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Magazines > Online > November/December 2005
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Vol. 29 No. 6 — Nov/Dec 2005

FEATURE
Ambient Findability: Libraries at the Crossroads of Ubiquitous Computing and the Internet
By Peter Morville

Have you heard of Delicious Library? If not, it’s worth checking it out. Delicious Library is a social software solution that transforms an iMac and FireWire digital video camera into a multimedia cataloging system. You can simply scan the barcode on any book, movie, music, or video game, and the item’s cover magically appears on your digital shelves along with tons of metadata from the Web. Even better, this sexy, location-aware, peer-to-peer, multimedia personal lending library lets you share your collection with friends and neighbors. It’s billed as an industrial strength library system, to go.

But is this really a library? That’s a tricky question. We’re a long way, semantically speaking, from the archetypal Library of Alexandria, but have we left the category? The trouble, of course, is that we keep pushing the envelope. Not so long ago, a library was a room or building with a physical collection. Then came the Internet, and we started talking about digital libraries. Now, having accepted the rather odd concept of an Internet Public Library, we’re looking down the barrel of a few billion Delicious Personal Libraries. Keep in mind I’m not just talking about books and DVDs.

I envision a future of ambient findability in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime. At the heart of this brave new world is a library, or rather a multitude of libraries, that help us find what we need, whether the objects sought (and the libraries themselves) are physical, digital, or in between.

From Information Architecture to Findability

As some readers may know, I’ve been pounding on the boundaries of librarianship for quite some time. After graduating from the University of Michigan’s School of Information and Library Studies in 1993, I embarked on a mission (with Louis Rosenfeld and Joseph Janes) to prove the value of librarianship in the Internet age. In the ensuing years, we helped create the field of information architecture, and spread the principles and practices of librarianship throughout the realms of user experience and Web design.

Our belief that librarianship can be practiced successfully in the nontraditional environments of Web sites and intranets has been validated in countless businesses, universities, and government agencies around the world, where information architects are now employed. Consequently, many library schools have developed information architecture courses and curricula. We are also blessed with a growing international IA community, which holds an annual summit meeting [http://iasummit.org/], and a dedicated professional association [http://iainstitute.org/]. During the past decade, information architecture has become a well-established discipline—which is probably why I’ve been feeling trapped in a box that I helped create.

Seriously, in recent years, while information architecture has been my profession, findability has become my passion. In the context of today’s Web design and user experience teams, the concept of findability has real power to bridge disciplines, break down boundaries, and help people think outside the box.

Crossing Borders at the National Cancer Institute

Consider this example from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), where I recently had the good fortune to collaborate with a great team of people on redesigning the cancer.gov Web site. NCI brought me in to lead the information architecture strategy. My stated goals were to improve navigation and usability, and reduce the number of clicks required to access key content. The in-house team at NCI had already done a great job analyzing patterns of use. They understood who visits, why they visit, and where they spend their time. They knew the majority of site visitors are people recently diagnosed with cancer (and their friends and family members). Their data showed the home pages for specific types of cancer were among the most visited. So, among other goals, they wanted to reduce the time and number of clicks it took to navigate from the NCI home page to cancer type home pages.

Now, being a findability fanatic, I couldn’t help inquiring about how people find the Web site in the first place. My clients didn’t have much data on this topic, but they told me not to worry about this type of findability. Our site comes up as the first or second hit for searches on cancer on Google they told me, so we’re all set.

But I did worry, so I conducted a bit of research. I used Overture’s Search Term Suggestion Tool to get a sense of the types of cancer-related searches being performed on public search engines. Sure enough, the generic query on cancer was the single most popular search (to the tune of 180,000 queries per month). However, queries on specific types of cancer were also very common (132,000 on breast cancer per month). In fact, when you totaled the searches on specific types of cancer, these outnumbered the generic searches by a 5:1 ratio. This makes sense. If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you’re very likely to search on breast cancer rather than explore the more general category of cancer.

Yet when I tried Google and Yahoo! searches on breast cancer, prostate cancer, and mesothelioma, cancer.gov didn’t come up in the first screen of results. It was drowned out by a multitude of more-specialized, more-commercial, less-detailed, less-trustworthy Web sites. For users with these specific queries, the NCI site was essentially unfindable. In my opinion, this was a major problem. In fact, I told my clients that if they had to choose between having me redesign the information architecture and having a search engine optimization firm improve cancer type home page visibility for the most important and common cancer-related keyword searches, I’d recommend the latter.

