Is “seamlessness” really a useful goal?

A number of us at NYU Libraries just emerged from a 2-day strategic planning retreat. We did loads of good work and have the draft of a plan that should keep us busy for the years to come.

There were several words that kept creeping into our writing and then coming up for discussion/debate over the two days, including “holistic,” “integrated,” and “seamless.”

Coincidentally, just this morning on twitter Tito Sierra @tsierra (MIT) and Lorcan Dempsey @lorcanD (OCLC) had a conversation about interfaces and they used the phrases “logically seamed” and “well seamed” in order to “avoid the hubris of ‘seamless'” (to quote Lorcan). (Note: Lorcan took the phrase “well seamed” from Peter Burnhill, @strollerman).

Tito’s original post was about Columbia’s beta CLIO interface: “Columbia University Libraries CLIO Beta unified library search application is very impressive http://cliobeta.columbia.edu/ ”

Tito went on to explain: “I like Clio beta because it provides an integrated, logically seamed (not boiled down), interface to heterogenous lib content”

In the NYU Libraries strategic planning retreat today, I agreed with the drift of our own discussion that “seamlessness” is not necessarily an achievable, or even useful, goal. Seams in data and interfaces exist for specific (technical) reasons and their exposure can indicate something about the complexity of the information landscape that we can’t or don’t want to completely hide. The seams can act as signposts (or warning signs?) for the user about what might be happening behind the scenes.

Though the expressions suggested by Tito and Lorcan are clumsy, I do also like the fact that they hint at the importance of decision-making about how to stitch and when/how to expose or smooth out seams, rather than attempt to obliterate them entirely.

Every good seamstress knows how important good seams are, how they help define and shape the garment. (Did you happen to see the Alexander McQueen “Savage Beauty” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum? Here are a few seams worth considering: Plato’s Atlantis, It’s Only a Game, and Eclect Dissect).

Rather than aim for seamlessness, let’s think more about how to seam artfully and to strategically reveal to the user the construction of our search environments.