XIV.3 May + June 2007
Page: 50
Digital Citation

Review of “Ambient Findability by Peter Morville,” O’Reilly Media, 2006; ISBN 0-596-00765-5; $29.95

Gerard Torenvliet

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When I first picked up Peter Morville's recent book, Ambient Findability, I was expecting—and hoping for—a companion to the earlier book he coauthored with Louis Rosenfeld. That book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, is a landmark in the history of human-computer interaction (HCI) that marks the birth of the field of information architecture (IA). It challenged me to think differently and more deeply about information and the way it is structured, and it had an important impact on my thoughts and practice. If Ambient Findability could be half as valuable for me, it would still be worth more than twice the asking price.

Morville's new book easily met my expectations, even though it did so by defying them. Where his earlier book made you want to roll up your sleeves and fix something, his latest offering is more of an invitation to thought than to action. In it, Morville manages to mix bridges, maps, GPS-enabled wireless devices, bounded rationality, folksonomies, Googlebombing, and some cool librarian laws into what is perhaps best described as a problem statement for IA research and practice for the next 10 years.

Morville puts together his problem statement by taking the reader on a journey, which begins on a beach in Rhode Island. It is here that Morville claims to have written at least part of the book using his thumbs and a smartphone. For Morville, his morning at the beach typifies the intersection of already solved IA problems with the problems—and opportunities—of the future. In the category of already (or, almost) solved, Morville's smartphone allows him to make calls, send email, and browse the Web. Instead of heading for a tourism information booth to plan the rest of his day, Morville can retrieve answers to his many questions out of the ether using the browser on his smartphone. In the category of the future, Morville's smartphone is location aware and is not necessarily silent about that fact. This is a double-edged sword: The same technology that could help paramedics find him if he were in trouble also allows vendors to find him and push their services his way. For Morville, this is a major and important convergence of many technological threads. Information pull is meeting information push, and pervasive computing is taking on a whole new meaning.

Since the concerns of ambient findability are so new, Morville's approach to investigating them is to ask questions that deepen our understanding of one aspect of ambient findability, which then opens up another set of questions. The first set of questions Morville asks is around wayfinding, and he takes the reader through an investigation of wayfinding in the world, in the head, and on the Web. Morville argues that even if we think we understand wayfinding in each of these domains, when all three converge, a multiplicity of new challenges arise in his Treo.

But wayfinding is only part of the problem of ambient findability. Thanks in large part to the astounding returns on Moore's Law, our computers are getting faster, and information is easier to produce, store, and retrieve—but do we humans really want these benefits? Morville introduces us to the nemesis of Moore's Law—Mooers' Law. In brief, even if we have access to a lot of information, every new item we consult brings with it the burden of having to deal with it. Mooers' Law indicates that we usually don't want all of the returns that Moore's Law provides. Instead of looking for information optimally, we search until we're satisfied, and then no more. So, you and I and our serendipitous ways of searching for information are another part of the problem: How do you help someone find something they may not want to find in the first place?

The problems of wayfinding and information retrieval are, in IA terms, problems of first principles. Morville adds new depth to his problem statement by adding new, deeper concerns. Taking it for granted that we are on the threshold of a new world of convergence (case in point: Apple's iPhone was released while I was writing this review), do we want this convergence? Should we want it? To make his point, Morville shows how the benefits of a number of convergent technologies also have important drawbacks. For example, while as a parent I can understand the appeal of being able to track a child's location using a GPS bracelet, there are many ways in which this technology could be abused. Even if he is a bit of an optimist, Morville's willingness to acknowledge that the choices made by us technologists must be informed by more than just profits and marketing is a notable feature of this book, and a valuable foundation for anyone working to understand ambient findability.

Morville manages to stay entertaining even when discussing the nuts and bolts of XML-based resource decription formats.

Notwithstanding the fact that Morville has extended his powers well beyond librarianship, he is still a librarian at heart, and so the last set of ambient-findability problems deals with metadata, taxonomies, and other information-cataloguing concerns. But don't despair; somehow Morville manages to stay entertaining even when discussing the nuts and bolts of XML-based resource description formats. More than that, he shows how ambient findability stands to benefit most from ad hoc metadata (like folksonomies) rather than any sort of controlled scheme. The design problem here is to ensure that the benefits of going ad hoc are not outweighed by the costs, so that people can still trust that the information they find is good and reliable.

From start to finish, this book is easy to read, at times even deceptively so. Thanks to the author's efforts, the book is casual yet so thoughtful at the same time. It is apparent that Morville completed a lot of up-front work to establish a strong structure. Because he is an accomplished writer, the structure never dominates, but it's always there below the surface. The chapters move in a logical sequence and with good rhythm from Morville's opening statements, through a host of data, theory, and discussion, to a compelling (but somewhat open-ended) finish. Through it all, it is clear that Morville respects his reader. This book is a conversation with a colleague, not a lecture from an ivory tower.

I highly recommend not just reading this book, but taking some time to reflect on it. If Morville can help us to look before we leap into this brave new convergent world, he has made an important contribution indeed.

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Gerard Torenvliet
415 Leggett Drive, P.O. Box 13330
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K2K 2B2

About the Reviewer

Gerard Torenvliet is a senior human factors engineer at CMC Electronics, where he divides his time between research contracts and product development. A father of three, he would like to get away for a while to someplace where he and his wife would not be even ambiently findable.

To submit a book review, please email Gerard Torenvliet at

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©2007 ACM  1072-5220/07/0500  $5.00

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