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Nov 05, 2002: The Joy of Analogy

Last week I gave a couple of talks at Dartmouth. Quite a swell time; the leaves were at the height of their New Englandy splendor, and I got to chum around with Web Style Guide authors Sarah Horton and Pat Lynch, and rocket surgeon Steve Krug. I gave a too-basic IA intro talk (3.0Mb), but the night before yammered on about what user experience (UX) design means for liberal arts institutions (2.2Mb) like Dartmouth.

The dinner audience of faculty, librarians, and IT folks politely listened to me lecture on what UX is, why they should care, and how they might educate UX professionals. But what really stirred them from their apple tarts were the screen shots I showed them from Amazon and other sites that support strong user experiences in innovative ways.

Everyone in the room was already familiar with the cool features, such as recommender systems, reviews, and ratings, that we've come to expect from sites like Amazon's. But it was new to look at such features in the context of one's own site. For example, I asked them to consider what they could learn from Amazon that would be applicable to their own online course catalog. "Students who took this course also took..." Or "Students who took this course received an average grade of..." Or "Interested in this history course on World War I's Impact on Western Culture? Why not consider this one on Dada taught in the art department?" And so on. You get the picture. So did they, and these connections seemed to electrify the room.

Amazon may provide a model for academic information systems that truly support liberal arts education: recommender-based contextual navigation allows us to get away from academic silos and move toward supporting more inter-departmental--and therefore interdisciplinary--navigation. What else can we learn from looking outside our regular cubbyholes? Lots, I think. For example, might the designers of staff directories be inspired by Ryze? Would research libraries do well to study blogspace? What might Microsoft technical support learn from evolt.org?

Even if it doesn't revolutionize your design process or outcome, the process of seeking such analogies is just plain fun. I'd love to hear your stories of how you found design inspiration--and useful models--in unexpected places.

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Comment: Lou (Nov 5, 2002)

Matt Jones just sent me a link to an article titled "Amazoning The News," by Ellen Kampinsky, Shayne Bowman, and Chris Willis. Their abstract:

"Our whitepaper shows how traditional news stories might be treated in the design model of Amazon.com. We contend that a successful news Web site is a platform that supports social interaction around the story. These interactions are as important as the narrative, perhaps more, because they are chosen by the readers. In a networked world, media whose primary value lies in its ability to connect people will win."

A fifteen second glance indicates that it's definitely worth reading further. The URL is http://www.hypergene.net/ideas/amazon.html

Thanks Matt!

Comment: Chris Farnum (Nov 5, 2002)

It's hard not to ignore the analogy of Yahoo! When you use it as an example, just about everyone has experience with it. Clearly, many intranet and corporate marketing sites that emphasize "taxonomy" are strongly influenced by it.

But Yahoo is more than just the search/browse categories. I've been a Yahoo mail user for a while, and have found a lot of examples and patterns there in the past year. I was involved with a project to build an intranet web-based software app. There aren't as many freely available examples of this sort of thing as there are examples of marketing sites, portals, and online communities. Probably the most established and refined category of online app is the web-based mail reader. Yahoo's version contains many good (and some bad) examples of how to meld Windows/Mac style software conventions with web conventions. There are too many examples and I wouldn't want to clutter up Lou's blog too much. But one example is the way that you select and highlight multiple messages in Yahoo for filing, deleting, spam reporting. My advice: take a few minutes to analyze your favorite web based mail reader to see what makes it really tick.

Comment: Andrew (Nov 12, 2002)

"Amazoning the News" is a great one. It's sort of surprising to me that more sites, and sites of differnent types, haven't picked up on the well-known and well-liked features of amazon: even my mother likes "people who bought x also bought y."

I remember at the Uni. of Texas there were some discussions at the height of the frenzy to monetize education in early 2000 where features like these were mentioned. Even, as I remember, a shopping cart for students to put selected courses in--a fairly bad use of that particualr metaphor.

Still, people had some of the same ideas: students who take course x also take course y. I bet that not even the Registrar knows that information. Wonder how useful that kind of analysis could be to the administrative side of a large university in helping plan class schedules, sizes, or even departmental funding?

Comment: C.C. (Nov 14, 2002)

I attended the conference at Dartmouth and came away wired and ready to do a ton of things. It's too bad that you had to keep your speach at such a high level.

Comment: Lou (Nov 19, 2002)

Thanks; if it was only possible, I'd love to never give an IA intro talk ever again...

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