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Jul 12, 2013: What does instructional video mean for publishers?

Did you think that publishers were in the business of figuring out books? Hah! Well, you're only partially right.

I'm feeling pretty good about Rosenfeld Media's books these days. What's keeping me up at night is instructional video. Partially because people are increasingly turning to video over text for learning, and partially because it clearly presents a new opportunity. Just not an obvious one. I'm hoping that writing about it here helps me understand it better, and—more importantly—your comments shed even more light on it.

I—and our authors and experts—are constantly coming across new opportunities to produce instructional videos. Think Skillshare, Udacity, Udemy, YouTube, Lynda.com, and so on. They have very different business models, most of which are untested and, in some cases, unstable. It's a daunting space to understand—but looking at a medium through the lens of its tools is completely the wrong way to figure it out.

My job, as a publisher, is to take that step back and try to make sense of the medium. Does our content even make sense as instructional videos? If so, how do we package our content? Do we go long or short? Modules or full-blown courses? How do we ensure the same level of quality as we do with our books and other offerings? And what's a viable business model for instructional video, one that provides value to customers and publishing support to authors and experts?

If we can figure out how to reach that happy place, then we can determine which tools and platforms we should use.

But it's a tough journey.

For one, I keep thinking a format that is short-attention-span-friendly (5-10 minute), modular, and extremely practical makes the most sense: tips, how-to's, show-me's, case studies, and so on. We'd curate the topics, and ensure a reasonable quality through consistent branding and content guidelines. We'd eventually make them part of a Rosenfeld Media subscription service, along with our digital books.

But 5-10 minutes puts us up against the free stuff on YouTube. Would someone pay $5 for one of our videos when there might be something similar for free?

A longer format—60 minutes and up—can justify payment. But it feels too long to me. I know that companies like UIE do fantastic work here, but I worry that many people won't have the patience to sit through this longer, denser format.

Unless that longer video is part of an actual course. The motivation to achieve a credential is a big one, but courses have lots of moving parts. They take place over time, they generally utilize much more than video, and most of all, they need to be taught. By an actual teacher. There's a huge opportunity there, but I think that funded startups like General Assembly will be the ones to make it work. Not bootstrapped ventures like Rosenfeld Media. (And, sadly, not higher ed, which is highly unlikely to create viable new business models for anything.)

Put on my publisher's shoes for a moment (size 10, incidentally). Let's say you manage a brand known for quality books in a small but growing vertical. You also manage a growing roster of four dozen or so of your vertical's leading experts. You've got expertise—and content—up the wazoo.

Do you convert that expertise into a new video-based line of business?


What does your offering look like?

And has anyone figured this all out already? (If so, hats off!)

Thanks folks.

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Apr 22, 2013: The Benefits of a Train Wreck

Want to make an information architect squirm? Just ask this simple question: "Show me an example of good information architecture."

Chances are we'll stammer, mumble something about good IA being invisible IA, and slink away.

It doesn't have to be that way—if we're willing to turn the question on its head. Forget good IA—let's focus on bad IA. You know, the reason that information architecture got started as a practice in the first place.

Let's dig deep into the darkness of just how much life can suck at an absolutely fundamental level when people can't find and understand information.

Let's show—in a direct, visual, painful, and wildly engaging way—what happens when you blow off that IA stuff.

Let's tap the natural impulse to look—to stare!—at the horror of pileups on the information superhighway.

(There but for the grace of god go IA.)

These train wrecks will be quite instructive—in the same way as Jeff Johnson's GUI Bloopers, or as a mirror image to Peter Morville's far more constructive Search Patterns.

So I'd like to propose that some well-intentioned, communally-oriented, semi-organized group of information architects (like, say, the IAI) launch a new site devoted to examples of absolutely crappy, in-your-face, vomit-all-over-your-keyboard information architecture.

I suck at coming up with titles, so I'll offer this working name: The Journal of Fucked IA. (Crazy wild guess: domain's probably available.) Why not? The IAI already publishes the Journal of IA. What's one more publication?

Especially as this one wouldn't have to be peer-reviewed. Set it up as a community portfolio—a Dribble of what not to do. Anyone could submit their latest experience with frustrating findability follies and fuckups. The IAI could do some light curation. We could all tag examples by "search results," "contextual navigation," or whatever, and—voila—we'll have some useful IA anti-patterns. Better yet, tag by industry ("airlines") and organization name ("United") and then we'll start getting some great attention from outside our cocoon.

Yes, let's make those other bastards squirm for once.

Now wouldn't that be fun?

And wouldn't it be better to point people to train wrecks the next time they spring that godawful question?

PS: Maybe this would be a good use of the money that—hopefully—the IAI will start collecting. Soon. Right guys?

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Apr 11, 2013: Putting my money where my mouth is

(Boy, I don't blog much these days, do I?)

