The semantic web gets friendly

I’ve had a passing interest in the semantic web since I first heard the term a few years ago, but hadn’t explored it much beyond using the hCard microformat for contact info on a few websites I’ve done. It sounded like an interesting idea, but in the absence of significant, working applications beyond the academic world, it didn’t really capture my attention. Not to mention that there were (and are) some very vocal opponents of the idea, with a wide-ranging set of criticisms (some well-taken, some just strange).

But it recently popped back into mind when I chanced across a post entitled Semantic web comes to life from Joel Alleyne’s blog, Knowledge Rocks. Given that I still have access to the e-journal database of one of my former Universities, I logged in a grabbed the full Scientific American article Joel had linked to, The Semantic Web in Action. The article spills a good deal of ink highlighting various real-world applications of semantic web (or at least semantic web-ish) technologies, mostly from the medical field, where practical applications abound. (The stories shared by the article authors reminded me of a story I read a while ago about a researcher without any actual health training who made a significant cancer treatment-related discover just by linking together existing research that hadn’t yet been put together — I wish I could remember whether it was on the web, in Harper’s, or possibly a CBC Ideas episode).

So I’m on a bit of a semantic web kick now… I’ve FOAF-a-matic‘ed myself, and am reading all I can. It’s a fairly timely rediscovery as my workplace (Canadian Education Association) moves towards implementing a new website. We’re sitting on a goldmine of content (particularly from our magazine, Education Canada) that really needs indexing and some good metadata, and it will be interesting to see if RDF or something like it can fit into the emerging picture.

Visualizations of information architecture / user experience

It seems like the meaning of terms like “information architecture” (IA) and “user experience” (UX) have been contested since their introduction, with the result that web design neophytes intrigued by the fancy titles “information architect” or “user experience designer” and eager to learn more, are typically exposed to a bunch of loud and sometimes fairly unprofessional debates that shed more heat than light on the topic.

Which is why I was glad to come across two visualizations recently that help make it easier to explain IA and UX.

The first is from an old article by Peter Morville, IA expert, from his now-defunct column, Strange Connections.

Drawing an analogy with a similar chart in Geoffrey Moore’s book, Living on the Fault Line, Morville characterizes IA as a deep, layered field with the holy trinity of “Users, Content, Context” at the bottom (something readers of his Information Architecture for the World Wide Web will recall), and the more tangible deliverables like wireframes at the top.

The other visualization, from Peter Boersma’s blog, is even more compelling (for me) because it clearly and somewhat contentiously demonstrates the difference between UX and IA, without drawing an artificially rigid boundary between the two.

This revised T-model lead to the coining of two new terms: “armpit IA” (for someone who works at the intersection between shallow IA and UX) and “shoulder IA” (for someone who bridges UX and business IA).

As you go deeper in the IA column, you get into really technical, nerdy things like controlled vocabularies (how do you define when “pool” refers to a swimming pool or a game played in a bar?), while a bit higher you have the kind of IA that every decent web designer engages in (coming up with link labels and content organization schemes). If I had to place myself somewhere on this chart, it would probably be in the armpit. Being in the armpit is more glamorous than it sounds (but only slightly).