Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville - Interview - WebReference Update - 020829 | WebReference

Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville - Interview - WebReference Update - 020829

((((((((((((((((( WEBREFERENCE UPDATE NEWSLETTER ))))))))))))))))) August 29, 2002

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We've got a special treat for you this week WebRef readers. An interview with fellow Ann Arborites Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville on the second edition of their best-selling book, "Information Architecture for the World Wide Web." The book practically launched the profession of information architect in 1998, and is one of the few must-haves for the web design professional. Their book shows how to make your information more accessible to users and easier to manage. The book is required reading for aspiring information architects, not to mention dozens of college courses around the world.

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New this week on WebReference.com and the Web:

1. INTERVIEW: Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville on Information Architecture

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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 1. INTERVIEW: Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville on Information Architecture

We interview the two authors of "Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 2nd. Ed." by O'Reilly. The polar bear strikes back.

WebReference: Tell us what's new in the second edition?

Peter Morville: Well, for one thing, the second edition is heavier than the first. It's more than twice as long (almost 500 pages). We didn't intend to write a longer book, but the truth is we've learned so much in the past four years, we simply had more to say. New topics in the second edition include enterprise information architecture, business strategy and thesaurus design. We've also added two in-depth case studies (a corporate intranet and an online community) that show how information architecture design happens in the real world.

WR: How has information architecture changed in the last four years?

PM: We've become much better as a community at sharing ideas and best practices. The SIGIA-L mailing list and the ASIS&T IA Summits have really brought information architects together. The emphasis has shifted from designing new sites (pre-1998) to redesigning existing sites. This has provided the opportunity to develop a bottom-up methodology that incorporates content analysis, user testing and controlled vocabulary development.

As information architects, we continue to push beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries. While Lou and I both have educational backgrounds in library and information science, we are constantly drawing lessons from other areas of expertise. Business strategy, knowledge management, and social network analysis are just some of the new frontiers.

WR: Yes, in your book you talk about not being afraid to cross over to the design realm. We all end up wearing a number of hats. How do you do that, not ruffle too many feathers, and keep the creative juices flowing?

Lou Rosenfeld: It's not easy, and the best way to deal with it is for the members of an interdisciplinary design team to accept that feathers will be ruffled and move on. Really, there's no way that creative collaboration can take place without friction.

Perhaps the biggest source of tension is language. Programmers may have a very different definition of "functional requirements" than designers do. Usability engineers might not have a clue what "brand equity" means, and marketers might have never heard of "task analysis." Suddenly, all of these folks get thrown together; naturally, it's hard for them to communicate. Information architecture, user experience design, and many of the other recently minted design fields are really organic efforts to bridge these communication gaps and develop shared vocabularies that help us understand each other and work together.

WR: How do you sell information architecture in today's tough economy?

PM: There's no question the economic downturn has hit the IA community hard. Given that IA is a relatively new, abstract discipline this is not surprising. Steve Krug (author of "Don't Make Me Think") summed up the challenge as that of selling luxury services in a franks-and-beans economy. My contention is that while IA may currently be perceived as a luxury service by many managers and decision makers, IA can have a big impact on both top and bottom lines. A well-organized e-commerce site will generate more revenue. A well-structured intranet will save the company time and money. Our real challenge is to help the broader business world understand the real economic impact of IA.

My latest approach is to talk about "findability." Thanks to successful evangelists like Jakob Nielsen, more and more managers understand that usability is important. We need to take them the next step, showing that with large web sites and intranets a user's ability to find what they need is one of the largest factors in ensuring usability. In short, findability precedes usability. You can't use what you can't find. Hopefully the second edition of our book will help make this case to a broader audience.

WR: Can you bottom-line the benefits of IA for us? Nielsen talks about hundreds of percent savings with usability makeovers. What can good IA do for ROI? Do you have any figures you can give before and after from a rearchitecting you did on e-commerce sites?

LR: Some of my colleagues will disagree with me, but it's very hard, if not impossible, to bottom-line IA. An architecture is a holistic, integrated system of smaller components. Some of those components can be measured, but I don't think you can measure the whole. And just measuring the components can really skew reality. For example, it's hard to measure how well a search system performs without also looking at the site's taxonomy; in fact, they're often difficult to separate (Yahoo! provides a great illustration of this). The point of IA is to help people find information, and it takes a whole system to do that, the sum of many parts.

It's extremely hard to measure the cost of finding information; it's even harder to measure the cost of not finding information. When we are looking for information, we really don't know what's out there, and what we're missing. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, but if your efforts to find medical information to help a sick parent are unsuccessful, you won't feel that way.

There are just a few decent case studies out there that express the monetary benefits of doing IA work (for example, read "You Think Tomaytoes, I Think Tomahtoes" which appeared in the April 1999 issue of CIO magazine (http://www.cio.com/archive/webbusiness/040199_nort.html)), but take a close look and you'll see that the numbers are predictive. They estimate future savings or increased revenue; they don't actually prove it. So realize that when you see ROI numbers for IA, you're really looking at soft numbers.

