When Nicholas Carr’s latest book The Big Switch arrived at work today, I felt like I already knew what it was about. I’ve read the early interviews, I’ve heard some of the sound bites. It’s about utility computing, and why he thinks it’s great. Just for fun, though, I did what book buyers (and potential book buyers) always do, which is double-check the inside cover.
There, in less than about 200 words, is the elevator pitch version of Carr’s thesis. “This time, it’s computing that’s turning into a utility,” it reads. “The shift is already remaking the computer industry, bringing in new competitors like Google and Salesforce.com to the fore, and threatening stalwarts like Microsoft and Dell.” By the end of the blurb, you could reasonably pretend to have read the entire book.
My mother always called the piece of book jacket with these summaries the “fly leaf.” I just call it the blurb. Just as the book remains an unparalleled way to store and distribute information, however, the book jacket blurb is an example of what abstracts in IT systems should aim to be.
In a lot of enterprise IT and in many portals, searching for data often involves retrieving an abstract that’s not much longer than a Google result. It’s a one-liner, usually containing a couple of keywords and, if you’re lucky, enough context to tell you if you’re on the right track. Other systems contain more detailed abstracts – maybe a thick paragraph. Information is treated, in other words, like the headlines and sub-heads we use in journalism vehicles such as newspapers, magazines or Web sites.
Book jacket blurbs are something different altogether, and as information increasingly adapts to electronic modes of classification, their design is becoming almost unique. Part synopsis, part sales pitch, they can be an art form in and of themselves but they are an indispensable part of helping users make a critical decision – whether to purchase a book, and whether to make the investment to read it. It’s just the right length to give the impression of some substance, but short enough that it can be scanned quickly for those in a hurry. It’s also remained in a not-too-narrow, not-too-wide column on most books, somehow reassuring readers that it won’t be as much work to read it as an actual full-sized page of copy.
Not too many software systems have created an equivalent to the book jacket blurb, despite its obvious value for knowledge workers. As a model that’s been in place for more than one hundred years, it should have immediately been replicated as we shifted large, book-length chunks of information into digital formats. Instead it was ignored. But imagine if a business intelligence report were indexed along with a book jacket-style blurb – not a two-page executive summary – that was somehow “wrapped” around the rest of the content. If someone developed a really simple, standard way to do this, it would become as predominant as PDF, and we’d think it amiss if any system file didn’t include it.
The long-term success of enterprise information systems will be based in part on how well they equip users to make judgement calls about data. They will need an easy template for summarizing and “selling” information based on user profiles. I’ve probably already written too much to really made my case here. I should have just typed up a little blurb.