Category Archives: Information architecture

Information Architecture for the digital-physical world

Day 2 of the Electronic Resources and Libraries Conference is over and I am still finishing the second part of yesterdays blog post! Oh well, there are a few distractions in Austin after the conference that get in the way of sitting in a hotel typing away on a computer.

I want to follow on from yesterdays blog post with the seven points Andrea concluded his presentation with. For want of a better word, he used “manifesto” to box the following seven points:

1. Information architecture becomes an ecosystem – all of the information artifacts no longer stand alone. They are all part of the single user experience and need to be acknowledged as such.

2. Users become intermediaries – users produce and re-mediate content. [In content management circles this idea has been around a while]. Andrea cited the example of Rosenfeld Media with its range of user experiences.

3. static becomes dynamic – information and content acquisition really never gets finished. There is always something more. Content is always changing and being reconstituted in different ways. The example of a dynamic information example is Wikipedia.

4. dynamic becomes hybrid – boundaries are separating media; there are thinner channels and genre. The example given in the presentation was the Hitachi 2400 windshield that could display a bevvy of information on the screen as you drove along! For example, the logo for a company might pop up to alert you to the fact that a XYZ fast food joint was coming up. I am sure there are probably more worthwhile pieces of information that could be presented but I’ll need to see if digital placement of information on the windscreen is the way to go.

5.horizontal prevails over vertical – intermediaries push for more informal structures and meaning; push for spontaneity and ephemeral meaning. Tagging was the example given.

6. products become experiences – from single object to a wider experience. Experience spans multiple steps for the user experience. [I think that recognition of the customer experience has been around a while among companies and marketeers (love that US expression) for a while as they attempt to differentiate their products – objects – from competitors.]

7. experiences become cross channel experiences – no longer tied to the one artifact and experiences span across channels. The great example used was for selling teddy bears! Build-a-bear not only allows you to create your own teddy bear (thereby outdoing the boring standard teddy bear and associated fluffy pals), you can also enter a digital world and play with other kids and teddy bears there as well. Your teddy bear has a unique bar code and you can give it a name. You can go to Bearaville and play, as an avatar with your bear who is “alive and playing as well”. Whoa – life couldn’t be so good!

Ultimately, Andrea concludes, the information architecture experience needs to account for a vary range of experiences useing cross channels and taking advantage of the integration between our physical space and our digital space.

Within the library context, we need to be aware that information silos may not hold the answers as they once did. We need to look at what channels of information we can use to help our users/clients/patrons get the outcome they want – to find the information they need.

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Electronic Resources and Libraries Conference 2012

It’s a beautiful time in Austin, Texas. The weather is warm to hot and the music is loud and proud. But I am in Austin for the  Electronic Resources and Libraries Conference. I attended this conference last year and I am pleased to be back again.

I’ll start my conference report with the morning session today (the first day) of the Electronic Resources and Libraries Conference. I will have to post another instalment for the after lunch sessions. By the way, I had lunch at the wonderful Blanton Museum down the road from the conference venue. The morning was both interesting and satisfying.

I will focus on the keynote since this was the presentation that had the most relevance and interest to me and my workplace. The keynote was delivered by Andrea Resmini currently working in Sweden. The title of his presentation was “Between physical and digital: understanding cross channel experiences”.

Andrea opened up with a story based on the Umberto Eco novel (and subsequent movie) The name of the rose. He focused on the labyrinthine library and the differences between the description and map of the library in the book and in the movie. The purpose of the story was to illustrate how important meaning is in understanding complex environments; and secondly, that we need to be able to understand how different media affect people’s experiences. Thus, is there really a meaningful difference between the physical reality of the library or information centre and that of the virtual library?

Taking some inspiration from William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer, Andrea explains that cyberspace is not a place to go to, it is a layer tightly integrated into the world around us. And as such, there are cross channels that enable information to be delivered, exchanged, and received to suit the needs of individuals and the contexts in which they find themselves. Cross channels may be expressed this way: “Cross-channel is not about technology, or marketing, nor it is limited to media-related experiences: it’s a systemic change in the way we experience reality. The more the physical and the digital become intertwined, the more designing successful cross-channel user experiences becomes crucial”. A full explanation, from which this quote was taken, can be found here.

