Thoughts, links, and essays from Peter Merholz
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About peterme

Most of the Time
Oakland, CA

American history around the time of the Revolution, figuring out how to marry top-down task-based information architecture processes with bottom-up document-based ones, finding a good dentist in San Francisco Oakland
Designing the user experience (interaction design, information architecture, user research, etc.), cognitive science, ice cream, films and film theory, girls, commuter bicycling, coffee, travel, theoretical physics for laypeople, single malt scotch, fresh salmon nigiri, hanging out, comics formalism, applied complexity theory, Krispy Kreme donuts.

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[Editor's note: began as a site of self-published essays, a la Stating The Obvious. This evolved (or devolved) towards link lists and shorter thoughtpieces. These essays are getting a tad old, but have some good ideas.]
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July 30, 2001

So you go 50 yards past the Texaco station and turn left... Jodi, familiar with my newfound obsession with usability of maps, sent along a fabulous pointer to research at Stanford in Rendering Effective Route Maps. Really smart work that takes the cognitive psychology behind drawing and reading route maps, and derives from that algorithms for depicting clear, easy-to-use driving directions. What I find intriguing is how the model for successful route maps are the kind that people typically draw--heavily distorted depictions of highways and streets, shortening long segments and lengthening short ones, bending all turns into 90-degree angles.

This work is interesting in how, given this fairly well-understood task, "vernacular" cartography proves to be quite useful, definitely moreso than traditional methods. Which leads me to wonder, "Is there a 'vernacular' information architecture? How does it address the needs at hand?"
Posted at 10:30 PM PST [5 comments]

It's the late 80s/early 90s all over again. So, in the past few weeks, I have come into contact with a number of people I hadn't seen for around 10 years. They include:
- A guy I went to high school with. We were best friends in 10th and 11th grade, and then had a falling out. We used to geek out together big time, reading fantasy novels, playing with computers, making animated videos, etc. etc. He emailed me a few weeks ago out of the blue, and we've finally been able to have a phone chat and catch up. He, of course, rattled off a number of names I hadn't thought of in years.
- My first-semester college girlfriend, to whom I lost my virginity. We had reconnected via email a couple of years ago. She phoned me recently, in a work-related context. It turns out she went from being a math major to industrial engineering to human factors to usability and is now a "user experience consultant." How often is it the girl you first slept with ends up in the same newly-defined field as you?
- A girl who lived across the hall in my co-op junior year. She was eating at my neighborhood cafe. Looks pretty much the same after 10 years. I walked up to her and said, "Did you live in Cloyne Court?" She affirmed that she did, and we did the catch-up-on-whole-life-in-5-minutes thing. I had a crush on her back then, bolstered when she and her roommate threw me a spontaneous little birthday celebration (I have an 'early birthday', schoolyear-wise, and so it tended to not get celebrated with new school friends) in 1991. It was a sweet gesture that I've always remembered.

And now it's my turn. I just Googled a guy I hung out with lo those many years ago, found out he's been fabulously successful, and might now be living in the Bay Area. So I emailed him. We'll see.
Posted at 09:54 PM PST [9 comments]

July 24, 2001

Links to like. Skimming interesting talks at SIGGRAPH 2001, I'd cut and paste people's names in to Google to see if they had nifty stuff online. A couple of folks did.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin, a researcher at NYU, features, among other things, an essay titled Hypermedia, Eternal Life, and the Impermanence Agent, and another, linking and filtering, reading and writing: the library, the Web, Ted Nelson, and what's wrong with micropayment.

Henry Jenkins is faculty at the Media Lab, and on his site he talks about a frighteningly wide range of topics. I'm particularly intrigued (though haven't read) "This Fellow Keaton Seems to be the Whole Show": Buster Keaton, Interrupted Performance and the Vaudeville Aesthetic and other musings of his on film comedy.

