BusinessWeek Loves User Experience

The December 6, 2004 issue of BusinessWeek (with the inflammatory “The China Price” cover) is a boon to folks who care about good design in all its components.

The treats:

Pierre Omidyar and eBay
A profile of Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay. And this phrase:

The Web’s real power lies in its ability to connect people instantly around the world, so buyers and sellers alike can share near-perfect information about prices, products, and each other. By putting in place a few key rules, such as a feedback system in which buyers and sellers rate each other, Omidyar sparked a vibrant community that numbers 125 million members worldwide.

It shocks me how few folks get this. How few websites bother to utilize the fact that they reside on a *network*, and that with that network, you can leverage the behavior of all these individuals for both their and your gain. One of those classic “win-win” situations. No retailer other than Amazon really gets it. I can’t think of a single marketing communications site that gets it. Almost no online publications get it. It’s so basic, yet it requires such a fundamental shift in thinking. The web is only in very small part a “publishing platform”, or a “distribution channel.” The web is best when it’s not top-down.

JetBlue
A book review of Blue Streak just once again highlights that a company that considers customers from top-to-bottom will succeed where others haven’t.

Treo 650
The technology columnist loves loves loves the new Treo 650. A product that demands a premium price… because of great design. Jeff Hawkins has infused user-centeredness throughout the company, and this allows Treo to stay ahead of a very very competitive pack.

Upsell
A brief piece on how the iPod is leading to Mac sales.

Reinventing a Company through Design
There’s a long feature on Samsung Design, which details how ten years ago, Samsung explicitly shifted its go-to-market strategy to embrace good design as a differentiator. That leads not only to the ability to charge premium prices, but to gain market share as well. Yes! You charge more, AND more people buy it!

The following passage made me laugh out loud (though it’s a little… humbling):

Samsung’s design focus goes well beyond just the look and feel of its products. The company is working to improve the way people use and control gadgets, and two years ago it opened what it calls a “usability laboratory” in downtown Seoul. There, across the hall from where Choi Won Min taps away at his synthesizers in search of the perfect sound, engineers and consumers alike test everything from getting products out of the box to the icons and menus on screens. “In the past, physical design was the focal point,” says Chief Design Officer Choi (no relation to the sound designer). “In the future, the user interface will be emphasized more.” (emphasis mine)

Well, now BusinessWeek knows about “usability laboratories,” even if it’s via a Korean electronics manufacturer, and has nothing to do with them being in place throughout the US for the last 20 years.

And Now For Something Complete Different
Facing the last page of the Samsung article is an ad promoting “Basque Country” as a “strategic partner,” highlighting such points as it’s “first-class financial sector,” “a powerful, dynamic industry” (of what?), “modern infrastructures” (we’ve got running water!), and “a business culture of the highest level,” (Is that like the highest level on Pacman?).

But my favorite bit is the tagline: “Basque Country: A country on the move”, which is a little too much like “Springfield, a city on the… grow!” Except it makes even less sense. On the move? To where? Is it drifting out to sea?

Examples of Interaction Design and What’s Interesting About Them: #1 In a Series

A couple weeks ago, a friend and I were asked to present on the subject of interaction design. The audience needed primer material. We started out the presentation by walking through some examples of web-based interaction design and explanations as to why they were interesting.

I thought I’d share a few.

Booking Reservations at the Broadmoor. A Flash-based interface that lets you choose dates, pick rooms, and submit payment information all on one-screen.

broadmoor

Why it’s interesting:
1. Visitors determine order of importance — date and then room, or room and then date?
2. You see the ramifications of your choices immediately — if you want these dates, then you won’t get these rooms.
3. You cannot “finish reservation” without having filled everything in — it doesn’t require a trip to the server to receive an error message. This pretty much prevents that error

Is it perfect? No. The color-coding of dates is non-intuitive, adding people or rooms is a bit of a kludge, and it features a dreaded “info-slit” below the picture of the room (only a few lines of text visible, requiring a lot of scrolling).

