a jaundiced eye: stuck
for thursday, may 8, 1997.

Lou Rosenfeld, Web Architect.

Joining us today is Lou Rosenfeld, the founder of Argus Associates and a regular contributor to Web Review.

  • Can you tell our gentle readers a little about yourself?
  • My background is in librarianship and information science. It's an interesting field; people on the outside alternate between such statements as "Lou, you're right: it's obvious that librarians will soon rule the planet" and "You mean you need a *masters* degree to be a librarian???"

    When I did my masters work ('88-'90), about five percent of the students were intrigued by information technology, and the rest feared it or didn't see the point. The field has changed a lot since then; my guess is that at programs like U of Michigan's, that breakdown is now 40%/60% or thereabouts. By the way, I was in the 5% group of "techies".

    However, I did fit the negative stereotype somewhat when I started library school: I initially thought it would be the right program for me because I wouldn't have to talk much in class (any public speaking at all seemed worse than swallowing rhinoceres whole). Yet through some odd twists of fate, I was teaching my own courses there just a few years later. As a PhD student ('93-'94), I created and co-taught what I believe were academia's first courses exclusively about the Internet. If you were interested in the Internet and information technology, academia was a great place to be in the early '90s. I was able to do my own research and develop systems for filtering Usenet postings and tables of contents long before it was fashionable, got to manage a gopher server, and was generally humored as I tried to evangelize the Internet to librarians, UM students, and lots of other folks.

  • When did you first see the web? Where were you, what were you doing, and what's the first web site you remember?
  • 1992 or thereabouts: I was up to my ears in Gopher stuff, and saw the original CERN Web site. "Hmmph. Hypertext will never work. Associations between chunks of information are too personal, and reflect the prejudices of their creators; it'll never scale to wider audiences." Wrong.

    October, 1993: I invite Rich Wiggins, Internet god of Michigan State University and author of The Internet for Everyone to speak to my class at UM: "I know you're all very involved with Gopher right now, so prepare yourselves: very soon, the Web will take off. This new graphical thing called Mosaic is going to change everything." Yeah, right Rich.

    January, 1994: Likely PhD topic starts to take shape: "A Comparison of Relative Navigability of Hypertext and Hierarchical Menu-based Systems". Yep, the Web vs. Gopher. I'd just be finishing up that pointless, myopic monster if I hadn't bailed on the PhD program...

  • How has the Web changed the role of the librarian? Is it an expansion or an evolution, or both?
  • Many librarians have feared the Internet (and still do) as a profession destroyer. Much of librarianship is about mediation between the user and the information. Suddenly, free information available via free software and low-cost Internet connectivity. So who needs librarians anymore?

    This may be true if you're the sort of librarian who considers only rooms full of books as the place to ply your trade. But any librarian who understands the Internet ought to think of it as "The Librarians' Full Employment Act". Internet users will definitely become more savvy about searching for and using information, and that will certainly undercut some library services, such as document delivery. But Internet users will learn enough to know that for higher-end, complex information needs, you need a professional to help. There will be an unbelievable demand for librarians who work outside traditional libraries in a few years. Many of these will be "free agents" who will be differentiated (and known) by their subject expertise. Easy and cheap access to information and information technology will therefore greatly expand the presence of librarians in our economy, though traditional libraries will continue to suffer. Of course, I'm assuming the economy remains strong and that our society determines a workable economic model to pay for these "new librarians".

    Oh, and one other thing about the Web and librarianship: this intersection has also greatly increased opportunties for librarians to work as information system designers; in my case, as an information architect. Design of information systems is the other thing that librarians traditionally have done (in addition to mediation), and has always been the weaker sister in that regard. This is starting to change.

  • You founded Argus Associates with Joe Janes, the founder of the Internet Public Library. Did you work on IPL, and if so, do you find business to be greatly different from academia?
  • Joe, a professor at the UM School of Information and Library Studies, and I founded Argus back in early 1991. Our business was primarily focused on teaching Internet workshops on weekends and evenings. We managed to burn out on this just before teaching such workshops became a profitable endeavor. In 1994, Peter Morville joined us, and we moved into Web site design. Joe is now an inactive partner in Argus. I believe that the IPL began in 1995, after I'd left the School and began working full-time for Argus.

    I was fortunate to leave academia at just the right time. There really was no way to make a living in Internet-related business before 1995, and if I'd stayed, I would have missed out on all the excitement, not to mention an incredible substitute for the pain, suffering, and expense of an MBA degree. Is business different than academia? Night and day. At least running your own business is. Being in academia or working for a large organization mean constantly fighting with silly, venal bureacracies. Running your own business means that you only occasionally have to deal with these same bureacracies, and they pay you six or seven times as much to do what they may have originally employed you to do.

