More on “Usability Testing” vs “User Testing”

I don’t know how we got there, but use of “user testing” instead of “usability testing” is pretty widespread and I don’t understand it at all. We’re not testing users. We’re testing the usability of the design.

Language matters. We construct reality out of language. Language shapes how we see the world—it limits our perceptions, it tells us what kinds of things exist or don’t exist in the world. The power to name a thing lets us shape what that thing is for and who can use it.

So what we call usability testing matters. However, nothing convinces others like experts, so please do check out this blog post by Dana Chisnell from 2008:

Are you doing “user testing” or “usability testing”?

“User Testing is a Qualitative Activity”: A Common Mistake

Every now and then, I hear people say that “user testing” is a method that only generates qualitative data. There are two problems with this statement.

First, we are not testing users. We are testing the usability of the product in question. It is usability testing, not user testing. In an age where “user experience” has superseded “usability,” we may want an even better name for this method, but it is most definitely not “user testing.”

Second, usability testing is a perfectly good way to gather quantitative data. It just so happens to also be a very good way to get qualitative data.

When you conduct a usability test, you can quantify the number of errors that happen during tasks (and categorize them for even cooler measurements), completion time, whether or not participants completed the test, and you can collect task-level and test-level survey data.

Usability testing generally takes place with small sample sizes (on the order of 6 people or so), and this isn’t a barrier to descriptive statistics. You just have some big confidence intervals around your averages, but you can just acknowledge that in your reporting and decision making and get on with it.

I do understand thinking that quantitative data gathered from usability testing isn’t so helpful if you’re taking some kind of lean approach to product development. You’re moving quickly and treating usability testing as a more generative activity. Maybe it would be worthwhile to draw a distinction between these activities.

Ignite UX Michigan 2016: A Thrilling Success!

Ignite UX Michigan 2016 happened. It was an amazing experience.

This was our fourth year, and our second year at Live. We moved there from Conor O’Neill’s because we simply ran out of space and needed a bigger venue. Attendance at this year’s event was about level with last year, which, I have to admit, is a bit of a relief—we didn’t have any space for more people!

Every year, we try to accomplish a few new things:

  • In our second year, we took a one-off event and repeated it, began our partnership with A2Geeks (who provide some important financial infrastructure), and began to incorporate volunteers in a serious way.
  • In our third year, we moved to a new venue, expanded our sponsorship base, further expanded our volunteer team, and brought in a new chair.
  • And finally in our fourth year, we did the whole event again in a mere six months, as we moved permanently from Fall to Spring. All that, and we had a code of conduct for the first time, our first dedicated MC, and a green room for speakers to relax and store their belongings.

What does the future hold? It’s hard to say. There are still some follow-ups to do after this year’s event—mainly, getting the videos online, but also some administrative tasks. I’ll be relieved to spend a couple of months not thinking about this event before it’s time to get started on 2017.

Web Analytics for User Research: An Example

Web analytics is a good tool to add to your user research toolkit. I occasionally teach workshops on the topic of using web analytics data for UX, and I’ve found it enormously challenging to pull together a half day’s worth of material that is understandable and useful to people. For the last two workshops I’ve done, there were three exercises for workshops participants to do together. I asked them to get into groups, look at the example data, and discuss the data. I included a few starter questions. In this post, I take a look at one of the exercises and discuss how I would interpret the data.

The Data

This exercise focused on data from the All Pages report in Google Analytics, which you can see in the screenshot, and which I’ve put in a table to make it a bit easier to read if you don’t enjoy squinting at screenshots.

