Lou Rosenfeld

Lou Rosenfeld
information architect

Tottered on: 20 January 2007
Temperature: 23F
Ceiling: glaring sunshine
Ground: light snow over ice
Wind: calm

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TT with HD: Lou Rosenfeld

[Ed. note: Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville wrote an important and influential book called Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. It's not about polar bears, but it has a picture of one on the cover, and that's why this volume is referenced below as the 'polar bear book'.

Early in the conversation, Lou mentions Books by Chance, which is a local company that will take your old books and sell them for you on consignment ... useful, say, if you're moving away from here like Lou.

A final note on books: check out a copy of Ann Arbor (W)rites to read the chapter written by Mary Jean Babic (Lou is her husband) about her month as a bathing nomad. No, seriously, check it out.]

HD: Welcome to the teeter totter, Lou!

LR: Thank you!

HD: It's a spectacular day, actually, even though it's a bit cold.

LR: Thanks for getting me out of the house.

HD: So are you taking a break from packing, is that basically the deal?

LR: You know, we've actually done a lot of the packing already. Here's a local pitch. One of the things we did, which was really great, is we got rid of about half of our books, probably about 400 books, 350 books. We were just going to bring them over to Kiwanis and lug them over and kind of forget about them. But Mary Jean stumbled on an ad for Books by Chance ...

HD: ... okay, I'm not familiar with that.

LR: Actually it turns out it's a couple that I know--I used to go to school with John Weise--and they sell books on consignment by Amazon. So they'll just come over to your house--if you live in Ann Arbor--pick them up, scan them in, send you an email the next day that says which books they can sell and which ones they can't. The ones they can, they'll just sell. We've got a couple hundred bucks already.

HD: Wow.

LR: And you get to see where they sold, which is this beautiful, frictionless internet commerce that we've heard about. So, hey you know, some guy in Altoona, Pennsylvania, was interested in my book on central Asian history! That's bizarre, but it's kind of fun to see that. And then the rest of the books that they can't sell, they'll donate to Friends of the Library or recycle them, if they can't even donate them. I'm kind of an internet guy and I'm always thinking about stuff like that. It's just fun to see that.

HD: So did you get rid of any of the previous editions of the polar bear book [Information Architecture for the World Wide Web]?

LR: Oh yeah, absolutely!

HD: So that will still sell, the first and second editions?

LR: We'll find out! Not yet, but ...

HD: ... so you don't know yet whether those particular ...

LR: ... the second edition, I know is selling. You just go to Amazon and the second edition page is up there still, and you can still buy it through them anyway. I don't know about the first edition.

HD: I'm not sure if--it was either Amazon or a Borders second edition page that says, This book is not available, because it's being updated?

LR: Maybe it was Borders. Amazon, they do other goofy things with edition pages.

HD: So anyway, the third edition is out now, right?

LR: Late November it was available.

HD: Borders here in downtown Ann Arbor has it out on an end-cap display.

LR: Oh, they do!?

HD: Under a sign that says, '30% Off Selected Titles'. And when I inquired more specifically it turns out that it's not a selected title. So it's somewhat misleading. I mean, I think for somebody who wanted to buy that book, you would definitely go to the cash register thinking it was going to be 30% off.

LR: Well, you know, the people in the publishing industry and the book retailers who figure out those kinds of cooperative advertising programs, they are able to handle a great deal of complexity. I think the ones who can't do that are the ones who figure out how to send the shuttle up into space or something. It's just kind of bizarre stuff that's kind of unclear to me.

HD: So you have nothing to do with whether it gets placed on an end-cap or whether it can be put on sale or not?

LR: Not officially.

HD: But unofficially?

LR: Occasionally, Peter [Morville] and I will go into a store and face it out on the shelf, I'll admit it! But you know ...

HD: ... so facing it out means that ...

LR: ... it's just showing the cover on the shelf instead of the spine.

HD: Okay, but you need to create some room on the shelf in order to do that.

LR: Sometimes.

HD: And that would mean taking books they have already faced out, and facing them in?

LR: It might. It might not [laugh].

HD: Okay! So the polar bear book, I mean I understand that it's this Safari Series, is it O'Reilly Media, whose ...?

LR: ... it's O'Reilly, Pearson, which also does Peachpit, and many other imprints.

HD: But I understand though that it's the series of books that all have animals, right?

LR: Ohh, well right, okay I see. Safari is the online version of many publishers--O'Reilly and a couple of other publishers' books. O'Reilly books themselves are mostly known to have the animal engravings on the cover. That's just O'Reilly.