The point of course is that libraries can no longer think of themselves as a set of discrete multiple actions, or silos,  (e.g. circulation desk, catalogue, web site etc.) but as facilitator for the provision of information in different ways to meet the needs of clients/users/students and the way in which they want to access and consume information. This of course involves the virtual library.

More generally, all of us are not staying within one channel all of the time. We move between them, depending on what it is we need them to do. And we would like all the digital pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to fit and work together.

I will return in my next post to continue what Andrea went on to say, outlining his seven point “manifesto” about information architecture, the user experience, and cross channel experiences.

But to finish this post, I want to give some further reading. Andrea mentioned the book “Pervasive Information Architecture” and I will be chasing that up when I return home later in the week.

 

On web content publishing

The World Wide Web is an amazing place.  There are literally billions of pages of web sites and documents out there to be found.  And of those billions, if not trillions, of web pages and documents out there, only a miniscule proportion of that content will be of any use to you.  That’s because the content is unbounded – anyone can put up a web page or a document onto the World Wide Web.

But intranets are different.  An intranet is a bounded web environment, usually within an organisational context.  The intranet is a major information and communication platform for an organisation.  As such, an intranet needs to be considered as a significant organisational resource and treated with a great deal of respect.

Respected web content expert, Gerry McGovern, writes about information content and information quality on the intranet: ” [look at] the web ‘management’ approach called distributed publishing. The theory was: buy the tool, train people to use it and watch them go. What happened? Each division or department that the publishing tool was distributed to sought to publish to the website with the absolute minimum resource input. If ever there was a disastrous non-strategy it is distributed publishing. It led to website junkyards full of vanity publishing and out of date garbage … We need to seriously raise the standard. Anybody can put up a document. It requires precious little skill to write boring, vain, unreadable, organization-centric content”.

Writing and publishing for an organisation’s intranet requires a number of important skills – skills that cannot be obtained by a quick one hour lesson in uploading documents into a content management system!  The decentralised approach has generally failed because these skills have not been developed in the administrators responsible for the content decisions and content uploads of their intranet.  Moreover, little training or advice has been provided to these people about the difference between web content and print content publishing – there is a big difference!

A centralised and specialised intranet/internet publishing team is probably the best way to go to ensure quality and effective control over content.  However, there is a problem here.  A centralised web team is often removed from the important happenings within the organisation that warrant good content publishing.  And given the small size of many intranet teams, they don’t have the time to search and edit and publish the content themselves.  They do rely on content generation from outside the intranet team.  There is thus a potential schism between content and control. 

And of course, there is also some cost cutting thinking from senior management in having a small intranet team and relying on decentralised intranet content administrators.  This is usually the result of senior management having no idea about intranet content and intrant publishing, and certainly a lack of respect to what an intranet can do for the organisation.

One practical option is to provide decentralised administrators with proper training (or even at the recruitment stage) about web content management and web publishing.  The administrators need to be part of the intranet “team” and they need to know that web content publishing is about solving problems for people within the organisation; not boosting egos.  The decentralised system can work if there is sufficient effort put into recruitment, training and ongoing support for these people about web content management.  This is actually no different to what should happen throughout the organisation to ensure quality and effective workforce participation.

On knowing the customer and what they want

It always amazes me that some internet sites are not really set up to serve the needs of the customer.  You see examples of it time and time again.  As many readers will know, I am a big fan of Gerry McGovern and Mark Hurst, both of whom extol the common sense line that the customer experience is all important and should be uppermost in the mind of any selling organisation.

One of the first maxims of internet or intranet design is to know your customer and what your customer comes to your website to do.  People are busy, and in the majority of cases, go on the internet to do something; find some specific information; complete a task.  Sure, there is serendipitous search but website design is not about focusing on the per chance customer; internet design should be about identifying your customers and servicing their needs. 

