AOL?!? Really?

· AOL, Best Practices, Business, Design, Information Architecture, long story short, Teamwork, User Experience, Web Gossip

By now most of my friends and colleagues and readers know that I resigned from my job at Yahoo! nearly a month ago. The meantime has flown by like a dream. B and I went to New Orleans and I was able to enjoy Jazzfest with no “homework” on my mind for the first time in years. I spoke in Minneapolis on the Web App Masters Tour, returned home, and last week I spoke at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco.

In the midst of all this, a week ago Friday I started my new job at AOL.

I’ve started joking with my friends that I must have joined a company called “AOL!? Really?!?” because that’s the first thing out of most people’s mouths. (The ones who can speak, that is – some just boggle their eyes at me.) To be honest, when my friend and mentor, Matte Scheinker, first told me he had come out of retirement to take a new role at AOL as VP for consumer experience I reacted in almost exactly the same way.

For anyone who’s fought the good fight at Yahoo! against a headwind of Bay Area techie-insider scorn, it might seem like moving to AOL would be a matter of taking on more of the same.

But I listened to what Matte had to tell me about his new gig, and the more I heard about it the more intrigued I got. First of all, I like the idea of a company embracing a turnaround effort head on. At Yahoo! we were winning in enough categories that I did not always feel a sense of urgency in the culture about fixing and improving the areas that needed it.

At AOL I feel a bracing awareness: “now or never, do or die!” The new management team has wasted no time remaking AOL, taking it public again, refreshing the brand, repositioning the strategy, and challenging its employees to excel and win.

At some point while we were talking I realized that Matte was recruiting me to join his team, to help him place design thinking and a laserlike focus on customer experience at the heart of the (digital/software) product development process. In some ways, this is a designer or UX guy’s “put your money where you mouth is” moment, where the leadership of a major corporation says, “OK, you’ve been arguing that the customer is key and that design is a tool that is relevant to a company’s strategy and business processes, so now prove it.”

While I enjoyed my role curating the Yahoo! pattern library immensely, and it provided me with plenty of ego-boosting attention in the user experience design community, I did not always feel like I was able to exert my influence within the company in a concrete, effective way. I was there to offer advice and set an example, but I did not always have the ability to put into action ideas about how to make better products and how to employ better processes.

Further, AOL is aggressively interested in reshaping the world of media, publishing, content, attention, and advertising. This has been my wheelhouse since before the web. I came from book publishing, where I was astonished at the 19th century business practices I saw. The upheaval ripping through the worlds of publishing and journalism are messy and frightening for those being tossed about by the rapid changes, but I’m convinced that new models will emerge to connect people with the information and ideas and art and entertainment they want, and people will be compensated for their talents, yes and empires will grow up around these new models of weaving it all together.

AOL is playing in exactly that space. For example, AOL’s Seed beta and the Patch startup AOL recently acquired both represent (to me) very interesting experiments:

  • Rethinking the “content” business and the infrastructure (is “supply chain” too industrial a term for creative work?) for cultivating high quality writing.
  • Exploring the capabilities the web offers and the types of flows the web favors.
  • Sourcing small pieces of content.
  • Targeting hyperlocal geographies.

I honestly believe AOL has a shot at turning around its fortunes and rejuvenating its illustrious brand and I’m excited to have the opportunity to help the product teams at AOL perform to their highest abilities and succeed at delivering content and experiences that are better than the best of what the Internet has to offer (we call this goal “beating the Internet”).

Are the odds long? Yes, of course they are. That’s what makes the challenge so ambitious and so exciting.

So, yes, AOL. Really!

My salute to the Italian Information Architecture Summit

· Information Architecture, User Experience

I was sadly unable to attend the Italian IA Summit again this year, but I agreed to make some introductory remarks via Skype. This was done at midnight my time last week, as Thursday turned into Friday. In Pisa, it was 8 am (more or less) and the conference was just getting started. I could feel the excitement and energy behind the scenes as we got the technology sorted out.