HD: I assumed [incorrectly] that was somehow a function of Safari, you know, with the animals. Okay.

LR: I had never made that connection, so now that you mention it, I can see that.

HD: Well, a polar bear is not an animal you'd associate with a safari.

LR: No.

HD: But at any rate, the polar bear fits into this scheme of animal-on-the-cover. Did you and Peter have any choice at all about the animal?

LR: No, everyone asks us that. We were just grateful that Edie Freedman, who's the designer who came up with that concept for O'Reilly, she just decided to pick that, and not a banana slug, or a phage, or some bizarre, disgusting life form.

HD: So it wasn't like you even had a choice of bears, you couldn't have gone for a grizzly bear instead?

LR: Absolutely not. We didn't know until a week before we actually got our hands on the book itself what was going to be on the cover.

HD: So it's turned out to be a really powerful marketing tool, because people just refer to it as the 'polar bear book'.

LR: They're really smart at O'Reilly with the whole concept of branding a series. They get most of those engravings from the Dover book of animal engravings that was done ... in the 19th century. Those are all in the public domain now.

HD: So this is not original art, where somebody went and drew a polar bear?

LR: No, those are actual engraving images and they augment them occasionally, but for the most part they're just verbatim from the Dover book. And everyone recognizes them.

HD: So the third edition. Was there any thought to writing a whole different book as opposed to sprucing up the existing book into a third edition?

LR: No, because we really did an entirely different book for the second edition. We doubled the length and we really threw out a lot--maybe most--of the first edition, when we did the second edition. And we really paid the price for that in terms of personal sanity and things like that. We probably threw out 100 pages of new content that didn't make it into that second edition. So when we did the third edition, we figured we had already done a few editions worth of updates with the second edition. It was still a lot of work to do the third edition. But yeah, it's more of a spruce-up.

HD: So the next book you're working on, the one on search analytics, that's due out yet this year?

LR: Let's hope! Originally, it was supposed to be out now in January, but being that it's about half written, I don't think we're going to be making it in this month.

HD: Is that another collaborative effort with Peter Morville, or?

LR: No, this is with a guy named Rich Wiggins, who's an information technologist up at MSU, who I've known for about 15 years. We've always wanted to work together and found this to be the opportunity.

HD: So are you guys just not writing fast enough, is that the deal?

LR: That's the deal. There's always self-discipline issues. I mean, I hate writing, honestly. It's the last thing I want to do with my time. I'd rather be doing marketing and consulting and things like that. I've just had a lot on my plate this last year. I had the other edition come out, moving, I've got this new business--that's been a lot of work, this publishing business ...

HD: ... this is Rosenfeld Media, that's going ...

LR: ... yeah. That's what going to publish the new book. And it's all a lot of fun--and I had a kid--so it's like, How much can you expect out of one year?

HD: So is Rosenfeld Media what's motivating your move from Ann Arbor to--is it New York City, or?

LR: Brooklyn. I just signed a lease yesterday. And it's a motivator. In fact, I just was reading somewhere, that Park Slope is sort of the national center or nexus for small publishing houses.

HD: And Park Slope is ...?

LR: That's part of Brooklyn. But there's not a single motivator. I think one of the big ones is having family out there. I'm from the suburbs and Mary Jean's got family there now. You know, we love it here, but it's just a place we've been for a really long time. I've been here 23 years and she's lived in the Midwest her whole life. We just want to try something different and see how it goes. For all we know, we'll be back in Ann Arbor in a year with our two tails between our legs, so.

HD: Okay, so are you going to sell your house then?

LR: We sold it.

HD: Oh, you've already sold it??!!

LR: Yeah, so here's the highlight of the interview: how you sell your house in two weeks in Ann Arbor this time of year in this type of market.

HD: Can I guess?

LR: Sure.

HD: CraigsList.

LR: No [laugh], thought about it. But we worked with a really good agent, Diane Ratkovich from Prudential Snyder. Two things. The main one was pricing it rationally, which a lot of people just don't do. We were looking for a house in Ann Arbor for over a year before we decided to change direction. And we just saw unbelievably over-priced houses, given market conditions, people still thinking it was 2003. And we decided we would price what we thought was low end of reasonable, and thought we'd still have to come down a little bit, which we did, but not too much. But the other thing was for a house like yours, for example, here on Mulholland, or a lot of these smaller houses, on the west side--we live on Miller and Brooks--you're not going to really sell to a bigger family. I mean, if it's a family, then it's probably one kid, one small kid. Those are the people who are going to be looking in line with the school year, the summer break. We put our house up on the market right after Thanksgiving, because we thought it'd be more likely that a couple or someone who's single ... and pretty much the day before the open house, we got an offer from someone who's fairly young and single ...

