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March 12, 2008

Ambient Findability and the Future of Search

Peter Morville is widely recognized as a founding father of information architecture. He co-authored the best-selling book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web and has consulted with such organizations as Harvard, IBM, the International Monetary Fund, Microsoft, the National Cancer Institute and Yahoo! Peter is president of Semantic Studios, co-founder and past president of the Information Architecture Institute and a faculty member at the University of Michigan. Peter’s latest book, Ambient Findability, was published in 2005.

In his presentation for Webstock 2008, Peter called himself a crazy librarian who fell in love with the web. Peter designs sites so that people can find what they’re looking for. It’s not just about findability, Peter says. The structural design of shared information environments is important. The vast majority of Internet architects don’t even know the term Internet architects. Content authors, bloggers etc. have a responsibility for shared information. One lesson Peter says he constantly needs to give clients is that it’s not enough to provide a single taxonomy. You can bring multiple ideas and formats to a single document to a wide audience with different needs. The Stanford University site is a good example of a usable site. When you design for the web, you should provide usable navigation and a site search facility at the very minimum.

The Consumer Reports site is another good example. It doesn’t stop with global navigation but gives a couple of information sub-sets to tell the user what the site database consists of. One size does not fit all in taxonomy. The Mayo Clinic use a more user-friendly design by listing all diseases by their most common name rather than the formal medical terminology. The site was re-designed with users in mind and has positively flourished as a result. It demonstrates that you need to design site taxonomies for specific audiences and users.

The elements of the user experience are multilayered. Peter is sick of the word “usability” as it means different things to different people. Depending on who you talk to, usability could mean:

  • useful
  • usable
  • valuable
  • findable
  • credible
  • accessible
  • desirable

All these elements are important. Peter recommends asking these three questions when designing a site layout:

  1. can users find your web site?
  2. can users navigate your web site?
  3. can users find your products and services despite your web site?

He also claims that not enough attention is paid to accessibility these days. Your web site needs to advance your business goals and inspire trust. Peter mentioned Google search as an example. People tend to trust results that are listed high in Google. Findability and credibility are therefore increasingly connected.

Peter has provided site usability services for the National Cancer Institute. When he began working with the site, 90 percent of traffic was from the general public who had been diagnosed with cancer and were seeking specific information. Peter helped re-design the site to make sure these people found the information they were seeking about specific cancer types. At the time Peter worked on the site, an amazing 70 percent of searches on the major search engines were for specific types of cancer so the Cancer Institute used this information to improve the findability of their specific cancer pages.

We can talk about findability at the level of the object and the system, says Peter. What are the ways the object/data can be found? How do we make it easier to be found? How does the environment support the navigation and retrieval of the object/data? What he calls ambient findability is the ability to find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime. The destination is never quite reached because perfect findability is impossible.

We’re now drowning in information and suffering from information anxiety in the information age. “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” says Herbert Simon (Nobel Laureate Economist) or the Dilbert version of this is: “Information is gushing toward your brain like a firehouse aimed at a teacup”. We are creating alternate ways to receive information via our digital networks, Google Earth being a good example. Another example is the “kid tracker” which is a GPS wristwatch your kids wear so you can know the location of your kids 24/7. Soon, people will be able to track other people every second of every day. This raises privacy concerns.

Peter showed a couple of examples of findability technology available now. Within a wireless network area, you can now use the Cisco Wireless Location Appliance to add electronic tags to items so you can locate them at any time. Hospitals use the technology to tag wheelchairs so they can be found instantly and save staff time and money searching for them. It’s claimed this saves one hospital $28K per month. Another example was the keen couple who had tagging devices embedded in their hands so they could open each other’s apartment doors and access each other’s computers. How romantic!

So in a world where the information haystacks are getting larger, how do we create information needles? How do we solve the findability question? We need to think about business intelligence, visualizing patterns etc. Back in the 1980’s Peter wrote an article claiming that the Internet will turn everyone into a librarian and now it’s happened. We can’t stop talking about meta data, social media labels, bookmarks and Flickr tags! In 5-10 years, Peter thinks that many sites will become like Amazon in terms of findability.

Search is one of the most important ways we learn. “Search has become the new interface of commerce” says John Battelle. Search startups such as Endeca and Trexy are pioneering new ways to search. Everyzing is a search engine that allows you to search audio files by individual words within the transcript. Buzzillions is an example of a site using both structured meta data and tag search. Hybrid search solutions are launching all the time. Google is struggling with how to provide data the way people categorize it. Google Book Search is an example of a site with usability issues. Flickr solved this issue by using clusters to sort photo tags, with huge success.

Peter says that we need to focus on usability in the future. Everyone working on your site needs to have the same goals in mind. He completes his presentation with the story of the three stone cutters. There is a guy wandering in the wilderness and he comes upon a quarry and asks the workers there what they’re doing. The first stone cutter is working at a slow pace and says “I’m making a living”. The second guy is working really hard and fast. He says “I’m doing my very best”. The third guy is working at a pace somewhere in the middle but with a smile on his face. He says “I’m building a cathedral”.

Article by Kalena Jordan, one of the first search engine optimization experts in Australia, who is well known and respected in the industry, particularly in the U.S. As well as running a daily Search Engine Advice Column, Kalena manages Search Engine College – an online training institution offering instructor-led short courses and downloadable self-study courses in Search Engine Optimization and other Search Engine Marketing subjects.