And, outside of the SIGGRAPH world, but a still nifty link of late, is this essay on The Physics of the Web. Though much of the discussion is beyond my ken (blahblahtopologyblahblahgraphsblahblahPoissondistributions), the basic point is quite understandable--thanks to their evolutionary development, all significantly complex systems have underlying networks that resemble one another in interesting ways. The article points out how the connectedness of nodes on the internet resembles not only obvious analogs such as highways, but also social networks of people, and, remarkably, networks of biological cells.
Posted at 04:10 PM PST [1 comment]

July 22, 2001

Shameless self-promotion. What would be without big fat pointers to work I'm doing? Forthwith a series of conferences where I and my Adaptive Path colleagues will be presenting various user experience issues. Register as early as you can to benefit from lower registration fees.:

Web 2001 - September 4-8, San Francisco, CA
On September 4 and 5, the whole Adaptive Path team presents "The Complete User Experience Design", a two-day intensive covering well-nigh everything from project planning, user research, task analysis, information architecture, interaction design, documentation, and more.

User Interface 6 East - October 1-4, Cambridge, MA
On October 3rd, Jeffrey Veen and I present, "From Construct to Structure: Information Architecture from Mental Models." In this talk, we demonstrate our methodology for taking that mushy qualitative understanding of users, and visualize it in such a way as you can derive an information architecture from it. This is fairly heady stuff, though resolutely practical (we'll be discussing a method and sharing documentation you can take back to your office and start using), and ought to be worthwhile to practicing IAs. Also, Jeff and I will be giving a talk on Tuesday titled, "Patterns and Pathways: New Ways of Approach Site Design," where Jeff discusses his Lego-like approach to interface design, and I discuss what self-organizing systems portend for the future of IA. And at this conference, Jeff and I are the relative bush league--it features Ben Shneiderman, Kim Goodwin, Rolf Molich, Karen Holtzblatt, and many other leading lights.

InfoProducer 2001 - October 28-31, Orlando, FL
On October 28th, Jesse James Garrett and I will present "From Construct to Structure", as described above. On the 29th, I'll be presenting "Patterns and Pathways", this time solo. And Jesse will talk about "The Politics of Information Architecture." Though you've probably never heard of this conference (I hadn't before I was invited to it), it's actually got a good looking line up (with talks like "Storytelling in Information Architecture" and "Making the Invisible Visible: The Power of Visual Modeling"), and it's the least expensive of the three listed here. And it's in Orlando! Which means I'll get to go to Walt Disney World for the first time ever! I also plan a drive to Celebration.

Posted at 10:48 PM PST [4 comments]

July 20, 2001

Insert Coin. Last night I attended ArtCade (with, seemingly, no web presence) at SFMOMA, an exhibition and panel discussion on computer games and art. The exhibition aspect was pretty lame--a few old coinops (Breakout, Donkey Kong, Jr.), some 'artistic' computer games, and some shameless promotion for EA and UbiSoft, who underwrote the event. Of greater interest was the panel discussion, with Nolan Bushnell ("the father of the computer game"), Will Wright (creator of SimCity and The Sims and a very very very smart guy), Lev Manovich (slightly loopy Russian emigré professor of media studies at UCSD, author of The Language of New Media, which I believe I quite desperately want), and a photographer whose name escapes me and whose contributions were negligible at best.

Nolan gave the obligatory "history of video games" talk. Most interesting was that Pong was not technically a "computer game"--the machine wasn't a Von Neumann machine, as the microprocessor hadn't yet been invented; it instead used transistors to figure out the logic needed to play the game.

Lev's talk was delightfully manic and academic; the notes for it are here, and contain links to a number of interesting resources.

Will discussed a theory of psychological compression and decompression as a premise for his thoughts on audience engagement in art and computer games. He pointed out that, very generally, since the Renaissance fine art has moved from attempting to represent reality to further and further abstraction, and that, since the 70s, computer games have done the reverse. He contends that computer games are trying to represent reality too closely, not allowing the participant to feel as engaged in the play.

An interesting point that arose in the discussion was around what computer games could learn/borrow from contemporary art (touched on in Lev's notes under "Art and computer games: a one-way interaction"). The idea of having a computer game space utilize different visual styles to represent subjective states was a particularly nifty notion.

Issues around narrative weren't as well-addressed as I would have liked, but that was understandable given the time frame. Happily, just today I was reading blackbeltjones, and clicked a link to a new journal titled Game Studies, which starts off with two essays on stories in games...

Other deep-thought computer games links include Gamasutra, the library at Erasmatazz, and Eric Zimmerman's essays.

