Tag Archives: learning

Camera Obscura

My reticence to jump on the filter bandwagon has finally crumbled.

Rejoice readers! After a brief struggle with the arcane vagaries of WordPress shortcode and some bootstrapped php I managed to wrangle together an effective way to pull my Instagram feed into this blog (and only broke everything completely once). There’s a lesson in here somewhere about keeping your plugins up to date and remembering to switch from visual layouts to manual text entry…but who has time for these things?

My wacky japes and capers surviving post-graduate study are now available in a full-colour (well, sepia mostly).

I’ve since removed the gallery from the core of this blog, but I’m still out there on Instagram!

The Map Defines the Territory

Information architecture (IA) is a fascinating and compelling part of information organisation. Search is not a solved problem. Indeed, searchability and findability are among the most nagging problems facing information professionals. Findability—or lack thereof—is one of the defining elements of user experience. Unfortunately, it is also a source of endless frustration. It has the worst usability problem on the web. User needs and goals are obstructed by systemic failures in findability, and a website that is not easy to navigate is functionally useless.

My own experiences with technology have taught me that developers do not necessarily have the perspective to design usable systems. What they may think is an effective system is designed to only support an aspirational, best-case-scenario for navigation. What looks elegant from a coders perspective may not provide an optimal—or acceptable—experience.

Examining the council websites of the cities of Melbourne, Hobart, and Perth highlighted some of these elements. Melbourne and Hobart both demonstrated integrate, sensible designs that kept the same standard layout for the overall navigation of the website, and loaded pertinent content into a dynamically updated frame. Perth, however, insisted on having new subsets of menus and navigations for different sections, many of which had no visible ties to overall structure and obfuscated access to content. Intuitive architecture should provide universal navigation with no ‘orphaned’ avenues of browsing. Every page of the website should be able to function as a landing page with a completely accessible hierarchy of menus demonstrating where the user is, how they got there, and where they can go. As with physical architecture, information architecture relies on firm foundations to build anything stable. Logically relevant parent categories, proper meta-tagging, and a well-represented taxonomies form the bedrock on which any information-rich website should be built.

It is unforgivable for large entities such as a city council to build sloppy websites. All websites—especially those in the public sector—should be doing the right thing by default. Ease-of-use should be rigorously tested through prototyping and wire-framing, and consistency of style and standards should be paramount. Coders hate redundancy, but having logical replication of data facilitates how users really make use of websites—often in a meandering, scattershot approach.

The core thing I have taken away from information architecture is that it has to be—like a building—designed from the ground up. Every element must have a strong foundation of accessibility and functionality that relates to how people are actually using something, rather than designing with your own plan in mind then instructing people how to use it. IA relies wholly on taking an objective approach to design that Isn’t self interested. Developing good IA habits demands stepping outside your own perspective and engaging with that subjective, user experience of using a website.

Six Degrees of Web Navigation

The pseudo-game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ is born from the idea that any actor in a feature film can, in six-or-less ‘hops’ via other actors be connected back to the ubiquitous Kevin Bacon.

I like films. I like watching them, I like collecting film trivia, and I like talking about films. I am fairly indifferent to Kevin Bacon as an actor, but have become fairly adept at this game over time simply by force of circumstance and watching too many films.

For this week’s activity I invited a friend who is only passingly interested in film to use the Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com) to play this game against me. I asked that he navigate the connective web of actors orbiting Bacon while speaking to his decision making processes and the usability of IMDB as a tool for finding out what he needed to know. I chose to examine this scenario specifically as it gave my observed user a compelling motivation for performing complex searches (beating me at the game) and it offered a wide variety of approaches to navigating a resource (IMDB).

Through a combination of observation and direct, focussed question I arrived at some understanding of his needs when using the site. He was extremely helpful in keeping up a running commentary of his navigation through the site, and gave me a great set of talking points that resonated with what I had been reading about UX design. Many of his searches fell apart immediately with poor choices of searching methods, but the fact that almost any meaningful piece of data (names, dates, titles, genres etc.) had fully realised, relational links to every other piece of data made recovery a breeze. Rarely did the interface or tools of IMDB inhibit his progress, and he candidly offered that he liked how it ‘just worked’.

