Lucy and I recently enjoyed attending this year's EuroIA summit in Berlin - where nearly 200 Information Architects from all over Europe discussed the theme of "Building our Practice". The focus therefore was very much on tools, processes and techniques.
The keynote speech was delivered by Peter Morville, co-author of "The Polar Bear book", the classic text for all matters IA-related. It was only after reading the first edition of this book in 1998 that I realised that I was an IA - at last I had a job title! Morville stressed the continuing importance of search given that the search results page is typically the second most commonly used page on a site. Search is usually an iterative process, which is where good information architecture and a well-designed user interface should support the user's next steps in their information-seeking behaviour. This focus on search ties in with Morville's concept of Findability:"the quality of being locatable or navigable", the subject of his second well-written and thought-provoking book "Ambient Findability" Findability applies to physical objects as much as electronic data, and Morville gave an interesting real-life example of how a US hospital is using a wireless tracking device to locate misplaced wheelchairs: "A quick glance at the screen shows exactly where the tagged wheelchairs are located...Patients wait no more than a few minutes for a wheelchair, and we save $28,000 a month by eliminating searches". Morville's presentation can be found at http://www.semanticstudios.com/euroia.ppt.
However, findability does not exist in isolation: we rely on physical devices to act as the intermediary between us and information. Non-PC devices are on the increase (phones, PDAs etc) - and information needs to be adapted accordingly. The importance of this was demonstrated by Bogo Vatovec's mobile phone browser study to test how easily users could complete simple tasks such as purchasing a DVD on Amazon.com using eight content adaptation solutions (a technique whereby the content of the Web pages is transformed by changing the page layout, image sizes, navigational structure and removing code to make the page readable by a mobile browser). The results showed that in many cases it was impossible to complete the tasks and at best it was a very arduous process for the user - context is lost, information is lost, the ability to navigate is lost, and the systems keep crashing. Opera Mini (an installable browser that filters the website content through a special server) emerged as the leader for making web-based content comprehensible for a mobile audience, but even so it still took 65 clicks to purchase a DVD on Amazon - the worst example took 442 clicks!
This is a problem given that there are more browsers on phones in the world than on personal computers, as Steven Pemberton noted in his Closing Plenary. He has been working with the W3C to address the issues of producing markup languages that meet the needs of modern web content. Two examples of this work include XHTML2 ("which layers semantics in the same way that presentation is layered in CSS") and XForms (the next generation of Web forms). These new standards:
- Are independent of device, thereby avoiding the need to re-author a site for each type of device that is likely to use it. For example, Pemberton described how Oracle created a demo to show how the same pizza ordering form can be applied to a variety of front ends - web, phone, IM, mobile etc.
- Are accessible: X-Forms is "accessible out of the box". As Pemberton reminded us, we will all still want to use the Web when we are eighty.
As Information Architects, we look forward to seeing how these new standards translate into improved user experiences.