Monthly Archives: February 2016

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, 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.