Findability is Ambient: Interview with Peter Morville

Intelligence is moving to the edges, flowing through wireless devices, empowering individuals and distributed teams. Ideas spread like wildfire, and information is in the air, literally. And yet with this wealth of instantly accessible information, we still experience disorientation. We still wander off the map.

How do we make decisions in the information age? How do we know enough to ask the right questions? How do we find the best product, the right person, the data that makes a difference?

In Ambient Findability, Morville searches for the answers in the strange connections among social software, semantic webs, evolutionary psychology and interaction design. And, he explains how the journey from push to pull is changing not only the rules of marketing and design, but also the nature of authority and the destination of our culture.

Liz Danzico: Your most recent book is called Ambient Findability. Can you describe exactly what you mean by “findability” and why is it ambient?

Peter Morville: Ambient findability describes a world, at the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the Internet, in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime. It’s not necessarily a goal, and we’ll never quite reach the destination, but we’re sure as heck headed in the right direction.

Today, we can design for findability at both the system and object levels. In the context of the web, I encourage people who build websites to ask three questions:
1. Can people find your website?
2. Can they find their way around your website?
3. Can they find your content, products and services despite your website?

And so, the book spans the practical and the conceptual. If you’re a designer working on a website or any other physical or digital product, you can think about them as findable objects, and there are all sorts of ways we can go about making them more or less findable. But then there’s the big picture of “ambient findability” (this brave new world of ubiquitous computing that’s rushing upon us), and the book explores the cultural and societal impacts of that disruptive technology tsunami.

LD: In your book, you seem to refer to “findability” as a new concept that has occurred because of the internet. Wasn’t findability always present? Is it only our expectations for speed and access that have changed?

PM: I use the term findability to encompass wayfinding in natural environments, as well as navigation and retrieval in digital spaces. So, in the physical world, that aspect of findability has existed for eons. [In my book] I explore the skills that enable ants, birds, bees, sea turtles and humans to wander without getting lost.

What’s new is the use of technology, much of it coordinated through the web, to create trans-media wayfinding experiences. We’re importing huge volumes of data about the physical world into cyberspace, and at the same time, we’re designing all sorts of new interfaces to our digital networks–Google Earth, Smart Phones, Intelligent Toilets, Web on the Wall, GPS Watches, iPods–and the beat goes on. To borrow a term from Ted Nelson, physical and digital are increasingly “intertwingled.” We really are at a pivotal point where things are beginning to get weird.

LD: In a recent article, you talk about the changing nature of authority now that “everyone is in control.” Can you describe what this shift in control means for this audience?

PM: Growing up as a child, I had this single volume encyclopedia in my room. And when I had a question, my parents would say, “Go look it up.” There was this comforting sense that all the right answers were in there.

That sense of a single objective truth pervades our society and our K-12 educational system. There is this sense that “this is history” or “this is the news” and “it’s all true.” But in recent years, the web has radically expanded our access. We can now select our sources and choose our news. And in this era of Google, blogs, and the Wikipedia, we’re realizing there are many truths and many versions of the truth.

As individuals, we have to make our own decisions about what to believe and who to trust. One example in healthcare: when we were growing up, there was this sense that you trust your doctor. If they recommended a certain type of treatment, then you’d go ahead with it. And now, you’d have to be crazy to do that without doing some research of your own and making sure you feel comfortable with their opinion.

LD: In addition to changing medicine and healthcare, you seem to be suggesting improved findability might change the way we educate our children.

PM: I hope so. Education is typically government-funded. So the notion of reshaping the sources of authority is not going to go over very well in our K-12 system. What gives me optimism is that our kids are growing up with the web. And after school, they’re going to go home, Google a subject their teacher was talking about, and find different answers and versions of the truth. And they’ll take that back into school the next day and cause trouble.

With that kind of friction between what they’re being taught in the textbooks and what they’re finding on the web, students will learn to form their own opinion. They’ll be far more information-literate than their parents.

LD: How will increasing the findability of information affect our memories, either individually or collectively? We’re offloading so much information because of how findable it is. How will that affect how we need to account for that in our products going forward?

PM: There’s no question that the web and mobile devices like the Treo will serve as outboard memory. Why remember facts, figures, names and dates when they’re always instantly findable? But let’s not forget that there’s still so much to remember. We must remember our passwords, and where to look for things, and how to use tools, and what we believe, and who we trust. And our memories are continually created and recreated by a stream of experiences that are increasingly rich, complex, and intertwingled. So I’m not sure that our capacity for memory will change, but how we use that capacity will change.