The bandwidth-laden might want to download the Pac Man Theme Techno Remix (supposedly by Orbital), a kick-ass piece of electronica happiness.
Posted at 04:25 PM PST [2 comments]

July 18, 2001

Is the L.A. Times America's Best Newspaper? Well, maybe, maybe not, but from my dad comes a bunch of links from the Los Angeles Times on a variety of topics of interest to peterme readers.

The Biology of Belief - author Vince Rause discusses the book he wrote with Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist with evidence that suggests humans are, to some extent, hard-wired for belief. Rause also wrote a brief companion piece, Your Brain. Your Brain on God. Any Questions?, which is hampered by the lack of illustrations on line.

The Disappearing Comic Book - another solemn state-of-the-comics industry report, though, remarkably, with no quotes from Scott! Shannon Wheeler, creator of Too Much Coffee Man, discusses his choice to turn the comic into a magazine, and how such an action might reflect on the maturation of the comic readers market.

Reviewers' 'A.I.' Also Stands for 'Aging, Irrelevant' -- Reading Entertainment Weekly a week or so ago (I always read EW on airplanes), I noted with some amazement how A.I. received, on average, higher marks from critics than from audiences (which pretty much never happens). This article attempts to explain why that is, how middle-aged critics, forced to wade through the dreck that is now Hollywood's output, are extremely forgiving to this rather obvious failure, for it at least *tries* provide some food for thought, that it has some weight in the ideas presented.

A.I. is a movie that I cannot recommend to others, but that has proven a remarkable topic of conversation, and that I don't at all regret having seen. When someone with such a seeming mastery of his craft (Spielberg) is given all the money he needs to make exactly the movie he wants, and turns out such a big honking mess, well, that's interesting. Because of it's narrative flaws, it's not really worth discussing from a story/plot point of view--such an effort gets stuck in quagmire. However, it's compelling to ruminate on the film-making that went on here, the decisions that were made, how this was obviously a very personal film for Spielberg, how Spielberg utterly lost his way (and seemingly his interest in the story) in the second act (Flesh Fair appears as a cheesy 70s bad-biker movie, and Rouge is less titillating than Broadway near Columbus in North Beach), and how in the final act, which was utterly bizarro, Spielberg was 'back in control,' interested in what he had to say, though saying some really odd stuff. I suppose A.I. has the conversational appeal of a train wreck, or juicy gossip.
Posted at 11:35 AM PST [3 comments]

July 16, 2001

A Current Look at San Francisco. Caleb John Clark has posted "Space Available", a photo essay of San Francisco after the Web boom. It's a pleasant rumination on the state of this city, told with much affection by a former resident.
Posted at 11:10 AM PST [2 comments]

July 15, 2001

Jodi, Jodi, Jodi. Spent this past weekend at the 4th Summit for the Advance for Design. Among the many people met were Jodi Forlizzi, an interaction designer teaching at Carnegie Mellon's HCI program. Her research page mentions a number of compelling projects, including a theory of user-product experience as it relates to interaction design, and designing interfaces to support human attention. She and I also talked about some research she's doing on car navigation systems, particular around maximizing the efficacy of maps.
Posted at 08:43 PM PST [2 comments]

July 10, 2001

Just What I Need--Another Blog To Read. I spent much of this morning clicking around Melanie Goux's Mel (I can call you, "Mel," right?) writes about design, aesthetics, branding, cognition, etc. etc., all kinds of stuff that peterme readers enjoy. Her latest post deals with simplicity and complexity in visual design, spurred by the success of the information-dense Fox News Channel (which I'm guessing is similar to Bloomberg in all the data whizzing around the screen), and followed up with pointers to Kaplan's Information Processing Model, attempting to situate our desire for complex visualization in an evolutionary context. It recalled an old post of mine on what I called "multi-channel information reception".

I'm wary of drawing too many parallels from Kaplan's understanding of how human's scan and understand landscapes and how we deal with textual information density. There might be something there, but my gut instinct is to tread warily--the leap is quite vast.

