I was asked to do the closing plenery at the IA Summit this year. This is a real honor and I thought for a long time about what I wanted to talk about. I ended up talking about designing SlideShare and why we did not use many of the typical UX methods and tools for that. Instead we opted for an agile design process that works well with fast-paced development of a social (ok, I will use the word – “Web2.0”) application.
I am one of the people who thinks she should stick to the term “Mental Models”. I think the term is a good description of what she is writing about. When I mentioned this to her, she was concerned about the reaction from cognitive psychologists. I say: “To heck with cognitive psychologists”. I am one of them (yes, I am a cognitive psychologist by training) and I think this is the right term to describe what she is doing, even if is not entirely be in keeping with how congiitve psyhologists like Johnson & Laird might use the term. In fact, two years ago, when I submitted a paper to CHI with the word “Mental Models” in the title I got the same type of feedback in the reviews.
Here are my slides for the Webvisions talk. The talk pulled together a lot of threads that I have been thinking about recently. How social sharing is happening on the web (tagging is but one way of social sharing. There are several other ways, e.g., viral sharing at YouTube). How massively multiplayer games can design of such social apps. And finally, how rich interfaces (yes, I am talking about AJAX) fit in and bolster these trends. Some people who attended the talk had some kind words. Below are my slides for the talk. Enjoy!
Some of you asked me for the slides for the IA Summit presentations – Here they are. I had a great time at the panel – lots of questions. Seemed like people in the room enjoyed themselves. The sldies for the panel are similar enough to SXSW, so just download that. I am working on a detailed writeup of my contribution to the panel, and will try to post that as well.
And here are the slides from my talk: Sorting, Tagging and Social Information Architecture. The talk was somewhat rambling – I tried to put into perspective the recent disenchantment with hierarchies, the rise of tagging, and how many current trends show the need for IA’s to focus on Social Information Architecture.
I knew someone or the other was going to do this – its too obvious an idea. “Lets try replacing all site navigation with a tag cloud!”. I just came across this on the FlockSucks website – its by a company called 83 degrees – you can tell from their name that they go in for all things hip and Web2.0.
I have my own opinion on the topic, but am going to wait till you express yours. What do you think? is this a good idea? Is this the future?
(or how tagging transforms the solitary browsing experience into a social one)
In a previous essay, I wrote about the cognitive aspect of tagging – describing how people tag, and why they find it easy. There is another, equally important aspect of tagging that I did not touch upon – the “why” of tagging. Why do people tag? For many, tagging is for sharing their own information and watching others. Even if you tag mostly to remember your own stuff, it is difficult to remain untouched by the presence of others. This article will explore how tagging lets us connect with others.(1)
From solitary to social
Web browsing can be a solitary experience. Computers are individualistic devices. Many afternoons, I sit at my desk in our office, browsing the web, listening to music. I come across an article I want to remember. I tag it. That moment, I go from wandering the web alone to joining a group of others. This transition is important. In a moment, I am transported to a crowd of people with whom I have at least one thing in common. And best of all, I can enjoy their presence, but I don’t need to converse. After being on many mailing lists for many years, let me say, conversation is often overrated. Often, I like to be in the company of others, without needing to follow threads and participate. It is the same reason that I like working in a cafe – enjoying the presence of others without the burden of active interaction. Similarly, tags provide a companionable social hum that I enjoy.
I just spent some time with GoogleBase and was amazed at just how deeply Google has embraced standard information architecture concepts and trends. We have categories, facets, tags. I kid you not. Google of the simple search box with a go button has come a long way indeed.
A few top level categories
12 top-level categories (e.g., course schedules, Events & Activities) show up when you post a piece of content. Interestingly they do not get exposed directly in the search interface, but get used indirectly. Google uses your initial query to place you in a particular category, and show the relevant facets. For example, the facets presented when you search for a vehicle name are different than when you search for a recipe. This is a good approach, but it does mean that Google needs to guess the right category to present the appropriate set of facets. Google Product Manager explains that “Google Base suggests attributes and item types based on popularity, which you can use to define and attach your own labels and attributes to each data item.” So there is some magic going on behind the scene to decide what sets of facets to show.
Broadly I agree – site structure cannot be final final till you consider page layout and other aspects of the design. Card-sorting results are merely suggestions. You need to add in other design and business considerations.
But the problems with creating structures based on card-sorting, mentioned in the article, are not really problems with card-sorting. The problems are more with half-baked understanding or usage of the technique. For example, the article mentions that browser pages cannot accommodate too many top-level headings, long titles etc., and how this impacts structural decisions. But these and other issues can easily be handled with good card-sorting practices and more better analysis.
Tagging captures the variety and commonalities in thinking about an object. When many people tag a url, it turns out that some of the tags are common, while some are unique. A lot of people, making decisions independently act in an intelligent fashion, and provide value for everyone. Del.icio.us manages to balance the individual’s selfish motivations, and the group good, in a manner I have not seen many social systems do. It’s a delicate balance, but del.icio.us maintains it very well. Let us look into how it maintains that balance, and why I think that the Lazy sheep bookmarklet disturbs it.
Cognitively speaking – just what is happening at the individual level when you tag a url? I encounter an article I would like to bookmark. Semantic networks related to the article are already active in my brain. When I press “post to del.icio.us” it’s not much more work to note down some of the more important associations.
I spent the first few years of my life in Calcutta. It’s a big, crowded city, a paradise for people watching – for those who enjoy that. We lived in a small street that overlooked a bigger one, and one of my early memories is sitting at the front window, watching the world go by. It was aimless and yet so enjoyable. I could do that for hours. Its the feeling you get sitting in a sidewalk cafe in New York or another big city. You observe people go by. Ever so often, someone seems more interesting, and your eyes follow that person longer. But soon you return to watching the people go by.
Lately, I have experienced that feeling again. When I have some idle time, I go to the front page of del.icio.us and look at what’s passing through. I refresh to see new bookmarks replace the old ones. A few times, I have even seen something I wrote pass by. More often, I recognize a bookmark that’s the talk of the day. I might be curious enough to take a peek at the article. But I return quickly. Because this is not about finding interesting content, ego-surfing, or what my friends have bookmarked. It’s mostly about seeing content float by. It was interesting to someone, somewhere. So for a brief, ephemeral moment it’s there at the top of del.icio.us, and it has my attention. And then it’s instantly displaced.
It’s simply about watching the web go by, one bookmark at a time.
Never change the frontpage of del.icio.us, Joshua.