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Archive for May, 2006

Black, white or grey

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

I spoke today to a group of people associated with Webstock. Instead of a pre-prepared presentation, I told them ahead of time about my experiences and took questions up front and from the floor.

But this post isn’t about the actual talk I did, but about something I find incredibly hard to do – give straight-up, black & white answers. I know that people would really, really like me to give them a straight answer, without once saying ‘it depends’ (actually, I usually say ‘context is really important there’ which is just as bad as ‘it depends’).

This happens in part because the world is complex, and designing for a complex world is hard. It is difficult to know everything needed, and most projects don’t allow the time to do the necessary learning (whether skilling up, background research or user research). So most people, most of the time, are trying to solve problems without the right toolset. This naturally leads to a desire for some easy answers.

The problem is compounded by the type of writing that comes from a number of high profile ‘gurus’. They make everything appear black and white. People grasp at these neat answers and believe them, because it is far easier than thinking through all the complexity.

But the more projects I do, the more I realise neat black & white answers don’t fit any sort of real world, which means I end up talking more about the context, and feeling like I’m disappointing people and being vague. Oh well, at least I try to explain what ‘it depends’ on, or what the implications are for different contexts.

Web directions 2006

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

Details for web directions have been released (September 26-29 in Sydney). Great lineup of speakers and topics covering many aspects of web design & development, including a few information architecture talks (two from Thomas Vander Wal and one from me).

This should be another great conference.

Almost ready for Webstock

Friday, May 19th, 2006

I think I’m ready to head off to Webstock. My presentations are finished, my clothes are packed, iPod & tablet are charged, all my files synchronised, my booking confirmations printed.

I’m sure to have forgotten something important. I just spent a couple of hours adding speaker notes to my presentations, and nearly forgot to print them out!

I’ll do that and sit down with a practice pack of Tim-Tams.

Technorati tag: Webstock

David Weinberger – Messiness is a virtue

Wednesday, May 17th, 2006

If you, like me (and like David Weinberger, I was glad to learn) have had trouble understanding Lakoff’s Women, Fire & Dangerous Things, I suggest you listen to David’s podcast called Messiness is a virtue.

There is a terrific section in the middle about cognitive linguistics, aristotelian classification theory, prototype theory and basic level categories, all things I think are deeply important for IAs to know about.

And if you are insanely interested in this topic, get a copy of ‘Concepts: Core Readings‘. Dan Brown told me about it. It is a bit pricy, but it is a truly excellent book about cognitive linguistics and concepts. Still a hard-ish read, but very well-structured, with a great intro and the key works in the field.

I read an entire Plato essay at breakfast one day, which must be one of the oddest things I can say I have ever done.

Using qualitative & quantitative data

Saturday, May 13th, 2006

I was thinking tonight about user research in projects, and how I use what I collect.

In the main, I try to get user research from as many sources as possible (interviews, surveys, card sorts, usage stats, emails etc). But I only need a small amount from each source. In doing qualitative analysis, patterns repeat themselves quickly, which means I really only need a small number of responses to inform my design decisions.

But inevitably I collect much more than I need. And the reason I do so is not because I need it to learn, but to defend design decisions. With a bigger bulk of data, I can produce some statistics, as rubbery as I know they are (I was once a statistician), to provide credibility and to support decisions in an easy way.

Based on research for my card sorting book, that’s what many of you are doing as well – trying to get a bulk of responses to convince others that you have made the right decisions. Much more so than just informing yourselves, combining it with other research and making the creative leap.

I don’t know there is an easy way out of this situation. I very occasionally flash my bio if I know this will influence people, but I always feel grubby doing it. I feel that I shouldn’t need to support my decisions with rubbery statistics, but managers don’t have time to understand the detail – statistics are the easy way out that they will believe and let me go about creating good work.

Why you shouldn’t start IA with a Content Inventory

Friday, May 12th, 2006

Leisa Reichelt has a blog post on Why you shouldn’t start IA with a Content Inventory

I totally disagree with this. But I work on really big, content rich sites, and they are usually in a *very* poor state, so that may differ from her experience.

I could not start a project without an inventory. I cannot imagine how I would reorganise a site if I didn’t know what’s there to be organised. A content survey is useful to get a quick feel for what’s there, but I know I’d miss some of the most interesting, most buried information. Without an inventory, I don’t really have an idea of whether I’m working with 1000 or 8000 pages and what the intricacies are within the inherent structure. It is impossible to do proper content analysis without detail to analyse.

She says that “It is also the best way to ensure that you’re *not* taking a fresh approach to how the content might be structured and related. When you’re doing a content inventory, you’re unavoidably indoctrinating yourself into the way that things are currently done”

That’s ridiculous. If that is happening, the person who is doing the IA work is just not good at what they are doing. A good IA can take the current structure, analyse it, determine what’s important, and can absolutely divorce themselves from the current structure. Even a poor site has some good chunks and it is important to know why someone has done what they have done. For me this is particularly important as I’m usually working in quite technical domains and never completely understand the domain at the beginning. I’ll just look stupid if I try to break apart something that absolutely belongs together.

Leisa’s alternative approach leads to pure top-down IA. And my experience is that pure top-down IA is just as bad as pure bottom-up IA. A blended approach is essential – where you look at ways of approaching the content, balanced by a detailed understanding of what you have to fit in.

I think the only time they are not useful is if you intend on ditching everything you have and starting from scratch.

Note: I wrote this initially as a comment, but it was so big I decided to blog it and trackback to it

How geek

Wednesday, May 10th, 2006

This is more exciting for me than you, but I’m sitting in front of the TV, connected wirelessly, chatting with Eric using meebo.

Hehe – how geek. Though I should be writing my webstock presentation…

Things that make me mad – part 1

Tuesday, May 9th, 2006

I got mad yesterday. So mad that I waited until today to post.

It’s the little things that push me over the edge. And one thing that best pushes my anger buttons is guru statements that are not well-thought out or blatantly wrong.

This post (I’m not going to help its ranking by giving it a good link title) did it yesterday. G McG basically says that search is unnecessary. Based on a sample size of one. It isn’t highly-used on his site, therefore it mustn’t be important at all.

This is so wrong. As I wrote in ‘Four Modes of Seeking Information and How to Design for Them‘, it is all about the types of information-seeking tasks or approaches that people use. Were I in this situation, my conclusion would not be ‘search is irrelevant’ but ‘what are people doing on my site that means search isn’t as important’. I’m guessing most page views come from external search or from his weekly email and may conclude that people don’t otherwise come to the site with a known-item approach. That’s interesting, and you can use this information to design a better experience. But it doesn’t mean search is unnecessary.

And apart from all that, it is so poorly written it made me wince. No wonder I don’t subscribe.

Why – who cares – so what

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

Why, who cares, so what
I was stuck on a block of text today – looking at it wondering why it was so damn boring and how I was going to make it interesting. And I remembered something Kathy Sierra had said on a podcast – something that was so important to me at the time I ran to write it on my whiteboard (I’d link to the podcast, but do you think I can refind anything these days).

She said, in talking about writing, to keep asking questions – “Why”, “Who cares”, “So what”, just like a 5 year old, until the answer is ‘or you’ll use your job’.

So I asked myself why, who cares, so what and realised I had written the exact wrong stuff. I had described the answer to a question but not answered it. I thought about why I was writing that particular piece, changed it around and it was great.

So now I just have to remember to do that to every paragraph…