Ambient Findability, by Peter Morville
2005, O'Reilly. 188 pp.
ISBN 0596007655

Available in Germany (in English only) at Amazon

Review by James Kalbach

Forward-thinking technology experts predict the day when accessing information, communicating with others, and performing complex transactions will be performed as thoughtlessly as turning on a light switch. Information will ooze out of every corner of our lives. We'll be able to find anyone or anything from anywhere at any time.

Or will we?

If new technologies don't account for human behaviors and needs, they may not succeed. Or worse, they may bring even more chaos in our already overloaded lives. Complete digital navigability can only happen if people are actual able to navigate the information spaces we create.

Peter Morville's latest book, Ambient Findability, is eye-opener into the perils and potential of ubiquitous connectivity. The book's central thesis is that information literacy, information architecture, and usability are all critical components of this new world order.

Morville invented the word "findability," which he defines it as follows:
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

While the word "findability" may have a great deal of "buzzability" in English, its connotation certainly makes sense. For instance, it already exists in German: "Auffindbarkeit," which has essentially the same meanings. "Usability" is a neologism, so why not have the concept of "findability?" I'm all for it. But be warned: there are lots of other trendy catchphrases in this book.

Chapter 1 "Lost and Found" - The book begins with the big picture on findability. While focusing on finding information on the web in particular, Morville expands far beyond that. Indeed, findability is about locating the anything we seek, not just information.

Morville also couches pro-findability arguments within a business context. He reminds us that "in a world where it's getting harder to reach consumers, shouldn't businesses make it easier for consumers to reach them? Yet, when it comes to findability, most business web sites have major problems." Right on. You can't buy something you can't find.

Keywords are a chief problem in today's information age. "In physical environments, size, shape, color, and location set objects apart. In the digital realm, we rely heavily on words. Words as labels. Words as links. Keywords."

Chapter 2 "A Brief History of Wayfinding" - This chapter is particularly educational. From African ants to navigating around a city, Morville exposes some of the fundamental strategies in wayfinding. Triangulation is a key concept here: "It's the sophisticated combination of strategies that allows for error correction and ultimate wayfinding success."

I find this notion particularly revealing, but does it apply to navigating information spaces? Probably so, I believe. Through genre, shape, metaphor and visualization, we give information multiple navigation dimensions.

Chapter 3 "Information Interaction" - Morville covers two important principles in information science: 1.) Moore's law - technology accelerates exponentially and we will be increasingly overwhelmed with information, and 2.) Mooer's law: people will not use an information system if it is more painful and troublesome to have the information than to not have it. Therefore, "we cannot assume people will want our information, even if we know they need our information."

Language is messy. Words can be imprecise, ambiguous, indeterminate, and vague. Controlled languages can help manage this and describe the aboutness of documents and content. Further, psychological dimensions of information seeking are also unpredictable. It's therefore critical to understand how people interact with information when designing an information system.

Chapter 4 "Intertwingled" - Findability is becoming more urgent as our environment becomes more complex, with information about the real world being imported into cyberspace. RFID, GPS, and the geospatial web: the convergence of systems creates new challenges in findability.

Chapter 5 "Push and Pull" - This finally starts getting into the "ambient" parts of findability. Ideally, we want to increase our signal-to-noise ratio to pull what we need, while reducing the push of unwanted messages and experiences. Ultimately, through devices and techniques such as personalization, we won't find information: it will find us.

Chapter 6 "The Sociosemantic Web" - This chapter puts findability in a social context. After all, information does have a social life. Morville is critical of social classification, but ultimately a supporter. He realizes that "ontologies, taxonomies, and folksonomies are not mutually exclusive." Whew. Finally,"our ability to make information decisions will depend on how we allocate attention and trust, how we define authority, and how we employ metaphor."

Chapter 7 "Inspired Decisions" - Morville concludes with look toward the future. How will we make decisions in an information-overloaded world? One thing is for sure: we'll have to find new and better ways to deal with information on all sides of the equation. And the systems we design need take real human behavior into account, such as the fact that people satisfice or behave erratically. "Findability is at the center of a fundamental shift in the way we define authority, allocate trust, make decisions and learn independently."

This is a very well-written book that reads like a novel. I was turning the pages waiting to see what will happen next. Take the author's advice: don't skip around. Read the book from beginning to end. At times it's simply mesmerizing.

But it's not necessarily light reading, and non-native English speakers might have difficulty with some of the references. The heavy use of jargon doesn't help either. For the most part, though, Morville writes direct and from the heart.

This is not a "how to" book. Don't expect the same hands-on, practicability found in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. In fact, you may be left with more questions than answers. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Though Ambient Findabilty probably won't help you at work the next day, it will stir your creativity.

The book is well researched and supported. Interestingly, Morville cites free, online resources more than not, including blog entries and Wikipedia. Does Wikipedia have the same authority as a printed source of similar format? Maybe more so? Tip: read this article on authority, also from Morville.

The overall argument in Ambient Findability puts common design problems in a broad, forward-looking context. It looks beyond any single discipline, such as librarianship, information science, IA, and even experience design. Yes, Morville mostly relies on existing ideas, but he artfully weaves them together into a new thesis. Therein lies the innovation and value of this book. It's definitely worth a read. Find it now.

Further reading on the web:
"Ambient Findability: Talking with Peter Morville," Interview on Boxes and Arrows

"Ambient Findability" an article Morville wrote for Digital Web Magazine

The first chapter of Ambient Findability, free from O'Reilly


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