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Ambient Findability by Peter Morville

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Chapter 1. Lost and Found

At the seashore, between the land of atoms and the sea of bits, we are now facing the challenge of reconciling our dual citizenship in the physical and digital worlds.

—Hiroshi Ishii

MIT Media Lab

I'm sitting on a beach in Newport, Rhode Island. Seagulls and sandpipers hunt near the water's edge. The Atlantic ocean sparkles in the early morning sun. To my right, the Cliff Walk winds its way between the rugged New England shoreline and the manicured gardens of the Newport mansions, opulent "summer cottages" built with industrial age fortunes made in steamships, railroads, and foreign trade.

I'm sitting on a beach in Newport, but I'm not entirely there. My attention is focused on a device that rests in the palm of my hand. It's a Treo 600 smartphone. I'm using it to write this sentence, right here, right now. As a 6.2 ounce computer sporting a 144 megahertz RISC processor, 32 megabytes of RAM, a color display, and a full QWERTY keyboard, this is one impressive micro-machine. But that's not what floats my boat. What I love about this device is its ability to reach out beyond the here and now.

By integrating a mobile phone and Palm Powered organizer with wireless email, text messaging, and web browsing, the Treo connects me with global communication and information networks. I can make a phone call, send email, check the weather, buy a book, learn about Newport, and find a restaurant for lunch. The whole world is accessible and addressable through this 21st Century looking glass in the palm of my hands.

But make no mistake, this device is a two-way mirror. Not only can people reach out and touch me with a phone call, an email, or a text message. Equipped with the right technology, someone could pinpoint my location within a few hundred feet. Like most new smartphones, my Treo includes an embedded Global Positioning System chip designed to support E911 emergency location services. In other words, I'm findable.

Here's where things get interesting. We're at an inflection point in the evolution of findability. We're creating all sorts of new interfaces and devices to access information, and we're simultaneously importing tremendous volumes of information about people, places, products, and possessions into our ubiquitous digital networks.

Consider the following examples:

  • There's a company called Ambient Devices that embeds information representation into everyday objects: lights, pens, watches, walls, and wearables. You can buy a wireless Ambient Orb that shifts colors to show changes in the weather, stock market, and traffic patterns based on user preferences you set on a web site.

  • From the highways of Seattle and Los Angeles to the city streets of Tokyo and Berlin, embedded wireless sensors and real-time data services for mobile devices are enabling motorists to learn about and route around traffic jams and accidents.

  • Pioneers in "convergent architecture" have built the Swisshouse, a new type of consulate in Cambridge, Massachussetts that connects a geographically dispersed scientific community. It may not be long before persistent audio-video linkages and "web on the wall" come to a building near you.

  • Delicious Library's social software turns an iMac and FireWire digital video camera into a multimedia cataloging system. Simply scan the barcode on any book, movie, music, or video game, and the item's cover appears on your digital shelves along with tons of information from the Web. This sexy, location-aware, peer-to-peer, personal lending library lets you share your collection with friends and neighbors.

  • You can buy a watch from Wherify Wireless with an integrated global positioning system (GPS) that locks onto your kid's wrist, so you can pinpoint his location at any time. A nifty "breadcrumb" feature shows where your child has wandered over the course of several hours. Similar devices are available in amusement parks such as Denmark's Legoland, so parents can quickly find their lost children.

  • Manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble have already begun inserting radio-frequency identification tags (RFIDs) into products so they can reduce theft and restock shelves more efficiently. These tags continue to function long after products leave the store and enter the home or business.

  • At the Baja Beach Club in Barcelona, patrons can buy drinks and open doors with a wave of their hand, compliments of a syringe-injected, RFID microchip implant. The system knows who you are, where you are, and your exact credit balance. Getting "chipped" is considered a luxury service, available for VIP members only.

The size and price of processors, sensors, radio frequency identification tags, and related technologies are approaching a tipping point. Today's expensive prototypes are tomorrow's dirt cheap products. Imagine the ability to track the location of anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime. Simply affix a tiny sticker to your TV's remote control or to the bottom of your spouse's shoe, and then fire up your Treo's web browser.

We're stepping through the looking glass into an information-rich world with new possibilities and problems. We will find delight in groovy gadgets and location-based services. Individuals and institutions will achieve greater flexibility and productivity. And yet, we will struggle to balance privacy, freedom, convenience, and safety.

And amidst all this novelty, our vaunted ability to "learn how to learn" will be put to the test. How will we make informed decisions? How will we know enough to ask the right questions? Nine billion web pages. Six billion people. Who do you ask? Who do you trust? How do you find the best product, the right person, the data that makes a difference?

The answers are hidden in the strange connections between wayfinding, social software, information retrieval, decision trees, self-organization, evolutionary psychology, librarianship, and authority. As William Gibson, the science-fiction author who coined the term cyberspace, once noted, "The future exists today. It's just unevenly distributed."

Where the Internet meets ubiquitous computing, the histories of navigation, communication, commerce, and information seeking converge. We increasingly use mobile devices to find our way, to find products, to find answers, and to find ourselves. As we map the emerging shoreline that connects the land of atoms and the sea of bits, findability serves as a useful lens for seeing where we've been and what lies ahead.


At this point, you may be wondering: what exactly is findability? This section is for you.

  1. The quality of being locatable or navigable.

  2. The degree to which a particular object is easy to discover or locate.

  3. The degree to which a system or environment supports navigation and retrieval.

Findability is a quality that can be measured at both the object and system levels. We can study the attributes of an individual object that make it more or less findable. The title of a document. The color of a life jacket. The presence of an embedded RFID tag. And we can evaluate how well an overall system supports people's ability to find their way and find what they need. Can patients navigate a hospital? Can users navigate a web site?

