To pave or not to pave the cowpaths

In Eric Meyer’s SXSW talk on Emergent Semantics (slides, notes) he referred disparagingly to the design adage, “Don’t pave the cowpaths.” He compared it to the useful practice of seeing where people walk and building sidewalks to match.

But there’s an important distinction between paving the cowpaths and paving the footpaths: people aren’t cows. The cowpath metaphor comes from the common urban history in which rural cowpaths evolved into city streets. As anyone who has ever driven in a city that developed that way knows, the result is picturesque but unusable. The problem is that cows don’t want to go where people want to go, cows don’t navigate the way people navigate, and furthermore cows don’t have the form factor of the vehicles that people want to drive in cities. Paving paths made by people for the use of people is a very different proposition from paving the paths made by cows for use by cars.

This is mostly a quibble about metaphors, but it does have some implications for Meyer’s subject of implementing microformats in XHTML in order to build a “lower-case semantic web” from the bottom up. Once microformats have caught on, will they get us somewhere we still want to go? And more pointedly, does the microformat concept scale up to a system that is coherent and usable once there are a zillion of them?

(By the way, paving real-world footpaths is an idea to be used with care. There are many places where foot traffic completely obliterates the landscape, and if you paved them all you’d have nothing but a parking lot. The solution is to carefully study the footpaths, pave some of them, and plant hedges to protect the grass. Whether that metaphor can be applied to online technologies is an exercise left to the reader.)

Jobs per capita map at Indeed, the nifty job search site I blogged about not long ago, has now supplemented their Jobgeist with a map of job openings per capita in major employment markets: map of jobs per capita

Austin looks pretty good, especially compared to the rest of the CST states. What surprises me is that major centers on the east and west coasts are such standouts, fiscal crises and the cost of living notwithstanding.

Now if Indeed just offered a way to correlate this with a ratio of salary to housing price, the job hunter trying to choose a geographical target would be all set. (Note to Rony at Indeed: I guess by now you’re familiar with the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie principle…)

Prison, Queer Eye, Vygotsky and iSchool

My friend Mr. M, having walked out of an abusive situation as a newbie teacher in an inner-city middle school, is now teaching high school in a prison and blogging about it. I have to admire his bravery, both for taking the job and for letting the world know what it’s like. I only hope he doesn’t get dooced.

There are so many gems in his blog that I want to link to all of them. There’s his use of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as a teaching tool — in a prison! Truly the forces of homophobia are in retreat, despite what the red-staters say. There’s his link to an Onion article straight from his first job, “Teach For America Chews Up, Spits Out Another Ethnic Studies Major.” There’s his idea to produce videotaped read-alouds by people who look and sound like his students, rather than their white Middle-American teacher. (Any amateur video producers in the New York area want to help him with that? Or help him webcast the results?)

But what prompts me to post about him here, rather than in my other blog, is some of the things that he and his commenters have to say about teaching methods. One of them asserts that teaching should be boiled down to the Vygotskyan method:

1. I do, you watch.
2. I do, you help.
3. You do, I help.
4. You do, I watch.

There’s not really a lot of doing or watching in the program I’m in — with the exception of public speaking, which may be the most useful specific skill we will all share by the time we’re done. Is there a point at which learning by doing becoming less important than learning about doing? Or is that a classic fallacy of advanced education?

This relates to an interesting discussion of whether learning specific tools should be part of our curriculum (that link is the tip of an offline iceberg), but more on that another day.

SxSWi warmup: Austin IA cocktail this Thursday

If you can’t wait for the schmoozefest that is SxSWi to begin, here’s a warmup:

What: Austin Information Architecture Cocktail and Networking Event
When: Thursday, 3/10/2005, 6:00-8:00 PM
Where: Vivo Cocina, 2015 Manor Rd.
Who: Everyone is invited. Sponsored by the UT Austin student chapter of ASIS&T.

As for SxSWi itself, don’t forget to read David Nunez’s essential guide.

RIAs and the death of the page (rumors greatly exaggerated)

I’m in my final morning of the Information Architecture Summit in Montreal. One of the costs of staying in a cheap off-site hotel was that I didn’t have ready access to my computer (not wanting to lug both a PowerBook and the conference proceedings with me everywhere) and so haven’t blogged about the conference in the way I’d hoped. Maybe I’ll catch up, maybe not. I’ll start with a session for which I have notes at hand, the one on Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) by Dennis Schleicher, Jennifer King, Tara Diachenko, Pat Callow, Gene Smith, Livia Labate, and Todd Warfel.