HD: ... wow, so you didn't even have to have the open house!

LR: Well, we did. You have to kind of go through with it anyway.

HD: So you baked bread in the oven and ran the dryer, and did the standard things.

LR: All that nice stuff. It was a real pain, but it was worth it.

HD: So do you think it might have had something to do with the newly-remodeled bathroom that might have helped sell the house?

LR: It might have. I haven't actually asked the buyer what the thing was. But it's a nice house and there's not really that much left to do to it.

HD: When you remodeled the bathroom, did you design in some built-in racks for reading material at all?

LR: Not for reading material. There's certainly an area that we built in to hold anything--towels, books, whatever.

HD: So are you going to leave a copy of Ann Arbor (W)rites for the new owners in that area?

LR: Hey, we should.

HD: I think it'd be a nice gesture to leave a copy of that piece that Mary Jean wrote as a chapter for that book somewhere in the house.

LR: I like that idea.

HD: There'd be the continuity of--I don't know--legacy through the house. An awareness that this was a piece written about this particular house. She talks about in that chapter that of all the showers she took at various friends' places--there's one horrifying experience she had at Washtenaw Rec Center--but of course, the very best shower was the first shower she took in the newly remodeled bathroom.

LR: Yeah.

HD: Have you reflected at all on the fact that some point soon you're going to take your last shower in that newly remodeled bathroom?

LR: I think we're getting there. We've gotten most of all the moving-related hassles--knock wood--out of the way. You know, hiring movers, picking the dates, finding a new place, all that kind of stuff. So now we can sort of get wistful and think about things like that. Yeah, I think you know the bathroom is certainly a highlight of the house, and I sadly look forward to that last shower, but I think more of being on the front porch the first time I met Mary Jean.

HD: Is that where you met, on the front porch??

LR: Well, we'd been in touch. We were introduced, we had communicated, and she was living up in Flint, working for the Flint Journal--I'm married to an ex-Booth reporter, so we have something in common--but she came down to Ann Arbor one time. And she came up the front steps and I still remember, one of the first things--besides her devilish good looks--was that she had an in-between haircut. She clearly was someone who had short hair, and was growing it out. So the first thing I thought was 'Mary Jean In-Between'. I called her that for a while, until she made me stop.

HD: [laugh] So you do have a romantic side to you, I was wondering. The date you specified in your email as your move date was February 15th.

LR: Actually, now it's Valentine's Day.

HD: Is it really?

LR: Yeah, I think it's going to be Valentine's Day.

HD: Okay, I was going to ask you if it was the 15th because you wanted to make sure to spend Valentine's Day here in Ann Arbor.

LR: Not really. We kind of hate Valentine's Day [laugh].

HD: This next book of yours about search analytics, I wanted to ask you a question related to this website, maybe as a way of getting in that topic. I have a very rudimentary program that gives me some statistics about the site, among them the search terms that have led people to visit. And one of them--in the interest of keeping it family-friendly--let's go with 'how to draw a potato'. So people have apparently arrived at the site apparently looking for information on how to draw a potato. And when I saw that, I said, Okay, I know why: Eileen Spring, who's director of Food Gatherers ...

LR: ... who I used to work with back at Planned Parenthood many years ago!

HD: Really?! Wow, so it really is a small town.

LR: It's very small.

HD: Anyway, she was explaining that the carrot as a symbol or logo for Food Gatherers was more effective than a potato--even though she really likes potatoes and has a potato party every year--by the way, do you get invited to the Potato Party?

LR: Oh gosh no, it was so long ago at Planned Parenthood, we've kind of fallen out of touch.

HD: Okay, well anyway, her point was that a carrot is really easy to draw: you draw a triangle, you color it orange, you do some green at the top and automatically that's a carrot. A potato, on the other hand, is very hard to draw. So there's this brief little exchange on the teeter totter about how hard it is to draw a potato and it's really difficult. So I imagine for anybody who's searching using the terms 'how to draw a potato' they arrive at Eileen's Talk and they're bound to be disappointed.

LR: Not necessarily, right? Because there is a serendipity that really pleases us when we use the internet. How important was it that they get specifications on drawing a potato? Maybe they actually really enjoyed your interview with Eileen and forgot all about the potatoes.

HD: Well, that might be. See this is, I guess, one of your arguments [in the polar bear book] against the simple model: you search, magic happens, you get the answer.

LR: Right.