  • What's the biggest problem with the Web in terms of information architecture? Is it deep rooted, a problem in the very nature of the Web, or more superficial in terms of presentation and organization?
  • Information architecure is essentially applied common sense. The main job of the information architect is to get normally reasonable people to look before they leap into the tempting but bottomless pit of information technology. This is *very* hard to do, because it involves three incredibly challenging tasks:

    1. getting a client, for example, to realize they need to consider information architecture,
    2. getting them to hear your advice, and
    3. getting them to take your advice.
    People hire us, pay us a lot of money, and then make the same mistakes they would have made if they hadn't hired us at all. This happens more than I'd like to admit.

    So, despite Donald Norman's best advice, I'd have to say the biggest problem with the Web in terms of information architecture is that the people behind the Web sites ignore their own common sense about how information should be organized, navigated, labeled, and searched. In all fairness, it's psychologically hard to resist the temptation of diving into a Web site without making plans. And information architecture is an intangible area, nearly impossible to measure in any way. You only notice it if isn't working. So it's hard for most people to recognize the need for information architecture. And that's why the state of information architecture on the Web is so sad.

    I'm optimistic, because, as with the status of librarianship, things will change. Site builders will quickly become more savvy, and will realize that there is something wrong with the way their sites work. And they'll want experts to fix their sites. We now have clients who come to us asking for "information architects". Incredible.

    But I'm also pessimistic. Much of information architecture is essentially information retrieval, which simply doesn't work too well, and which won't get much better. Ever. Even if site builders do realize that a search engine can't just be slapped on top of a site without at least some optimization, there are really very few concrete, obvious heuristics for configuring that engine. Too many variables, such as audience type, content, format, structure, dynamism, and budget blur the situation.

  • Can you recommend any books, web sites, or other references that budding info architects can't live without?
  • The information architects don't have a hang-out on the Internet yet. Or if they do, they haven't invited me! I'm hopeful that sites like Jaundiced Eye or Stating The Obvious may evolve to be that sort of place. In the meantime, read columns like usability guru Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox and our own Web Architect series in Web Review magazine. Web Review will also be featuring some usability-oriented columns by Keith Instone.

    As far as books go, I'm a fan of Tufte's Envisioning Information and Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things. The former will stretch your mind, broadening your understanding of information architecture and design; the latter will remind you that the the information system you design should accomodate the user's needs, and not the other way around.

    Peter Morville, my partner at Argus, and I are in the midst of writing a book on information architecture for Web sites. It'll be strongly flavored with our information science and librarianship perspective. It'll be published by O'Reilly & Associates this fall. Please buy it. End of crass commercial intrusion.

  • How applicable are the insights of print designers and information theorists when it comes to the Web? For example, which of the following people are most important to Web Design and Architecture, and why?

    • Richard Saul Wurman (editor of Information Architecture)
    • Donald Norman (author of The Design of Everyday Things)
    • Edward Tufte (author of Envisioning Information)
    • Jakob Nielsen (user interface design guru and author of Multimedia and Hypertext: The Internet and Beyond)
    • George Lakoff (philosopher of language, author of Metaphors We Live By)
    • George Landow (author of Hypertext and Hypertext Theory)
    • Clement Mok (designer, author of Designing Business, partner, NOF)
    • Jef Raskin (independent consultant, famous for his work on the Macintosh)

    Although I haven't read all these folks, all are important because they've been successful at introducing the concept of information architecture from their various perspectives. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that any of them give information science and librarianship their due as important components of information architecture. Argus' mission is to change the perception that information architecture pertains exclusively to the relationship of chunks of information *within* pages, as opposed to *between* pages.

  • What do you think about some of the efforts underway to try to standardize "web interfaces"? Do you think anything will come of such efforts, and if so, would that be a good thing?
  • I think one reason the Web is so successful is that it allows us to "have it both ways" when it comes to interface standardization. At one level, the way the Web works is fairly standardized. HTML files generally convey the same information, major browsers have the same capabilities, and so on. On the other hand, designers are always grousing about the amount of autonomy users have because they can configure their own browsers. There's a tension there that I think is good; I worry that if this balance of power was tipped further in either direction, well... the Web would collapse, the stock market would plummet, wars would erupt, millions of lives would be lost, and we'd be forced to go back to using Gopher.

  • Could you summarize your approach to web architecture?
  • In general, I try to get a very good sense of the following before I begin designing an architecture: mission and vision of the sponsoring organization, why they want/need a Web site, who their audiences are, what content and functionality they want to offer, their organizational politics, and what their resource strengths and constraints are. With this knowledge, I can work from the top down with the users' needs in mind. When possible, I try to draw from an existing and familiar metaphor for organizing the site's content and functionality, or come up with one. Often I apply or adapt a top-level approach from our stable of architectures.

