Ambient Findability

Peter Morville
President, Semantic Studios and Author
Wednesday, July 19, 2006; 11:00 AM

Peter Morville , author of "Ambient Findability," was online Wednesday, July 19 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his book about the future of information and connectivity.

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, Microsoft, and Yahoo. He is president of Semantic Studios , co-founder of the Information Architecture Institute , and a faculty member at the University of Michigan. His work has been featured in publications such as Business Week, The Economist, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal. He blogs at .

A transcript follows .


Peter Morville: Hello and Welcome!

Our chat today will be focused around Information Architecture and Ambient Findability, so let me provide a couple of basic definitions:

* Information architecture involves organizing web sites (and other information systems) so people can find what they need.

* Ambient findability describes a fast-emerging world in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime.

And, for anyone in the DC area, I'll be talking about both topics at the Library of Congress tomorrow morning. See my blog at for details.

So, I'm happy to answer practical questions about web design today, and futuristic questions about information and findability tomorrow, and perhaps a few questions about strangely connected topics.

Fire away!


Boston, Mass.: Are there any realistic numbers for how much time companies waste on searching for stuff they can't find (but is there... somewhere) and is then re-created for the Nth time?

Peter Morville: Here are a few statistics:

Employees spend 35% of productive time searching for information online.

- Working Council for Chief Information Officers, Basic Principles of Information Architecture

Managers spend 17% of their time (6 weeks a year) searching for information.

- Information Ecology, Thomas Davenport and Lawrence Prusak

The Fortune 1000 stands to waste at least $2.5 billion per year due to an inability to locate and retrieve information

- The High Cost of Not Finding Information, IDC White Paper

The average mid-sized company could gain $5 million per year in employee productivity by improving its intranet design to the top quartile level of a cross-company intranet usability study.

- Intranet Usability: The Trillion-Dollar Question, Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox

Of course, you need to take these with a grain of salt. For instance, the process of searching is very much a process of learning. In fact, I'd argue searching is one of the most important ways that knowledge workers learn. So, we don't necessarily want to reduce (valuable) time spent searching...we just want to avoid the waste and frustration that comes with a badly designed system.


St. Mary's City, Md.: Out-of-left-field question...

Have you read about the BrainGate trial, where an implant gives tetraplegics the ability to control prosthetic devices using their brains?

What would this research mean for information technology? Would people be able to share information without computers or audiovisual equipment?

Actually, this sounds like something from cyperpunk science fiction. I can imagine people turning into passive drones if their brains were connected directly to television signals. "Dad is staring into space...the playoffs must be on."

Peter Morville: I haven't read about that particular trial, but I am aware of numerous similar experiments...monkeys with networked brain implants that enable them to control machines via the Internet...technologies that enable people to play video games using only their brains. Weird stuff!

I'm convinced that many people will choose to become cyborgs. It's already happening with cochlear implants, and some "hackers" have implanted RFID chips in themselves, so they can do cool things like open their garage door with a wave of their hands.

I expect tomorrow's teenagers will embed FriendChips that allow them to stay in constant contact with their buddies.


Portland, Ore.: Good morning! How do you talk to clients or organizations about the value of IA or user-centered design, given that thelingo and best practices tend to be somewhat arcane or technical? How do you talk about, say, heuristics without having the marketing people glaze over?

Peter Morville: First, whenever possible, I try to learn about my audience before I start talking. What "language" do they speak? What's important to them?

Second, I try to keep it simple. That's why I like the term "findability." Everyone can appreciate the difficulty and importance of finding what we need in a large web site.

But, I also help clients to understand that IA isn't just about findability. For instance, the way we organize and label our information on the home page has a huge impact on our credibility and perceived authority.

And, there are other qualities of the user experience, which I explore in this article:

User Experience Design

I hope that helps!


Los Angeles, Calif.: What is your opinion of Google? Do they really have the market on search or do you think there's a smaller outfit out there trying to perfect better methods? And if there is a smaller company out there doing this, do they even have a chance against the corporate giant?

Peter Morville: Short answer: I use Google every day.

Long answer: Google is amazing in a couple of respects. First, they deliver the best search results, fast, via a clean interface. The multi-algorithmic solution behind the scenes is complex, but the user experience is simple. Second, Google is expanding search well beyond the Web...Google Desktop, Google Book Search, Google Maps, Google Earth...they are pioneers at the crossroads of digital and physical where wayfinding and retrieval converge.

However, there are other interesting things going on: Endeca's Guided Navigation based on faceted classification is great for site search; Yahoo!'s experiments with Social Search are worth keeping an eye on; and Podzinger is bringing search to audio and video content.


Ashland, Ore.: Schools, k-12, are ever the slow innovators... how do you see young children's education changing in light of so much information? How will schools be responding?

Peter Morville: I think schools are responding slowly to the challenge of information/media literacy.

