This podcast is a special insider view of Louis Rosenfeld. Lou is the co-founder of Argus Associates, founder of the IA Summit and co-author of the well-known “Polar Bear Book,” called Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.
Lou is an IA consultant and manages Rosenfeld Media. Now Rosenfeld Media is not just a publisher of books; they truly publish expertise. You can find a wide array of UX books on their site IN ADDITION to teaching and consulting.
I was curious about the publishing industry but before we get too far, here is how he got started.
HERE’S THE FULL TRANSCRIPT
Lou: I come from the far north suburbs on New York City; I’m the youngest of five boys. Actually, we live next door to my four male cousins who are all older than I, and so I’m kind of in theory the youngest of 9 boys. I think all my neurosis are basically due to that unfortunate position in the birth order, I didn’t really think much about the future, like most kids.
And that persisted until I was about a week away from graduating college, and you know it’s sort of interesting because you get all whipped into a frenzy over your final papers and exams, and then suddenly you’re almost done with those, and you realize you have to move out and go somewhere.
And like a lot of us, I had no thought about what I was going to be. I kind of liked computers a little bit, this was 1987 and I owned a Macintosh for a couple of years, and I thought maybe I would try to teach people how to use them because I seemed to be good at that, and I went around and talked to people who were teaching computers, and there was no interest whatsoever.
And I ended up getting a job, as a salesman in a furniture store. It was the worst job ever, it was one of those jobs where we not only sell new furniture, but we also sell used furniture. And what do people do, they come in and they say “I like this used couch, but it has a stain on it. Can you get me a different one”? Wait a minute; it’s a used couch, that’s the way it is.
That’s why it’s inexpensive. I learned very quickly I didn’t like retail, new or used, and I did keep feeling the pull of this computer stuff, so after a while in this horrible job selling furniture, finally got out of that, and decided to go back to grad school. Like a lot of people, have no clue and I thought library science sounds interesting.
Lara: What drew you to that?
Lou: Well, so I knew I was interested in computers, but I didn’t think I could program them. I didn’t think I had the abilities, and I think that was probably a fair assessment. But I also, felt like I could learn about computer-ey stuff maybe in an MBA program, I knew about information systems and tracts in business school.
But that was sort of unattractive, because then I’d have to take courses in accounting and things like that. But this library science stuff was promising, because they had databases which were interesting, and those databases were full of things like books information, and I thought that was OK, and I knew these skills would be useful, but if I couldn’t find a job finding the technical computer related aspects to library sciences, I could always get a job as a reference librarian in a traditional library setting.
You know, I went to the University of Michigan Library School, it was called the school of Information at the time. Just to give you a little bit of context where we were technologically, at that time, one of the big attractive courses to me was Online Searching, where we would search commercial online databases, and things like dialog, Lexus-Nexus, .. For those of you who are not familiar with those, those database services cost hundreds of dollars an hour. Like $300, $400an hour for some of them.
Lara: Why were they so expensive?
Lou: Because they could be. There were really no other alternatives. This was before the internet, it was really used as a business platform, and so they had to build their own network servers, these were closed networks, that you would subscribe to. And a big billing system on top and so forth. But they had a captive audience. And so librarians would learn how to use these services, and it was frightening. It was absolutely frightening.
Lou: Well, we had a very frightening professor who would tell you, “You better not screw up.
So you’re going to prepare all your searches in advance, not only the initial search, but Plan B, Plan C, Plan D. So you don’t have to figure them that stuff out while the clock is ticking, and the dollars are going down the toilet.” And people would search with their hands shaking, they were so afraid. And to give you a little more context, these were systems that were using acoustic couplers.
You know the old phones that you shove into this holder that would hold the handset in place, and it was a true dial-in .. what was it… 240 bot, I don’t remember if that was the right term anymore, but we take that stuff for granted.
Anyway, it was slow and painful, and you know, that’s kind of how it was back then, in the Library School in 1988. The thing with Library School, though, is you learn some really incredible skills that had nothing to do with technology. Like reference. Like how to ask people questions about their needs. And how to listen, and how to qualify, so when they come up to the reference desk, and ask you, “I need the red book.” “Well, what kind of red book.