Screenshot from Google Analytics

Data from Google Analytics about usage of the most popular pages.
Page Pageviews (table is sorted according to this metric) Unique Pageviews Average Time on Page Entrances Bounce Rate % Exit
41,420 31,808 00:01:36 14,480 48.89% 34.96%
/ (Homepage) 13,320 10,492 00:01:44 10,122 44.63% 42.79%
/Programme.html 5,852 3,717 00:01:23 758 51.58% 26.37%
/Registration.html 5,403 4,133 00:02:27 1,158 65.46% 48.40%
/Speakers.html 3,260 2,505 00:01:18 363 64.56% 30.43%
/Workshops.html 2,688 1,349 00:01:07 138 64.21% 25.04%
/Practical.html 1,807 1,349 00:01:07 138 47.83% 20.25%
/Venue.html 1,285 1,104 00:01:16 87 62.07% 21.56%
/Videos.html 1,073 849 00:01:52 410 80.49% 55.64%
/Payment.html 516 359 00:02:43 28 10.71% 14.15%
/Invoice.html 323 226 00:02:17 0 0.00% 2.48%
/Speaker.html?n=nicolef 239 221 00:01:05 73 82.19% 31.80%
/Speaker.html?n=abbyc 231 205 00:01:02 7 28.57% 14.29%
/Speaker.html?n=adrianh 214 190 00:01:17 10 40.00% 19.63%
/Speaker.html?n=stephenh 203 182 00:00:53 8 12.50% 12.32%
Speaker.html?n=bradf 195 158 00:00:51 2 50.00% 10.28%
/Request.html 186 117 00:04:18 2 0.00% 37.63%
/Checkout.html 182 141 00:02:47 0 0.00% 3.30%
/Speaker.html?n=joshs 178 164 00:01:12 18 16.67% 14.61%
/Contact.html 177 137 00:01:50 5 20.00% 19.77%
/Speaker.html?n=stephenw 175 155 00:01:05 3 33.33% 10.86%
/Practical-tourcity.html 170 147 00:01:37 82 79.27% 52.35%

Questions and Definitions

I asked participants to look at the data and think about the following questions. They’re not necessarily the sort of thing you’d look at every time you analyze analytics data, but this is obviously a bit of an abstract situation.

  • Which pages do users tend to view multiple times? Which pages do users tend to view only once? Why might this be?
  • What are the pages where users spend the most time? What are the pages where they spend the least time? Why do you think?
  • What are common pages for users to enter the site? Why?
  • Compare the bounce rates of the most common pages for people to enter on. Why might some bounce rates be higher than others?

This isn’t at all an exhaustive list of what you’d analyze in real world situations, or even necessarily the sort of questions you would ask in every situation. Except in situations where you’re just browsing the data to look for something interesting, as in this case, the specific data you analyze and the questions you ask will be driven by what you’re trying to find out.

Before we move on to some interpretation of the data, we should probably look at some definitions.

  • Entrances:​ In the context of a single page, it means the number of people that entered the site on that specific page.
  • Exits:​ The number of people that left the website after viewing a page—that is, the number of people for whom this was the last page they viewed during their session.
  • % Exits: Exits divided by pageviews—that is, the portion of pageviews where that was the last page that a user viewed during their session.
  • Sessions: ​A session refers to an instance of a user coming to your website. If the same user comes to your website three times in one day, that counts as three separate sessions.
  • Pageviews: ​The number of times people have gone to a page. If a user views the same page multiple times during their session, each time counts as a separate pageview.
  • Unique Pageviews: Whereas a pageview counts every time a user goes to a page, regardless of how many times they do it, a unique pageview counts only the first time a user views a page. This metric gives you a sense of how many individual people have viewed a page, regardless of how many times they did it.
  • Bounce:​ When a user enters a site on a specific page, and then leaves the site without going to another page or interacting with anything on the page that you are tracking. In other words, it’s when a user makes an entrance on a page and exits from that same page, without Google Analytics recording any other data about them using the site.
  • Bounce​rate:​The portion of pageviews that are bounces. It’s important to remember that bounce rate is only calculated based on entrances, and not based on all the people that view a page.

Unfortunately, that’s a lot to take in all at once, and analytics deals with a lot of concepts that human brains were never meant to understand. That’s part of the difficulty of teaching a workshop on this topic.

Analysis

In this section, I write up a high level analysis of the numbers in this report. I don’t get too deep in this section, mostly because I don’t have a particular questions I’m trying to answer. The biggest takeaway from this section should be that analytics data is a great way of generating research questions for you to answer.

Pageviews and unique pageviews

When you compare pageviews to unique pageviews, something that stands out is that no pages have outrageous ratios, implying that none of the pages on this site are ones that people really view lots of times during their sessions. On other websites, you may find some pages that have a 2:1 ratio or more.

The home page has a ratio of about 13k:10k, which is on the higher end. This probably makes sense for a home page, since lots of people are going to treat it as a navigational hub. The “programme” and “speakers” pages, given that they’re a list of links to specific talks and specific speakers, respectively.

In comparison, pages like “venue” don’t seem to have lots of repeated viewings, implying that users get what they want out of the page and then move on to other pages.