Fortunately, my clients weren’t forced to choose. Instead, we collaborated on a strategy to make it easier for users to find the site, to find the site’s content, and to find their way around the site. In the year since this redesign, the National Cancer Institute has won a Webby Award and a Freddie Award and has climbed to the very top of the American Customer Satisfaction Index for E-Government. This goes to show that good things happen when you focus on findability.

Why hadn’t my clients identified and solved their findability problems sooner? Because, like so many other design teams, they viewed their responsibility from a top-down perspective. Can users find what they need from the home page? It’s an important question, but it ignores the fact that many users don’t start from the home page. Powerful search tools, directories, blogs, social bookmarks, and syndication services are moving deep linking and content sampling from the exception to the rule.

Optimizing for Findability

When optimizing for findability, you need to ask yourself these three important questions:

• Can users find the Web site?

• Can users navigate the Web site?

• Can users find the content despite the Web site?

It’s the third question, in particular, where findability goes beyond the box of information architecture into search engine optimization, a new domain that’s inescapably interdisciplinary. Just consider the following search engine optimization (SEO) guidelines:

• Determine the most common keywords and phrases (with optimal conversion rates) that users from your target audience are entering into search engines.

• Include those keywords and phrases in your visible body text, navigation links, page headers and titles, metadata tags, and alternative text for graphic images.

• Proceed cautiously (or not at all) when considering the use of drop-down menus, image maps, frames, dynamic URLs, JavaScript, DHTML, Flash, and other coding approaches that may prevent a search engine spider from crawling your pages.

• Create direct links from your home page, site map, and navigation system to important destination pages in order to increase their page popularity ranking.

• Use RSS feeds with ample backlinks to your site’s target destinations to encourage subscriptions and visits and to boost organic search rankings.

• Reduce HTML code bloat and overall file size by embracing Web standards to ensure accessibility and improve keyword density.

Optimizing for findability involves design, coding, and writing, as well as information architecture. It has major implications for marketing and for librarianship.

In the Internet age, it’s no longer good enough for libraries to design effective retrieval and wayfinding systems. As Google has taught us the hard way, people may never make it to the library if it’s easier to find “good enough” answers from the desktop. We cannot assume our patrons will enter the library or search our online databases. In today’s information environment, we must invert the query. Can our users find what they need from wherever they are? That’s the multichannel communication question we should be asking. It’s a question that will lead us into much stranger realms than Web sites, intranets, and Delicious Libraries.

The Road to Ambient Findability

We’re standing at an inflection point in the evolution of findability. At the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the Internet, we’re creating all sorts of new interfaces and devices to access information. Simultaneously, we’re importing into our global digital networks tremendous volumes of information about people, places, products, and possessions. Consider the following examples:

• A company called Ambient Devices embeds information representation into everyday objects: lights, pens, watches, walls, and wearables. You can buy a wireless Ambient Orb that shifts colors to show changes in the weather, stock market, and traffic patterns based on user preferences set on a Web site.

• From the highways of Seattle and Los Angeles to the city streets of Tokyo and Berlin, embedded wireless sensors and real-time data services for mobile devices are enabling motorists to learn about and route around traffic jams and accidents.

• Pioneers in “convergent architecture” have built the Swisshouse, a new type of consulate in Cambridge, Mass., that connects a geographically dispersed scientific community. It may not be long before persistent audio-video linkages and “Web on the wall” come to a building near you.

• You can buy a watch from Wherify Wireless with an integrated global positioning system (GPS) that locks onto your kid’s wrists, so you can pinpoint their location at any time. A nifty “breadcrumb” feature shows where your child has wandered over the course of several hours. Similar devices are available in amusement parks such as Denmark’s Legoland, so parents can quickly find their lost children.

• Manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble have already begun inserting radio-frequency identification tags (RFIDs) into products in order to reduce theft and restock shelves more efficiently. These tags continue to function long after products leave the store and enter the home or business.

• At the Baja Beach Club in Barcelona, patrons can buy drinks and open doors with a wave of their hand, compliments of a syringe-injected, RFID microchip implant. The system knows who you are, where you are, and your exact credit balance. Getting “chipped” is considered a luxury service, available for VIP members only.

These are just a few of the signposts along the road to ambient findability, a world in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime. We’re not there yet, but we’re headed in the right direction.

Of course, the path to ambient findability will not be straight or smooth. We should expect a bumpy ride with many twists and turns as we negotiate serious challenges to privacy and struggle to improve information literacy in a mediascape in which citizens have an unprecedented ability to select their sources and choose their news.

But when it comes to findability, I’m an optimist. I believe we will ultimately make good decisions, and I’m convinced that libraries and librarianship together can play an important role in guiding us through the maze. For evidence, we have only to look at the myriad sources of inspiration that surround us on today’s Internet.