Let’s take an example – I am going to another city for work or for a holiday and I need a hotel.  What is the information that is most important to me – the customer? 

– the address and service offerings of the hotel
– price (including any discounts or specials)
– availability
– reservations
– maybe booking and cancellation policy for the more detail-oriented patrons among us.

Now, do you think people search for hotels based on price or do you decide upon the place first?  Price is nice, but people want a hotel in a specific place.  Choose the place and then check out the prices. 

So when I went to check out the IBIS hotel (I am an A-club member) in Christchurch, New Zealand, I found this IBIS hotel site.  You will see that the site gives the address and contact details, provides information on the service offerings of the hotel, and allows online bookings and reservations.  This is all good standard stuff.

But what about that header at the top of the page, especially the one titled IBIS special offers.  Naturally, before I check out the price and availability of the hotel I am looking at booking in Christchurch I want to see what special offers might be available.  Well, what you actually get is the global IBIS special offers page with great deals for IBIS hotels in ….. Bregenz, Austria; Marrakech, Morocco; Basle, Switzerland, and Toulouse, France, etc.  There are also major cities to explore …. but not Christchurch.

Please tell me, why would I want to know what special offers are available in Toulouse and Bregenz when I am going to Christchurch?  Why is there a link to these European special offers from the Christchurch IBIS Hotel page?

Well, the answer is that the Christchurch page is a page (a local page) on the global IBIS Hotel internet platform.  The header information at the top of the page is the global banner across all the IBIS Hotel pages, from Christchurch to Marrakech. The banner bears no relation to the local hotel page other than for IBIS Hotels to tell you stuff that you don’t need to know; stuff IBIS Hotels obviously thinks is grand news!

The obvious point is that if you are offering special offers on the Christchurch IBIS hotel page then give me the special offers for the Christchurch IBIS Hotel – that is where I want to go and that’s why I am looking at the IBIS Hotel Christchurch internet page!

The message is: design the web page for the particular customer that you need to service.  Do not design a web page for the ease and ego of the organisation.

On open government

This evening I discovered the text of a speech by UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown on working smarter in government (i.e. the civil service).  Now working smarter, and leveraging what organisation’s already do more effectively,  are at the heart of good knowledge management.  The speech is much broader than simply having the civil service become more efficient – Brown outlines a vision for open government and engagement with the citizenry.  Interestingly, what Brown says about government and public engagement sounds very similar to the sentiments expressed in the Engage Report that I blogged about in my previous blog post.

In particular, Brown says: “We will ensure that people can get access to the information they need to engage in dialogue with public service professionals; and in doing so reduce bureaucratic burdens. This will drive improvements in public services, making them more personal and cost-effective, whilst at the same time strengthening democratic deliberation and giving frontline workers and voluntary organisations the freedom to innovate and respond to new demands in new ways. We are determined to be among the first governments in the world to open up public information in a way that is far more accessible to the general public … In this way people will no longer be passive recipients of services but, through dialogue and engagement, active participants – shaping, controlling and determining what is best for them.”

I applaud the sentiments expressed in this speech by Gordon Brown.  Similarly, the Engage Report in Australia says: “Engagement is the central theme of this report. It deals with the connection of people to information so that knowledge assets can be re-used to create new and often unexpected value. It deals as well with the growing opportunities for more effective collaboration with citizens in different dimensions of government – policy development, regulatory reform, program and service design”.

Yet I still have that nagging concern that public-government engagement is not what it appears.  Sure, I understand the desire to publish government content (in greater volume no doubt, but hopefully in a form that is of most value to the public).  I applaud the use of web 2.0 tools to facilitate some form of public feedback or dialogue.  I certainly understand the view that the public has a right to be informed and that government needs to become more accountable.  These are all good things and are very big steps for government to be actively pursuing.  Yet, how much of all of this is just an enormous content dump, and how much of it will be real engagement – engagement where citizens actively become involved with the workings and decsions of government departments and agencies?

