Ambient Findability by Peter MorvilleNotable passages from
Ambient Findability by Peter Morville

O'Reilly, Sebastopol, 2005

Whether you're buying a book or a car or a house, the Internet can often save you significant time and money. As producers, information literacy helps us find and keep the best jobs. Knowledge workers are paid for their ability to find, filter, analyze, create, and otherwise manage information. Those who lack these skills become lost on the wrong side of the digital divide. As a society, we must continue to invest in the the education of our children, and we must work harder to develop information literacy among our citizens.


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Andrew Dillon and Misha Vaughan assert that "navigation is a limited metaphor for hypermedia and website use that potentially constrains our understanding of human-computer interaction." They argue that unlike physical navigation where the destination is the goal, in semantic spaces, the journey is the destination. They suggest, as an alternative, the concept of information shape and the harnessing of perceptual cues embeded in genre.


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Richard Dawkins, one of the world's morst prominent biologists, describes memes as follows:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes' fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propogate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: '…memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.'(3) When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propogation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking—the meme, for say, "belief in life after death" is actually realized physcially, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.

The Selfish Meme by Richard Dawkins. Oxford University Press (1976), p.192.


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"Documents are, quite simply, talking things. They are bits of the material world—clay, stone, animal skin, plant fiber, sand—that we've imbued with the ability to speak."
—David M. Levy, University of Washington iSchool


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This brings us to the second law, first formulated by Calvin Mooers in 1959.

An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it.

It is now my suggestion that many people may not want information, and that they will avoid using a system precisely because it gives them informaiton…. Having information is painful and troublesome. We have all experienced this. If you have information, you must first read it, which is not always easy. You must then try to understand it…. Understanding the information may show that your work was wrong, or may show that your work was needless…. Thus not having and not using information can often lead to less trouble and pain than having and using it.

—Remarks by Calvin N. Mooers during a panel discussion at the Annual Meeting of the American Documentation Institute, October 24, 1959.

Calvin Mooers reminds us that design of a useful information system requires a deep understanding of users and their social context. We cannot assume people will want our information, even if we know the need our information. Behind most failed web sites, intranets, and interactive products lie misguided models of users and their information-seeking behavior. Users are complex. Users are social. And so is information.


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  • Data. A string of identified but unevaluated symbols.
  • Information. Evaluated, validated, or useful data.
  • Knowledge. Information in the context of understanding.


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But we should proceed with an understanding that relevance is subjective, situational, and dynamic. Like beauty, relevance exists in the eye of the beholder.


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In a 1989 article entitle "The Design of Browsing and Berrypicking Techniques for the Online Search Interface," Marcia Bates exposed the inadequacy of the classic information retrieval model characterized by a single query….

Instead, she proposed a berrypicking model that recognizes the iterative and interactive nature of the information seeking process. Bates understood that the query and the information need itself evolve as users interact with documents and search systems. She also recognized that since relevant documents (like berries) tend to be scattered, users move fluidly between search and browse modes, relying on a rich variety of strategies including footnote chasing, area scanning, and citation, subject, and author searching….


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The thread [Marcia Bates] began with "berrypicking" was picked up at Xerox PARC researchers Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card in their study of information foraging…. And their concept of "information scent" has entered the venacular of web design.


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In the spirit of Calvin Mooers, Bates makes painfully honest diagnoses, and follows up with creative prescriptions for the future. She explains why we value gossip so highly, and then encourages us to design gossip into our systems. It's not just about retrieval. We must embrace both push and pull. We must utilize the full spectrum of interaction.


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"Intertwingularity is not generally acknowledged—people keep pretending they can make things deeply hierarchical, categorizable and sequential when they can't. Everything is deeply intertwingled.
—Theodor Holm Nelson


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Herein lies both problem and opportunity. Markets are changing faster than marketing professionals. This results in terrible channel noise as old messages are pushed through new media with increasing intensity and desperation. But for those who are willing to listen and learn, today's marketplace offers opportunities for interaction, insight, and innovation unseen since the ancient bazaars of spices, silks, and magical stones.


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We cannot be trapped in a zero sum game that pits usability against marketing. Instead, we should acknowledge the rich, dynamic, interconnected blend of qualities that shape the user experience. For instance:

Useful
As practitioners, we can't be content to paint within the lines drawn by managers. We must have the courage and creativity to ask whether our products and systems are useful, and to apply our deep knowledge of craft and medium to define innovative solutions that are more useful.
Usable
Ease of use remains vital, and yet the interface-centered methods and perspectives of human-computers interaction do not address all dimensions of web design. In short, usability is necessary but not sufficient.
Desirable
Our quest for efficiency must be tempered by an appreciation for the power and value of image, identity, brand, and other elements of emotional design.
Findable
We must strive to design navigable web sites and locatable objects, so users can find what they need.
Accessible
Just as our building have elevators and ramps, our web sites should be accessible to people with disabilities (more than 10% of the population).
Credible
Thanks to some ground-breaking research out of Stanford's Persuasive Technologies Lab, we're beginning to understand the design elements that influence whether users trust and believe what we tell them. [ Stanford Guidelines for Web Credibility … ]
Valuable
Finally, it's not just about the user. Our sites must deliver value to our sponsors.


