2012 Main Conference Talk
At the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the Internet, information blurs the boundaries between products and services to enable cross-channel, trans-media, physico-digital user experiences. This “intertwingularity” presents an unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine information architecture. Never before have we been able to employ such a powerful combination of networks, devices, and sensors to capture and share knowledge and to create meaningful user journeys. In this session, we’ll connect the dots between classic and cross-channel information architecture. We’ll pay special attention to the integration of mobile and social into a “web strategy” that’s responsive and future-friendly. And, we’ll explore how experience maps and “IA thinking” can improve the process and product of information architecture and user experience design.
About the speaker(s)
Peter Morville is a pioneer of the fields of information architecture and user experience. His bestselling books include Information Architecture (the “polar bear book”), Intertwingled, Search Patterns, and Ambient Findability. He has been helping people to plan since 1994, and advises such clients as AT&T, Cisco, Harvard, IBM, the Library of Congress, Macy’s, the National Cancer Institute, Quicken Loans, and Vodafone. His work has been covered by Business Week, NPR, The Economist, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. His latest book is Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals.
Peter also annually heads the Polar Bear 5k Fun Run!
Peter Morville: I’m Peter Morville, welcome. Thanks for being here. I’m going to do a real quick intro and then dive right in. My academic background is in librarianship. I’m one of those crazy librarians who fell in love with the web back in the 1990s.
Peter: Yay for librarians. Most of my career has been spent outside the traditional library, consulting with a wide variety of organizations on their information architecture and user experience challenges. Along the way, I’ve written a number of animal books on such topics as information architecture, ambient findability, and search. As you’ll see as we move forward through this talk, all of these topics are hopelessly intertwingled. That is the word of the day.
Now, we might as well start here. There has been a lot of negative energy in our communities over the years centered around this idea of defining the damn thing. Let me first say, I don’t care what title is on your business card, I really don’t care about job and position titles at all. In my mind, everybody is an information architect at least some of the time.
I think it’s important that, despite this negative energy, we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We are living through a time of great transition, lots of technology driven change as well as cultural change, and we need to keep redefining and reframing what we do. Otherwise we’re going to be moving forward with blinders, we’re going to get left behind by change.
Now, when we started doing information architecture back in the mid ’90s, the web was also new. We used very simple metaphors to explain what we do. We would talk with prospective clients about the idea of a three legged stool, and say, “You know you need design, you know you need technology. You may not know that you need an architecture. You need a plan. You need a blueprint.”
As time went on, we came up with more specific and precise definitions that really helped to make this intangible, invisible field really have some solidity and take on a life of its own. But any definitions eventually can become boxes that we get trapped in.
My perspective today is that classic information architecture, what we talk about in the polar bear book, is more important than ever. There is tremendous demand for people with these skills, a tremendous need to get the information architecture right.
At the same time, there are all sorts of new opportunities for people with these skills. Whether it’s helping to formulate a web strategy that bridges web and mobile and social, or cross channel strategy that connects physical and digital experience, or whether you’re leaning further into the future with ubiquitous information architecture and what I like to call the “intertwingularity.”
Now, let me start to explain how I see this stuff becoming real by talking about a few case studies, experiences with clients. I’ve been working with the Library of Congress over the past two to three years now. It’s been a wonderful opportunity and a very difficult challenge. We started our relationship on a fairly rocky note. I was asked to do an evaluation of the library’s web presence. I was brutally honest. I compared it to the Winchester Mystery House…
I argued that they were suffering from terrible problems of fragmentation and findability. They had many, many websites with different domains, identities, branding, navigation and search systems, people couldn’t really find what they needed from the home page.
That wasn’t even the worst problem. Because most users were coming in through Google searches, coming deep into the site, and those pages had no useful navigation framework. People didn’t know where they were, or where they could go.
Now, the Library of Congress was so shocked by my report that it was embargoed. I flew out there to give a series of presentations and was told, “That’s not going to happen today. This is so politically sensitive right now that we’re not going to let anyone see your report. We agree with you. We like it, but we got to be careful how we disseminate this.”