Web 2.0 requires a different way of thinking.  There is more emphasis on distributed intelligence and networks rather than centralised control systems and fixed hierarchies.  Web 2.0 is not about control, but more interested in the dialogue and “the conversation”. Web 2.0 tools and applications are interactive and immediate.  And most importantly, web 2.0 thinking is the thinking of the new world environment of the 21st century so there is no excuse not to partake of the best that web 2.0 can offer.  It’s simply evolutionary organisational dynamics.

Brown in his speech goes on to say: “But if the purpose of our reforms is not only to be more efficient, but to meet future challenges and re-engineer our public services from good to great, Whitehall has to let go – and empower staff and the public to shape provision in meeting local needs and priorities” (my bold and italics).  This cultural change will not be easy.  The same issue was identified in Australia in the Engage Report – that there is a strong cultural and operational tendency within government to withhold information.  There are many reasons, some of which are spurious and others that have some legitimacy. Traditional control-based organisations in government will need to change if open government is to become a reality. But there are realistic concerns around privacy, political risk, and copyright – challenges all of which can be overcome I must say.

The challenge for open government and increasing citizen engagement with government is not the web 2.0 tools which are readily available.  The challenge is how to foster a culture of openness and collaboration in government agencies.  In addition, there may be significant resource issues around content management and web sites, records management systems, information management, and knowledge management.  The classic organisational problem, “we don’t know what we don’t know”, is no longer now just a knowledge management problem; it’s now a government-wide problem that must be overcome before open government can be effective.  However, the fundamental success factor for open government will be people-based – trust and organisational culture being pivotal.

The vision for open government espoused by UK PM Gordon Brown and in the Engage Report for Australia are commendable.  They are optimistic and challenging.  But they also offer opportunities for knowledge management to become a significant and active stakeholder in the way in which open government might unfold.  I certainly hope so.

On engaging government with web 2.0

The draft report Engage: getting on with government 2.0 has just been released.  The report is 159 pages long so it’s a fairly hefty piece of work looking at how government can better engage with the Australian public.

The sentiments within the report are good.  Open government is a nice idea but it remains to be seen whether open means “just ajar” or whether the door is really left open.  I am still to see how open government works within a political system that is essentially both protective of information and adversarial politically.  Perhaps there are some lessons from the UK government experience.  From what I hear, open government over there has caused a massive tsunami of useless information being made available at considerable expense.

Engagement is a nice idea too.  Government needs to better hear from, and collaborate with, the public.  There needs to be improved transparency and a more informed conversation between the public and government.  Online engagement will certainly be assisted if Australia ever manages to get a decent and affordable  telecommunications system.  The great Australian broadband initiative is still to come online.

One key message is for better engagement between the public and public servants. However, I sense from the report that what this engagement really means is that government departments increase information on websites to gargantuan proportions and, somehow, this plethora of “government information” is actually what people want.  Using my content management experience, I can tell you that what people use the internet for is to complete a particular task, or find out some information to complete a task, not just a casual trawl through government documents for the fun of it!

The report does talk about the web 2.0 tools and suggests that they can be used to facilitate greater engagement and interaction between the public and government.  The trouble is, for these tools to be effective they have to be placed within an information architecture and organisational culture that is not currently the norm, and in some cases completely opposed to openness and innovation.  Such conservative long-held public service cultural norms will not easily be dismantled and this will certainly limit the effectiveness of web 2.0 tools.  The tools won’t be the problem, but the operational architecture and hierarchical workforce structure of government will be inhibitors.

The online engagement strategy using public servants is also interesting.  I think this aspect will involve some major organisational cultural shifts, especially at senior levels of the public service.  Engaging online with public servants  has some pretty important ramifications. 

To start with, public servants work for the Minister first and the workplace culture is still one of protectiveness rather than openness. I’d love to see a truly open and innovative public service but I am not confident that one will emerge quickly enough to really make true public engagement count.  The notion of a public service that offers fearless and frank advice, let alone responds that way to the public, remains elusive in the current Australian political domain.

