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.