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Tuesday
Jan182011

Caught In An Endless Quest For The Perfect Filing System?

(I'm grabbing a couple reviews of my old (favorite) books and dropping them onto this blog. This one is from 2008 but explores a question that I believe remains very interesting today: How do we organize ever expanding amounts of information (in it's many forms) and make it accessible and useful?  Here's one of the thinkers in this area.)

 

Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder By David Wienberger

Everything is Miscellaneous speaks to the aching sense of futility experienced by all you organizational freaks. The reason your office or computer desktop folders are never perfect, and as a result you are not perfectly organized, is that you have not had perfect tools.

Alas, this book makes clear that the world does not fit into nested folders and file drawers ... no matter how clever you name them. We've always intuitively known this but David Wienberger gets specific about it. By the way, you may feel better to learn that the folks managing the Dewey Decimal System have a vastly more frustrating (and hopeless?) organizational and taxonomical job than you do.

David Wienberger goes deep on what software and more generally the internet has done to help us organize knowledge in the world. He illuminates our movement from first order organization (the library shelf), to second order (creating a library card catalogue to find that book), to third order (collective tagging of information as found in online tools like flikr, delicious, wikipedia, and others).

More interstingly, he describes how mankind will keep intellectual order given the explosion of constantly changing information. The short answer to that "how" question is: we will no longer simply put information into discrete real or virtual folders. Instead we will all collectively begin to create and share descriptive information elements and associations about each element of information.

Wienberger's sense is that we are steadily organizing the world's information into structures that actually better mimic how the human mind works. We are bringing our information toolsets closer to our biological inclinations. The implication is that we will all spend less time organizing and more time making use of information. Great news unless you're a genetically compulsive obsessive organizer.

Read this book to find out what's driving many things you see on the internet including meta tagging, wikipedia, flickr, google, digg, and beyond. If you're interested, you can get the book here ... Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. Also David Weinberger has an ongoing blog about information management if you enjoy following the subject.

 

Thursday
Nov182010

Designing a Technology Product? Consider Its Return on Attention.

I just noticed Tom Davenport's book, The Attention Economy, sitting on my bookshelf. I read it a couple years ago and I flipped through it again.

Attention is still a cool topic.

Telecommunications software and services rule my world today. But a few years back in Ernst & Young's consulting practice, I directed a strategy program for CIO's called "Navigating the New Technology Landscape". I ran it out of E&Y's Center for Business Innovation in Cambridge, MA. My focus on "attention" started with a series of NNTL conference discussions around "information overload" and the overload's challenges to internet infrastructure. In those conversations, software product managers and their customers were heavily absorbed in matters of transaction volumes, data base storage capacity, network capacity, and generally managing data quantity (scale) and quality. But it also became clear to me that these problems were really just short term technology constraints.

My sense was that human attention (not disk space and bandwidth) was the permanent scarce resource and as a result I shifted toward the idea that human attention should be the foremost driver of software product design.

We set down a basic principle. Value (pick your own definition) was to be found by focusing information technology design and development around helping people efficiently get something from their invested attention. Ever willing to over-apply math within stochastic settings, I carried around a little formula in my notebook at the time: "a return on invested attention ("RoA") equals the value of acquired knowledge divided by the intellectual energy required to acquire it".

RoA = Knowledge Value / Energy Invested

This is all pretty obvious but it was certainly not explicit for software design at the time. Instead developers operated with a goal of alignment to business requirements and software usability. Usability as then practiced, was screen-based Taylorism (time and motion analysis) applied to software interfaces. It was necessary but was itself not sufficient. We argued that software products which delivered a low attention requirement (and presumably high return) had the best shot at success. Of course, me being so smart, did I invest in Google in those early years? Ahh. No. Apple? No. Do as I say, and not as I do.

Tom Portante and I ultimately wrote a quick piece for the early (and very cool!) Wired Magazine. We also presented the subject at a couple tech conferences before moving on. So it turns out that Davenport, a friend from those days, with co-author John C. Beck, picked up the subject and ultimately wrote a book about it called "The Attention Economy" (By the way, a very belated thanks for the acknowledgement Tom). Tom was, at the time, E&Y's thought leader in knowledge management and process reengineering and was one of re-engineering's intellectual fathers worldwide. The book took a run at quantifying attention's value, establishing its place within the range of human (and business) activities, and it nodded toward the idea of structuring and directing (actually scripting) attention. His work significantly broadened my narrow product manager's view of the subject.

The problem with conceptual frameworks is that they are, well, conceptual. They therefore frame thinking more than they direct action. As such, attention still frames much of what's happening today but it still won't tell you how to make something. But hey those frames are interesting! Consider these questions: What is the comparative return on attention ("RoA") for a student's college experience versus online learning? What is the return on attention for a social network versus a friendly hello by phone or e-mail? Does Google Reader and Twitter have a higher return on attention than subscriber lists and web surfing? For highest RoA, should I watch the news on TV or over Google news?

So what's my point? If you're building information technology products, return on attention remains a durable (though amorphous) design consideration. But the subject ought to at least be the basis for a product manager stepping back, gathering all the features, functions, and user interactions, and then wondering; "Am I increasing or reducing the intellectual clutter in someone's day?" And; "How do I actually analyze that question, or answer that question, and more specifically how do I adjust my product design?"

I wonder if my blog has a positive return on attention (Resist your tempation to write me a clever e-mail).

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