Well, over the next six months the report did kind of percolate throughout the institution, and eventually made its way up to the executive committee, and they made a big decision. “We are going to change how we do work on the web. We have a major problem. We need to really reinvent ourselves on the web. Since this guy pointed out the problems, we’re going to bring him in to help us solve it.”
I was asked first of all to help formulate a web strategy. Which I started out by saying, “Well, we can call it a web strategy, but it’s really not just about the web. All right?” One of the big problems is that the Library of Congress is a massive physical institution, with systems to support that physical collection of materials, and they had just put a thin layer of the web on top of that.
I argued that we need to start putting online and onsite experiences on an even level, and looking at ways to integrate across physical and digital experiences. Now, no one disagreed with me on that, it’s in the web strategy for the library, but we were very shortly thereafter consumed by the massive challenge of working on the website.
I’ve done a lot of wire frames for the library to really help sketch out the major interfaces, pages, and that’s been probably the most physical, tangible deliverable that I’ve created for the library. It’s been useful for helping have conversations with management. It’s been useful for passing off to the web services, who can then take that and drive it down to much more detail.
I believe that some of my longer lasting impacts hopefully come from some of the teaching and the educating I’ve done with folks in the library. Helping them to see what they’re doing differently, helping them to look for the points of leverage, and to understand how the home page or the portal is connected to the destination content through the glue of search.
We talked a lot about search being not just an interface or an engine, but at its best being a complex adaptive system with feedback loops that support learning over time. Now, the library has made some small incremental improvements since I’ve been working with them, but most of the work I’ve done won’t really see the light of day for another two to three years. It’s a massive project that they’re undertaking.
What’s nice is that they’ve really started by doing a lot of improvements to search, and there’s still a lot more to be done there. At this point, I would just like to juxtapose this interface with this quote from Jorge Arango, who was at the IA summit, in the “Journal of Information Architecture. “Where architects use forms and spaces that design environments for habitation, information architects use nodes and links to create environments for understanding.”
I think that’s a really important quote that captures where information architecture is headed.
We can look at it in respect to faceted search and navigation interfaces. We help people to find what they need, but we also help people to understand what they’ve found. We’re creating maps, in this case a custom map to your search results. That not only helps you refine and narrow, but also helps you to understand what’s here.
I’ve been working with the Kresge Foundation on a redesign of their site. We began by doing user research to better understand the needs and behaviors of grant seekers and grantees, to really try to get that outside in-perspective.
We used the user experience honeycomb to try to prioritize, and talk about the various qualities of the user experience, and which ones are more or less meaningful in this context. I would argue we did a really nice job. I collaborated with graphic design firm Q Limited, and really pulled off a real success in the redesign of this site.
What was most interesting to me on this project was helping the organization to come to terms with social software. They weren’t doing anything social at the time. I had to deal with a real spectrum of questions and concerns.
After doing a presentation talking about our vision for the website, this IT guy at the foundation raised his hand and he said, “You know, I just read a ‘Wired Magazine’ article that says the web is dead, so why do we even need a website anymore? We could just put it all on Facebook,” so I tried to talk him off the ledge.
At the other end of the spectrum was where most of the senior management was. They’re saying, “We don’t need to mess around. We’re a serious institution, we don’t need to be messing around with this social software, you know? Twitter is just for people to talk about what they had for breakfast.”
I did a couple of educational sessions to really try to bring these folks forward in their understanding of what’s possible. To help them recognize that, while the website remains the hub, it’s the deepest and most comprehensive view of the institution, and provides access to services, and is increasingly a place where work gets done.
But that they should also be taking advantage of all these other channels for getting their information out to people where they are, in the formats, on the devices that they’re using, and also take advantage of opportunities to create two way conversations. Right? To create new ways of working with grantees and grant seekers to really improve philanthropy, to make the world a better place.
I’ve been collaborating this year with folks at The Understanding Group, or TUG, on a project for Macys.com. Now, here again we were focused on the website and improving the shopping experience, but we would have been professionally negligent to not seriously think about how the website relates to the other channels, right? The experience of walking in and shopping in a physical store. How does the mobile application connect?
To be honest, I’m not sure Macy’s is fully ready to deal with cross channel and multichannel user experience. We had a wonderful workshop on Wednesday focused on cross channel with Samantha Starmer, and the conversation over the course of the day really shifted towards talking about the need to redesign the org chart.
Macy’s is just one of many, many organizations that is going to have to tackle the org chart problem in order to really start delivering effective cross channel experiences. I’ve done other, more exotic projects in the last several years. I’ve worked with Vodafone on a project to look at the future of mobile search three to five years out.
The point here is that information architecture really is going beyond the web. We are in this age I like to call the Intertwingularity, where lots of historically separate disciplines and fields are converging on one another. Right? It doesn’t matter whether we call it information architecture or user experience or interaction design, all of this stuff is all intertwingled.
I wrote an article on this topic called “Ubiquitous Service Design,” in which I argued that information is blurring the lines between products and services to create multichannel, cross-platform, trans-media, physical digital user experiences. Now, that’s a mouthful. Part of the problem is that this stuff is so new, we still don’t really have a shared vocabulary. We have a hard time talking about this. That said, we know it when we see it.
The iTunes ecology was the first big example of true cross channel design that caught a lot of our attention. Apple made some really careful decisions ‘Which features belong on the iPod, which features go on the desktop application, and which features go in the online store.’ They had to strike a careful balance between platform-specific optimization and cross channel consistency.
Now, there’s a reason why Apple was first. It’s because they had the world’s best information architect, and I would argue that Apple is going to sorely miss this vision and leadership as they go forward, and so will all of us. There are lots of other examples of these cross channel hybrid physical digital experiences. We could put sensors in our shoes, and turn the solitary physical experience of running into a shared digital collaborative competitive online experience.
With Zip car, we have web and mobile applications that are turning cars from products into services. Redbox is one of my favorite examples. Who back in the 1990s would have predicted that we would be using our smartphones to search for DVDs that are housed in giant red boxes? That was not part of the official future.
Yet they found a very profitable niche. Speaking of smart phones, they’re sprouting sensors like crazy. Our mobile devices have so many sensors, we’re not quite sure what to do with them all yet. It’s not just our phones. It’s our toothbrushes, our medicine bottles, which can call patients, call doctors and help to keep Gramps on his meds. We have scales that tweet our weight, a shining example that just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
OK? We had a lot of excitement and hype around augmented reality a couple years back, and it’s sort of died down because things are still really early, and it’s a little uncomfortable to go to a strange city at night and be standing around holding up your $600 iPhone looking like an idiot, right?
Help is on the way, because Google by the end of the year promises to have augmented reality glasses on the market. Now what you’re going to see is a lot of people standing on the street doing these weird head gestures.
I can’t talk about the future without talking about this little device. This is called the Brainport. It’s a device to help blind people navigate the physical environment. You got your glasses, you have a camera pointing forward. The image is recreated on a grid of 400 electrodes on this little thing that goes on your tongue.
The user feels the shape of the image on their tongue, and within a fairly short period of time, hours, the brain recognizes this as visual information, and you literally start to see through your tongue. OK? This is a good reminder that the future isn’t just about the desktop, the laptop, the smart phone or multi-touch. We’re going to have multisensory, cross-sensory experiences. Maybe even the potential for synthetic synesthesia. There’s going to be some weird inputs and outputs coming our way.
Last year, I thought I try to make sense of all of these touch points by creating a taxonomy. I pretty quickly realized that that wasn’t going to work, we needed more of a faceted approach, because there are lots of different ways to describe touch points. Right?
There are different channels, different devices, platforms. We could talk about different media. You know, a book can exist in many different formats on many different devices. Different scales, from the covert, the iPhone that fits in your pocket, to the urban, screens the size of entire buildings.