Time on page

“Registration” and “invoice” seem to have the longest times on page, consistent with there being stuff that users have to do on those pages (filling out forms, most likely). The average time on page for “videos” feels a bit short and it’s worth exploring what’s going on with that page. Are there embedded videos? Can we look at stats on whatever service hosts the videos? Have we tagged the page to track outbound clicks?

“Request” and “checkout” also have very long times on page. What are those pages about?

The average time on page for the home page actually feels rather high. It may be worth exploring through in-person research or maybe through a heat map tool to see what things people are actually spending so much time doing on that page.

Entrances

Unsurprisingly, people enter on the home page. You may see different patterns on different kinds of websites, like ecommerce, where people predominantly enter on pages other than home.

The low number of entrances on “invoice,” “request,” and “checkout” indicates that they are probably pages from the middle of the transaction.

Pages about specific speakers also seem to have low entrances; my theory would be that this site just doesn’t rank very high in search results for people looking for information on those speakers.

Bounce rate

Three pages have bounce rates that feel quite high: “practical-tourcity,” one of the speaker pages, and the videos page. However, the first two have very few entrances, meaning that bounce rate is calculated off of a small number of people. I’d be skeptical about whether bounce rate means a lot for those pages. For videos, though, it would be worth exploring the page and how people interact with the page to see what’s up.

The most interesting pages to look at for bounce rate are the ones with the most entrances: “home,” “registration,” and “programme.” The bounce rate for these three pages doesn’t seem weird, really. It may be worth looking at how people interact with the registration page to see why it has the highest bounce rate. It could be that there is pricing information on the page and people are just trying to find that information.

Next Steps: After the Analysis

Again, this wasn’t a rigorous analysis in large part because there was no real question I was trying to answer. So, of course, one’s next steps in real life would depend heavily on what you’re trying to find out about users.

One idea would be to take a close look at the actual pages to get ideas about why people may be interacting with them the way they are. In some cases, you may want to do a path analysis to see where people are going from particular pages, particularly for pages where it looks like some people may be viewing them multiple times.

The biggest mystery pages are probably “registration” and “videos.” I’d check whether there is stuff on the page that takes people away from it—maybe the videos are hosted on another site, or the actual registration takes place on a third party site.

At a high level, the three kinds of next steps that spring to mind are:

  • More analytics data analysis
  • Looking at the actual design of the website to come up with good stories about the data
  • Research activities that don’t include analytics to fill in some qualitative answers

Whether or not you’d even do more research at this point would be a matter of what you’re trying to find out and how important it is to reduce uncertainty. There are situations where the fast answers from web analytics is good enough; in others, you want to be as sure as possible about why users are doing what they’re doing.

Hopefully this has been a modestly helpful look at the way you might approach analytics data. Technically, it’s not hard to start learning about web analytics tools, but learning about the data can be an enormous challenge.

Moving to a bi-weekly schedule

In news that will be interesting to practically no one, I’m going to move to a bi-weekly schedule on posts. I’m struggling a bit to keep up the blog along with the paying work and the time-sensitive non-paying work. I hope that fewer posts will mean better posts!

Research Underpinnings for Design Best Practices

I had a conversation recently about the research behind why we do things like put the “Login” link in the upper right corner of the navigation bar, put search boxes in the main navigation, repeat navigation items in the footer, that sort of thing. In other words, what’s the research behind some of the best practices we use for laying out websites?

Well, I didn’t have a good answer for that, and after doing a little poking around, I couldn’t much in the way of material to back me up. Sure, I could find articles that told me what the best practices were and that it’s important for me to adopt them, but nothing that mentioned the evidence suggesting that best practices were, in fact, the best. They worked because everyone was doing it, and our websites should be consistent with users’ expectations whenever there isn’t a very good reason to do otherwise.

I really do feel that this is a reasonable argument, but for all I know, we may have all converged on the absolute worst place to display a “Login” link.

Design from the Words Up

I’ve been thinking about accessibility a lot, lately. Historically, I’ve thought of it as very important but very uninteresting—a sort of “eat your vegetables” part of the job. It’s still not the most thrilling topic to me. Too much of it is highly technical, official documentation is a lesson in terrible, obfuscatory writing, and it relies too much on heuristics rather than user research for my taste. But I have become very concerned with it lately, and doing my best to bake accessibility into the design work I do.