For those of you following, the Information Architecture Institute—which I co-founded with Christina Wodtke over ten years ago—is going through more existential angst than usual. The topic of the institute's future and its business model—or lack thereof—came up at the annual IAI town meeting at last week's IA Summit, as it does every year.

And every year for the past five or so, I foam at the mouth and launch spittle along with strong words about how the IAI should abandon its ill-guided dependency upon paid membership (remember, professional associations use an early 20th-century business model—almost as old as that of publishers!). Instead, I suggest that the IAI make involvement free and grow it ten-fold or twenty-fold in a year. Then make money from sponsors, who will be much happier reaching 14,000 people who are interested in IA, than the current 1,400 who are more likely to have IA as their job title.

I'm so certain that this is the way to go that I'm going to put my money—or, rather, Rosenfeld Media's—where my mouth is. Rosenfeld Media will pledge the following:

  • $2,000 as soon as the IAI adopts the free membership model, and draws up a simple plan to approach sponsors
  • $2,000 more as soon as the IAI increases its current membership by 50%
  • $2,000 more as soon as the IAI doubles its current membership
If we get beyond that, I'll be glad to discuss continuing, but let's cross that bridge when we get there.

What strings are attached? Well, I'll tell you one thing for goddamned sure: I don't want to see another IAI business plan for as long as I live. Too much analysis paralysis, folks, and too much for volunteers to create and, more importantly, maintain over time.

If anything, the IAI's business plan should be this: provide shared community infrastructure so that people interested in IA can learn more and further the field of practice. So, simple stuff—much of which is already happening—like:

  • World IA Day. It's awesome. It's the gateway drug for the community. More please.
  • Mentoring program. It's great; keep it going.
  • Job board. Duh.
  • Bring back IDEA or some other annual meeting in the fall (the season opposite the IA Summit). It'll make a little money and provide another opportunity for us all to get into one place.
  • Promote stuff. Really! It's not that hard! Those social media things can help.
  • Some legal infrastructure so these—and new programs—can be communally owned.
That's it, really.

Do this, and focus on that under-served IAI use case: the person who is never, ever, ever going to call themselves an information architect, but sure does need some basic IA skills to do their jobs. There are THOUSANDS of these folks out there—maybe tens of thousands. (BTW, IxDA has over 30,000 members!) Go after them. Sponsors want oh-so-badly to reach those folks, but the IAI—as a non-profit community thing—is so much better prepared to reach them.

And us sponsors? For every Rosenfeld Media, there is an Adobe, a Microsoft, and a bunch of other huge organizations that have sponsorship budgets that would make you pee your pants. Get them to donate with graduated amounts based on how many new members join the IAI. Work with them to develop some other, less quantitative metrics for success. And get them to shower members with freebies and discounts.

Those are the strings we sponsors have attached: help us get visibility among the "dark matter" of the IA world. Those 95% of the people practicing IA—often without realizing it—who could really benefit from some IA consciousness in the form of skills and connections to a community. We'll help you and you'll help us reach those people.

How many sponsors does the IAI need? I have no idea. But I'll personally go to other UX-friendly book publishers—O'Reilly, New Riders, A Book Apart, and so on—and challenge them to at least match our pledge. Now go find someone else to do that with large agencies, someone else to do it with recruiters, someone else to do it with academic programs.


Really. I promise you that the money will be there. And, I hope, the annual outbreak of existential angst will go the way of polio.

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Oct 07, 2012: Homecoming month

I've been looking forward to this month for quite a while. I'll be taking two trips—one to Ann Arbor, the other to Moscow—and both involve crossing a fair bit of time as well as space.

The trip to Moscow happens this week (yikes: pack! check passport status! locate winter coat!). I'm keynoting the UX Russia conference and teaching a workshop there as well. I'm also planning on eating as many pelmeni as I can possibly stuff down my gullet. My only other time in Russia was ten weeks during the summer of 1985. I officially was there to study Russian at LGU (Leningrad State University). But let's be honest—I was one about thirty 20-year olds in country that enjoyed its vodka and still happened to find us westerners quite interesting. Yep. That was a really fun summer.

Sadly, my Russian has gone to pot in the 27 years since. I also imagine the place is a bit different than my last visit. But I'm hopeful that they'll be able to hook me up with pelmeni. My introduction to the Internet involved asking rec.food.recipes for a pelmeni recipe in, roughly, 1990. To my surprise and delight, the newsgroup coughed up a bunch in a few hours' time. I haven't looked back since.

Even though I lived in Ann Arbor 23 years and have been back about once per year since moving, I'm still quite excited to be going. I'm giving a talk at my alma mater, the University of Michigan's School of Information, as part of the UM grad program's centennial celebration. Like the Muscovites, SI is rolling out the red carpet, and I'm really flattered. MJ and the kids are coming, and even my elderly parents—both in their mid 80s, and both proud Michigan alumni—are making the trip from Florida. I hope I don't let them down.

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