Still, this site is the best of its kind out there, at least that I know. It’s also a couple years old, and as an example is getting hoary… Except that no one (apart from iHotelier’s other clients) seems to have followed suit, if my experiences booking airfares and hotel reservations is at all typical. Why aren’t we seeing more of this?

Self-serving Social Networks

David Weinberger posted about “Selfless Social Networks,” and his thoughts didn’t ring true for me. While I agree that the users of these tools aren’t predominantly selfish, I don’t agree that there’s a significantly strong thread of selflessness. I wrote a comment to that post saying that, if anything, these tools tap into our self-serving nature. Self-serving is importantly different from selfish — selfish implies a total disregard for others, whereas self-serving employs our interactions with others for some personal gain.

I refuse to believe that any but an exceedingly small minority upload photos to Flickr in order “to contribute to a worldwide shoebox of photos that is, by itself, a good thing for all of us to have.”

This made me think, Why do I use the social software tools that I use? I mean, *honestly*? I suspect most people, even the social software theorists, have seriously engaged in this introspection.

Flickr.com: Since I use iPhoto as my main photo storage tool, there’s got a be a socially-driven reason for using Flickr. There are two: Flickr.com is simply the easiest tool for sharing my photos with lots of people, and without forcing large email-attachment downloads on them. That is probably my primary reason. An event happens, post it to Flickr, and everyone who went to that event, or was interested, can grab the photos. The second is a much more self-serving motive — “Look at me!” I post from my travels. I post from my activities. Ostensibly to share with my friends, but I have to admit — it’s more about getting a little attention. “Oh, you went to Minnesota?” “Oh, you made fudge?”

del.icio.us: This tool I use very differently than Flickr. Where as Flickr for me is essentially social (and typically with a known group of friends), del.icio.us is primarily personal. This is in part because bookmark management within web browsers is such a disaster — del.icio.us is simply a better interface to bookmarks than what the browsers have offered us. (Before del.icio.us, I didn’t keep web bookmarks). After the act of bookmarking web pages, my next-most-common use is of going back through my bookmarks and reading pages I hadn’t gotten around to actually reading. My third most-common use of del.icio.us is tag-surfing. Starting with tags I applied to my bookmarks, I see what other people have tagged with those terms. Now, I don’t tag selflessly — I tag for my own retrieval needs. And I suspect that’s true of the vast majority of del.icio.us users. What’s so great about the tool is that these self-serving, self-centered tags aggregate into a compelling hive mind. But no selflessness here. Perhaps my least-common use of del.icio.us is as a publishing tool — putting something in there so that others will find it, something that I don’t plan to read again. A very few of my del.icio.us posts fall into this “selfless” category.

Movable Type: What you’re reading right now. I’ve been blogging, in some form or another, since 1998. Blogging is probably among the least… intentful (is that a word?) of the social software tools. You type some words, you post it to a server, people read it (or don’t). There’s little enforced “community” aspect. And, for me, blogging is probably the single most self-serving activity I engage in. I blog to get attention. I blog so that people know what I’m thinking, and, I hope, appreciate what I’m thinking, and, so, consider me as worth paying attention to. And before del.icio.us, I blogged as a kind of annotated bookmarking tool. So, while I hope that what I blog proves helpful to others, I don’t blog *to* help others.

Not that I haven’t tried to blog to help others. The Beast Blog, which I started as a community blog, was a much more selfless act on my part. And after about a year, I realized I just didn’t care enough any more. I’ve pretty much stopped posting there. And I think it’s because my work there wasn’t self-serving enough. I was trying too hard to be a community hub, and that, in and of itself, didn’t motivate me.

[now I go on a bit of an unplanned mental wander]

I think that this notion of self-serving social networks might possible play into Dan Hill’s thoughts on self-centered design. (Though, you have to Google “self-centred design” to find that link… Google hasn’t learned to lump together American and English spellings.) In all things, *I* am at the heart of the system, my needs, wants, desires, capabilities, interests, concepts, understandings, etc.