Of course, the successes of findable objects and their systems are often closely linked. An orange life jacket fails to grab attention in an orange ocean, but a statistically improbable phrase jumps right out in a sea of books. Findability requires definition , distinction, difference. In physical environments, size, shape, color, and location set objects apart. In the digital realm, we rely heavily on words. Words as labels. Words as links. Keywords.

The humble keyword has become surprisingly important in recent years. As a vital ingredient in the online search process, keywords have become part of our everyday experience. We feed keywords into Google, Yahoo!, MSN, eBay, and Amazon. We search for news, products, people, used furniture, and music. And words are the key to our success.

The power of the keyword search has combined with the richness of the World Wide Web to foment a revolution in the way we do business. This revolution is not simply about moving the shopping experience online. It's about empowering individuals with information and choice. Never before has the consumer had so much access to product information before the point of purchase. Never before have we had so many products to choose from. Power has shifted and continues to shift toward the consumer.

As the pendulum swings from push to pull, the effectiveness of advertising diminishes relative to the importance of product design and quality and price. No longer forced to trust the promotional spin of television advertisements and predatory salespeople, we now have the ability to find the best products and the best deals. We can make informed decisions, thanks to the simple keyword and our sophisticated engines of findability.

For when you examine the tools and systems available for finding and evaluating products, keyword search is only the beginning. Consider the richness of Amazon, where we can compare and contrast myriad products in amazing detail. The hunt starts with a keyword search or perhaps the choice of category and subcategory.

Let's say we're looking for a digital camera. We choose Electronics, then Camera and Photo, then Digital Cameras. Now the selection really begins. We can browse by brand or filter by megapixel range. We can focus on the bestsellers or the lowest prices. For any given camera, we can view descriptions and specifications from the manufacturer, and weigh their claims against the color commentary of customer reviews.

This camera is awesome! That camera sucks! There's no tripod mount. You can't recharge the battery overseas. This one's too small for people with big hands. Try this one instead. I dropped mine in a pond but it still works perfectly fine.

These customer reviews are funny, insightful, and valuable, yet they also force us to play a more active role in evaluating our sources of information. Who do we trust? Amazon? The manufacturer? Some random customer? We need to validate claims by cross-reference, so we check out Epinions, CNET, and Consumer Reports. And if possible, we ask a friend. All of these sources and our own judgments about their trustworthiness and credibility inform the process of finding the right product.

The credibility and authority of sources become even more important when we step into the arena of health information. In an age of skyrocketing health care costs and doctors with little time to spare, we are taking our questions online. In the United States, 80% of adult Internet users, or almost half of Americans over the age of 18 (about 95 million individuals) have researched health and medical topics on the Internet. We learn about specific diseases. We educate ourselves about medical procedures. We search for nutritional supplements. And we seek alternative treatments and medicines for ourselves and for our loved ones. In the process, our literacy is put to the test. Can we find what we seek? Can we evaluate what we do find? Are our decisions getting better or worse?

I can tell you from personal experience that Google does not perform well when it comes to health. Recently, our youngest daughter, Claudia, was diagnosed with a severe peanut allergy. Suddenly interested in a topic I had never cared about before, I turned to the Web for answers. Google sent me to specialized sites such as http://peanutallergy.com, a shallow and grossly commercial web site pushing favored brands of nut free chocolate and soynut butter. Yahoo! and MSN didn't perform any better. I did eventually find what I needed, but only by drawing on my advanced searching skills and familiarity with authoritative sources like the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. If I weren't a librarian who lives on the Web, I would have failed to find the right answers.

Sometimes the health information we find online validates our doctor's diagnosis or advice. Sometimes it sends us for a second opinion. And sometimes it simply makes us feel better informed and more confident. Consider the following excerpt from an email message sent to the National Cancer Institute:

Last evening I learned my 72 yr. old mother has lung cancer. Still in a state of shock she was not able to provide me with much information. She lives four hours from me and I am unable to be with her at this moment due to work obligations. So until I can be with her I am taking the time to learn as much as possible on the subject of lung cancer. So I would like to thank the person or persons for this very informative web site. This web site has given me the information on how I as a daughter can help my mother and also teach my family what to expect in the next coming months. Thank you!

In this message of grief and gratitude, we can find hope and inspiration. Hope in the reality of progress. The sender couldn't have found what she needed only a few years ago. Though we already take it for granted, the Internet is still the fastest growing new medium of all time. And inspiration in understanding that the work we do to connect people with content and services and one another truly makes a difference. Designers, developers, writers, and others who labor behind the screens to shape the user experience rarely get to see the personal impact of their work. We maintain empathy for the user as a matter of faith. Messages from and contact with our users help us to renew that faith.

Of course, the user experience is increasingly out of control, as wireless devices inject new interfaces and affordances into an already complex network ecology. How do we design for mobility? How do we create good experiences when we can't predict context of use? Will our users be in the office or in the bathtub? What's their bandwidth and screen size? The variables will only multiply as ubicomp transforms the Web into both interface and infrastructure for an ambient Internet of objects we can barely imagine.

  1. Surrounding; encircling: e.g., ambient sound.

  2. Completely enveloping.

Ambient findability describes a fast emerging world where we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime. We're not there yet, but we're headed in the right direction. Information is in the air, literally. And it changes our minds, physically. Most importantly, findability invests freedom in the individual. As the Web challenges mass media with a media of the masses, we will enjoy an unprecented ability to select our sources and choose our news. In my opinion, findability is going ambient, just in time.

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