Can we talk a little about what specifically you’re looking for?” And not just asking questions, but observing people. You know, if a child asked you that question, you might handle that differently than if a tenured faculty member asked you that question. And we learned cataloging, which is another fantastic skill, how to describe information. How does metadata work? How does metadata not only help you describe information, but then support things like searching and browsing? And those were incredible skills and at the same time, the internet was starting to take off.
This is when the internet was things like Telnet, and FTP, and Archie and Veronica, and Jughead. And a bunch of other things that were not well branded as you can probably tell by the names of them, not necessarily easy to use. And just pretty confusing. They were hard to use tools that sat on top of the concept of the internet, which was not a familiar concept in 1988, 1989, 1990.
So while I was in grad school, one of the professors there, Joe Janes and I, decided to start a business on the side. That would teach people how to use those tools, and we called it Argus Associates. This was 1990, 91 maybe. And we started teaching courses that helped librarians, and educators, and others, in Michigan use the internet.
Lara: What were some of those courses?
Lou: How to use the internet. That’s basically it. It was pretty much how to understand, and take advantage of the internet. And I finished the Masters degree in ’90, and we were doing this work on the side, and I was actually working for the School of Information, setting up networks, and teaching staff how to use computers, and also doing some work in the University of Michigan libraries, working on some new tech projects.
And one of those projects was centered around this new thing called Gopher. Gopher was really cool, not only was it on the internet, but it was like these interesting things, let’s call them Gopher servers, but think of them as sites, like websites. Pockets of content, that could connect to each other, unlike most of the rest of the internet that had come before, that was still somewhat closed. You needed to log in separately from one to the next. These were open.
And your gopher could connect to someone else’s gopher, and so on and so forth. And for those of you who don’t know anything about Gopher, it’s all hierarchy. It’s menu systems. And we were all really hot on it before the web really broke. And so, I got part of my work was taking US Census files and getting them out of wherever they were. I think they were primarily in tape, they were digital versions of data-tapes and putting them on Gopher servers, so that people could actually get a census data. Which is pretty cool.
So I was doing that kind of stuff, teaching people how to use to the Internet, using those reference and cataloging skills. Those are really handy there. And then around that time, like I started teaching at the university at my old grad school with Joe Janes, teaching people how to do this where they were not just using the internet to find stuff, but then they were gathering what they had found, and creating gateways.. we called them guides to the internet.
So, for example, our students would do things like create The Guide to Personal Finance Resources on the Internet, The Guide to Theater Resources on the Internet. Around that time, ’93 I went back to school to start work on a PhD at the University of Michigan, and I was teaching essentially the first courses on how to create internet-based content in 1993 and 1994.
And those courses were really amazing for people, it was so exciting because the internet was finally starting to finally take hold on popular consciousness, and here were librarians who are not exactly the most well-respected, well-rewarded or even confident people, and the last course they took in grad school took all those reference and cataloging skills, and put them together where their class projects were creating products that people were using.
And so it was like, Wow. I’m making something, and I’m not even done yet with my class project, and people are asking me to come speak at events, and offering to pay me to help them. One guy ended up becoming the VP at Excite. Remember Excite?
Lou: One of the early search engines.. Based on his work from our class .. So it was just amazing. It was a way to put together all of those skills, such a fun opportunity to teach as well as for the students to participate. So, I was doing that as a doctoral student. Meanwhile my company Argus has started creating content, too.
So, now we found that people wanted to create websites. Oh, I’m sorry. I’m leaving something out because right around that time, the web hit. And so our students flipped from creating Gopher documents, documents to be made available via Gopher servers to HTML, because Wow, when the first graphic web browser Mosaic hit, it just really changed everything. The web had been around in 18-100 mode, which is not very interesting, or attractive, or easy to use.