Furthermore,  there needs to be better funding of public servant agencies to allow people to allocate time to engage and respond to the public.  It’s all very well to say that government information is a public resource, but it’s people in the public service who have to find the time to provide appropriate information, and actually find and deliver the necessary information.  One only has to experience the intricacies of obtaining assistance through Centrelink, Veterans Affairs, and Health to know how difficult and time-consuming obtaining the right information can be.

There is likely to be a significant resource issue here since the technology alone will not be sufficient to really provide true levels of public-government engagement.  Perhaps the web 2.0 technologies, and some traditional web 1.0 technologies, will help governments provide a platform for engagement.  But these are only platforms.  This is why I fear that government websites will become massive dumping grounds for information rather than true portals of public-government engagement.  Plonk a trillion words and documents on a website and bingo – engagement!  It really doesn’t sound like a pathway for successful engagement to me.

There is also the issue about understanding what is required and who has the ability and capacity to find it.  As any librarian knows, the “reference interview” is sometimes difficult in any one-to-one encounter, let alone online.  In many public service agencies, these type of informal information requests come to a “library” or some “library-like function” because libraries are traditionally staffed by people whose experience is understanding the reference question and finding the resources best suited in answering the question.  Unfortunately, there is a perception in some quarters that libraries are not needed, or are not key players, within government departments.  Oddly, there are no additional resources elsewhere in government departments to undertake this kind of work, let alone by people skilled in finding, reviewing, and making quality judgements on.  Once again, I fear engagement only goes as far as a website crammed to the gunwales with information….and then sinking slowly under the weight.  Still, there might be opportunities for content managers and librarians in this area of government engagement.

The draft report also makes recommendations about privacy, security, and the “Commonwealth Record”.  Well folks, I gotta say, that many government agencies don’t have a complete understanding or proper record of the historical and current information within its own walls.  Unless there is significant investment in electronic document and records management, there can be no guarantee that government  information will be input onto a database within the organisation, let alone found and made available at the appropriate level of security and with accurate version control.  Records management and knowledge management need far greater attention in government than is currently the case.

I truly hope that the Australian government is open to many of the recommendations in the report, especially the important issues of openness and citizen engagement.  The job won’t be easy but I can say with confidence that there are plenty of information professionals – librarians, content managers, information architects, knowledge managers, records managers, information specialists, and web editors – that are keen to make the report’s message a reality if only government would give them the responsibility, the authority and resources to make it actually happen.

On advertising and web 2.0 for knowledge management

Just received my latest UTS Alumni email newsletter.  I completed two postgraduate degrees from UTS.   I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the The Fred Hollows Foundation won the world’s best not-for-profit television advertisement at the International Fundraising Congress in the Netherlands.  Readers may recall that I did a nine month contract with The Fred Hollows Foundation before coming to AusAID earlier this year.

The full excerpt from the UTS alumni newsletter is here:

Fred Hollows’ ad voted best in the world

An advertisement featuring the late Professor Fred Hollows has been named the world’s best not-for-profit television ad at the International Fundraising Congress in the Netherlands. Heading up the advertising campaign was BA Communication (Hons) graduate Joe Boughton-Dent, The Fred Hollows Foundation’s Communications and Community Engagement Manager.

“The 90-second advertisement started out as a YouTube clip… It got a great response and was viewed over 50,000 times, so we knew people were interested in Fred and what he achieved,” says Boughton-Dent.

“People really respond to a positive message that one person can have a real impact,” he says. “This award shows that Fred Hollow’s message is as powerful today as it was when he passed away in 1993.”

The other finalists in the best not-for-profit advertising category included Action Aid, RSPCA and Operation Smile.

The award-winning Fred Hollows ad has been aired on Australian television since June this year. To view it, [visit the clip on] YouTube.”

The knowledge management take from this success is that YouTube clips can make a difference. I firmly believe that such clips are an excellent way of getting important organisational messages and information across, whether internal or external to an organisation.

There really is no excuse for organisations NOT to consider YouTube and other web 2.0 technologies as a legitimate part of the knowledge management and communication armoury. Importantly, web 2.0 technologies like YouTube and audio podcasts should be key considerations for effective knowledge and information management within an organisation’s strategic and functional  information architecture.