Brushstroke also features "Me, The Undersigned," a design manifesto of sorts from Jessica Helfand. I have a love/hate relationship with Helfand's writing--she's clearly a very intelligent design formalist with an engaging and revealing point of view... But she's also *such* a graphic designer, promoting the aesthetics of design above all else, never ever ever really taking into account how her audience uses that which is designed. Still and all, a provocative voice worth hearing.
Posted at 08:48 AM PST [0 comments]

July 8, 2001

Clicky-clicky fun! "Stop going on about branding!" I can hear the masses yell. Back in the day, I garnered readers through my links to interface design whizbang like Mr. Noodlebox and the Elastic Catalog. And now that I'm all being an internet executive 'n shit, I blather on about branding and organizational dynamics. So, now for all those Old-Skool peterme readers, here's a pointer to Touch Graph, a link browser that it's creator, Alex Shapiro, calls "InXight + The Brain." See for yourself. It's fun to play with...
Posted at 10:13 PM PST [3 comments]

July 4, 2001

Tsssssssssss. In his most recent essay, Tog, rightly, rails against the practice of "branding," worshipping instead at the altar of "usability." While Tog has his heart in the right place, I think he's giving the concept of 'brand' short shrift.

I used to be anti-"brand." I would comment that it ought to refer to nothing but searing cow hides. This was in response to the classic development of brand, through advertising, which was an attempt to deceive customers about a product by imbuing it with a set of qualities it didn't have. Coke doesn't "add life." The employees at McDonald's could care less about your facial expressions.

But, I recently turned a corner with brand. This was in part due to the writings of folks like Challis Hodge and Terry Swack, and their attempts at redefining brand to reflect on a person's experience with another entity. It was also due to the overwhelming acceptance of the word "brand" in business circles--I'm getting tired of attempts to constantly create new words and terms to describe what I'm doing; I'd rather leverage existing terminology if it helps people understand what I have to offer.

Now, the word "brand" has a variety of uses, but I find defining it at the outset isn't all that difficult, and is worthwhile in setting the stage. To me, brand simply means "a person's mental model of another entity." Brand happens. Nothing is not branded. An entity's brand might not be intentional, but it nonetheless exists. Brand is an emergent property, typically derived from a series of interactions a person has with that entity. This is why the practice of "branding" is foolish--it attempts to gloss over that series of interactions with meaningless messages. But the property of "brand" is worth paying attention to.

I found "brand" very useful as Creative Director at Epinions. Among my first tasks was having us get a new logo, and along with that we did some exercises to better define our brand. This process worked because the brand was a genuine expression and abstraction of the company's beliefs and ideals. We ended up with three core brand attributes--Informing, Passionate, and Transparent. I was able to use these attributes to ensure a coherent design--no decision was made that wasn't measured up to how it supported who we were as a company. It served a purpose similar to a mission statement.

It's easy for user-centered designers to easily dismiss brand as that thing those annoying MBAs in marketing go on about when they don't have anything to say, or, worse, when they're suggesting product or marketing direction that is anathema to the designers' understanding of the users' needs and desires. But brand is a property held in the user's head, not the marketers, and our discipline is the most suited to address it. Let's take this opportunity to go beyond our product-development bounds and increase our sphere of influence throughout our businesses.

(Oh, and the title of this piece is meant to be the sound of searing cow hide.)
Posted at 12:18 AM PST [18 comments]

July 1, 2001

You Say Interactive, I Say Industrial... Robert Reimann's "So You Want to Be an Interaction Designer," states:

Interaction Design is a design discipline dedicated to:

Defining the behavior of artifacts, environments, and systems (i.e., products)
…and therefore concerned with:

Defining the form of products as they relate to their behavior and use
Anticipating how the use of products will mediate human relationships and affect human understanding
Exploring the dialogue between products, people, and contexts (physical, cultural, historical)...
... and more, all of which made me think of Industrial Design, so I headed to the IDSA's website and read about "What is ID?", wherein you can pretty much replace the word "industrial" with "interaction" and it will all make sense.

Is "Interaction Design" an unnecessary artifact of obsessing over this box called a computer? Is it a component of industrial design? It surprises me how little attention industrial design gets in the interaction design/information architecture world, particularly considering that user-centered methods were developed there (Henry Dreyfuss, anyone? And don't forget, The Design of Everyday Things is about industrial design). Though, I'm also intrigued by the degree to which industrial designers seems to keep "interaction design" at arm's length, and don't get involved with the community.
Posted at 12:27 PM PST [7 comments]

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