NASIG 2009: Ambient Findability

Libraries, Serials, and the Internet of Things

Presenter: Peter Morville

He’s a librarian that fell in love with the web and moved into working with information architecture. When he first wrote the book Information Architecture, he and his co-author didn’t include a definition of information architecture. With the second edition, they had four definitions: the structural design of shared information environments; the combination of organization, labeling, search, and navigation systems in webs sites and intranet; the art and science of shaping information products and experiences to support usability and finadability; an emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles of designing and architecture to the digital landscape.

[at this point, my computer crashed, losing all the lovely notes I had taken so far]

Information systems need to use a combination of categories (paying attention to audience and taxonomy), in-text linking, and alphabetical indexes in order to make information findable. We need to start thinking about the information systems of the future. If we examine the trends through findability, we might have a different perspective. What are all the different ways someone might find ____? How do we describe it to make it more findable?

We are drowning in information. We are suffering from information anxiety. Nobel Laureate Economist Herbert Simon said, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Ambient devices are alternate interfaces that bring information to our attention, and Moreville thinks this is a direction that our information systems are moving towards. What can we now do when our devices know where we are? Now that we can do it, how do we want to use it, and in what contexts?

What are our high-value objects, and is it important to make them more findable? RFID can be used to track important but easily hidden physical items, such as wheelchairs in a hospital. What else can we do with it besides inventory books?

In a world where for every object there are thousands of similar objects, how do we describe the uniqueness of each one? Who’s going to do it? Not Microsoft, and not Donald Rumsfeld and his unknown unknown. It’s librarians, of course. Nowadays, metadata is everywhere, turning everyone who creates it into librarians and information architects of sorts.

One of the challenges we have is determine what aspects of our information systems can evolve quickly and what aspects need more time.

In five to ten years from now, we’ll still be starting by entering a keyword or two into a box and hitting “go.” This model is ubiquitous and it works because it acknowledges human psychology of just wanting to get started. Search is not just about the software. It’s a complex, adaptive system that requires us to understand our users so that they not only get started, but also know how to take the next step once they get there.

Some example of best and worse practices for search are on his Flickr. Some user-suggested improvements to search are auto-compete search terms, suggested links or best bets, and for libraries, federated search helps users know where to begin. Faceted navigation goes hand in hand with federated search, which allows users to formulate what in the past would have been very sophisticated Boolean queries. It also helps them to understand the information space they are in by presenting a visual representation of the subset of information.

Morville referenced last year’s presentation by Mike Kuniavsky regarding ubiquitous computing, and he hoped that his presentation has complemented what Kuniavsky had to say.

Libraries are more than just warehouses of materials — they are cathedrals of information that inspire us.

PDF of his slides