HD: So the argument is that it eliminates this serendipitous process. That if the user were not presented with that page as a possibility they might want to explore, then they're somehow losing out on something potentially important or valuable? Even for someone who set out to find a quick-and-dirty way to draw a potato, that this adds to their--I don't know ...

LR: ... overhead ...

HD: ... well, it adds to their human experience to know that other people acknowledge that this is a hard problem?

LR: Um hmm, yep.

HD: Still, though, I worry that people are disappointed when they're looking for something like that and don't find it. Let's say I saw that not as a serendipitous benefit, but as a problem, and I wanted to somehow address that. Is that an information architecture problem, or is basically a search engine problem that people who build search engines need to do a better job on?

LR: It's all of the above. Also potentially it's a content problem. I mean, I guess you'd have to ask yourself, what business are you in with your website and what kind of content are you trying to serve people? I don't know that I would want to--I'm not sure you're suggesting this--but I don't know if I'd want to re-engineer my content to serve those people who are looking for information on drawing potatoes. However, I might want to monitor what kind of searches they are doing most typically. This is actually a little different. See, you're talking about people searching, let's say Google, and finding your site. What I'm dealing with is a little different, it's ...

HD: ... dealing with people who are at a site ...

LR: ... exactly ...

HD: ... and they're trying to find it there. Like if they know it's supposed to be on the State of Michigan website, where the heck is it?

LR: Right. I just tried to do that. I wanted to transfer the title of our car--we're not taking our car east. And it's a pain in the butt. Now people at the State of Michigan should be looking at the logs that show what people have been searching and take the data and sort it by most-frequent-to-least-frequent search query. And if 'title transfer' is high up there, they can actually try to test and see whether or not people are getting something about title transfer. Now, what's the issue there, if they're not? Let's say someone goes to the Secretary of State of Michigan website and searches for 'title transfer' and they get zero results. The problem might be there's no content. There should be content on this topic. More likely in this particular case is that the content isn't using the proper language. Like maybe there's a very technical or jargon-y term that the State would use, that you and I wouldn't use. Or there could be some issue with the search engine. Maybe it takes your query of 'title transfer' and treats it like a phrase automatically, when you're much more open to a looser thing--it could be 'title transfer', it could be 'transfer of title'--and maybe in their content, they're using 'transfer of title'. So you're missing it, because they're interpreting your query very precisely, maybe too precisely. So it's broadly information architecture issues and content issues. There may be other reasons why people are not getting the information they want. But the the search analytics is a diagnostic tool that helps you to at least come up with some answers, and maybe some better questions to then really figure out what's going on.

HD: I actually find it quite entertaining to read through the search terms, just the random things that people will type into a search engine. I mean the full blown English sentences: 'what are some interesting activities to occupy young kids during their free time?' They just type that right into the search engine. Why anybody would think that's a good strategy, I don't know, but obviously they're getting some kind of results.

LR: Right. Well, we think so. That's one of the things to keep in mind about looking at this data is: it'll tell you a lot about what, it'll tell you precious little about why. So you might see that someone did a search and they got five results and then the session ended. So we know what happened, but we don't know if they were happy or disappointed with the results. Think of search analytics as one diagnostic tool. There's other tools or methods that people in my field would use to then figure out the 'why stuff'. We just try to use these different tools in the appropriate combinations and that's now good design happens ultimately.

HD: So you signed a lease for a place, did not purchase a stand-alone home.

LR: No way. We could barely afford rent there!

HD: Are you going to miss being able to do the around-the-house fix-it stuff?

LR: No. I've been doing that for over 13 years, and I'll probably do it again someday, but it's really nice to get a break from that.

HD: So this is a place that allows cats, I guess?

LR: No, we had to re-home our cat. Which is pretty tough.

HD: Is that tough on Iris?

LR: Well, we don't know yet, we'll find out. So far, I think it's okay.

HD: These are folks you know?

LR: No, but we basically posted to a couple of local mailing lists, and these are some nice folks out between Dexter and Chelsea, who live in a really nice rural area. So far, Schwa seems to be doing pretty well.

HD: I can't help but ask: does the cat, when she curls up, look like an upside-down 'e' or does she have a meow that sounds like a colorless vowel?

LR: You know, the name came to us first. You know, 'Schwa'--that sounds like the name of a really cute small type of pet. It's lower case, it's upside down, it seems to go well with some kind of maybe a cat. Then a few months later Schwa showed up. She was actually living two houses away. We didn't realize it. Those folks got a kitten, and she said, I'm outta here! She didn't have to go too far to find us. I was not a cat person at all. She won us over, won me over certainly, very quickly.

HD: So Schwa's an outside cat?