The idea I’ve been playing with lately is designing from the words up. After ten years, I’ve become very accustomed to taking on a design problem by sketching out some boxes and lines on a piece of paper. That is, approaching design as a problem of arranging things in space. This unfortunately makes it easy to get a design where space is a central component of understanding the relationships between objects.

What if, instead, I started with designing an interface that could only be read, or heard? I’m challenging myself to start the design process with arranging words in sequence. Arranging them in space—adding a second dimension—comes later. Think of it as progressive enhancement, I suppose.

If nothing else, this approach may help me think about how I would explain interactive elements verbally before they get that spatial layer, instead of going through a fully baked design and figuring out how to make it more accessible.

All that said, the thing I’m most excited about doing is incorporating people with different disabilities into future usability testing.

Interview with Lou Rosenfeld, Part Two

In part two of our interview, we discuss Argus’ project with Borders Books and Music and the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.

Borders Books and Music

Borders Book Shop was founded in 1971 in Ann Arbor. By the end of the 90s, Borders had hundreds of superstores around the world. Although they launched a website in the 90s, in 2001, they began a relationship with Amazon to sell products through Amazon’s website. Although Borders ultimately ended that relationship in 2008, by then it was losing money every year, and Borders closed in 2011.

Argus’ project to build an ecommerce website for Borders represents a large missed opportunity for Borders.

Tell me more about the Borders project.
The sad thing was this: We were brought in by good people at Borders, and the engagement was to do two things: Build their first website, which we did, and build their first web store, which we did not.

Borders started in Ann Arbor. Store number one was literally the only store for years. They started really expanding in the late 80s and early 90s. They had this great reputation—a great company with lots of money. In 1995, the year Amazon launched, and we actually gave Borders a plan for a web store that out-Amazoned Amazon in many respects.

Unlike Amazon, Borders had the infrastructure to do all the distribution. They were already doing it. At that time, they were opening one of their superstores every three days at a cost of around two million dollars per store.

They wouldn’t open a web store because the web was this weird thing that they didn’t understand. I look back on it and I can think of fifty things I could have done differently, but the truth of the matter is that they sacrificed the project because nobody really got it. It was just a horribly political situation, and eventually we quit. Eventually, Borders became a tab on Amazon.

You know, the sad thing is that I remember being at a talk in Ann Arbor in the late 90s, where the CEO at the time, Bob DiRomualdo, had given a talk. There was a Q&A section at the end and someone said, “Mr DiRomualdo, Borders’ market cap is getting beat to hell because you guys haven’t jumped on the Internet.”

His answer was, “The Internet’s like CB radio—it’s a fad.” CB radio was a fad in the summer of 1976. This was the late 90s. I think the Internet had kind of proven itself to not be a fad by then.

Information Architecture and the Polar Bear Book

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web was first published in 1998. Although the term “Information Architecture” had been coined in the 70s and practiced in the years since, the growth of the World Wide Web made this discipline highly relevant. Rosenfeld and Morville’s book on Information Architecture was the first book to bring IA to a wide audience.

Was there a point where the “light bulb” went off on the concept of Information Architecture?
We were steeped in the idea that librarians were important. I took it seriously, because it was in line with what I was thinking, which was that there was information that needs to be organized and easier to use and find. For me it was just an obvious thing, but no one seemed to be focused on that.

I didn’t say, “Let’s go invent a new discipline,” or something like that. It was more of a combination of how things unfold naturally, plus naivety. When you’re naive and on the young side, you’re not important enough for people to tell you no. Nobody takes notice until suddenly it’s something. So you can just go under the radar, and with the Internet, especially when it was new, you could just do anything. It was the Wild West. All kinds of interesting failures as well as successes can happen in a setting like that.

For me, there wasn’t a single light bulb. I felt like we were on to something with the class I taught with Joe Janes as a doctoral student. That class was a huge success. Our students would spend twenty hours a week on just the one class for only two credits, working in pairs on these subject guides.

We were all pulling together the different skills we had learned in library science over the couple of years of graduate school, and applying them in a setting where we actually created a product that people used. This was radical.

I mentioned the pair that created the guide to personal finance. I knew we were onto something when one of them, Abbot Chambers, got hired by what was called the Global Network Navigator*, which was a kind of web service started by O’Reilly. Our student was hired to run the personal finance center for them based on his work from our class.

While he was still with O’Reilly, this student hooked me up with Dale Dougherty**, who wanted to set up a new magazine called Web Review. They wanted me to write a column and we came up with the name “Web Architect.”