Sources of Inspiration

For instance, consider the ambition of Larry Page and Sergey Brin to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. As they have already shown, these are not just words, but ideas linked to actions with profound social impact, and these visionary entrepreneurs have only just begun.

Google’s plans promise a future more exciting than its past. For example, I can’t imagine how anyone who cares about learning and literacy could not be excited by the goals of Google’s Library Project, which are summed up as follows:

This project’s aim is simple: help maintain the preeminence of books and libraries in our increasingly Internet-centric culture by making these information resources an integral part of the online experience. We hope to guide more users to their local libraries; to digital archives of some of the world’s greatest research institutions; and to out-of-print books they might not be able to find anywhere else—all while carefully respecting authors’ and publishers’ copyrights [http://print.google.com/googleprint/library.html].

The collections of the University of Michigan, Harvard University, Stanford University, the New York Public Library, and Oxford University will be accessible to anyone, anytime, anywhere. This is amazing. The world’s greatest works of art, history, science, engineering, law, and literature are about to join the public Web. This is a watershed moment in the history of information access and librarianship.

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, serves as another brilliant source of inspiration. In the 1980s, he studied artificial intelligence with Marvin Minsky and helped grow the supercomputer firm, Thinking Machines. Then, in 1992, with the open source releases of WAIS, Kahle included an article on the “Ethics of Digital Librarianship,” in which he wrote:

As digital librarian, you should serve and protect each patron as if she were your only employer. As more of us become involved in serving information electronically … [we] must become conscious of our ethical responsibilities … being a good digital librarian is a concrete way to create a future we all want to live in [www.archive.org/about/ethics_BK.php].

His belief that values must accompany value is evident in the mission of the Internet Archive, which is to build a digital library that provides universal access to human knowledge:

Libraries exist to preserve society’s cultural artifacts and to provide access to them … without cultural artifacts, civilization has no memory and no mechanism to learn from its successes and failures … [we are] working to prevent the Internet … and other born-digital materials from disappearing into the past [www4.archive.org/about/about.php].

Libraries and the Internet serve similar functions. More importantly, they represent shared values. Privacy, intellectual freedom, free expression, free and equal access to ideas and information, resistance to censorship—these principles, these unalienable rights and self-evident truths, are held in common by librarians and hackers, from the most revered universities to the most irreverent activists of social software and open source. It’s my sincere hope that we will carry these shared values into the emerging realm of mobile, wireless, invisible, ubiquitous computing.

To return to the question posed at the beginning of this article, is a Delicious Library really a library? Before answering this tricky question, remember that the free public library was once only a twinkle in the eye of a rebel named Benjamin Franklin. Fifty years before co-authoring and signing the Declaration of Independence, young Benjamin created “social libraries” to promote the free sharing of books and the pursuit of knowledge through study and vigorous debate, according to Michael H. Harris (History of Libraries in the Western World, Scarecrow Press, 1995, pp. 183–184). Today’s Internet and tomorrow’s Delicious Libraries represent novel opportunities to advance that vision. While it remains vital to preserve and promote those cathedrals of knowledge we call libraries, it’s equally important to spread the values of librarianship to the four corners of cyberspace. In this way, librarians can play a key role in shaping the delicious future of ambient findability.

Definitions of information architecture

Information architecture n.

The combination of organization, labeling, and navigation schemes within an information system.

The structural design of an information space to facilitate task completion and intuitive access to content.

The art and science of structuring and classifying Web sites and intranets to help people find and manage information.

An emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (O’Reilly Media, 2002), by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville

When I tried Google and Yahoo! searches on breast cancer, prostate cancer, and mesothelioma, cancer.gov didn’t come up in the first screen of results. It was drowned out by a multitude of more-specialized, more-commercial, less-detailed, less-trustworthy Web sites.

Definitions of findability

Findability n.

The quality of being locatable or navigable.

The degree to which a particular object is easy to discover or locate.

The degree to which a system or environment supports navigation and retrieval.

Ambient Findability (O’Reilly Media, 2005), by Peter Morville

Today’s Internet and tomorrow’s Delicious Libraries represent novel opportunities to advance that vision. While it remains vital to preserve and promote those cathedrals of knowledge we call libraries, it’s equally important to spread the values of librarianship to the four corners of cyberspace. In this way, librarians can play a key role in shaping the delicious future of ambient findability.


Peter Morville [morville@semanticstudios.com] is president of Semantic Studios and author of Ambient Findability (O’Reilly Media, 2005). He delivers keynotes and workshops at conferences around the world, and he blogs at findability.org.

Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to marydee@xmission.com.


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