But when that graphical interface hit with Mosaic, we just dropped Gopher, and it was just Web from then on. We were helping companies create websites, and I had to make a choice between staying on the PhD program, and the business of Argus, which was creating well-architected websites. Peter Morville had been one of my students, and he had come to work for us as our first employee. And he and I ended up running the company and Joe stayed in academia. And I went to Argus full-time. And Peter and I grew that business, it was just around what we called at the time web architecture.
So this is now 1995, thereabouts. And what we were finding was, there was a big rush to build websites, but we could already see that the stuff we had learned in grad school about library science was just totally being ignored.
Lara: Why do you think that is?
Lou: You know, structure is one of those things, it’s not really visible unless it doesn’t work. And so, the sites at that time were little. They were a handful of pages, so it was hard to get lost. But even then, how you would label options and menus were terrible. Search on your site was just barely a thought in most people’s minds. And we could see that sites were going to grow, information architecture was going to become a bigger and bigger problem.
And while we started out working on websites, I remember telling Peter, I said, “1997 is the year we can just do information architecture. And we don’t have to do all the other stuff involved.” And 1997 rolled around, and we were just doing information architecture. So we very quickly became, we like to think we became The Specialists in information architecture.
And we were building our company to do just that, and I’m proud to say that in Ann Arbor, Michigan which is not like the easiest place to draw people, we had about up to 40 people at one point, just as an information architecture consulting firm with a Blue Chip client list, and recruiting people from overseas to come work for us. People like Margaret Hanley who’s here, who came from Australia to come work with us. That is what we were doing, Information Architecture was really big. And right around that time we started writing a lot.
So I mentioned I had a student who became the VP at Excite, on the way to being a VP of Excite, he took his guide to I think it was personal finance, well it was actually bought.. he was hired by GNN, remember GNN?
Lou: Stood for Global Network Navigator. The first internet content plays. Which got bought by O’Reilly, working in a fairly senior at O’Reilly for a while before Excite bought it from O’Reilly. While he was at O’Reilly, he hooked me up with Dale Dougherty, one of the partners at O’Reilly and Dale was just launching a new magazine, a web only magazine, one of the firsts. Called Web Review.
And I became a columnist. And my column was called Web Architect. And then eventually Peter and a bunch of other folks at Argus started contributing columns as well, but we played that relationship into a deeper one, which was to write the information architecture for the world wide web book for O’Reilly. Which came out in ’98, first edition. And once that book came out, things really changed.
And I don’t know that it’s a great book. I think it’s a good book. But what it did through whatever, luck, good timing, whatever it might be..Is people needed a word or a term to describe what some of them sensed deep-down was important but not being addressed. A gap. And we called it information architecture, and we said, “Here’s its anatomy. Here’s its components, here is what we call them.” And having it in O’Reilly was great because that got us in front of many different audiences, primarily tech related. But those people often spoke different languages, and yet they sensed the same problem.
So, our book was successful because half the battle is getting people a common vocabulary to work on common problems when they start off with different vocabularies, and can’t communicate with each other, and so suddenly a developer and a graphic designer could talk about structure using our book as something like the Rosetta Stone. And that really helped a lot of people, helped our business grow, led to two more editions, at least two more editions. We’ll see. Maybe there will be a fourth, who knows.
Lara: What was the process like in writing that first book, the first edition.
Lou: Well, actually it’s funny, because I contracted to write it for John Wiley about a year or two earlier, and I was just like, “I can’t do it. It’s just too soon.” And I was terrible, because I had taken the advance, and bought one of the first laptop computers you could buy at a reasonable price.
And then had to return the money. You know, so that was painful. But what was it like to write that? Well, you know it really helped that we had been doing consulting, and that we were early, early, early trying to communicate to people about this wishy-washy somewhat abstract stuff, and that is hard to write about unless you’ve tried to sell it in person, and we’ve been doing a lot of that, so, the writing wasn’t easy.
But at least we could write the words that we’ve already been saying. You can hear them in your mind, and write them down. Because you’ve been saying them often enough. That was a great experience, and O’Reilly is a great company, and my company is still partners with them today. Then 2000 hit, 2001, with the downturn and companies like ours were a canary in the coal mine. In October of 2000 we were 40 people, we had just done our first information, and last information architecture conference not far from here in La Jolla.