And as with all technological advancement, there are tradeoffs and unforeseen consequences. You tend to have opposing religious camps—the techno-utopians who think it’s all good, and the luddites or doomsayers who think it’s all bad. I’m basically in the middle, though I do lean just a little towards the positive.

For instance, in a book like The Gutenberg Elegies that says how sad it is that our children aren’t learning to read like they used to, I think the author completely misses the upside. Our kids are learning to read, but they’re also developing a new media literacy that involves interaction and participatory design. I found the book Everything Bad is Good for You to be a wonderful counterpoint, arguing that video games and television and the web are making us smarter.

LD: I loved that demonstration of the sequential nature of a book.

PM: So, there is another example of a trend toward interaction design. A traditional book doesn’t lend itself to this kind of design, but when you start to break that book into hypertextual chunks and try to figure out all the different possible flows between those chunks, then design becomes a very important part of the equation.

LD: AIGA holds annual competitions in areas such as experience design, branding and illustration and so on. If it were up to you, would there be a “findability” segment? If so, what would the criteria for judging be?

PM: It’s important not to focus on any particular element to the exclusion of others. This is why I created the user experience honeycomb to say it’s not all about usability. And it’s not all about desirability. In the ‘90s there was the battle between the Jakob Nielsen usability-undesign camp and the desirability-attractiveness camp. We’re moving beyond that.

In the [honeycomb] diagram, I argue that our products should be useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible and credible. And on my projects, I have conversations with clients early on to discuss and prioritize these elements of the user experience. It’s rarely the case that any one of these qualities is unimportant. So I would never design a website with only findability in mind.

On the other hand, designers need to put findability on their radar—they play a very important role in influencing the findability of physical and digital products. And I don’t think enough designers are aware of or caring of that aspect. So in that sense, I’d love to have findability added to the competition.

Here’s a simple example: Last year, I was contacted by a small business owner in Italy. He’d spent some money to have a design firm build his website. A couple months later, even if he entered his company’s name into Google or Yahoo!, the results didn’t include his website. And he thought, “I paid all this money and my site isn’t findable. What’s going on? Why isn’t my site findable?” I visited his site, and it looked fine, but they had rendered all the text as images, which meant that people could read the words, but they were invisible to search engines. He wasn’t sophisticated enough to figure this out. And the designers were happy—they had their money. But they had created a totally unfindable solution.

LD: Are there ever reasons we should design information to be un-findable?

PM: Certainly there are systems that must be secure and accessible only to specific audiences. Design can play a role in security solutions. Whether or not we make things prominent can influence whether people even try to break into a system or a building. Beyond that, I’m not so sure it’s a design issue. These are decisions about privacy and freedom that we need to make as individuals and institutions. Of course, design can and does influence our awareness of and thinking about these issues.

LD: O’Reilly books often have an animal on the cover, and so your book has a lemur. Were you involved in choosing the animal?

PM: This summer, not long before the book was scheduled for printing, I got an email from my editor at O’Reilly saying, “We’ve decided to go with an animal book instead of a trade book; we think it’s going to do a lot better that way. And we’ve already got the designer working on a golden retriever for the cover.” Now don’t get me wrong. I love golden retrievers. But I did not want a golden retriever on my book. They said, “It’s a retriever, it helps you find things.” And I thought “How domestic and boring and cheesy can you get?” So, I exercised my veto power, and asked for something more exotic. A few days later they showed me the lemur. It was love at first sight.

LD: Can information be findable without being well-designed? And what do you mean when you say that “the user experience is out of control?”

PM: Yes, but information can’t be well-designed without being findable. And it’s this second case that will give designers the most headaches in coming years. The web has frustrated us to no end because we can’t control the exact look and feel across platforms. Designers have had to grapple with that lack of control. And now, things are about to get worse. The whole context of use is becoming unpredictable. Will our users be sitting at their desk or soaking in the bathtub or driving a car?

This is what I mean by “out of control.” We need to be thinking about all kinds of use cases and display devices, and sometimes this contextual complexity constrains the design. But this certainly doesn’t mean the end of design. To the contrary, never before have we lived in an environment that is so designed. We’re literally surrounded by designed objects and immersed in designed experiences.

The big trend is towards more design, but we must also relinquish control.