LR: Yeah, she's indoor-outdoor. That's the main reason we're not taking her. We think it'd be really hard on her to make the switch.

HD: The rural setting sounds like it'll probably be a nice place to romp around for a cat. So you got anything else on your mind today?

LR: Being outside and being in town just reminds me how much I'm going to miss it.

HD: Is there anything in particular you know for sure that you're going to miss?

LR: Oh yeah. Where we live, we're half a mile from Main, but we're also half a mile from the whole mess of parks and nature areas along the Huron, like Bandemer, and Bluffs, and Kuebler Langford, and Bird Hills, and Barton. You can be there in no time, going for a run, going for bike rides out towards Chelsea and Superior Township. That stuff, it's going to be crushing me come June, I'd say, or May. Ann Arbor's got so many great people, it's a great place. We're sad to leave. We don't necessarily want to leave, we just want to try something new.

HD: So let me see if I can put some words in your mouth. Isn't the reason you're leaving Ann Arbor really because you don't want Iris to have to go to a high school called Skyline High?

LR: You got it. Like a lot of people in Ann Arbor, I went to U of M. I got two and a half degrees here, I worked here. I'm sick to death of U of M football, I never really cared that much. Nonetheless: Bo. I mean, c'mon, name the school after Bo. He gave his life practically, and we didn't give him the win over OSU, we could at least give him the name of a high school. Or someone. We already have enough McMansion neighborhoods out that way that have names that are just generic, if they make sense at all. Why not go for something interesting?

HD: Well, I think 'interesting' requires a willingness to engage in sort of a heated and rancorous debate. Because then people will say, If we're going to name it after a person, we need to consider the broad range of people we might name it after! Then feelings get hurt, people divide into camps, ...

LR: ... it's name-by-committee.

HD: Yeah, well, it's one of those very safe choices, I think. Actually, that was a fairly early-on decision that the committee made. They said we're going to fit the 'pattern' of the two existing high schools, if you can call two high schools a pattern.

LR: Huron and Pioneer and Skyline!

HD: Well, the two existing ones are not named after people so, we're fitting the pattern.

LR: Well, you know, how about naming it after some local fauna, like the hyper-intelligent squirrels or something, or I don't know.

HD: Well, it's on Maple Road, so something with Maple, maybe.

LR: Acer.

HD: [??]

LR: I thought Acer High would have been good.

HD: Acer?

LR: That's the Latin for Maple.

HD: Oh. I don't think people would know that.

LR: Well that's why you go to school!

HD: [laugh] I wonder if you can even take Latin in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

LR: Well, hopefully, biology.

HD: [laugh] Yeah, I guess, if I'd thought about it for two seconds, that would be where you'd learn that. So how did you guys make out during the ice storm? Lose power at all?

LR: We lost power for about half a day. We lost one of our lilacs, which is sad. Our Camperdown Elm--knock wood--made it through.

HD: What kind of Elm?

LR: We have a Camperdown Elm in our front yard. It's something that a lot of people who drive up and down Miller would recognize. It looks like an umbrella. It's a really interesting tree. I think I have the wrong story, but I'll tell you the story that the previous owners told me, which is that about seventy years ago, they took an Elm tree and topped it--just totally cut the top off, no branches. Took one of its own smaller branches and then grafted it in upside-down. So what you see with the branches now, they're not upright like a normal deciduous tree. They're actually a root system. If you look at the tree, it kind of looks like what roots look like underground, the way they're oriented, drooping down and so forth. They're also very brittle. You can just snap a lot of the branches between two fingers. So it's a bizarre and interesting looking tree. And like I said, people may not remember our house, but if they're anywhere near Brooks and Miller, they certainly know the tree.

HD: So it made it through the ice-storm okay though?

LR: Yes, as brittle and as delicate as it is.

HD: So the lilac that you lost, did it just uproot? I saw a lot of shrubbery just lying across sidewalks, and when you'd look at it you realize, Wow, it just literally came uprooted from the weight and just fell over.

LR: No, this was a older lilac that had been trained over the years to have more of a tree shape, like a few distinct branches, three or four. And one or two of them just sheared right off. The lilac wasn't designed to grow that way in the first place.

HD: So anything else on your mind?

LR: No, I think as soon as you turn off the recorder, I'll think of something intelligent to say and it'll be too late. But thanks for inviting me to teeter on your totter here.

HD: Well, you know, have a good trip out to Brooklyn, and you know I like to report the successes of totterees down the line, so that if there's a major success or even a minor success, feel free to give me a heads-up and I'll add it to the log of spectacular feats that totterees have accomplished.

LR: Well, thanks ...