The first thing that struck me was how similar many of the concepts in good UX design were to those praised in good writing: Explicit is better than implicit, concise is better than verbose, constrained is better than unconstrained. At every step of this process, my observation was finding that IMDB had nailed the basics — search was simple, intuitive, and unobtrusive. The site had set out to do a specific thing and that focus on simplicity had allowed it to be great at something. Prompts were clear and consistent, default options were well-configured to reduce effort, and the various toggles and actions favoured punchy, active verb use such as ‘Remember my search’, and ‘Enable additional fields’ rather than less-friendly, subtractive alternatives.

Skype and beyond the infinite

Fooled around with Skype for a class activity on the weekend. Ben Harkin and I had a good run at discussing an upcoming assignment, and I took the opportunity to try and break Skype by simultaneously running the conversation on as many platforms as possible. It is a remarkably resilient application, try as I might I couldn’t get it to de-sync or really face any problems at all.

As far as IM platforms go, Skype is certainly the most prolific. The fact that it can pull in chat streams from other services (ie. Facebook chat) is situationally useful too. As with so many online services, their value increases exponentially based on the use-scenarios you can find for it in your day-to-day life. The ubiquity of Skype–the fact that it is so prolific–makes it the most powerful and useful chat service going.

What good is a messaging service if there’s no one to message?

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Microblogging and Me

There is no such thing as a tool that is good even if used without consideration. Social media, microblogging, and corporate communications platforms are no exception to this. That being said, they are a powerful way to flatten hierarchies and open up the conversation within an organisation.

My previous employer–a major web-hosting company–were heavily invested in creating an open, integrated communications system within the company. With offices in a number of locations around Australia and the world, there was often a significant disconnect between all but the most closely integrated departments. To combat this isolation, the organisation rolled out Yammer across the company. Yammer, for those unfamiliar with the platform, is more-or-less a facebook news-feed clone for closed, internal use. Much like familiar social media platforms, Yammer invites users to post, comment, and follow discussions and share links and the such like.

Because the organisation had not followed through with a comprehensive internal communications policy for Yammer, the results were mixed. The posting quickly turned into inane, trivial, and mundane minutia such as: ‘The coffee pot on level 5 is empty’, ‘Lol who turned out the lights,’ and ‘Woo! Go accounts. More sales!’…you get the idea. There were some flashes of inspired thinking on the service, such as the CFO opening up a forum for discussing summer reading titles relevant to business and technology, which invited a rare opportunity to speak candidly (about books!) with the managing directors of a multi-national corporation. These opportunities to make my voice heard were few and far between, but I welcomed the fact that such a conversation could not have been possible without a tool like Yammer.

Ultimately, the problem with corporate microblogging and social feeds is one of restraint and management. Unchecked, it becomes yet another source for information-bloat and distraction. Too-regulated and it becomes a cork-board for posting internal PR releases.

Organisations take note! You should start hiring internal social media moderators and curators to better direct, manage, and engage the use of these platforms in your organisation. I’m certain that my peers and I would welcome the challenge!


Too Much Information

Web 2.0 pundit and theorist Andrew Keen writes in his book Digital Vertigo (2012):

 Instead of making us happier and more connected, social media’s siren song—the incessant calls to digitally connect, the cultural obsession with transparency and openness, the never-ending demand to share everything about ourselves with everyone else— is, in fact, both a significant cause and effect of the increasingly vertiginous nature of twenty-first—century life.

The inconvenient truth is that social media, for all its communitarian promises, is dividing us, rather than bringing us together (p. 67)

There’s a great deal of wisdom in what Keen is saying: The overwhelming wealth of information available online lends itself to a perverse idea of obsessive over-sharing and digital exhibitionism. Ideas of transparency and openness have to be considered against the alternative of constructing a carefully limited, constructed persona online to be completely disingenuous.

Ultimately, either end of the spectrum is still driving us towards an online culture that is divided, fragmented, and essentially at odds with itself.