Andrea Resmini, an organizer of the conference and a fellow board member of the Information Architecture Institute managed to “bootleg” the talk in an oblique black and white format. It’s cut off a little at the beginning and seems to run into a glitch around the 5:12 mark, but until some better recording materializes, this murky artifact is the only surviving record of my talk, which I called “Why I Am an Information Architect”:

In the talk, I discussed my personal history and relationship with the concept of IA and the role of the information architect and celebrated what I view as a maturation process and reintegration of various strains of information architecture thinking (the relationship between built architecture and information, the mapping of information systems and relationship, visual thinking, information design, and of course the IA aspects of user experience design) into a coherent disciplinary whole.

Perhaps I need to write my thoughts down and publish them here or somewhere else suitable, such as in the Journal of Information Architecture?

Social design preso from Beyond Findability workshop presented by the IA Institute at the IA Summit

· Design, Information Architecture, Patterns, Social Design, User Experience

Erin posted the latest version of our “5/5/5″ talk, as given in Phoenix last week, to Slideshare:

Also, Erin has also posted a blog entry on our poster shown at the Summit, on our evolving efforts to map and visualize the social design space. You can download a PDF of the poster there if you like.

Note, my presentation at BayCHI last night was very close to this one, with a few very minor tweaks, though I may upload the version just so I’ll have it in my own Slideshare account too.

Designing for play at Ignite Bay Area

· Design, Information Architecture, Social Design, User Experience

Just got sent a link to all the videos from Ignite Bay Area last month.

Here’s my “Designing for Play” talk, a topic I’ll be exploring in greater depth at Web Visions, the Web 2.0 Expo, and Web Directions @media later this year:

There’ll be another Ignite in May coinciding with the Web 2.0 Expo, so get your submission in now.

Tags as collecting behavior

· Design, Information Architecture, Patterns, Searching and Finding, Social Design, User Experience, Yahoo!

When I first started curating the Yahoo! Design Pattern Library, I put “tags” near the top of my list of user interaction patterns to investigate. By that time, Yahoo! had already acquired several pioneers in the tagging realm, Flickr and Delicious, and there were some subtle distinctions in how they implemented the experience.

We got down in the weeds on these and did a lot of research, ultimately settled on offering high-level guidance, and finished the patterns in the course of writing the social patterns book, where we filed tagging under the group of patterns known as Collecting, under Social Objects.

Tagging and other forms of collecting are also an example of social design patterns that mimic game dynamics. Collecting objects is a core “easy fun” activity in many games, and similarly these extremely lightweight social interactions around gathering or tagging objects enable a form of self-interested behavior that creates aggregate value and potentially richer forms of engagement.

Our three new tagging patterns are Tag an Object, Find with Tags, and the somewhat controversial Tag Cloud, which some people view as an “anti-pattern.” Drop by, check them out, and let us know if we can make them any better.

Reposted from Patterns: Tag Collection (Yahoo! Developer Network Blog).

An essential guide to fostering online community

· Applications, Best Practices, Design, Development, Information Architecture, long story short, Patterns, Social Design, User Experience

[Building Social Web Application book cover]Building Social Web Applications
by Gavin Bell
O’Reilly (October, 2009)

Gavin Bell draws on his extensive experience to offer a well structured guide to adding community elements to a website or application. His book will help any professional planning a social strategy, designing a set of social features, determining the types of relationships to foster among users, and even determining how best to manage change in an existing site or online structure.

Bell covers a wide gamut of issues that a site planner will need to consider, from developing the data schema for people, relationships, and objects; to how best to expose APIs to third-party developers; to the process of rolling out a new product or feature. Anyone developing a social website or app should keep this book handy throughout the process.

Bell and I share a publisher and our titles cover some similar issues. When I first picked up Bell’s finished book I gritted my teeth with envy. As I quickly devoured the book, though, I was relieved (or, at least I convinced myself) that our books are complementary and are each useful in their own way.

If you’re looking for one book to guide you through the entire process, from conception to launch and into the life of a social web application, then this is the book for you.

(via Amazon.com: Christian Crumlish “mediajunkie’s review of Building Social Web Applications”.)