Thursday, June 26, 2003

Making "stuff" useful

Postings on Peter Merholz’ blog and Idblog that I’ve commented on have sparked off a train of thought in my head: the art of making stuff useful (as semantically neutral a statement as I can make it).

I’ve been pondering this for a bit: my thoughts are partially related to Lou Rosenfeld’s attempt at an all-encompassing image of how different fields relate to one another (I'll link to this when I can remember where on his site it is), but much more to my own position where I do a bit of Information Architecture and design, a bit of editorial work, some graphic design, some usability (and very amateur psychology and ethnography) along with business strategy etc.

Sometimes it’s difficult to relate each discipline to the other, but I feel that the common denominator is “usefulness”. I’m not trying to set this out as a new discipline, more as a connector, a way of thinking about the other things. It might seem like a reduction ad absurdum (and maybe it is – commonality is often reductive as menu items often show), but I like to think of it as a mantra in the back of my head: is this useful to the end-user, is it useful to the business, is it useful full stop (what’s the use of it?)?

Richard Buchanan kind of hit a similar note in his essay “Good Design in the Digital Age” in the book Used – Browser 3.0: The Internet Design Project when he stated:

”Qualities of usefulness, usability and desirability play a central role in good design for websites and all digital products. But there is one final step to turn them into useful tools of product development: discovering the proper balance of all three qualities for a particular product and the people who use the product.”
I’d extend this beyond “three qualities” and user/product demands, but it’s essentially my point. I could extend the analogy further, as I was considering an essay-length posting, but brevity is king, so I’ll stop here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Reputation and Trust (an update)

While reading an O'Reilly piece on captology, I came across a URL that I'd completely forgotten about, and meant to mention in an earlier piece on online trust and reputations: the Stanford Web Credibility Research pages. Anyway, it's very interesting reading - even if you have read it before. I suppose this is a bit of a "note to self"

Friday, June 20, 2003

Annual Report - hooray

I was co-opted into the company's annual reporting this year owing to my editorial experience - I suppose it's nice to do some print work for a change. I've just got advance copies of the report in, and I'm really chuffed with the results given that I was responsible for design and production (as well as a whole heap of proofing). I've really enjoyed working with the design agency and printers that I selected for us to work with, so want to say thanks to them also. They are:

Emperor Design

Pillans & Waddies

All I can say is it's clean, austere and feels...well, a bit Swiss. Just what I was after.

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Seek and ye shall find...

Just read Tim Bray on searching, where he says only Librarians use advanced search, and that most users want one "natural language" search box. This is all very well, but it doesn't always mean that users will get the results they want - the thing about searching (and finding) is that your results are only as good (or precise) as the question you ask. For most of us, vaguely defined queries get satisfactory results (or at least "satisficing" results) - if we follow information foraging theories this is because the value/effort pay-off is enough.

Anyway, I dream about our intranet search engine working - we can't enhance it with a thesaurus or fuzzy matching or best bets or anything else, because it rarely works. My colleague, Rik, is dreaming of getting "googled". At the moment, I think we are "googlied".

Wednesday, June 18, 2003


I've finished Krug's Don't Make Me Think and Garrett's The Elements of User Experience and still have the other two to finish. The best thing about each book is not that either teaches you anything completely new, but more that they help you to clarify the knowledge that you already have from an information architecture and guerilla usability perspective.

Personally, I've found the fact that both books sent me back to basics of more value than anything new I could have learned. Common sense is often (but not absolutely always) such a valuable commodity

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Purists and realists

I have recently been accused of taking a purist approach to problems - which I suppose is a fair enough criticism - as opposed to taking business and political realities into full account.

My point is that I try to act as Devil's advocate: someone will always remind me of the fact that I might not be proposing a "real" solution, taking a purist standpoint forces people to give me some useful feedback which I can then use to modify my point of view and my proposed solution. Is this an obtuse way of working?

Monday, June 09, 2003

Testing images support

mark thristan

Does this work? Just seeing if I can call on photos from my free webspace for future reference. Hopefully, it should display a photo of me

Sunday, June 08, 2003

One for the L-I-S educated

Reading the latest issue of The New Scientist, I noticed a short story about a new hotel in the U.S. This hotel has 10 floors for each of the main Dewey Decimal classifications, and the rooms are themed around sub-classifications according to the floor. Is this Information Architecture?

Monday, June 02, 2003

Weblogs: dynamics and value

UPDATE - 17 June 2003

Just a link to an ur-document on the issue of blog popularity: Clay Shirky's Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality.


I've been reading in and around some postings by Tom Coates on Plasticbag, related how thematic weblog discussions develop, and how the theme (or "meme" as everyone appears to be using Dawkin's phrase nowadays) is transmitted across the complex network of inter-relations in the blog. Coates was commenting on the original piece Dynamics of a Blogosphere story, where it appeared that four types of posting occurred - opinion, vote, reaction and summation - at different times in the blog discourse - and highlighting the differences between blog stories and bulletin boards (among other things). Ross Mayfield had also picked up on this line, along with several others, but it sparked a few thoughts in my head about the value of a weblog discussion.

The value of the discussion as a whole strikes me as being formed of the two obvious strands - qualitative and quantitative. A highly linked discussion will have a high qualitative value owing to Reed's Law (that in a many-to-many community, where n is the number of nodes/groups in the network, the network's value is 2n). Likewise, links - whether inline, in blogrolls, or as trackbacks, can be seen as a commodity exchange - the greater the number of links into a blog posting, the greater its inherent "value" (in a quasi-financial sense) - as evidenced in the wider web by Google's linking algorithm and Amazon's book ratings system.

As always, however, quantity is not the only rule of thumb. The judgement of the quality of a particular posting will be made by each visitor him- or herself based on a number of tacit understandings: is this information of interest to me? have I come across this author before? what do I know of the author's experience or personality? what is his/her position in my particular "social network"? how well written/formatted is his/her copy? So trust and reputation evidently also have a sizable role to play in in a particular posting's valuation.

When postings are linked to one another, and commented upon, the valuation of a thematic discussion, as opposed to a single posting also comes into play. According to power laws, it is likely that 80% of interesting comments and postings are likely to be posted by 20% of authors (and that 80% of traffic and linking will also be to 20% of postings). As the discussion grows, the amount of "noise" in the discussion is likely to increase - and the emergent value of the the sum of the postings (i.e. a single thematic discussion) might out-weigh the value of a single contributor's viewpoint (which may be overlooked as it occurs on the fringe's of the discussion regardless of its validity). The question arises that the volume of "feedback" might make it difficult for a new reader to read the entirety of the discussion.

I don't really think, however that "reading the whole discussion" is where the value of blogging resides necessarily (unlike Wikis or bulletin boards, for instance). Blogs offer a number of points of access into a discussion, and the threads sometimes follow a linear course, but more often than not spread off in a number of directions. Blogging's value appears to lie in this multi-valency. A blog posting itself - as a singularity - is a monologue. The moment that someone posts a comment to the blog, it becomes a more-or-less linear dialogue. The moment that someone writes a new posting either based on the original blog, or linking to it, the discussion becomes two dialogues. These dialogies can split up and re-join at any number of points along the way, but seem to tend towards expansion rather than restriction, until the thread peters out.

I'll try and put some flesh on the bones of these ideas at some point, as its rather late in the evening and I haven't finished work yet.