And we were going to do it every year at our own IA conference. And, I had organized with a couple other folks the first information architecture summit earlier the same year. We were really riding high, and I’ll tell you we had 40 people, and we had rented space for 80. And we were building it out, and it was interesting because the downturn hit that fall. And I’ll still never forget how we had contracts with, not start-ups, but Blue Chip companies like IBM, and Morning Star, and North Western Mutual Life, and suddenly they pulled them back. These were six digit contracts, and then the holiday season hit, which is a terrible time of year to get business.
And then I remember when the work first started coming back in February 2001, the projects we a tenth the size. So that’s when we decided after much pain and suffering to close the company down, so six months went by between our peak and shutting it down. We didn’t want to go bankrupt. We decided we would shut it down, that was the right thing to do. So Peter and I both became independent consultants, and I did that for most of a decade.
Lara: That must have been a challenging transition.
Lou: Well, you know. It’s funny because to be honest, when the company was at its peak was when I felt least a part of it. If one day you’re in grad school, and you’re trying to figure out what to be when you grow up, and a few years later you’re the primary owner of a 40 person consulting firm, with payroll, and processes, and systems, and contracts, and personalities, and politics, that’s hard. That’s really hard.
And it’s hard to know at a certain part how you fit so I think my sweet spot at that age and that level of experience was with a company in the 10, 20 range. And beyond that, there are certain thresholds where they just change dramatically in terms of culture and personality.
So I felt like I didn’t really fit, but that was a really good lesson. When I started my next company, I decided the key to making it work for me, as the founder, the entrepreneur, to see it as a platform for what you want to do. You know, if you don’t feel like you fit at your own company, then something has gone wrong. You lost sight of what’s important to you. Suddenly growth becomes the only goal. That leads you out somehow. But maybe growth is not the right goal.
So I decided to start Rosenfeld Media, and I can tell you now that right now I’d be happy if we were at 10-20 people. Maybe we’ll get there, maybe we won’t. But beyond that I don’t know if I’d like it. But meanwhile I get to do the things I like to do. And hopefully they have business value. So far, so good.
Lara: So how do you stay on track on that platform?
Lou: That’s an interesting question. How do you make sure that the things you’re trying that they’re a fit? Well, one of the things that businesses do when they grow beyond one person, is you accept responsibilities for other people, mainly the people who work with you and are dependent upon you.
So, as an independent consultant I can do whatever I want, but I didn’t have any infrastructure to support me, so I need that I need infrastructure to support me. Staff, and so forth. But I have to involve them, I have to be good to them, I have to engage them, I have to make them feel that they’re a part of it.
So, you can’t make wild-ass crazy business decisions that mean suddenly you can’t cover payroll, that means you have to face the horrible, horrible feeling of laying people off. And that’s certainly something I never want to have to do again. There’s a certain built-in regulation there, so you keep in mind that it’s a platform for experimenting and doing cool things, but you regulate it, or counter-veil that urge with the fact that other people’s lives are involved and their livelihoods as well.
Lara: And have you experimented, and how far do you take that without interrupting or disturbing any of the financial flow?
Lou: I wish I could answer that in a concise and clear manner. I’m not sure I can. A lot of that is intuitive. A lot of it is you have to trust yourself. A lot of it is you have to play to your strengths. So, some of the stuff I have done, if I was a numbers guy I would never do. What are you crazy?
For, you know, my style is more intuitive, and so I’ve gone ahead. You might say that’s naive. You also might say that looking at things from a purely quantitative perspective is naive, too. Because it’s limited. I try to seek mentoring and guidance from smart people that I know. Especially ones that are different than I am, who might bring something of a different perspective to balance out mine.
So I’ve got really great advisors, for one but you know, it’s been really fun to seek out niches and try to get there before other do. And that’s what we’ve been trying to do with Rosenfeld Media, for the most part. So, my impetus for starting it was around 2006, I had a couple conversations that year, and one was with Peter Morville, and one was with, I can’t remember it might have been Tony Burn.
