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Mar 23, 2002: Pushless IA?

Spent the day yesterday giving a basic IA talk (about 3Mb if you want to grab it) and otherwise hobnobbing at Michigan State University.

During the afternoon discussion, I got up on my soapbox and yammered on about the need for MSU to incorporate email-based notification systems into their web site's information architecture. So, for example, a prospective student could elect to be informed of deadlines associated with her application. Or an alum could be reminded that season tickets for football go on sale in one week, and that donations need to be sent by December 15 to ensure a deduction for the current tax year. And so on. It's fairly cheap and easy to do this, and just seems plain obvious.

I've found myself on this same soapbox quite frequently, and, like the good folks at MSU, people nod their heads, smile politely, and then move on to the next topic.

As we all know, exactly 96.7% of the information architecture we do is associated with a web site. But you don't have to be a marketing genius to know that push is often as important, maybe more so, than pull. And that email is the killer push application that just about everyone already uses.

Many of us talk about extending our work beyond the boundaries of HTML. Goodness and apple pie. But if we're going to take on the broader user experience, wouldn't it make sense to nail down the stuff happening on a user's computer (like push) before we mess with the broader information ecology of other content stores, physical and human?

So help me out here: why am I not getting through? Is it really so obvious? If it was, I think we'd see more architectures with better push/pull integration.

Or is it not so obvious after all? I wonder if there's some aura of mystery surrounding the setting up of email-based notification services (which is just a fancy name for one-way mailing lists), causing people to shrink from the task.

Or maybe it's not such a great idea after all?

email this entry

Comment: Nick Finck (Mar 23, 2002)

I think it's because those who sign off on the checks need factual evidence that what they are doing is going to pay off. I think they do not know the technology well enough and the those who do do not know how to communicate in dollars and cents to the people that sign the checks. There is no moderator. In my time on the web I have only found a handful of people who can directly link technology to dollars and cents... those same people are often unemployed and/or no one
wants to pay for their services. This is because "we need a web designer" or "we need a web developer" seems simple, but "we need someone who can translate the technology in to dollars and cents" doesn't seem to quite roll off the tongue.

Lets face it if companies actually took the time to hire people like Thomas Vander Wal, Alan K'necht, Anitra Pavka, or Kelly Goto, I think
we'd be in a lot better shape today than we were before the economy took a nose dive.

My 2 cents,
- Nick

Comment: Lou (Mar 23, 2002)

While I don't disagree, couldn't you make the same argument for *any* investment in IA, web, email, or otherwise?

Comment: Victor (Mar 24, 2002)

I think we often _underestimate_ the complexity of email integration, not regarding the technology but the design of it. For a recent new biz proposal I created a small permission marketing campaign including website, email, snail mail, and in-person communication. It ain't easy, you could end up drawing massive flowcharts to cover all the possible use cases. And it all has to be coordinated or else the organization won't live up to the user's perception of the organization.

An excellent read on the topic is Seth Godin's "Permission Marketing." Usually the M-word makes me cringe but Seth is a smart, experienced guy with good ideas that appeal to human behavior. Here's a taste:

Comment: Hanan Cohen (Mar 24, 2002)

I want to tell you about the most useful push Email system I have ever seen. It's called LibAgent.
All academic libraries in Israel use a system called ALEPH. LibAgent is a system that is developed and run voluntarily by students. Once subscribed to the system, it automatically contacts ALEPH and extends book loans or sends Email notification if another library patron wants a book you have. LibAgent enables students and researchers to have their own mini-libraries at home or office without worrying that someone else need the books.

Check it out: http://www.libagent.org/

Comment: Lyle (Mar 24, 2002)

Lou, I also have perched atop that same soapbox before, and have wondered at the strange resistance to push techniques. You come away wondering "if we really want people to do X, then why don't we market X to them?"

I've learned two things:

1) To do push well, someone actually has to manage the process. This means writing email content, responding to inquiries, etc. People just don't want more work.

2) More often than not, people's performance is measured by the wrong things. They are told to simply build a web site, not to increase enrollment, ticket sales, etc. If they can point at a finished web site they get an "attagirl" -- and that's enough for most of them.