I was a regular columnist for Web Review magazine, and Peter and other people working at Argus eventually became contributors to “Web Architect” as well. Then O’Reilly said, “We’d be interested in doing a book on this.”

I remembered that Richard Saul Wurman had this term “Information Architecture,” which was probably better because we didn’t want to be so tied to the format of the web. We called the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web instead of “Web Architecture” for that reason.

We felt like Wurman IA was brilliant, but it didn’t really address multidimensional information spaces. Instead, it focused on two dimensional information spaces—printed pages, and so forth. In hindsight, I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, but I’m not sure it’s entirely wrong either.

I had actually gotten a contract with Wiley to write a book in 1994 or 1995, and I couldn’t do it. It was just too soon. Then Peter and I wrote it for O’Reilly, and it came out in 1998. It was good timing. People had done enough web stuff at that point that they were realizing it’s not just writing HTML; it’s not just creating good graphics; there’s actually this sort of connective tissue that makes things hang together in a way that worked, and that was Information Architecture.

The book gave them a language and a common vocabulary and concepts. People could have conversations about organizing information and making it findable, even if they came from different backgrounds. Suddenly, a developer and a graphic designer could have a conversation that was productive about this topic, because I think the book gave enough of a common starting point.

The first edition came out in 1998, and we are now doing the fourth edition which will come out this summer. It’s sold something like 200,000 copies, which is insane.

* Launched by O’Reilly Media in 1993, this was the first commercial web publication.
** Vice president at O’Reilly Media at the time.

The Information Architecture Institute

The Information Architecture Institute is a professional organization for Information Architects, founded in 2002.

Changing gears, let’s talk about the IA Institute. What is the value of professional organizations like the IA Institute?
Christina Wodtke* and I thought up the IA Institute in Baltimore at the third IA Summit**. We wanted to create some sort of community infrastructure for IA people, and we got a whole group together at Asilomar in California for our retreat. We co-founded this thing called the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture, which eventually became the IA Institute.

In hindsight, I feel the problem is that most professional associations have zero value because they’re using an early 20th century business model to get people to work together as a discipline. I don’t think we’re that kind of discipline. In fact, I’m not even sure IA is a discipline.

I’ve been a pain for every IA Institute leader ever since because I’ve told them, “Don’t be a professional association. Don’t use that old business model. Be something else. I don’t know what it should be, but don’t try to become a member organization that charges dues and is constantly fighting for the $40 a year from people who are not engaged because they think they should get something for their money instead.”

I think Abby Covert*** is going to save it because she’s a special, unique person that can motivate people to get involved and do things. I still don’t know if the business model is going to work because you need some money, and I don’t think the money in contemporary communities comes from members. I think it comes from sponsors, from events, and other things, but that’s okay. You can’t just look at it in terms of money. You have to look at it in terms of energy, involvement, and engagement.

World IA Day**** is great. Revenue is up and there are more activities in general that the IA Institute is doing, but having tried for many years to help lift the IA Institute, and later on the User Experience Network† based on the backs of volunteers, I am highly pessimistic that you can only go with the volunteer driven path. I just don’t think it’s viable.

* Author of Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web (2003).
** An annual Information Architecture conference founded in 2000 by Lou Rosenfeld, Vic Rosenberg of the University of Michigan School of Information, Gary Marchionini of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, through the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T).
*** President of the IA Institute and author of How to Make Sense of Any Mess (2014).
**** An annual celebration of Information Architecture in February consisting of local events around the world.
† From 2001 to 2010, UXnet was an “umbrella” organization that tried to form bridges between professional organizations in the UX community. This topic is covered in the forthcoming interview with Keith Instone.

Interview with Lou Rosenfeld, Part One

Lou Rosenfeld is the founder of Rosenfeld Media, a co-founder of the Information Architecture Institute, and co-author of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. In this interview, we discuss Argus, a company he founded in the 90s that was a pioneer in practicing Information Architecture, how he came to be an author, and the value of professional organizations.

Argus

Argus, a design agency from the mid 90s to the early 00s, was an important part of the nascent UX community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The invention of the modern browser, the decreasing cost of personal computers, and the resulting explosive growth of the World Wide Web paved the way for Argus’ growth, as well as many other development and UX focused companies.

Argus served as the laboratory for Rosenfeld and Morville to formulate their ideas about Information Architecture, which were heavily influenced by Library and Information Science, and put them into practice.