In a world where we can increasingly select our sources and choose our news, it's not going to be easy for teachers to strike the right balance with respect to authority. Who should we trust? What should we believe? What happens when textbooks and the Wikipedia tell us different "truths".

For better or worse, I think children will figure out a lot of this stuff for themselves...hopefully with some guidance from their parents and teachers!


Lake Havasu City, Ariz.: Pete, you rule my world. How do we get good design when an unfriendly eyecore like myspace is numma 1?

Peter Morville: At the bleeding edge of IA, we see emerging success stories that seem to invert the laws of good design and structure, from Flickr to the Wikipedia to MySpace.

Now, first, I must admit (reluctantly) that IA isn't everything :-) Without valuable content and services, IA doesn't matter.

But, if you look deeper at most of these successful sites, you'll see some interesting IA design decisions. There is an information architecture framework to all of these sites, but users also play a major role in populating and shaping that structure.


Washington, D.C.: I'm reading your book and enjoying it greatly as I work in a particularly challenging search and access area.

At the same time, on another level, I am feeling increasingly annoyed and harassed and wearied by information and information technology, such that I just want to turn it ALL off!

Thus far in your book, you don't seem to have reached that semi-Luddite endpoint. What's your secret?

Peter Morville: I actually have mixed feelings about all this information and technology that increasingly permeates our lives. But I don't see it going away, so I try to make it work for me.

For instance, I rarely answer my cell phone (Treo). I use it almost soley to collect voice mail (for when I'm ready to be interrupted) and for outgoing calls...oh, and to check email while driving (don't worry, I've got it under control!).


Bel Air, Md.: With regard to Information Architecture, why do you think that usability studies and tests are so routinely dropped from the SDLC? Doesn't "know your audience" apply to applications, too?

Peter Morville: Sometimes, usability tests get dropped because people think they already know how users think or behave. Other times, they're viewed as too expensive or time consuming. I often have to make the case for usability testing and other forms of user research as part of the IA process.

And yes, user research is perhaps even more important for application design (e.g., Rich Internet Applications) because they're more complex and we don't have well-defined design patterns yet.


Wyoming, Ontario: Findability is great, but often the data you find are outdated or just plain wrong. How do you persuade the keepers of the data to keep them current and accurate, especially when the key beneficiaries of those data may be other than the keepers?

Peter Morville: Ideally, you find a way to make the keepers beneficiaries, so they can do the right thing while acting in their own self-interest. Also, you can provide a feedback loop to let them see the impact of their data quality on other people.

But, the responsibility also rests with the mediators (e.g., Google, librarians) to help people find quality content...and ultimately with the end user to select which sources to trust.


College Station, Texas: Hi, I've just started reading the transcript and wanted to ask for elaboration on "searching is one of the most important ways that knowledge workers learn."

Peter Morville: Search is not as simple as enter a keyword, view the results, find what you need.

Often, we enter a keyword, view the results, look at a document, realize we're using the wrong word, try a new search, find a person to contact, ask a question, and so forth.

As Marcia Bates showed us back in the 1980s [*], the information seeking process is iterative and interactive...or in my words, what we find changes what we want.



Cambridge, Mass.: Peter -

what are your thoughts about the Semantic Web (qv. the recent debate between Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Peter Norvig of Google). Do you think an emergent approach is better? or the more top-down approach (Ontological) is workable? or if they are actually complementary and not mutually exclusive?

Peter Morville: In Ambient Findability, I have a whole chapter called "The Sociosemantic Web" in which I argue for a balance between The Semantic Web and Social I see them as complementary.


Johnstown, Pa.: Do you think that IA can have a bigger impact in the government arena than in the commercial marketplace? And if so do you think it will have a similar type of impact?

Peter Morville: I think IA has had a huge (positive) impact in both, but right now there's more room for improvement in the government arena.


Washington, D.C.: I am a new Web master - and I have a Web site that sorely needs redesign and much thoughtful consideration. Where do I start? Can you direct me to some resources?

Peter Morville: The IA Institute ( is a great place to learn more about information architecture.

And, for keeping up with the latest in IA, I pay attention to Boxes and Arrows ( InfoDesign (

Also, you should read Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think!


Upstate N.Y.: What's your take on how findability changes people? While I simply cannot go back to the dark ages, I can certainly do without the bombardment of useless information. As soon as you find an 'oasis' of 'pure' information, someone comes along and adulterates it.

Peter Morville: In Ambient Findability, I make the distinction between Push and Pull. As users, we love to pull the information we need to us when we need it. But, we're often not crazy about the increasing amount of information that's pushed towards us...what you might call ambient advertising. We can't really have one without the other, but sometimes it's hard to find a balance.


Peter Morville: It's time to wrap up. I'm really impressed by the number and quality of questions. After all, information architecture and findability aren't exactly hot-button, mainstream topics.

So, thanks for making this such an interesting hour for me. I hope you enjoyed it too.



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