Surviving information-seeking sickness

The key to web success is to stop thinking about organizational information and start thinking of customer tasks.

It all started many years ago. I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. A colleague was sick in Beaumont hospital in north Dublin. My friend Tom and I decided to pay her a visit. As we entered the reception area, I saw that sign. It was big and blue and seemed to be smiling at me, inviting me; feline and so attractive. The sign was in all capitals. It just said one word: INFORMATION.

What a sensuous word. I had worked in the Web for years and had had the pleasure of being surrounded by so much information. People need information. People love information. They yearn for it, dream about it, fantasize about it. We live, of course, in the information society, and people all over the world are just looking for information.

I was enthralled by that simple, blue sign. I walked towards it without thinking. It was calling out to me. And then Tom called out to me.
“Gerry, I know what room Ann is in. There’s no need to ask.”

But I was blind, deaf and dumb. I waited in line, oblivious to Tom’s voice. My turn came. I smiled at the receptionist. She smiled back. It was the moment of truth.

“Can I have some information please,” I said to her.
“Sorry?” she replied, her eyes somewhat quizzical. “Are you visiting a patient?”
“Yes,” I replied enthusiastically.
“Ah, so you need to know what room they’re in. Can you give me their name?”
“My friend Tom knows what room Ann is in,” I replied. I looked back to see where Tom was and I noticed that he was trying to hide behind a pillar. I turned back to the receptionist. “I’m just looking for information. Any information will do. When, for example, was this hospital built? Stuff like that. This reception desk, what type of wood is it made from? Anything at all. Just give me information.”

The receptionist stared at me for what seemed like a long time. Then she smiled. “I know exactly what you need, sir. If you just wait there …” She got up and went into an adjoining room. I waited.

About five minutes later two pleasant gentlemen in white coats arrived.
“Hello, Gerry”, one said to me.
“I believe you’re just looking for information.”
“Yes, yes!”
“Come with us, Gerry, and we’ll give you all the information you can take.”

I was so excited. Until they put me in a very tight-fitting, badly-designed jacket. And then locked me in a white room with very soft walls. And then started giving me injections.

It took time. Lots of counseling. I had many relapses. The doctors told me that I had spent too much time with too many web teams who didn’t live in the real world. These web teams built websites full of information without any real understanding of what their customers actually wanted. These web teams thought people came looking for information, when in fact people had specific tasks that they wanted to solve. Information was only a means to an end. It was not the end.

I’m better now.


9 responses

  1. Hey, if only information points were like this piece of genius from Fry & Laurie…

  2. It never ceases to amaze me how you can find something interesting to write about each week. Your latest email made me smile, so I felt compelled to comment.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Hi Gerry,
    wonderful article. It reminded me on a paper, I did 10 years ago. Here is a short extract:

    A new generation is growing up in Japan who consider the “Global Village” a non-issue. They are known as the Otaku, which in Japanese signifies a very distanced form of address. The Otaku prefer the smallest morsels of information and avoid all bodily contact. They have excellent memory and hate correlation. They live in artificially-created information niches and communicate exclusively within their spheres of expertise. The Otaku live in the world of the media, in the sphere of continuous production, like fish in water. All is signals and information in Japan: one feeds upon information, and one dresses in information. One allows the left arm to be suntanned, to signal that one drives a prestigious, imported automobile - with the steering wheel on the left. The Otaku form an interface through which all can pass without leaving a trace. The Otaku do not differ between the animated and the inanimate. They treat humans as things and things as humans. They are addicted to the fetish of information. They have a tendency to become fat, have long hair and wear T-shirts and jeans. But is it enough to retain sanity in cyberspace?

    Don’t stop inspiring me! ;-)

  4. Wolfgang, very interesting quote. 10 years later and it’s still very valid.

  5. It’s the difference between labels and signposts.

    People are used to labelling things: “What is provided here?” “Information.” “Then we’ll put up a sign that say ‘information’.” That may work in real life but on the web things are different. Instead of “What is provided here?” you have to ask “Where do people go when they are seeking this?” and then put up a signpost telling those people where they should look.

    A weblink is a signpost, not a label.

  6. A funny story making a serious point. Much appreciated!

  7. Mike, excellent point!

  8. Brilliant analogy. I always imagined you in a white tight-fitting jacket:-) Weren’t you the silly boffin to be duped by the sensual alluring sign and the smiling receptionist. So Beaumont was your EUREKA moment. Do they still have the sign up? Is it a sign of the times that information desks have been replaced by customer service desks?

  9. Brilliant. Love it.

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