Founding Argus

You attended the University of Michigan School of Library and Information Science. How did you move from studying library science to become a founder of Argus?
When I started library school back in 1988, we learned how to search online using commercial databases like Dialog and Lexis/Nexis. In those days, people searched $300/hour databases, and it was nerve-wracking because if you didn’t have well-formulated queries and alternate queries before you went online, you were going to cost the school a lot of money. People’s hands would shake as they did their searches. That was the environment in 88.

They told us we were at the cusp of a big information explosion. There was a lot of discussion about it, but not a lot of thought about how librarians were going to work in non-library environments.

After all, it was obvious this information explosion wasn’t only going to happen at libraries. In fact, I didn’t go to the graduate program at the University of Michigan with the idea that I’d become a traditional librarian. I just wanted to learn the skills, and while I was there I teamed up with Joe Janes* to start teaching people how to use the Internet. We decided for fun to start Argus. We taught classes on weekends in different parts of Southeast Michigan, mostly in collaboration with teachers and librarians, or with local chapters of professional associations.

We taught people how to do absolutely horrible, painful things, like use Archie, Telnet, FTP, WAIS, Veronica, and Gopher. This was a time before the web exploded where a lot of people didn’t even know what email was, but they were interested or encouraged by their employers to learn more.

I graduated in 1990, stayed in Ann Arbor, and actually went back to be a doctoral student in 1993. I continued to do the stuff with Joe Janes with Argus on the side and worked in the library as well, doing techie stuff.

Around that time the school had me, with Joe, start teaching the class on how to use the Internet. I started doing it as an independent study in 1992. Peter Morville was one of my first and best students. That’s how I got to know Peter. He said he wanted to learn the stuff, and I told him, “There’s no better way to learn than to teach, so you’re helping me teach a workshop to the public in two weeks.” Then he signed up for my course as well and eventually became a partner in the company.

* Currently a professor at the University of Washington Information School, and founding director of the Internet Public Library while a professor at the University of Michigan in the 1990s.

How did Argus move from teaching to helping people build websites?
At first, we taught people how to use the Internet, and then we moved into helping people develop and design for it—we moved from consumption to production of information on the Internet.

In 1993, we created a course that paired people to build topical guides to the Internet. For example, two of our students created a guide to personal finance. We published them in this horribly-named thing called the Clearinghouse for Subject-Oriented Internet Resource Guides. It was an early Internet directory. Instead of a set of listings in something like Yahoo! (which it predated), it pulled together people’s efforts to organize the Internet.

In fact, it was around that time that Tim Berners-Lee* emailed me and said, “Why are you doing this? We’ve already got the World Wide Web Virtual Library!” Even with more support, it was as likely to succeed as my Clearinghouse. Neither effort could really scale.

We published our students’ guides on this Gopher server. Around that time an old friend of mine, Rich Wiggins from Michigan State University, came to speak to the class. He said, “You know, you’re all using Gopher now, but in a few months I think you’re all going to be using the web.”

I remember telling him, “Why would anybody use the web? It’s all these wild hypertextual references of a very personal nature. They don’t generalize well.” I couldn’t imagine this could be any better than hierarchies and menus, which was what Gopher was.

A few months later, Mosaic came out, and I remember the moment were were all looking at it. Rich came back and showed us pictures of Kandinsky paintings from some web server. The web had been around for a year or two, but it was all text, so it wasn’t a big deal. When it became visual, it was a big deal. It was mind blowing.

We started teaching people how to create web pages. I think it was the first academic course in creating information for the Internet ever taught. I’ve asked and nobody ever said there was something before 1993. I’ll take credit for that, at least, with Joe.

* Computer scientist that invented the World Wide Web and founder and director of the World Wide Consortium.

The Growth and Evolution of Argus

I got to the point where Peter, Joe, and I—mostly Peter and I at that point—realized that Argus was going to grow, and I had to make a choice between the doctoral program and Argus. I chose to finish my PhD at some other, undetermined time, which I’m still waiting to do.

In the beginning of 1993, we started growing the company. It was an interesting time in Ann Arbor. Several companies suddenly started doing stuff for the Internet. The one that had been around the longest was Jon Zeeff’s company, Branch. The local lore is that the first ever ecommerce site was his Branch Mall*—that he built the first ecommerce engine. In 1993 or 1994, he put a florist** on the web. It was the first ever, right in Ann Arbor.

