The Age of Findability

The 3rd Annual Information Architecture Summit in Baltimore compelled my first visit to the new, state-of-the-art terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

As I approached the airport on a cold March morning, perhaps I should have been excited. After all, the $1.2 billion Northwest World Gateway was billed as the terminal of the future. According to Northwest Airlines, I was about to have “one of the world’s greatest travel experiences.”

But in reality, I felt dread. I was late for my flight and desperately needed a restroom and a cup of coffee in exactly that order. What I didn’t need was the challenge of finding my way in a new airport.

After circumnavigating “the largest single parking structure in the world ever built at one time” three times, in search of long-term parking, I finally broke down, asked a security guard, and was told the signs for international parking actually lead to long-term parking. Of course!

Several circles of hell later, freshly sprung from the airport security checkpoint and a full-body pat down, I emerged into the spectacular center of Concourse A. High-arched ceilings soared above. Luxury retail stores lined the hall. Straight ahead, a black granite elliptical water fountain fired choreographed, illuminated streams of water, “representing the connections made via global travel.”

Unfortunately, what I couldn’t find was a sign pointing to one of the 475 public restroom stalls inside this 2-million square-foot complex. To cut a long and painful story short, I was 30,000 feet in the air before I finally got my cup of coffee.

Name that Pain

Jakob Nielsen might say this airport has usability problems. Conduct a heuristic evaluation, run a few user tests, fix the worst blunders, and you’re on your way. That’s the great thing about usability. It applies to everything. Websites, software, cameras, fishing rods and airports. It’s one hell of a powerful word.

Lou Rosenfeld might say this airport has information architecture problems. But he probably wouldn’t. While maps and signs fit comfortably into the domain of information architecture, it’s a stretch to include the structural design of an airport terminal or the solicitation of feedback from frustrated travelers. Like it or not, information architecture has boundaries. Unfortunately, our clumsy two-word label isn’t quite as flexible as Jakob’s.

That’s why I say this airport has findability problems. The difficultly I had finding my way dominated all other aspects of the experience. Like usability, findability applies broadly across all sorts of physical and virtual environments. And, perhaps most important, it’s only one word!

Post-Hum(or)ous Self-Definition

At Argus Associates, we built a consulting firm that specialized in “information architecture” and we wrote a book to explain and explore the topic.

In the past year, our company has been post-hum(or)ously accused of practicing “Content IA,” a pejorative label that bothers me.

It’s absolutely true that we Argonauts brought the strengths and biases of library science to the IA table. And, we certainly focused more on organizing sites with massive amounts of content than on designing task and process flows for online applications.

However, this focus was indicative, not of a love for content, but of a passion for designing systems that help people find what they need.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t declare this passion too openly, because in the 1990s most customers weren’t buying “findability.”

At first, they focused on image and technology. Remember the early days of glossy brochure web sites and hyperactive Java applications? Later, they learned to ask for usability, scalability and manageability. They had felt some pain, but not enough.

In order to create a big tent, we sold “information architecture,” striking a delicate balance between our clients’ needs and wants. But all along, we maintained a deep conviction that, in the long run, the most important and challenging aspect of our work would involve enabling people to find stuff.

So, if you want to label the Argus brand of information architecture, rather than calling it Argus IA or Content IA or Polar Bear IA, I humbly suggest that you call it Findability IA. Or else!

Arrows over Boxes

True to form, I’ve always resisted attempts to canonically define information architecture. In an emerging field, the last thing you want to do is prematurely place its identity inside a box, or should I say coffin?

However, information architecture is entering a new stage of maturity. IA roles and responsibilities are firming up. The IA community is taking shape. While we insiders argue over the minutia, a de facto definition of information architecture has emerged and reached critical mass. There’s no going back.

On one level, this is wonderfully exciting. For many of us who labored in obscurity in the early 1990s, this is validation that our vision of the future wasn’t completely crazy.

But this is also frightening. With maturity comes rigidity. We’re finding ourselves trapped inside boxes of our own making. And those arrows that connect us to related disciplines and new challenges are looking mighty appealing.

After all, it’s a tough sell to argue that content management and knowledge management and social computing and participation economics are all components of the big umbrella of information architecture. The IA tent is simply not that big.

And yet, we information architects are fascinated by these topics. We 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.

Illustration: The Many Facets of Findability

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.

The Coming Age of Findability

Even inside the small world of user experience design, findability doesn’t get enough attention. Interaction design is sexier. Usability is more obvious.

And yet, findability will eventually be recognized as a central and defining challenge in the development of web sites, intranets, knowledge management systems and online communities.

Why? Because the growing size and importance of our systems place a huge burden on findability. As Lou posits “despite this growth, the set of usability and interaction design problems doesn’t really change…(but) information architecture does get more and more challenging.”

Ample evidence exists to support this bold claim. Companies are failing to deliver findability. For example, a recent study by Vividence Research found poorly organized search results and poor information architecture design to be the two most common and serious usability problems.

This resonates with my experience interviewing users of Fortune 500 web sites and intranets. Some of these poor souls are ready to burst into tears as they recount their frustrations trying to find what they need inside these massive information spaces.

At the IA Summit, usability expert Steve Krug also agreed with this bold claim, noting that his company’s motto doesn’t apply to the challenges faced by information architects. Designing for findability is rocket surgery!

In the coming years, our work will only become more difficult. But that’s a good thing. Consider the following passage from an fascinating article written by business strategy guru Michael Porter:

Companies need to stop their rush to adopt generic “out of the box” packaged applications and instead tailor their deployment of Internet technology to their particular strengths…The very difficulty of the task contributes to the sustainability of the resulting competitive advantage.

That last sentence applies directly to the work we do. We all have a great deal of difficult and important work ahead. There’s an awful lot of findability in our future.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I wrote this article to explore findabilty as both a word and a concept. I’d be very interested in your reactions. Does findability strike a chord? Are you intrigued by the design of findable objects? Are you ready to become a findability specialist? Or does this pseudo-word annoy you? Is findability overrated? Do you prefer a future filled with expensive, beautiful airports that just happen to be unnavigable?

There’s a great discussion on Boxes and Arrows. What do you think?

by Peter Morville