WR: You talk about the importance of metadata, thesauri, and controlled vocabularies for organization of content. How important are these content tagging devices? Seen any out of control vocabularies?

LR: Most vocabularies, spoken and otherwise, are out of control, despite the best efforts of dictionary editors around the world. This is also true of the sets of terms used for labeling navigation options on most large sites. For example, what I call "home," you call "main page." And while my intranet portal has a link called "home" that gets back to the portal's main page, sub-sites within that portal may also use "home" to link to their main pages. This all gets confusing, and illustrates why it's useful to standardize and control vocabularies in certain situations.

Tagging content with terms from indexing vocabularies and thesauri can be really helpful for searchers. For example, if I search a recipe site for "snacks," tagging would allow me to retrieve recipes for chicken wings and nachos, even if those recipes' files don't include the word "snack." Just keep in mind that such vocabularies can be prohibitively expensive to develop, maintain, and apply to content.

WR: Explain how indexing thesauri enable browsable indexes?

PM: By defining preferred terms (or acceptable metadata values) and tagging documents with those terms, you lay the foundation for automatically generating useful browsable indexes. If you simply let indexers apply uncontrolled keyword metadata tags to documents, you can still technically create a browsable index, but similar documents will be "dispersed at the point of indexing" because different indexers used different keywords to describe the same thing.

For example, a product index on Microsoft.com might list some key documents under A for Access and others under M for Microsoft Access. A controlled vocabulary will specify that "Microsoft Access" is the preferred term, and a good thesaurus will provide for a "see" reference in the A section of the browsable index (Access, see Microsoft Access).

For a good example of a browsable A-Z product index, see

http://peoplesoft.com/corp/en/indices/prod_index.asp

WR: Reading your book, it sounds a bit like doing database normalization for a web site. Break everything down and put it back together again in a logical way. A fair analogy to IA?

LR: Sure, that works. But let's just use this as an analogy; data is much less complex than the semi-structured text that constitutes much of our sites' content. That's the stuff information architects are typically grappling with.

Speaking of analogies, you could also say that IA is a lot like information retrieval, or designing an application's interface, or developing a corporate identity, or modeling a corporate organizational structure, or like many other things that involve design and organization. IA is like all of these things at one point or another, and it shouldn't be surprising: it's an interdisciplinary field, and besides, just about everything we create has a structure and contains information.

WR: What are the top ten IA mistakes?

LR: I'll limit it to seven mistakes (my lucky number):

1. Letting software drive design.

Too often, purchasing a new search engine or some other IA-related tool is the excuse for taking another look at a site's information architecture. This is completely backwards; the architecture should be informed by content and the needs of both users and the sponsoring organization; the architecture's functional requirements should in turn drive technology purchasing decisions.

2. Providing too few ways of navigating.

Not everyone wants to search your site, so invest some effort in enabling browsing. Not everyone's a regular user of your site, so invest some effort in developing a table of contents, or a guide to the site's content. And so on. Users' information needs and seeking behaviors often vary enough to require alternative means of navigating.

3. Providing too many ways to navigate.

Conversely, it's tempting to be all things to all people. But it's also expensive to develop and maintain all of these alternative schemes. They can really clutter up the architecture and actually make it harder to find information. Follow the 80/20 Rule: choose the few (20%) best architectural components that will serve the major audiences (80% of all users). Better than going broke trying to serve those last 20%.

4. Trying to do everything at once.

Large, complex sites-corporate intranets or portals for example- involve huge amounts of content, diverse user audiences, and enough politics to turn a congressman's stomach. You can't re-architect the whole thing - all two hundred departmental sub-sites - in six months like your boss asked. Convince him of the error of his expectations, or start looking for a new job.

5. Believing that there's a "right" information architecture.

An information system is always changing. Content grows, gets stale, while users become more sophisticated. Their interests change, as do the business goals and practices of whatever entity is footing the bill for the site. With so many moving targets, it's impossible to perfect an information architecture; instead your goal should be continuous improvement over the long haul.

6. Practicing imbalanced information architecture.

Your IA research and design must be informed by three areas of investigation: content, users, and business context. If you leave one out, this three-legged stool collapses. Try to use research and testing techniques that address each area, and staff your team with expertise in each area.

7. Following gurus.

Our field is too new and too unformed for anyone to know everything. And it will continue to change; I doubt that our knowledge of IA will ever keep pace with the problem space. If you're getting IA advice, avoid people who claim to have all the answers. The first words out of a smart information architect's mouth should always be "it depends."

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, 2nd. Ed. By Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville O'Reilly & Associates, $39.95 ISBN: 0596000359 http://books.internet.com/books/0596000359

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About the authors: Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld both have library of science degrees from the University of Michigan, and collaborated on the first edition of "Information Architecture for the World Wide Web," aka the polar bear book. Peter is president of Semantic Studios, an information architecture and strategy consultancy at http://www.semanticstudios.com. Lou is principal of Louis Rosenfeld LLC, an Information Architecture consulting firm at http://www.louisrosenfeld.com. Lou is currently part of the Nielsen Norman Group's world usability tour. http://www.nngroup.com/events/

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That's it for this Thursday, see you next time.

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