The social software tools that maximize self-serving behavior with positive community impacts will best succeed. Flickr’s inherent nature does that pretty well… But there’s a problem when one of your contacts is a bit of a photo junky — you get overwhelmed with their self-serving use (posting pictures of, say, what they’ve eaten (I’m looking at you, Jones)), and it interferes with the commons — particularly active people monopolize screen real estate, much the same was as overactive posters can dominate email lists.

Relationships, not Information

Ever since reading his insightful weekly columns on Hotwired’s too-good-for-its-own-good site Packet, I’ve been a fan of Michael Schrage, and the insight he brings to issues of business, economics, technology, information, and society. An old essay of his, “The Relationship Revolution,” has been recently reposted, and ought to be required reading for those of us toiling away dealing with information on the internet.

There’s a passage near the end that I found particularly resonant to experiences I’ve had consulting with clients:

It’s time to stop thinking of computer networks and digital technologies as media for managing information and to start thinking of them as media to manage relationships. As a general rule, too many organizations have spent too much time obsessing on the information they want their networks to carry and far too little time on the effective relationships that those networks should create and support. This is a grave strategic error.

I’ve been involved in a couple of website strategy projects where this became an explicit goal. To think of information not as “information”, but as a currency in building a relationship between a company and their potential customers. It’s lead us to rethink the nature of how information is offered to people visiting the site. Instead of overwhelming them with all possible details, instead try to provide a meaningful path that develops in line with their appreciation of the organization and what it has to offer.

For what little it’s worth…

I firmly believe the… disgusting? distressing? … brawl that complete last night’s Pacers/Pistons game is a symptom of living in George Bush’s America.

America is increasingly a country predicated on fear, hate, and demonizing “the other” (whatever that other is). I wholly expect to see such senseless conflagrations erupt with shocking frequency throughout this land of ours. People are so on edge, so distraught, that it doesn’t take much of a spark to light the psychic kindling.

The Tension between the Personal and the Public

Cathy Marshall touched on this in her talk on personal digital libraries, and Gene addresses it in his post on personal information architecture: these new systems necessarily call into question the relationship between the personal and public.

Cathy discussed it with respect to annotations, markings, etc., that we might have in our personal digital library — the are typically made for ourselves… what happens when they get “published”?

Gene makes a comment that the lines between individual and group construction are blurring. To me, that doesn’t seem right… I think there’s a tension there, a butting up of the local and the social that’s not about smearing the boundaries.

Here’s what I mean. Cathy began her talk thinking about her own personal library, and that got me to think of my own. One bookshelf in particular:


Click to enlarge

This shelf was organized by my girlfriend in a fit of spring cleaning. She doesn’t really know much about the content of these books, wasn’t interested in finding out, and so used the easiest organization method available — by color.

When I first saw it, I thought it was funny, but didn’t think much else of it.

Then I tried to use it.

You know what? It works *great*. At least, for known-item searching. When I had a book in mind, I could readily find it, because, in my mind’s eye, I could picture it.

So, here we have an example of an organization scheme that’s extremely useful to me, and likely impenetrable to others. This is what I mean when I say that “blurring” doesn’t feel right. I think there’s going to be an out-and-out tension to resolve.

On a somewhat unrelated manner, this also shows the potential perils of separating form and content. Form (size, shape, color) is very important, from a cognitive perspective, in helping me remember the content. If all my books were white, no matter how well they were categorized, it would take me longer to find the ones I was looking for. Form provides cues that we act on.

What are the cues in our personal digital collections?

Cathy Marshall on Personal Digital Libraries

Yesterday I attended a lecture given by Cathy Marshall on her nascent research into Personal Digital Libraries. Cathy has written a lot about hypertext, digital libraries, the experience of reading, and other such subjects, and it’s now seeming to come together in research on how we will maintain our own digital libraries.

Cathy’s work strongly dovetails with the burgeoning discussion on personal information architecture. Cathy’s talk isn’t served well by providing verbatim notes, so I’ll summarize the main points.