Where I said, “You know, I feel like we need a publisher who really is focused on user experience. And you know… I should do that.” Not really knowing anything about publishing but knowing something about books, and having been an author. And I remember the first time I had the conversation I got really excited. And it grabbed me, and I know that feeling because it happened to me before. And my instinct, my reaction was to shove that feeling back down. Sweep it under the carpet. Maybe it’s not a good idea. And then a couple months later I was talking to Peter, and came back up.
And I think he could tell that I realized at that moment that it wasn’t going to be something I’d shove back down. It grabbed me and wouldn’t let go of me. Still I remember the conversation. So, I started talking to traditional publishing houses, and they said, “Oh that sounds great, we all [inaudible] UX books. Maybe we’ll dip a toe in.” And I’m thinking, “Well, that’s a lot of work for me.” I’m committed, but they’re not committed. Why do I need them? Isn’t publishing one of those business models that’s already clearly in trouble?
You know, back then they were reliant on big box book stores and the distributors who support them. You know, Barnes and Noble, Borders – they’re no longer around. That was clear years ago that was going to happen. I don’t know how long Barnes and Noble will be around. And then companies like Ingram, and Bagger and Taller, the distributors. It’s a horrible business to be in frankly, to rely on those partners who are in deep trouble anyway.
So, I decided to just do it myself, start a publishing company myself. And not ever even depend on the existing distribution networks for paperbacks. We couldn’t avoid Amazon, so we were on Amazon from the start, but most of our sales were direct, very word-of-mouth, very relationship driven. People already knew me, and our authors in the community, which is a small community, still.
That was the real benefit of all the work I’ve been doing for years, all the conferences I’ve attended, all the people I’d met is that I had a really great network, so I can’t overemphasize how important that is. When you’re trying to do something new and unproven, you need two things; you need enthusiasm to infect people, more importantly you need people to infect.
So, if I came to you and I said, “Meh, you don’t know me. But I’m going to start a publishing company, It’ll be all right, I guess. Would you like to write a book?” It doesn’t sound too good. But if you have enthusiasm, and you’re excited, and you know people, you can get them excited. It’s amazing. People will follow all kinds of ideas and all kinds of sometimes for wrong reasons, sometimes for evil ones. But I think this isn’t one of those. I got people to agree to write books for me. People who very easily could have said, “What do you know? You never published a book before.”
So, we started signing people. And built slowly. I had to keep doing consulting all the way to make ends meet, while figuring out publishing. And it was hard. We certainly made mistakes, if you look at what we did with our first book, it could certainly be a lot better copy edited. And just better edited overall.
But, the editor we had disappeared in the middle of the project never to be heard from again. That wouldn’t have happened if I were doing it today. But there were certain reasons things like that happened, that are primarily tied in with inexperience. You’ve just got to grin and bear it, and hope others do too. And I will say that the first book we published was with Indi Young Mental Models.
Lara: That’s a good one.
Lou: Yeah, it was a great book. We reprinted it I think 3 or 4 times. And Indie Young’s next book Practical Empathy is going to be a Rosenfeld Media book. Even though she probably had the worst experience of any of our authors, and she’s come back again. And we had lots of authors who did multiple titles for us, and I’m really proud of that.
And we’re getting a lot of authors that have done their first book with another publisher who, say “I really want to do it with you this time.” I didn’t really want to work with traditional publishers, and I wanted to do it myself. Was because they don’t understand user experience. They’re not practitioners, they’re not believers.
They’re good people. I’m not trying to put them down, but they’re in a very different business that rewards. Well it has different rewards, so if you’re a traditional publisher, you’re part of an operation that’s putting out hundreds if not thousands of titles a year.