We need to think about how do we fit these different scales together into an integrated experience? Then we have multiple contexts. Now, this isn’t the future, right? This is today, and in the middle are our users and their clients and colleagues, and it’s our responsibility to help make sense of all these touch points and create useful, desirable experiences.
I also tried to come up with a list of design principles for cross channel, and pretty quickly realized I think we’re a little early for that. We don’t really know what we’re doing yet, but we can come up with a number of facets or dimensions or qualities that we should be thinking about, and I think of this very much as a straw man. I hope that a year from now I’ve thrown this away and have something in its place.
I wrote a blog post that goes into a little bit more detail on each of these, but let me touch on a few points here. Composition. What’s the mix of platforms, and devices, and media that we’re bringing together here? We’re aiming for some sort of coherence.
Consistency. One of the easiest things for any consultant to do is to come into an organization and say, “You need to be more consistent.” I actually like the quote, “Consistency is hobgoblin of little minds.” Consistency is not all good or not all bad. We need to strike a balance between cross platform consistency and platform specific optimization. We need to be consistent in the right ways.
We should be looking to create connections, links across channels. Designing for continuity and help users to maintain a state of flow. Designing for unique contexts and being aware of the potential for cross channel conflict and free-riding. I’ll jump into a little more detail on some of these.
Multi-channel versus cross-channel. The terms are often used interchangeably, but there’s often some value in teasing them apart. Multi-channel involves delivering the same service across multiple channels. Cross-channel means we’re selecting features that go on each channel differently and creating an integrated experience.
So responsive web design is more of a multi-channel delivery. We’re taking the same site and making it accessible on different sized screens, “Boston Globe” being a nice example. The same content rolled out over three different platforms. Now Lucro Bluski did a really nice job in an article called “Why separate mobile and desktop web pages at bag check?” He argued why they made a decision to have two different template systems and really optimize for the web platform and the mobile platform.
The point here is you can’t just say, “We’re going to do multi-channel,” or “We’re going to do cross-channel.” You actually have to think through these issues of composition and consistency and you need to have a strategy.
Samantha Stormer did a wonderful job on Wednesday talking through some of those changes to the organization chart that REI has had to make. To really be able to deliver cross channel experiences. One of the first was bringing all of the content creators under one creative director so that they’re using the same words, and labels, and descriptions of products across channels.
REI also serves as an excellent example of design for connection. If you to the website, you’re going to see this, “Free shipping with REI store pickup.” That’s a great service to the customer and it also brings that customer into the store where there’s potential for cross selling, and up-selling, and developing more of a relationship.
Once you’re in the store, you’re going to see URLs everywhere pointing you back to the website. Not just REI.com, but specific ones so you can learn more about hiking, or camping, or what have you. All of the printed literature you can get in the store will have URLs. Even receipts have the URL. They’re experimenting with all sorts of links whether it’s leveraging barcodes or QR code to bridge physical and digital.
There’s a mobile app where you can scan barcodes and do product lookup. If you don’t have a mobile device, you can use the kiosks to do price checks, product detail lookups, and to take advantage of that endless aisle. If you find some shoes and they don’t have your size or color, you can go online and order them that way.
I mentioned continuity. Netflix does a nice job. I can begin watching a documentary on my big screen TV at home and then when I rush to the airport, I can finish up on my iPhone. I just hit the resume button and pick up where I left off. Kindle also does a great job with this. I can go from my Kindle, to my iPhone, to my desktop and just pick up where I left off in the reading experience.
And then I mentioned conflict. I’m very sad that Borders is no longer with us. I’m not at all surprised. They never figured out what to do with the web and I am as guilty as anyone of free-riding on Borders. I spent many enjoyable afternoons wandering around a Borders bookstore. When I find books I was interested in, half the time I would order them on Amazon because they were cheaper. They never figured out how to deal with that channel conflict.