—–
Personal Libraries
Cathy began the discussion of Personal Digital Libraries by wondering, “What is a personal library, anyway?” She showed photos of her “library”, which was essentially a bunch of bookshelves, file folders, stuff strewn about on desks and tables.

One of the things I took away is that it might be better to distinguish between “library” and “collection” — and I would argue that Cathy is talking about Personal Digital Collections.

A key element of personal collections is their heterogeneity — photos, documents, books, receipts, tax forms, software, video, audio, pin buttons, etc. etc.

The Equation
So then she asked, “Well, why isn’t a personal digital library just my computer and all the files on it?”

And she claimed that it’s more than that, that:

Personal Digital Library = PC + X

Where X=
{readability, contextual search, a means to organize and browse, ways to share, security}
+
{interactivity, re-encounter, sustainability}

The focus of her talk was the last three, which are newer issues to face… The first five are pretty well-understood and well-addressed problems.

Readability
Cathy rehashed claims that “people don’t/won’t read on the screen,” and then went on to dispute them. She said that the technological feasibility of screen readability is fast approaching, and that claims otherwise tend to be borne of unwarranted anxiety or skepticism.

[Side note: I've never fully appreciated this fear of reading on the screen. Maybe it's because I've been reading on screens since I was 12. This strikes me as so obviously a generational issue.]

The Changing Nature of Reading
She addressed some cultural conditions that may be changing the nature of reading.

We read in alignment with our fragmented schedules — “I’ve got 20 minutes, I’ll read X.”

There’s so much reading to do that it’s becoming demand-driven.

People who print digital documents to “read them later” almost never do — the act of printing serves as a psychological substitute for reading.

Mobility increases screen reading. When it was a desktop PC, people read less, but now with laptops and wi-fi, people are able to get comfortable and read.

And, obviously, we get more of what we read in digital form.

And now… back to the missing pieces in thinking about personal digital libraries

Interactivity
Interactivity is missing from most digital material. There’s no record of its use. She quotes Baudrillard (Cool Memories II) “The compact disc. It doesn’t wear out, even if you use it. Terrifying. It’s as though you’d never used it. So it’s as though you didn’t exist. If things don’t get old any more, then that’s because it’s you who are dead.”

Many of the reasons people *do* print digital material is to share it, file it, write on it, and stack it up for later — all interactions that are not well-supported by computers.

Three key kinds of interaction with reading that Cathy’s observed that people do over 15 years of field research:
- personal annotation
- clipping (either to save for self, or to share)
- gathering/triage (combing through many sources and weeding to specific items for research)

And for each, the computer suffers

Annotation — it’s un-self-conscious to scribble in margins, or underline a printed piece. Using a keyboard and mouse to make annotations makes it a conscious act.

To-handedness — Ripping a page out of a magazine is easy and compelling… Trying to do the equivalent in a PC is not

Informality of expression — with printed things, piling things on your desk is often more compelling than filing them away — particularly if you’re doing research. On a PC, things automatically get ordered, it’s hard to recognize “where” they are.

Annotations
Cathy spent a very long time discussing annotations.

[Side note: I don't annotate printed material. At least, not *in* the printed material. None of my books have marks made by me. I do occasionally take notes in a notebook about something I read.]

The biggest takeaway for me about annotations was that they are fundamentally personal — they are not meant for others. Oftentimes, they are extremely temporal — a week later, people don’t remember what they meant by a particular annotation. So the question is… will people want to share annotations if they are so personal? What does that do to “annotating”?

Clipping
Clipping occurs for many different reasons. The classic reason — to keep something for later reference — is probably the least salient.

People clip items they haven’t finished, so they can finish it later.

People clip items as reminders for action. Think about putting an event notice on a refrigerator.

People clip to share — “Did you see this?”

A problem with clipping and computers is that it’s really hard to “leave things out” on a computer. The power of clippings is that they turn up throughout your life to remind you they are there.

Gathering/triage
This is about interacting with multiple documents for a single project/purpose. Oftentimes when we’re doing this, we organize documents spatially. This becomes very hard on a computer, where we have to consciously classify everything — we can’t just say “this belongs next to that”.