Argus partnered with three other companies: Q, a great visual design and communication firm, and two other companies that handled development and project management. We created a consortium called Allied, which allowed us to take on full service web projects. We did Detroit Edison, Consumers Energy, and a number of other fairly sizable organizations, mostly in the upper Midwest, and the biggest one—the one that broke my heart—was Borders Books and Music.

I remember telling Peter, “This is fine for now, but I want to be doing Information Architecture instead. It’s our speciality—nobody’s going to do it better than us, and nobody gets that it should be its own thing, at this point.”

I remember saying to him, “I bet you by about next year, 1997, we can get out of Allied and just do IA projects exclusively, not website projects. Everyone’s going to be doing websites and it’s going to become a commodity service.”

That turned out to be true. In 1997 we stopped doing that kind of collaboration and just started doing IA.

* Jon Zeeff was president of Branch Information Services in the 1990s and an ecommerce pioneer with his Branch Mall. “Staking a Claim on the Internet,” Inc.
** Grant’s Flowers and Greenhouses.

Where did Argus draw its team from? Did you hire UX people?

We had about 8 to 12 people at that point and everyone came from library school. We were all basically librarians taking those skills, like I’d wanted to do in 1988, and bringing them to this explosion of new digital environments, which needed the kind of expertise we had in organizing, structuring, and making information findable.

Around 1997, we met Keith Instone* from Toledo. Keith had contacted us, and he was this weird usability guy. I didn’t really know anything about usability or how it fit with what we did. We liked Keith and we knew there was enough of a connection, and we were willing to learn more.

The thing that we learned early on is that the best people to hire are not the ones that fit your idea of what’s good, but people that can bring something different and are just good people to work with. He turned us on to usability testing and we hired him and then built a model for Argus.

The model was a bunch of pods. Each one of them had library science influenced Information Architects and a project manager, and then we had specialists come from other areas instead of being in the vertical pods of IA people.

Any projects could be owned by one of our IA teams, but they could use Keith Instone to help them with usability. They could use Dennis Schleicher to help with ethnography. They could use Karl Fast to help them with markup, and so on. We eventually hired away my doctoral advisor, Amy Warner, to help with deep taxonomy. We got up to about 40 people, with no turnover. It was incredible. In the late 90s to 2000, we had zero turnover, when pretty much everyone was getting a job for a million dollars a year doing HTML.

* UX professional from Toledo, Ohio, and participant in a forthcoming interview.

The Closing of Argus

We were at our peak in late Fall of 2000. We put on our first conference—our only one: the IA Conference that Peter organized in La Hoya, California. I remember sitting in a hot tub in La Hoya in October of 2000 thinking, “Wow, life is good.” Little did I know that about a month later, the economy was going to hit us badly*.

Right around that time, corporate spending tightened. Who’s going to get cut first? Consultants. Especially ones who do stuff they don’t understand, like Information Architecture.

We were the canary in the coal mine for the economic downturn. In the space of about a month, our three biggest contracts, IBM, Morningstar, and Northwestern Mutual Life were cancelled or terminated because they suddenly lost the money—not because of us.

That was right before the holidays, and by the time January rolled around, instead of quarter million dollar projects, we were looking at twenty thousand dollar projects. We decided we would do one round of layoffs, and if we didn’t survive that, we would shut down rather than go bankrupt. In April, we just saw that we couldn’t maintain Argus, so we decided to give people severance, and close down neatly.

* The dot-com bubble was a speculative bubble from about 1997 to 2000 caused in part by the rapid growth and commercialization of the Internet. This bubble collapsed from 1999-2001, leading to the recession of the early 2000s.

A Week Off

Sorry – couldn’t think of a blog post today.
One of the things that scared me about committing to a weekly schedule on this blog is the constant need for more content. Sometimes, you just don’t have anything to write. Or, rather, there are plenty of things going on in my life that I care about and for the time being, they’re not of any real professional interest.
The boundary between my professional and personal life is a bit fuzzy. Well, a lot fuzzy. It always has been and, really, it’s what I signed up for and what I’ve actively chosen over the years. A great big downside of blending my lives is this constant need to be on, to think professional thoughts, to think big thoughts to share, and to write, write, write.
People don’t work like that. Most people, anyway. We have other interests and sometimes (maybe often) those interests come to the foreground.