So you might put out competing titles on the same topic. It doesn’t matter to you, because you only need one to succeed in the market place. And that would more than make up for the others. And so your books are commodities. And that matters to the authors. And it’s a bad deal for an author to not get attention, to not get support; especially a first time author. We only publish a handful of books per year. Each one of them is handcrafted; it is one of our babies. Just like for our authors. We don’t pit titles against each other. And we try to really eat our own dog food.
So one of the things we first did before we published a book – get this, it’s a crazy idea; we did user research. So, we first did a bunch of work on identifying our target audience. What are good features, and bad features of the books that people use for the work? And we learned a lot. And it’s not surprising that “Don’t Make Me Think” was the book that had the most love.
And a lot of it is what Steve and his team did in terms of features, and design, and so forth. So, with Steve’s blessing, he’s on our board. We emulated a lot of what he did. And then we did testing. We got paperbacks of Indie’s book printed as paper prototypes through Lulu. And we had the PDF because we launched with e-books from the very start. So we had the PDF laid out, we did user testing on both. Liz Danzico was the newly minted created director at NPR was the person who led that. And we learned a lot.
And so we came up with both a cover style and an interior design that were fairly mature but more importantly were designed, especially the interior, to change in incremental ways over time. We never felt like we should have to do a major redesign. And that’s because we did our homework up front. So if you look at our first book, Mental Models, and our most recent book, A Web for Everyone.
And you look at the interiors; it’s the same design. The colors are very different typefaces have changed. Lots of little things are different. But overall, it’s the same design and the same brand. And I’m really proud of that. And the covers really haven’t changed because they were done so well from the start, but each individual cover is different. And those designs are done by a company called The Heads of State in Philadelphia – who are fantastic. They’re so clever. It’s such a joy to work with them.
So, we tuned along the way, we changed things along the way. But it’s still the same design. But we also did a lot of customer service up front because we were selling direct, and you know what I think every company leader is irresponsible if they don’t spend at least an hour a week doing service for their customers. Because imagine if Comcast CEO or United CEO would even forget do an hour direct, what about just look at the data that’s coming out of those customer service centers about what’s wrong.
We found very quickly the patterns where the problems were, and they were small obviously, but we would figure out what we would need to squash. What are people complaining about? Let’s fix that. What are the things falling through the cracks? We’ll fix that.
So very quickly, we ironed out pretty much very bug of substance in our customer service process that we could, and that we could control. So I can’t make UPS not screw up once in a while, but I can at least make sure that we take care of people when that happens.
Lara: Right, and I think the hardest thing is the consistency of the level of service over the years.
Lou: Well, you know. The thing is though, if your business is fairly stable, that upfront work should scale for quite a long time. We also have the benefit of the same people being involved over that time which I’m also proud of. But even if we had different people doing customer service, we’d already done so much of it that what’s left is almost down to very simple systems of fixing the problems that we could document.
So anyone could help any of our customers who were having a problem. So, we started doing books. We were up to 20, and our whole focus initially was doing very practical books geared towards user experience practitioners. But an editorial agenda is just like anything else. It needs to change and adapt over time.
And we had a meeting. Our editorial advisors met a few of us actually; Steve Krug, and Ginny Redish, and Mark Reddick. Just fantastic people, came down to Brooklyn to our office, and Mark facilitated discussion around what the map of the domain would be, and in coming years and how that might affect our editorial agenda.
So, like a lot of us are already seeing, the map should really illustrate it clearly that we’re moving toward a place that sits at the intersection of business and design. And actually we’re already signing books that aren’t just how to do prototyping, but how to develop a strategy for an experienced design operation. How to help people who are not just UX people but maybe product managers or even C-level people do a better job of running a design organizations and developing products.
So, UX is converging with other areas, and vice-versa. So the market’s changing, so while we’ll continue publishing those more practical method books, we’re really moving toward titles that are at that intersection of business and strategy and design. And that’s really exciting, because that shows that the field is maturing and becoming more important. And it’s not just that business people are coming to us, it’s that we’re becoming business people.
And so we want to be there, and but meanwhile something else changed with Rosenfeld Media, and that was that we’ve decided that being in the book business was, it’s a good business to be in. Books are hard, but the business model is fairly straightforward. It’s clear. But it left something out. And what we realized is that the value wasn’t in books so much, as in identifying and curating expertise.
