuniavsky in the house

Adaptive Path's Mike Kuniavsky has started a blog over at Orange Cone, and that reminded me of all the links I've been saving up about his new book Observing the User Experience.

Jared Spool on iterative design with CSS...

Jared Spool has a nice little article on Iterative design and the power of style sheets.

Hmmm... It reminds me a whole lot of my article called Prototyping with Style from last month's Digital Web Magazine. (ia/ discussion) Of course, I wasn't the first one to come up with the idea of using CSS for prototyping purposes, but I picked the topic because there wasn't anything else being written about it. But I guess now there is.

I'm just sayin'...

keeping igloos off the beaches...

"Information architects are keeping igloos off the beaches [MS Word .doc link] by working on project teams to build the most appropriate site for a given task, balancing business goals against the needs and desires of users."

Laurie Kalmanson, the founder of Request Marketing

What being user-centered means for UX professional groups...

Tog's initial branding argument for Interaction Architects has touched off a lot of discussion (even a mailing list dedicated to defining the damn thing). So far, it's generated a lot of heat and little light.

However, three more formal responses have been interesting:

  • Lou Rosenfeld discusses how defining the damn thing is a waste of time. (Not) Defining the damn thing - Discussions of how we should label ourselves and define our work are like flu epidemics. They break out from time to time, follow a fairly predictable course, and often make us want to barf. [Boxes and Arrows] Update: Lou dropped a note to let us know that he wrote this article before Tog's article was posted. Still very applicable.
  • Mark Hurst thinks that usability professionals should disappear...that a good UX professional is invisible like a good interface - we just facilitate things. While the point that the whole defining the damn thing discussion is narcissistic and not user centered at all, the notion of a disappearing act seems naive - unseen functions become re-engineered functions.
  • Finally, and most interesting, is Beth Mazur's notion that the key need is not a new dedicated specialist organization (as Tog is proposing), but an umbrella organization to evangelize user experience with executives, analysts, government, and media. Her nominee: spin off AIGA-ED from AIGA.
    I completely agree - the Interaction Architecture Association is all well and good, as is a new Information Design professional group, if some people have their way. But they don't address the real reasons the UX disciplines are seen as tactical. It's not a branding problem. It's an understanding problem...and largely for UX professionals not understanding business, and not speaking to business on its own terms.
    An umbrella organization can address executives and other decision makers and influencers with language and messages tailored to those audiences, and educate practitioners about how to do the same. That's being user-centered, instead of navel-gazing terminology debates. That's something to get excited about. I hope it happens soon.
Semiotics - signology for dummi...er...designers

Semiotics: A Primer for Designers - Semiotics teaches us as designers that our work has no meaning outside the complex set of factors that define it. The deeper our understanding and awareness of these factors, the better our control over the success of the work products we create. [Boxes and Arrows]

As well as Challis' article, Peterme has also been musing about semiotics. While most of us on SIGIA are 'sick' of scare quotes, critical theory and semiotics offer fertile ground for IA cross-training.

Cognitive Psychology & IA: From Theory to Practice

Cognitive Psychology & IA: From Theory to Practice - What do cognitive psychology and information architecture have in common? Actually there is a good deal of common ground between the two disciplines. Certainly, having a background in cognitive psychology supports the practice of information architecture, and it is precisely those interconnections and support that will be explored. [Boxes and Arrows]

Using CSS for prototyping

Jeff Lash takes on the perennial question of what prototyping tool should IAs use. While not abandoning Visio or Omnigraffle, in Prototyping with Style Jeff suggests that Cascading Style Sheets have a lot to offer and should be looked at seriously as a prototyping medium.

One advantage Jeff offers is that basic content can be laid out, with headings, body copy, navigation, supplementary information like disclaimers. This lets the team focus on the content first, and then CSS can be used to create a number of alternative layouts and visual styles.

While this may work with a mature team, many of the people I work with have a very difficult type grasping abstract presentation...whether it's sticky notes on a page, or vanilla XHTML, text only lists of page content. I've used mood boards, design the box exercises, and rapid throwaway photoshop comps to address these peoples' need to have something more visual to comment on, while still working to separate those stylistic inputs from actual IA and interaction design. I'm not sure CSS will help me there, but I'll see when I next have the chance to try something different than the usual wireframe fare.

Tog wants to use a new name for interaction design...

Bruce Tognazzini is a prinicpal at the Nielsen Norman Group, and used to publish regularly on his AskTog site. Now he's back, with a call to arms for Interaction Architects.

The tone of the article seems somewhat needy, with its "Why we get no respect" title. But that no-respect sentiment seems to echo throughout the UX community in all its niches. And Tog does identify some key considerations. I'm just not sure that a branding argument will be what gets respect, over having UX practitioners of all stripes understand business better.

Unlike some others, I do see a difference between Information Architecture and Interaction Design as practices, though perhaps not as practitioners (most IAs and IDs have significant skill overlap). And I wish Tog the best, with his Interaction Architecture Association. I'm left wondering though - will all the little splinters (information design, IA, interaction design/architecture, usability) and their overlapping landgrabs for mindshare end up creating a lot of friction - all heat and no light? Or will there be a catalyst that gets UX practitioners working in concert to make significant gains in the business world. I guess time will tell....

Report Review: Nielsen/Norman Group's Usability ROI

Report Review: Nielsen/Norman Group's Usability Return on Investment - In the business world, user experience endeavors are typically seen as a cost—a line item expense to be minimized to the greatest extent possible while still remaining competitive. This has led to a number of essays, articles, and books on proving the value of user experience, including a recent report by the Nielsen Norman Group.

Much more than a summary of the NNGroup ROI report, Peterme and Scott Hirsch outline key considerations for evaluating Return on Investment, and in the process discover some shortcomings of the NNGroup approach.

Amazon Plan to offer full-text search of some non-fiction texts

Very interesting news from Amazon today in an article in the NY Times. The retailer is planning a new full-text searching service called "Look Inside the Book II" that will combine some of the functionalities of a digital library with the retailers' current methods for helping customers find and evaluate products. The full-text service will extend the "Peak inside" service that users get when previewing TOCs, indexes, and sample pages with "Look Inside the Book". I couldn't surmise from the article whether full-text searching would be offered only when viewing a single book or if it would be possible to do full-text searching across a corpus of digitized e-texts.

The new service is being met with some wariness from publishers and authors who worry that the service will make Amazon more like an information service a la ebrary and netLibrary and undoubtedly Amazon will have to do a lot to protect copyright.

Being someone who uses e-text vendors and full-text digital libraries, I think the service could be a boon to the book selling industry. There is no reason that full-text searching of some non-fiction works can be offered without protecting copyright. If brief keyword in context (KWIC) displays of search terms are given to offer some help in filtering out and refining your search without publishing too much information, then how can this hurt publishers? No doubt, some works such as reference books would give away too much in even a brief KWIC display, but surely there must be a way to make this work. I think it's a good step in making the Amazon shopping experience even more valuable. It's amazing that they continue to innovate the experience of buying online.

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