This isn’t just the free-riding problem. It’s also dealing with broken incentives where one business unit is competing against another business unit. There is not an incentive for them to collaborate. And then context which is not just about the device and the location, but also involves factors like, “Are you alone or are you in a social group? Are you at home or are you working?” Now we’ve got some really difficult challenges here. How do we deal with them? I like to use this metaphor to explain a part of that.
I’ve been a long distance runner for about 10 years now and I’ve run a couple of marathons. I know how to train for a marathon. You run, and you run, and you run. But that wouldn’t have done me much good last year when I did my first Olympic distance triathlon. I would have either drowned in the lake or crashed on my bike. What I had to do was practice sports that I’m not good at and learn from those who are.
We need to do the same thing. We need to leave our comfort zones. We need to cross train and collaborate. The good news is a lot of our methods can be applied not just to the web or the mobile, but to these cross channel experiences with a little bit of flexibility. But we should also be learning from other disciplines and practices. Service design is one of them. The service blueprint is a tool we can use and adapt.
We’re experimenting right now with all sorts of different ways to document the customer journey. I’ve never liked this experience map or what have you, but I keep throwing it up there as just a straw man to encourage us to keep playing with how we show how physical and digital are coming together.
We’ve got a lot of activity around experience maps. The cross channel blueprint is something Tyler Tate came up with recently. It’s worth taking a look at it. He tries to show the various priority levels at the intersections of platforms and steps in the purchasing process.
In our workshop earlier this week, we came around to a conclusion that often the best experience map looks like this. This is where the real work happens. It’s messy, but it’s adaptable. It’s changeable. It invites others into the conversation.
So again, I feel like we are faced with multiple opportunities at the same time. “The future,” as William Gibson has said, “Exists today. It’s just unevenly distributed.” We can keep doing what we’re doing, but we can also keep expanding what we’re doing.
I use this little tweet here to keep myself thinking expansively about what I do. I map paths and place across physical, digital, and cognitive spaces. That works well for me, not so much for anyone else. Sometimes it’s best just to go back to the beginning, to the basics. “What architects do for buildings, information architects do for,” and you fill in the blank.
I truly believe that we’re living through a wonderfully exciting time and there really has never been a better time to be an information architect.
I’m going to switch gears a little for the last five or ten minutes. I wrote an article for “The Journal of Information Architecture” where I really dug into some of the systems thinking literature. It was a wonderful experience. I had heard of the field of systems thinking. I never really read much from it. If you like information architecture, you will love systems thinking.
This book was a nice introduction, “Thinking in Systems,” where Donella argues that there is a problem in discussing systems only in words because they must by necessity come in a linear, logical order whereas systems happen all at once.
They’re connected not just in one direction, but in many directions simultaneously. So to discuss them properly, we have to use a language that shares some of the same properties as the phenomena under discussion. It really kind of takes us into visual thinking as a tool not just for communicating, but for thinking.
In the article I argue that in this era of cross channel experiences and product- services systems, it makes less and less sense for us to design site maps and wire frames without also mapping the customer journey and modeling the system dynamics; showing stocks, and flows, and feedback loops. And also tackling and redesigning the org chart.
I also argue that information architects serves as bridges between users and content, strategy and tactics, units and disciplines, platforms and channels, and research and practice.
Now speaking of crossing channels, we’re going to flip over from PowerPoint to Prezi. I want to make the point that it’s very easy for us to talk about a lot of information architecture concepts and practices and not completely explain IA. Because what we really need to do is make sure that we also talk about the IA mindset.
So for instance while we’re motivated by business goals, we’re really inspired by our empathy for the user which today more than ever makes us even better at helping business. And while we do care about pages, we care even more about how the parts relate to the whole; structures, and categories, and relationships.
While we pay attention to the surface, we look for leverage in the deep layers of structure. I’ve been a fan since the first IA summit where I talked about Stewart Brand’s concept of pace layering. The fact that in any complex adaptive system, it’s important to have different layers be able to evolve and change at different rates or paces. We appreciate that the analysis and design of nonlinear systems requires a visual language. We already touched on this point.
