Ambient Findability emerges when "we can find anyone or anything from anywhere or anytime". Information Architect guru Peter Morville’s new book (O’Reilly) explores the social impact and promise of this frontier, while also presenting the challenges to overcome in order to keep the increasing stream of information manageable.
Below, I provide a chapter by chapter summary of the book, in which chapters 5 and 6 are the real gems, in my opinion.
Chapter 1 (Lost and Found)
Morville laments the state of content, which is often un-findable by those who might value it most. Many websites take a top-down approach to search by assuming that people land on the home page and subsequently drill down. Often in practice however, our first experience with a site is in its deep-down content , and we might never even view the home page. One strategy is making content findable is to search-optimize your site by using keywords to attract visitors looking for something more specific than the highest concept in the knowledge hierarchy.
Findability has bottom line implications. It powers the Long Tail, which describes the huge marketplace for niche products available most easily on-line, since brick and mortar stores can’t stock massive inventory.
Chapter 2 (A Brief History of Wayfinding)
Through history, humans have learned to navigate environments of increasing complexity, creating wayfinding tools and vocabularies , all of which are ultimately adapted to the next mileu. At first, we found our path by referencing objects like mountain ranges in our natural environment. Eventually, we formed urban mental models around man-made structures like temples and bridges in what can be considered our built environment. Today, we struggle to port these spatial metaphors to the web, where distance is poorly defined and "there is no there".
To promote better navigability on the web, the author introduces the idea of "findability", which is a bridge between our heritage of wayfinding in natural and built environments, with a focus on usability. This concept spans both physical and digital worlds, as the meaning of an "object" becomes blurred.
Chapter 3 (Information Interaction)
Since Moore’s Law implies that technology accelerates exponentially, it follows that we will be increasingly overwhelmed with available information. The lessor known law by Calvin Mooers’ postulates that people will stay away from an information retrieval system if it is painful to use. The question must be asked: Will tomorrow’s search engines keep pace with the flow of information to make people care about using it?
Because of the ambiguity of language and poor algorithms to determine "aboutness", traditional search engines have poorer "precision" and "recall" as the network of information documents increases. Centralized assigning of metadata can help, but it is prohibitively expensive.
The paradigm of Human Information Interaction (HII) embraces social and psychological dimensions of information seeking behaviour. By studying people’s behavior, perhaps we can enhance information findability! Supporting this idea, innovators like Google, Flickr and del.icio.us have improved information retrieval by tapping into our nature for gossip and the power of popularity.
Chapter 4 (Interwingled)
Citing advances in locative technologies (RFID, GPS, etc), body/technology convergence, sensors, and other examples of ubiquitous computing, Morville convinces us of the interwingularity apparent in today’s world. We move fluidly between topics and media, hyperlinking as appropriate to convey our ideas. True to Bruce Sterling’s concept of "spimes" (located in space and time), objects are self-revealing and configurable. For example, an Amazon.com "book" is searchable, allowing intermingling between text, data about the author, rank, reviews, and related books.
Thus, the case for findability becomes more urgent as our environment becomes more complex, with information about the real world being imported into cyberspace. We will strive to make good decisions on how to intermingle our lives with technology in order to make information manageable, viewing it with novel interfaces (orbs, digital paper, etc).
Chapter 5 (Push and Pull)
Ideally, we want to increase our signal-to-noise ratio to pull people, places, products and ideas into our attention, while reducing the push of unwanted messages and experiences. There should be a balance, involving a feedback mechanism – for instance, we opt in (pull) an RSS feed, which pushes information back to us. We enter search terms into Google (pull) and receive results and sponsored ads (push).
Marketing is a double edged sword, which unfortunately today tends to push information out of context. Designers and marketers should cooperate to make information and products more findable (perhaps based on users’ personalization profile), so people are more inclined to appreciate a product and buy it.
In general, companies would be better served if they promoted interdisciplinary collaboration amongst different skill sets in an organization. Engineers should be cautious with technology decisions like using dynamic urls which might not be spiderable. Designers should make efficient use of image size for mobile browsing. Marketers should not push out of context upgrades or risk alienating the user. Information architects need to work with brand architects to map marketing jargon to user vocabulary. Search Engine Advertising (SEA) and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) should be owned collectively for increased findability, leading to a better bottom line.
In this chapter, Morville also describes the design qualities that shape the user experience, arguing that findability is of primary importance.
Chapter 6 (The Sociosemantic Web)
The Semantic Web promises era where search and navigation systems (i.e. agents) bring us the information we need. Whether this vision is attainable is hotly debated by social software advocates, who argue about whether properly assigned metadata can bring us there. The author is optimistic that metadata can serve as a "boundary object", which will bring opposing camps together to build a shared understanding and encourage social progress.
Morville walks through the history of metadata, discussing taxonomies, ontologies and folksonomies. A taxonomy is a categorization, typically with a root node, to facilitate understanding. Ontologies go a step further, adding a set of inference rules. For example, RDF, an W3C standard for describing metadata, assigns properties such as "is a member of" or "is related to". So far, this promising classification technology has not met expectations. Social software on the web led to a bottom-up model, a "folksonomy", where "tagging" allows. users associate objects with keywords. The tags are shared and become pivots for social navigation, as well as a great tool for trend spotting.
Here’s a brilliant excerpt (p141), which ties these compatible classification schemes together:
"For quite some time, I have believed this concept of pace layering holds great promise within the narrower domain of web design. In this discussion of metadata, the potential for unifying architecture is self-evident. Semantic Web tools and standards create a powerful, enduring foundation. Taxonomies and ontologies provide a solid semantic network that connects interface to infrastructure. And the fast-moving, fashionable folksonomies sit on top: flexible, adaptable, and responsive to user feedback.
And over time, the lessons learned at the top are passed down, embedded into the more enduring layers of social and semantic infrastructure. This is the future of findability and sociosemantic navigation: a rich tapestry of words and code that builds upon the strange connections between people and content and metadata"
Morville argues with the assertion that the "document" is becoming irrelevant, as syndicated snippets of information become more common. He introduces the abstract concept of "genre" (the combination of form, content, and purpose) and insists that it naturally follows that documents are inherently findable, and thus valuable. In fact, we are constantly creating new kinds of documents (FAQs, sitemaps, and blogs) and we will continually invent new forms of documents as new categories of objects around us become findable (eg. people, places) and mobile devices gain popularity:
"In an age of location-awareness, when metadata can be attached to people, possessions, and places, the findability and value of our documents and objects will be shaped by strange new forms of sociosemantic aboutness"
Chapter 7 (Inspired Decisions)
I found this chapter to be somewhat non-cohesive, with the author discussing ideas in AI (mentioning Jeff Hawkins’ fascinating book, On Intelligence), irrational human behavior, and information overload. I think he is illustrating the difficult path ahead for us in attaining our goal of ambient findability, as obstacles in human nature make us resistant to search for the best, objective information.
His idea of graffiti theory suggests that we are unconsciously shaped by the information we digest, and this feeds back into the information we seek. The web is both a tool for making informed decisions, but also has the power to propagate ignorance.