The problem might be that you're "selling" push to the wrong people. You have to find the people who get incentives for real business metrics like ticket sales...

Comment: Kristen Truong (Mar 25, 2002)

Lou -

I have been working on several web-based applications, and push email notification has been part of every single one of them, so I understand the trials and tribulations of this extension.

First - Why have we (I work at Covisint) been able to convince the business and technical people that the application must have push email notification?
-Because the tasks completed in all of the applications are often time-critical, job-critical, and involve workflow approvals. In other words, the users DEMAND to be notified, or they cannot effectively get their job done.

Second - What makes this so hard?
1. Nobody wants to write the content of the emails. I know... silly, huh?
2. The emails must have dynamic content in order to be useful. This involves additional programming time. Developers generally do not find this kind of programming interesting, and like to avoid it.
3. The website/application must integrate with a scalable email system. If the email system isn't ready for bulk sized email pushes, you could bring down the whole system (This happened to us once when an administrator goofed).
4. The website/application must store user profiles or integrate with a registration system. While many sites might be doing this anyway, it may be too much of a barrier for other sites.

My prediction...
It will become more and more a standard feature, but at first only where it's needed to complete the tasks done on the website/applications. When all the integration points become standardized/componentized, then it will be easier to convince product teams.

The way to convince people...
Same thing we are always trying to use... User Research. That's basically how I've won the battles over here.

Comment: Andrew Gilmartin (Mar 25, 2002)

Having one channel along which to give and take data makes the technical end of communication easier. Add another channel and the work gets much harder. Now you are building a System and not just an Application. Systems have different (or just other) tools to control flow and handle exceptions than do applications. Email brings with it serious delay between initiation and receipt that is new to most web developers. If you want two way messaging then while the workflow is the same the tools and skills to implement it are often more than small web shops have. (Note that it is not a difficult problem in itself. It is difficult to add on after the fact.)

With that said, every web application should have two-way messaging. I wouldn't limit it to email either. There is a ordering of notifications that range from instant messages to Hallmark cards.

Comment: Rich Wiggins (Mar 25, 2002)

Speaking as the guy who hired Lou to come to MSU and share his IA wisdom, let me make a couple of points:

There are many areas within the extended msu.edu domain that make extensive use of e-mail announcement lists. Those places just aren't obvious if you cruise for a few minutes off the university home page.


Lou's point was well taken, as was his entire talk. Don't assume inaction the Monday after your talk! Oh, and about that invoice... :-)

Comment: Maribeth Sullivan (Mar 25, 2002)

It’s not just MSU, Lou. Businesses and institutions everywhere are facing this need to integrate services to reflect the “customer” at the center.

As the more enlightened businesses and institutions become more “customer centric” as opposed to product centered, we see more investment in CRM systems and sophisticated permission-based email programs as well as the requisite profiling databases. This necessitates a major shift in management thinking.(Which, I think, is why your soapbox feels a little slippery at the moment.)

Some key phrases: Cluetrain Manifesto, “1-to-1,” “permission-based” and “relationship marketing.” The idea is that with the Web, people have so many more options available to them that organizations had better pay greater attention to the end user or they will suffer the consequences. Those who pay attention to each individual user on a more personal level (facilitated by databases) will reap the rewards.

While all this sounds great in theory, what becomes painfully apparent in the execution is the complexity of integrating many different data systems. It’s difficult, expensive, and requires buy-in from all stakeholders. In addition to technology issues, there are privacy issues (have you read what the Mayo clinic is up to?) and there is the content issue that Kristen brought up – who will write all these email alerts or newsletters?

Lowly email, while absolutely key, is simply not very exciting. People do want/need certain information delivered right to their mailboxes. They are busy and don’t want to have to go checking websites (even personal portals) for updates. And, as Victor pointed out, they are willing to sign up for what they want. But good email communications are, like good websites, more complicated than they look – especially if they are to support business goals and be integrated into larger data systems.