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Metadata has many forms and purposes. Administrative metadata supports document management and workflow. Structural metadata enables single source publishing and flexible display of content. And descriptive metadata permits access and use. Put simply, we employ a word or phrase to describe the subject of a document for the purposes of retrieval. We try to concisely encapsulate its aboutness now to support findability later.


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In addition, the design of taxonomies and ontologies is inherently political and moral. As Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star explain in Sorting Things Out:

Each standard and each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing—indeed it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous—not bad but dangerous.


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"Social software, software that supports group communications, includes everything from the simple CC: line in email to vast 3D gaming worlds like EverQuest, and it can be as undirected as a chat room, or as task-oriented as a wiki (a collaborative workspace). Because there are so many patterns of group interaction, social software is a much larger category than things like groupware or online communities…. One of the few commonalities in this big category is that social software is unique to the internet in a way that software for broadcast or personal communications are not."
—"Social Softare and the Politics of Groups" by Caly Shirky. Available at www.shirky.com/writings/group_politics.html.


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[Folksonomy]

"Tags are a simple, yet powerful, social software innovation. Today millions of people are freely and openly assigning metadata to content and conversations. Unlike rigid taxonomy schemes that people dislike, the ease of tagging for personal organization with social incentives leads to a rich and discoverable folksonomy. Intelligence is provided by real people form the bottom-up to aid social discovery. And with the right tag search and navigation, folksonomy outperforms more structured approaches to classification."
—"Technorati Launches Tags," a January 17, 2005 post on the blog of David Sifry, founder and CEO of Technorati, the self-described "authority on what's going on in the world of weblogs."


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On the Web, the journey often begins with the destination. The user's keyword entered into a search engine must connect with a keyword in your web site, or the visit is over before it has begun.


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The ability to assemble virtual documents from digital assets on the fly does not render real documents obsolete. Single source publishing works wonders with highly structured content, and simple images, headlines, and legal notices are well-suited to reusability. But most content requires context and structure, and most authors write documents, not chunks.


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Bounded Irrationality

But let's forget AI, for a time, and delve instead into the depths of human irrationality, beginning with some well-documented decision-making traps.*

Anchoring
When considering a decision, our minds are unduly influenced by the first information we find. Initial impressions and data anchor subsequent judgements.
Confirmation
Through selective search and perception, we subconsciously seek data that supports our exsisting point of view, and avoid contradictory evidence.
Memorability
We are overly influenced by recent or dramatic events. Repetition from one or multiple sources can also influence belief, memory, and judgment.
Status quo
Decision makers exhibit a strong bias toward conservatism, inertia, and alternatives that perpetuate the status quo. We look for reasons to do nothing.
Sunk cost
Unwilling, consciously or not, to admit past mistakes, we make decisions in a way that justifies past choices.

We ask the wrong questions and trust the wrong sources. We substitute optimism for data. And we are influenced by peer pressure and groupthink. Decisions shape our lives, and yet they're often made in the dark, beneath the comforting veneer of rationality.

*"The Hiiden Traps in Decision Making" by John S. Hammond, Ralph L. Keeney, and Howard Raiffa. Harvard Business Review, September/October 1998.


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And Jeff's path-breaking work at the Redwood Neuroscience Institute has led to a new model of intelligence, the memory-prediction framework:

The brain doesn't compute the answers to problems; it retrieves the answers from memory … The entire cortex is a memory system. It isn't a computer at all.
On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins with Sandra Blakeslee. Time Books (2004), p. 68.


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And I found myself, once again, inspired by the ambition of Larry Page and Sergey Brin to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful, for these are not just words, but ideas linked to actions with profound social impact.

I can't imagine how anyone who cares about learning and literacy could not be excited by the goals of Google's Library Project, which are summed up as follows:

This project's aims is simple: help maintain the preeminence of books and libraries in our increasingly Internet-centric culture by making these information resources an integral part of the online experience. We hope to guide more users to their local libraries; to digital archives of the world's greatest research institutions; and to out-of-print books that they might not be able to find anywhere else—all while carefully respecting authors' and publishers' copyrights.
Google Print, Library Project


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Then, in 1992, with the open source releases of WAIS, Brewster [Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive] included in an article on the "Ethics of Digital Librarianship," in which he wrote:

As digital librarian, you should serve and protect each patron as if she were your only employer. As more of us become involved in serving information electronically … [we] must become conscious of our ethical repsonsibilities … being a good digital librarian is a concrete way to create a future we all want to live in.
—"Ethics of Digital Librarianship" by Brewster Kahle. Available at http://www.archive.org/about/ethics_BK.php

His belief that values must accompany value is evident in the mission of the Internet Archive, to build a digital library that provides universal access to human knowledge:

Libraries exist to preserve society's cultural artifacts and to provide access to them … without cultural artifacts, civilization has no memory and no mechanism to learn from its successes and failures … [we are] working to prevent the Internet … and other born-digital materials from disappearing into the past.
—"About the Internet Archive" at https://archive.org/about/


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