And as system thinkers, we recognize the importance of selecting the right frame of reference by zooming in. Fasten your seatbelts, and by zooming out.
In conclusion, information architects are planners and organizers and bridge builders, but most importantly, we’re architects of understanding. We help our users to understand where they are, and what they’ve found, and what to expect and what’s around. We need to help our clients to understand what’s possible.
Flip back to PowerPoint here. That Stewart Brand Pace-Layering diagram really invites us to think about the concept of time. Here is one example. I worked with the National Cancer Institute back in 2003 on a redesign of the Cancer.gov website. It was an amazing experience. The site went on to win a whole bunch of awards and moved to the top of the American Customer Satisfaction Index for E-Government.
What’s striking is that now, almost 10 years later, while there have been visual redesigns, the content has all been updated, the information architecture is still essentially the same. I’m not sure that’s all good, but it serves as an important reminder that sometimes things last a lot longer than we might expect.
Another example on the nature of time. Dan Klyn gave a great presentation a couple years back where he talked about Richard Saul Wurman’s Sandcastles.
Before he was in an information architect, Mr. Wurman was an architect. These were real homes that he built for families back in the 1970s. Dan revisited this location a couple years back and brought back some photographs. As you might expect, the sandcastles are mostly gone. We know what happens to sandcastles; they get washed away.
Whether you like him or not, Richard Saul Wurman has been a tremendously prolific person. He invented the TED Conference, he’s been an architect, he’s been a writer and publisher. In fact, he’s written and published more books than most people will ever read.
Yet he’s outlived many of his own creations. His buildings have fallen down, his books are out of print, but what remains are many of his ideas.
I throw up this quote. I don’t totally like this quote because it’s a little divisive. “Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.” But I do like this emphasis on teaching. It’s worth taking time to think about what are the ways in which we make the biggest impacts?
Let me just throw in another idea here. Dave Gray actually had to popularize this idea recently, at least in our community. Most people live longer than most Fortune 500 corporations. That’s a weird fact to try to wrap your mind around. These massive, rapidly growing institutions where billions of dollars flow through and thousands of people work for these institutions, and yet we outlive them. They don’t last that long.
Neither do many of our interfaces and our products. It’s our impact that we have on one another. It’s our ideas, the ways that we influence and teach our colleagues and clients. It’s the kind of actives that go on at a conference like this.
We need to really think about, what is the impact that we are having on one another, and on our clients and on all of the other people that we deal with, because that’s the lasting impact that we will all have. With that, I would like to thank you for your attention. We’ve got a few minutes, so I’m happy to answer any questions.
He goes on and says, “Where once during the Age of Industry the world was ruled by resources, it is now run on information and we are in a frenzy to acquire it, firm in our belief that more information means more power.”
You started out with the talk of the negativity and the tone that comes from the community within defining job titles and things like that, which is really silly when we’re thinking about something that’s so complex and hard to understand. How do we foster more positive dialogue and keep the enthusiasm for something that’s really difficult to understand, but that everybody’s trying to wrap their heads around?
That was a big question. I think the important thing around defining the damn thing is to recognize that a lot of the stuff that goes on on list discussion, for instance, people pretend that it’s about semantics, that we’re trying to really define this term, but it’s really about politics. It’s grabs for power and influence.
Once you recognize that, you can step back and say, “I’m going to engage in ways that help shape my own understanding of what I do, but I’m not going to get into these arguments with people who are trying to grab territory, or what have you.”
There are also interesting things in your question, this idea of, is more information better? Well clearly, no. It really depends on the quality of that information. I was in Margaret Hanley’s talk earlier in the conference where she talked about her experience of having cancer, and the fact that there really isn’t that much support information to help people go through that process.
We have horrible gaps in information for people who are suffering from acute or chronic diseases, even as we complain about drowning information in the bigger picture. There are huge gaps in information that we need to address. Just because Google searches several billion pages doesn’t mean we’ve figured out some of these information problems.
I think I’m going to let you all go. Thanks again.