So organizations first have to be aware of the need and then they have to deal with the difficulties of implementation. That’s asking a lot. But that’s definitely where we’re headed. People will expect and demand it just as they now expect any business worth its salt to have a website even if all they want it for is driving directions and hours of operation.

Meanwhile, we’ll have to deal with overloaded mailboxes, email filters and people who don’t know how to manage their email. So while email as push can be the answer to many problems, it comes with its own set of problems.

Comment: Ed Vielmetti (Mar 25, 2002)

The hard part about adding e-mail to a site, especially a big site with a lot of users, is that people forget what they subscribed to and then react to the e-mail they get as spam. That ruffles feathers (at least) and leads to higher support costs.

Not that e-mail isn't important, just that it has to be thought through and architected right and not just slapped in silly.


Comment: Rich Wiggins (Mar 26, 2002)

What Ed said. What Ed said!

Here is a redacted e-mail that Northwest Airlines just sent me. It's obviously auto-generated stuff based on my itinerary. Do you think I should feel warm and fuzzy and well-CRMed? Or banally rendered Dear Mr. Insertstatenamehere?

Note, for instance, the utterly generic link to Mapquest.


Dear Mr. Wiggins,

Thank you for choosing Northwest Airlines for your travel needs. To assist you
in preparing for your trip, we are pleased to provide you with some helpful
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Angeles, CA on March 27 is xxxxx. For details about your flight schedule,
visit http://www.nwa.com/travel/itinerary or review your Trip Summary Receipt.

1) Flight Status Notification
2) Self-Service Check-In
3) Airport Information
4) WorldClubs Locations
5) Weather
6) Destination Information
7) Maps

******** ENROUTE

Stay informed of your flight arrival, departure time and gate information. Check
your flight and gate status at http://webx25.nwa.com/travel/flifo or, register
for Flight Status Notification to have an email sent to your alphanumeric pager,
PCS phone or email inbox with the status of your flights at


Northwest Airlines is pleased to offer our E-Ticket passengers two easy ways to
check in for a flight:
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* Check in at Northwest Airlines or Continental Airlines E-Service Centers
available in most airports. For a map of E-Service Center locations, visit

You should arrive at the airport 75 minutes prior to departure for your trip to
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Before leaving for the airport, please be sure to check the latest carry-on and
checked luggage policies at
http://www.nwa.com/services/shipping/cargo/luggage/faq.shtml#dome. Also the
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Trying to decide what to pack?

Weather for Los Angeles Int'l, CA (LAX)
Tuesday 3/26/2002
Some sun
High: 69 F Low: 50 F

Wednesday 3/27/2002
Some sunshine
High: 69 F Low: 50 F

Thursday 3/28/2002
Clouds and sun
High: 69 F Low: 48 F

Friday 3/29/2002
Mostly sunny; nice
High: 73 F Low: 48 F

Saturday 3/30/2002
Sunny and warm
High: 77 F Low: 52 F

Copyright 2002 AccuWeather, Inc.


Wondering what to do or where to eat while visiting Los Angeles, CA? Northwest
has teamed up with Frommer's Travel Guides to give you expert guidance and all
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Mr. Wiggins, we look forward to welcoming you on your upcoming trip to Los
Angeles, CA. Enjoy your travels!

Thank you for flying Northwest Airlines.


Northwest Airlines

This is a post-only mailing. Please do not respond to this message unless
you wish to unsubscribe. To unsubscribe, please "reply to" us and type
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Comment: heyotwell (Mar 28, 2002)

Kristin's comments ring true for me as well. It's hard to write content for emails, so no one wants to do it. The last project I worked on which had a significant amount of auto-generated emails, I and the programming team (!!!) stayed late one night writing the emails becuase the Marketing Department JUST WOULDNT DO IT. They _knew_ that these emails were perhaps the most prominent customer touchpoint, and yet, they didn't write the things.

It is also hard to accomodate dynamic emails for programmers as well. It's expensive and time consuming. Some airlines (as above) do this really well (although why would "Northwest Airlines" sign the mail? Why not a person?).

Comment: Susanta Ghorai (Nov 12, 2003)

Like to see my flight reservation

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