And so, we pivoted about a year and half ago, and we started seeing ourselves as an expertise company in the UX space representing very high-end expertise and getting that expertise out to market in the formats that make sense. And that’s what a publisher really should be. Not someone who puts out books, but someone who figures out how to get expertise into the marketplace, especially today when there’s so many ways to do that.
So we launched a new line of business, which is, consulting and teaching where we match (we’re up to 50 now) very well known experts in the field with short teach them how to fish consulting and teaching engagements. We’ve done probably around 35 of them in a little over a year, and already the revenue is probably what books are, and it’s about 50-50 at this point.
And, it’s been really fun because we don’t just represent our own authors, but people who’ve written for O’Reilly and people who’ve written for New Writers, a Book Apart and so forth. Because those companies are to be honest, are book companies for the most part. Not expertise companies. Well, O’Reilly is trying to go beyond books, and they’ve done some really good things.
So we want to be the go-to company in the UX space. And so we’ve been working with this crew of 50 people, and how do we get them? Once again it’s having relationships and enthusiasm and it’s really great to be able to go to people who I admire with their good idea and enthusiasm. And say, “Hey we haven’t represented people like you before, but we think we’re ready to. Are you in?” And we’re up to 50.And we could be doing many more, but I’m afraid of that number on the roster getting too large too quickly.
So, that’s been really exciting. And we’re already changing and evolving our services. We started off just with short, 3-5 day consulting engagements, and short 1-2 day teaching engagements, on-site training, and that sort of thing. And now a year later we’re starting to sell a much more extensive practice development engagements, where we match an expert, let’s say on responsive design, agile design, and the interaction of agile design with a team in a large organization.
And as well a person on that team who is sort of the expert in waiting, and we have our expert do some initial diagnostics, and then develop a learning plan that isn’t just training, it isn’t just consulting or coaching, it isn’t just reading, it’s a mix of all kinds of ways to reach a team, and really make sure that there’s knowledge transfer. Problem with the training session, or consulting engagement that’s short is you might be fantastic, but then the expert leaves and then you’re wondering what’s next. How do we maintain momentum?
People will come, and people will go in the next few months. How do we keep everyone moving forward and developing their expertise around a particular topic? So that’s what we’re trying to do now, as well as keep doing the shorter engagements that we started with. And again there’s a niche there, there’s people who run UX teams, that don’t really want to go to an agency. They already have a team. But their team needs some specialized expertise that they’re not going to be able to bring permanently on staff, there’s just not enough experts out there, and the experts don’t necessarily want to go in-house.
So this is a nice way to help those people, and we’re a trusted brand. I’m sure other people are doing similar things, but I think it would be silly for us not to try to make something out of the opportunity.
Lara: And I saw I think on one of your recent blogs, is you’re experimenting or at least thinking of the idea of instructional video.
Lou: So, that’s a really interesting one. So, like I said, my job is publisher is to figure that stuff out. Well, we’ve been thinking about it for years, frankly. And some months ago, one of the big players in user-generated instructional video content, I won’t name names; carpet bombed our roster of experts saying, “Could you create a video for us?”
And sent the same email to dozens of people on our roster. Of course we all are on a list, we all talking about, “Wow, did you get that email?” “Yeah, I got it. What do you think?” And I said, “Alright everyone, look I mean it would be nice if they just contacted me, they didn’t. Whatever, but I’m trying to figure this thing out.” Instructional video is great, we think. I’m not sure there’s a lot of great metrics about it yet, but we’re all kind of shooting for it, because it scales well, it might fill a niche that books don’t fill, that In person teaching doesn’t fill, it scales well. There’s a problem with it, no business model.
So that’s why we got approached by that company who carpet-bombed our roster of experts, because they don’t have any metrics or success that they understand, so all they try to do is show their investors that they’re grabbing for market-share by getting the most content produced. And that’s not really a business model, that’s a big experiment. And I think we’ve seen a lot of discussion and activity around things like MOOCs and so forth in the last year or something, and showed chinks in the armor the fact that there’s a lot of retrenchment and uncertainty.