So what’s the middle ground? What balance can there be between honestly engaging in a rich, participatory culture online, and protecting our individual privacy and identity.

For my own part, I choose to present myself as a professional fully and absolutely online. Anything relevant to my professional development, career aspirations, and written work is funnelled into the same set of linked channels. I keep a unified identity across media platforms (@mjjfeeney on Twitter; www.mjjfeeney.com on this, my blogging domain; /mjjfeeney/ as my Facebook username etc.). Since our online identities span so many platforms today, I feel that presenting a consistent set of values and sharing limits across each platform is vital. I would hate for someone who follows me on twitter to discover this blog and be disoriented by an overabundance of personal content.

I feel that keeping this consistency about what we’re sharing—and where—is vital. What you put online will be found, no matter where you think it’s hidden away. Making sure it’s something you’d be willing to share in *any* of your other channels of communication is vital.

Giving Back: Personal Learning Networks

In 1985, Steven Brand published the now famous information doctrine Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, which stipulated the unique ethos of the hacking subculture and claimed that ‘All information wants to be free’:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. (Brand, 1985, p. 49) 

But, information is not made solely of ephemeral ideas; it is made of ideas and work. Sadly, I’m guilty of taking advantage of the altruism of others and exploiting that good work selfishly. Having recently explicitly examined the idea of a ‘Personal Learning Network’ (PLN) I realised that I’m a ‘drain’ on my localised PLN: I take more than I put back.

I have embedded myself in a community of people with like interests, who I make use of as a sort of social filter to hopefully reveal the most relevant information to me. I actively scour blogs, twitter feeds, and other social data to skim off the cream-of-the-crop of trends coming down in the LIS sector. But, even when I have something to contribute, I remain largely silent. I realise that this isn’t a particularly admirable state of affairs, and aim to rectify it in the coming months.

First things first, I’m going to get some fresh, original content up on this blog. I’m really fascinated by social aggregation and the transformation of controlled taxonomies into organic folksonomies, so stay tuned for some of that in the near future.

Also, I’ve started repurposing some of my writing from 2010+ on the evolution of digital publishing, price, and piracy to snazzy blog-sized chunks.

So, I come hat in hand to my PLN, offering these small morsels of content to repay the free-ride I’ve been taking so far. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Enlightened self-interest

Workshop 7: Moving out into the profession

Quite the capstone to a long, challenging, and illuminating semester!

Socialising and mingling with my peers in-class one final time this semester reminded me that we were strangers only a few months ago. Over the course of the semester we had already taken meaningful steps towards building our personal networking and professional relationships. Chatting with the guests over cheese and wine and listening to their presentations drove home for me just how vital communication and sociability is to the success and vitality of my career.

Being a responsible, capable, and proficient information professional is not something I can manage on my own. My learning and development isn’t taking place in a vacuum; it is being guided, shaped, and informed by the people around me. Finding my place in this profession was always going to be a by-product of connecting with people and building a meaningful understanding of how I fit into the larger context of this community.

Although it is unnerving to face the challenges of finding meaningful employment in a field that is so dynamic, I am confident that I have started to develop enough self-knowledge to understand how to thrive and prosper in the face of these challenges. I feel like I have moved beyond my initial embarrassment and reticence of not knowing or understanding some things, and I have embraced the fact that I am still a beginner in this expansive field. I feel I am finally comfortable with letting go of some perfect ideal of my future employment, and embracing change as it comes.

Documenting these first steps I’ve taken into a larger, professional world  has contributed to my own understanding of  who I am, and what I want to do. It has illuminated for me what sort of jobs, environments, and types of work will make me happiest and helped me to develop career goals that reflect what I value most.

On reflection, the entire program of INN634 instilled in me the guiding principle of loyalty to my own professional goals. My own personal integrity and commitment to moving forward is not about finding an employer willing to take me on, but rather about developing a practical set of skills and capabilities that guarantee I will be employable for life.

I’m going to cap-off this off with a quote that really evokes what I felt was the core theme of this program:

“It is not the strongest of the species who survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change

Charles Darwin.