Personal Geography
People organize their “library” relative to the specific task at hand at a particular point in time. Over the long-term, the point of a particular organizational scheme may get lost. What does this mean for “personal libraries”?

Cathy claimed that “over both the short and long term, the most important effect of these artifacts of interaction is to form a personal geography.” I think “personal geography” is a powerful notion — recognizing spatiality, inter-relatedness, etc.

Re-Encounter
A key finding in Cathy’s research has been that there is a third way of returning to stuff in our personal libraries.

The two most commonly understood methods are
1. search
2. browse

The third, not-well-understood method is
3. re-encounter
Re-encounter is “when the thing itself reminds you of something.” It’s serendipity. It’s how the artifact spurs thinking, thinking that was forgotten until the artifact was seen again.

As we mentioned, clippings often serve this role of reminding us to do something. “I left this photo out, to remind me to send a letter to a colleague in chicago.”

Cathy pointed out that, as search gets better (with things like, say, Google Desktop), the chance for serendipity *decreases*, which means the chance of re-encounter decreases.

Sustainability
Cathy then spent a very long time talking about how we will preserve/archive/maintain/sustain the items in our personal digital libraries. This was very much about media (how do you read a 5 1/4″ floppy these days?), formats, etc.

She pointed to a recent New York Times Article, “Even Digital Memories Can Fade” .

Personally, while I recognize the value of people worrying about sustainability, it’s hard for me to get really interested in it, so my attention started to wane.

—-

That was the gist of Cathy’s talk. I’ve got plenny more thoughts on Personal Information Architecture which I’ll share.

But first, off to Santa Cruz Wine Country.

Fall Movie Update: SIDEWAYS and THE INCREDIBLES

Alexander Payne’s Election is among my favorite movies of the last 10 years, and combine that with the universal critical favor that Sideways received, and I went in with some pretty high expectations. And went out feeling, “Eh, it was pretty good.” Sideways goes a baby step beyond About Schmidt (which my dad dubbed About Nothing), by being about almost-nothing. When the movie ends, neither the characters nor story have significantly developed.

What’s to like about the film? Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church’s acting. Both provide stellar performances. What’s not to like? The filmcraft — I haven’t seen a movie as riddled with cliches (shaky-camera for drunkenness, soft light sunset wine country picnic scenes, a score that telegraphs emotions) in a long time. I was also disappointed that the film contains not one single narrative surprise–everything plays out exactly as you expect it would from the moment you meet these two folks.

So, even though I liked it, I found the film disappointing. That’ll learn me to have expectations.

Brad Bird’s The Incredibles proved a far more enjoyable cinematic experience. It takes a surprising while to get going (there’s a lot of setup — superheroes, who marry, who are banished by an enraged public, who attempt to “fit in” to normal society, who are then called back into action), but once it does, it rip-roars through an exciting second half. It replaced the laconic, easy-going charm of his The Iron Giant with more Pixar-friendly deadpan style, where amazing things happen all around you and people don’t react all that strongly. It’s also a quality feel-good movie, and it has plenty of laughs. I went to see it at a theater filled with children, and some of the scenes were too intense for the younger ones — there are images of death, and the evil machine can be rather frightening.

How (Not) To Sell A Novel Product

From Dan Brown (via email) comes a compare-and-contrast exercise in using marketing content to communicate what a novel technology does. This is the Tivo problem — it’s hard to get across what the thing does, but when people use it, they love it. In this case, we’re talking products that wirelessly connect your music with your whole house.

In this corner, Roku
roku

And in this corner, Sonos
sonos

Guess which, when you’re setting it up, asks if you’re wi-fi password is “ASCII” or “Hex.”?

And when you click in to Sonos, you get a remarkably easy-to-understand page devoid of techspeak.

I’m collecting good examples of web marketing copy. Ideally, ones that use *the Web* — linking, multimedia, etc. But clarity and engagement will do, too. You got any favorites? Place them in comments.