SxSW: Ambient Findability

by Luke Wroblewski March 14, 2006

Peter Morville’s talk at SxSW2006 was half Information Architecture and its place in the user experience design process and half finding things in the future. Since most Functioning Form readers are familiar with Information Architecture, the following concepts stem from Peter’s vision of ambient findability.

  • Searching is a learning process – it keeps you a lifelong learner. Search is iterative & interactive so we need a systemic approach to solve the search problem.
  • Because we are always designing the legacy systems of tomorrow, we need to look ahead and understand what the future might look like.
  • Ambient findability is the ability to find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime.
  • Today, information is literally in the air. We’re searching books, blogs, the Web, and more. This really increases findability challenges.
  • “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” It’s harder to get the attention of customers. Instead of shouting louder (as marketers often suggest), we need ambient findability to enable people to pull information when they want vs. pushing it to them.
  • Trends: Alternate interfaces to digital networked information; location awareness on digital mobile devices; digital interfaces to physical world (Google Earth)
  • Privacy Issues: The transparent society -will technology force us to choose between privacy & freedom?
  • In a world of more bigger haystacks, how do we make bigger needles? How can we describe the "aboutness” of objects and information?
  • What won’t help: artificial intelligence; information visualization; or map-based information seeking.
  • What will help: librarians and their metadata and organizational systems!
  • Tagging & folksonomy provides fast changing, dynamic classification systems. These learnings need to be fed into longer term systems like traditional information hierarchies. Be careful not to throw the old out when discovering the new. "The old (hierarchy) creates a tree; the new (folksonomy) rakes leaves together". Leaves quickly rot and ultimately become a tree. Hierarchies & categories are even emerging in Flickr (clusters).
  • There are distinct layers that evolve and change at different rates. Nature, Culture, and Governance change slowly. Commerce, Technology, Fashion & Art change quickly.
  • Most large websites are still built with controlled vocabularies and hierarchies.
  • The future of findability: start all searching from one box but end up on very structured pages.

In summary, Peter reminded the audience to balance the old with the new. Technology is advancing so rapidly it makes your head spin. The brain is not changing that fast it needs anchor (roots) in the old.