And so, the business model is uncertain and we might have to spend as much on producing one of those if we do it ourselves, as we would on a book. But a book has a far better understood business model. Today, I don’t think we’re ready. That’s one of those things where I think someone else has to go first, and figure out the economics. It’s also another problem is that Lynda.com, you have a certain format that you do. And that’s it.
If people want to learn through different format, they have to go somewhere else. If they want books, they have to go to O’Reilly or Amazon, or whatever. Each one of these content publishers, the Lyndas, the Treehouses, the Skillshares, the O’Reilly Safaris, and so on is a walled garden. You got to pay for a lot of stuff that you don’t want, and no one is saying, “Well, it’s people don’t necessarily want a format, they want learning.”
And basic pedagogical theories as that people learn in different ways. Where are we going to in this walled garden model, put things together in ways that make sense for our learners around a particular topic? Now large organizations that we’re trying to serve with our consultant and teaching often have learning management systems that are supposed to be the platforms for doing this. But my understanding is that they’re basically all crap. You would never want to have to interact with one of those if you’re actually trying to learn, or teach for that matter. And I think there’s a huge opportunity for others to figure out a way to put things together, regardless of format around certain topics.
So now, I’m finding myself going back 20+ years, and saying, “In 1993, I was trying to teach people how to create guides to the internet, and in 2014, I’m trying to figure how to help experts create essentially guides to certain topics that are on the internet, except they’re in walled gardens, behind pay walls.” So, what goes around comes around. We’ve come full-circle in many respects. I guess I’m always going to be in the same business.
Lara: Well, what would you like your legacy to be?
Lou: I don’t know. I don’t think about it, honestly. I’m very lucky to have lived at a certain time, and have good timing, and enthusiasm, and the naivety to have enthusiasm, and try new things. I’m still pretty naive even though I’m approaching 50. Whatever I’ve achieved, I’ve been really fortunate at, and I just want to keep doing that. I don’t want to have to say that’s enough. I’ve now reached stage 10 of the 10-step legacy gamification scale or anything like that, I just want to do stuff that’s fun and hopefully sustainable as a business, and legacy, I don’t know. I guess that’s for somebody else to figure out if there actually is one, and that’ll be after I’m gone anyway.
Lara: Have your brothers or cousins read any of your books?
Lou: Yeah, actually. They’ve been pretty supportive, and I think that we all come from families both my cousins and my brothers, that we’re entrepreneurial. It really helps to have those role models among your parents, especially. My father’s business was furniture leasing.
He started that in the 1960s, when nobody had heard of it. And, I remember him telling me “I started doing something that people just didn’t get it, I had to explain it to them, and they go, ‘Huh'” and I remember thinking about that all the time when I was getting Argus up and running. “Hey, information architecture.” “I don’t get it.” But when you finally explain it to them, they have that A-ha moment. And then you have a business. And you’re the first to market.
Lara: Well, thank you so much for your time today.
Lou: Oh, thank you. I appreciate the time to ramble.
HIGHLIGHTS WITH TIMECODES
- 6:20 – In library school you learn some really incredible skills that had nothing to do with technology
- 14:00 – IA was going to become a bigger and bigger problem
- 27:40 – Building a great network
- 34:00 – Every CEO should spend at least an hour a week doing customer service for their customers or look at the data where something is wrong
- 36:20 – We’re moving toward a place that sits at the intersection of business and design
- 37:40 – What we realized is that the value wasn’t in books so much, as in identifying and curating expertise
- 47:40 – Family support and role models
MORE ABOUT LOU
Lou Rosenfeld wears two hats: he consults on information architecture strategy, and manages Rosenfeld Media, which publishes user experience books and provides UX training and consulting. He has been instrumental in helping establish the fields of information architecture and user experience, and in articulating the role and value of librarianship within those fields.
World IA Day Keynote 2012
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