October 7, 2005
Peter Morville’s Ambient Findability
In a 2002 Boxes and Arrows essay, “The Age of Findability”, Morville suggested:
We [information architects] yearn to escape our boxes and follow the arrows.
For me, findability delivers this freedom. It doesn’t replace information architecture. And it’s really not a school or brand of information architecture. Findability is about recognizing that we live in a multi-dimensional world, and deciding to explore new facets that cut across traditional boundaries.
Findability isn’t limited to content. Nor is it limited to the Web. Findability is about designing systems that help people find what they need.
In Ambient Findability he defines “findability” as follows:
- n. a. The quality of being locatable or navigable. b. The degree to which a particular object is easy to discover or locate. c. The degree to which a system or environment supports navigation and retrieval.
Findability covers all aspects of people interacting with information. It comes into focus as the relatively uniform concept of a “website” dissolves and digital information takes the form of RSS feeds, podcasts, SMS messages, GPS coordinates, RFID tags, and who knows what. More people are accessing more types of information with a growing variety of devices: not only web browsers, and not only PCs.
Ambient Findability provides a history of physical wayfinding, describes the current state of ambient information and ubiquitous computing, examines how individuals react to the crush of information, demonstrates how businesses must adapt to pull in customers, and looks at how software has become social. In general, it does a good job of tying together dozens of forward-thinking memes, and various underlying theories using the concepts of locating and navigating. It paints a clear picture of where we’re at and suggests that findability is what we will need to get us where we’re headed.
Additionally, the book acts as a map, capable of guiding the interested reader to the excellent references in its footnotes. (Old-fashioned findability in action.) A few examples:
- Pirolli & Card (1995) Information Foraging in Information Access Environments
- Berners-Lee, Hendler, & Lassila (2001) The Semantic Web vs. Weinberger (2002) and Shirky (2003)
- Bowker & Star (1999) Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences
- Maglio & Matlock (1998) Metaphors We Surf the Web By [PDF]
I’m hoping a second edition (or second volume) will follow quickly and be similar to the revised Polar Bear book in adding a great deal of practical application of the concepts.
A List Apart has published an additional excerpt from Ambient Findability.