Information Design Watch

February 10, 2006, 10:13 am

The Cost of Complexity

By d/D

In recent years, business experts have begun examining complexity as a business problem. Organizations that fail to check proliferating product lines and overly-customized services lose efficiency and confuse their customers. A special George Group report on the Knowledge@Wharton Web site gets into the details:

“‘Complexity accumulates over time,’ notes Eric Clemons, Wharton professor of operations and information management. ‘The problem is that clutter is not free. It interferes with operational efficiency, with production efficiency, with a clear image, and with distribution. It can strangle a company.’”

http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/index.cfm?fa=SpecialSection&specialId=45

The George Group’s report echoes a Harvard Business Review article, “Innovation Versus Complexity” (available at http://www.hbr.org with purchase or subscription). Authors Mark Gottsfreson and Keith Aspinall assert that quality-control approaches to excess complexity are insufficient. Instead, organizations must figure out their zero-complexity baseline and justify additional offerings one by one:

“What would your company look like if it made and sold only a single product or service? Answering that question is important for two reasons. First, virtually every complexity reduction exercise we have seen that does not do this has failed to break through organizational resistence…. [Second, only] by stripping away all the products, options, and configurations do managers get a clear sense of the extent of the complexity and its costs.”

While both of these articles focus on manufacturing and retail operations, the underlying ideas apply to communication as well. In our information architecture practice we have found that confusing content often reflects underlying conflicts in an organization. When an organization’s product is information, every effort must be made to make sure users are not confused about why they need it or how to find it.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Business

February 10, 2006, 10:10 am

Catching the Long Tail

By d/D

More than half of Amazon.com’s sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. For Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, this is an example of the “long tail,” the market of relatively obscure, niche, or one-off items that online vendors are bringing to light:

“Many of our assumptions about popular taste are actually artifacts of poor supply-and-demand matching — a market response to inefficient distribution…. We assume, in other words, that only hits deserve to exist. But … executives at iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix, [have] discovered that the ‘misses’ usually make money, too. And because there are so many more of them, that money can add up quickly to a huge new market.”

This is not necessarily a new business model. Many of the items in the traditional Sears catalog were likely “long tail” compared to the local department store. But now, when the local department store is Walmart, the long tail is just that much longer.

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html

Anderson’s Long Tail blog is here:

http://www.thelongtail.com/

UPDATE: Anderson has now published his research in the well-reviewed The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1401302378/

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Books and Articles, Business

February 10, 2006, 10:04 am

Ambigrams and Inversions

By d/D

Scott Kim and John Langdon are two designers who play with letter forms to create interesting illusions and transformations. These ambigrams (Langdon’s term) and inversions (Kim’s) are easier to see than to describe, so we direct you to each artist’s gallery:

http://www.johnlangdon.net/ambigrams.html

http://www.scottkim.com/inversions/index.html#gallery

In addition to using a separate term for their common invention, Kim and Langdon exhibit different sensibilities. Kim has a mathematician’s instinct for puzzles and brain teasers. Langdon’s more artistic approach lends itself to logo and branding design.

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Visual Explanation

February 10, 2006, 10:02 am

Locating Last Names

By d/D

Recently we’ve come across two sites that use U.S. census data and other sources to shown the distribution of last names on a map. The results suggest patterns of emigration and influence, though you have to bring your own outside knowledge to intepreting them. Both tools have two major weaknesses. First is the lack of meta-data. For example, we don’t know the sample sizes for different states, a real handicap in interpreting the 1800s displays. Another weakness is the inability of the interface to allow comparisons, either by showing multiple maps at once, or by allowing quick transitions from name to name or date to date.

The geneological software maker, My Family, Inc., has data for both U.S. and England on its Ancestry.com Web site for the years 1840, 1880, and 1920:

http://www.ancestry.com/learn/facts/default.aspx

Hamrick Software provides a similar interface, only for the U.S., which includes data from 1990:

http://www.hamrick.com/names/

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Maps, Visual Explanation

February 10, 2006, 9:58 am

Home Page Primer

By d/D

On A List Apart, designer Derek Powazek offers some guidelines for home page design. Along with good, concrete suggestions on home page form and function, Powazek leads off with an information architecture gem — create the home page last:

“When I set out to design a website, I do it backwards. I start with the design of the smallest, deepest element: the story page or search results. Then I work backwards to design their containers: section pages, indexes. Then, lastly, I work on the home page. I do this because each container needs to adequately set expectations for what it contains. If the home page says one thing, but the internal pages say another, that’s going to lead to a user-experience failure.”

Determining the nature of the deepest element in a site is vital for creating scalable sites with consistent branding and navigation systems that help users find something once, then find it again.

http://www.alistapart.com/articles/homepagegoals

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Comments (0) | Filed under: Information Architecture, Web Interface Design