    Lately we've been working on many sites that are sponsored by large, political, and distributed organizations, so I try not to force them to change the way their content is organized (which often reflects their politics). Instead I try to build an infrastructure on top of that content that, through inventive browsing and searching techniques, provides users with logical ways of accessing that content.

  • Is good architectural sense something that anyone can learn, or is it a matter of taste and innate talent?
  • I feel that anyone can improve their site by following the basics of information architecture; namely, putting some forethought into navigation, organization, and so on. However, I don't think that just anyone can create a really interesting and effective information architecture, at least not for the large, complex sites we tend to work on. You need to be a bit of an artist and a bit of a scientist to pull this off. Artist because you need a certain level of creativity to think "outside the lines" and understand information spaces abstractly. Scientist because ultimately you need to be aware that measurement and quantification are important in justifying your work. Art doesn't fly at a certain point. Lastly, I think you need to be an outsider. This makes you a better user advocate, but also divorces you from the inbred organizational biases that poison so many site architectures.

  • How do you justify the value add your approach brings to a site, and do you have any tips for designers who are trying to justify a certain approach over their clients' specifications, especially when those specs violate every rule of good design?
  • We are hard at work at coming up with good objective measures of the relative merits of our approaches. But as I've said, this is really hard stuff to quantify. And few clients are willing to pay for this aspect of our work. Instead they just focus on getting the site built.

    Jakob Nielsen has some good ideas about this, but they're very usability-oriented and admittedly not especially scientific. Then again, multiplying 'amount of navigation time saved by user' by 'number of users' by 'cost per hour of user's time' can add up to some amazing ROI-oriented numbers to show off.

    Ultimately, we justify our work by our reputation and portfolio. And I'm not sure if this will change soon.

  • Do you have any tools that you use which you would recommend to site planners, and any you would tell them to shy away from?
  • Flexible, functional tools are great. For blueprinting, we use a general diagramming program called VISIO. And we live and die by whiteboards and paper prototypes. We try to not let the tools' complexity get in the way of doing work.

    So it shouldn't be surprising that we're not excited by tools like MAPA; they're pretty and sexy, but aren't practical for use as aids to design or navigation.

  • Any predictions about where the industry is headed? Internet, Push, Intranets, Extranets, MSWebTV, PDAs?
  • The main thing to remember about this industry is that it is very very young, and that users are generally not too savvy. They fall prey to marketing hype pretty easily; it's hard not to, what with the claims being made by vendors, and the overall allure of information technology.

    But that's changing pretty quickly. People are getting smart fast about this stuff. I'm optimistic that the best technologies and approaches will win out over time, and that the marketing of products will have less and less impact on decision making.

    The Internet community will build an immunity to the "hype of the month" nature of the technologies you mention above. Instead, they'll focus less on the Internet as a thing and more on using it to get work done and communicate more effeciently. A by-product of this enlightenment will be an understanding that automation can not address all of our information needs. "Intelligent agents" and artificial intelligence will lose their luster and we'll finally understand that they are useful only in limited domains, and can't replace the skills that information professionals (i.e., humans) bring to the table.

    I'm really looking forward to that time.

  • You said in a Web Review article on Push technology that you "feel pretty doubtful about its future success" - is this due to an optimistic view of the average web user, or an understanding of the difficulties of providing high-quality content in such amounts, or are there other personal experiences you've had which led you to that assessment?
  • Push is yet another instance of marketing folks getting us all hot and bothered about a technology being "The Answer". My point was that push is good in narrow, limited situations. We won't and can't get all our information through push, so let's all calm down about push channels replacing our Web sites.

    Push is not new; many of us have been subscribing to mailing lists for years. We didn't want and didn't get all our information that way before, so why should things change now? Answer: marketing hype and prettier presentation thanks to new technologies.

    Push systems, in order to deliver complex information (beyond headlines, weather reports, sports scores, stock quotes, and other info-pellets), would require incredible user profiling interfaces that would be too great a burden for the user to maintain. My research with Maurita Holland in the early '90s seemed to make that point for me. But I'd better stop, or I'll rehash the entire Web Architect column.

  • In closing, do you have anything else you'd like to add?
  • Not much other than how much I appreciate this opportunity to ramble, and how much I'm looking forward to the field of information architecture growing and maturing over the coming years. Thanks again!

    interview by: Steven Champeon

    r e c i p r o c a t e

    Permanently archived at: http://www.jaundicedeye.com/browse/stuck/050897/

    © 1997-2001 Steven Champeon. All rights reserved.
    All slights reversed.