RIAs are web apps which transcend the page-by-page model of web design (“the death of the page” was one slogan batted about at the session) and are built on platforms like Flash, Ajax and Laszlo. Advantages of RIAs include smoother transitions based on a wider variety of user inputs and more nuanced responses than the click-and-load model; lower latency because the app can anticipate user actions and pre-load what it will need next; and built-in media support that avoids the gotchas of external players. Some RIAs you may have seen include Gmail, Google Maps, Map of the Market, and Newsmap.

A couple of the presenters showed how they used RIAs in recent commercial applications and the rest talked about the potential and challenges to IA presented by RIAs. They saw the challenges as centering on matters like how to design cinematic elements like plot arc in an IA context and how to create wireframes with dynamic elements or some other method with which to communicate specs to developers. To further the discussion they’ve registered, yet to be populated with content.

I have to say that I’m skeptical, not about the potential for RIAs but about the idea that their advantages exceed their disadvantages by enough for the “death of the page” to be remotely in consideration. One obvious problem is that the richest platform for RIAs, Flash, is proprietary and closed. Another which I asked about in the session but which wasn’t seriously addressed was what pageless systems mean for functionality like linking to, saving, and bookmarking content (to which in retrospect I would add harvesting, searching, syndicating and semantically marking content). The only item in this category of problems that got much discussion was how RIAs complicate web metrics (how to log and crunch stats on non-click-based interactions).

I find it curious that the panelists’ view of the challenges presented by RIAs was so IA-centered and not at all user-centered. I’m sure IAs will invent the vocabulary they need to talk to developers and if it means the death of the wireframe, then so be it. What matters most is what RIAs mean for users, particularly the loss of the affordances (see my shiny new usability vocabulary!) provided by the page model.

Taking my skeptic’s hat back off, there’s whizbang stuff going on in the RIA field, especially what Google is doing with Ajax. I hope the panelists do get off the ground as a place to keep up with it.

DEVONthink / schoolthink

My hunt for a PDF-wrangling tool continues. DEVONthink is a personal knowledge management app for Mac OS X with which you can maintain a collection of text files, PDFs, HTML and XML files, bookmarks, images and so on. Its big claim to fame is associative searching: select a document and it will show you the others which are related to it. The details of the search mechanism are unexplained, but my guess is it’s a form of latent semantic indexing.

DEVONthink got a lot of attention recently when science writer Steven Johnson wrote an NYT piece about it and similar tools, crediting them with helping him come up with the ideas that go into his work. But in two subsequent blog posts he convinced me that his techniques are not generalizable. He had a research assistant to copy quotes and marginalia from his reading into DEVONthink, and he says directly that its success depended on the quality and granularity of what he saved: “most of the entries are in a sweet spot where length is concerned: between 50 and 500 words. If I had whole eBooks in there, instead of little clips of text, the tool would be useless”. Since I need a tool to manage larger, still undigested documents (i.e., PDFs I haven’t read yet), it wouldn’t work its magic for me. Furthermore, DEVONthink only supports a single hierarchical organizational structure without tags or bibliographic metadata. So I’m still looking for a personal library application.

There — I wrote in two paragraphs what it took me eight pages to do for a class assignment this week. I’m having fun at school, but there’s something about the artificial nature of school assignments which makes me feel I’m doing far from my best work. The two contexts I’m used to working in, on the job and in casual (though not necessarily frivolous) online writing, feel very different. They encourage getting to the point, pruning the decision tree, and writing in a tone suited to the job at hand rather than the stilted mock-scholarly voice that intrudes in my head when I’m writing a “paper”. One of my challenges will be to get my own voice back and to get control over the subject matter — if something’s not worth my or the reader’s time, why put either of us through it?

And in case you missed it, I am enjoying school. Class is still a pleasure, and even the occasionaly painful assignments (and the train wreck of a schedule by which they pile up in clusters on my calendar!) give me a sense of having survived an ordeal once they’re over. The bit of dissatisfaction that’s creeping into this experiment has to do with the concern that I may, as Twain put it, let my schooling interfere with my education.

IA Summit and SxSW

This weekend I’ll be at the Information Architecture Summit in Montreal and then next weekend I’ll be back in Austin for South by Southwest Interactive. If you can read this and you’ll be in either place, let’s get together.