stating the obvious archives | about

Just One Question for Marc Rettig
Apr 22, 1998 :: Michael Sippey

Marc Rettig is one of the most interesting thinkers I've ever met. The few times I've had the opportunity to share a conference table with him, I've been wowed by his creativity, his problem solving skills, and his multidisciplinary mindset.

As VP, Design at digital knowledge assets, Marc is the conceptual designer of dka'a sceneServer, a "flexible platform for web-based content management and group interaction," and one of the more interesting products/services I've seen in a long time. Marc was kind enough to take time out of his hectic life to answer just one question...

MS: Several online communities I've been a part of have suffered from self-analysis stagnation, where the email list or the discussion board becomes a place where the community talks about nothing but itself. What's refreshing to me about SceneServer is that it breaks that mold by explicitly enabling a community of people to talk about things outside of the community itself. The ability for people to share pointers to documents, websites and other media is "built in" from the ground up. As the conceptual designer on the SceneServer product, were there any real-world analogs where communities sharing "pointers" that you looked to for inspiration?

MR: Quite a few. Before we conceived what the product was going to look like or what the features would be, we spent time doing field research. We (when I say "we," I mean my company, dka) favor an ethnographic approach to design, so we went out to see how people acquire and share information, with and without technology.

We saw managers getting over a hundred email messages a day. A lot of them were either saying, "Hey, look at this..." or "I looked at this, and here's what I think about it...." The wires were humming with pointers to information, but they weren't getting pooled anywhere, and it was difficult to hold a group-wide conversation about them.

We realized that people don't just want a place to talk, they want to talk about what's in front of them. If you give them an empty discussion area, many people are intimidated or feel they have nothing to say. But show people stuff that matters to them, and they react.

We also saw how much people value bookmarks from people they respect. Especially if they come with a little commentary, a little point of view. We had people telling us, "You work with so-and-so? Man, I'd pay you just to get his bookmarks once a month."

People do their best to share and communicate with the tools they have available. But individually those tools addresses only a part of their need, and they aren't well integrated. So people wind up performing unnatural acts: searching through a ten meg email archive for a pointer to a document that someone put in Lotus Notes, so they can read it and comment on it, generating yet more email.

We built sceneServer as an attempt to integrate this information pooling, conversation, and sharing points of view. Integration has been a big theme with us. That's why you don't see chat in sceneServer yet. We're looking at ways to integrate it in useful ways, not just glue chat rooms onto what we already have.

So yes, we are constantly looking at the real world, not just for analogies, but to understand what people are trying to do, how they are living. We're about to start looking at a number of common activities that involve complex choices, lots of information, valued advice, and personal recommendations. It's going to be fun to see where it leads.



Other pieces about interviews: