AskCity: You Know, It Doesn’t Suck

At the beginning of this month, the New York Times featured a story on the CEO of Ask.com, Jim Lanzone, focusing on the recent launch of their regional information search, AskCity. Over at the AP blog, I quoted Lanzone from the story: ““Right now, the focus is almost entirely on improving the user experience. This is the product that, to date, we are the most proud of. It is going to have a huge impact for people who use Ask.”

AskCity is an attempt to regain market share in the search space, as local searches “account for 10 percent of all Internet queries,” according to the article. This also puts Ask square up against Citysearch, Yahoo! Local, and Google Maps/Local, and in a space that feels pretty saturated.

I often have cause for searching local information, particularly related to restaurants, so I tried out AskCity for some of those searches. And you know what?

It doesn’t suck. There’s some nifty functionality in there to improve the local search experience. A search for “romantic restaurants” in “san francisco” returns a number of solid results. Clicking on a result takes you to a special page, which pulls information from a variety of sources, including Citysearch (owned by Ask’s parent, IAC), Yelp (not owned by IAC), and others.

It gets better though. A friend needed recommendations for restaurants near the Opera House, the trick being she was going to the Opera that night, and had been delinquent with reservations. I used AskCity to find restaurants, and, and this is where it gets interesting, was able to “pin” the restaurants, causing them to stick in my listings, and on the map, while I kept looking for more. Even if conducted a new search, pinned results remained. In this way, I located about 6 different places.

But how would I get them to her? I could email her separate links, but AskCity makes it easy to email whatever map you’re looking at. You can see such a map here. (This *should* work in all browsers, but can be wonky…)

But that’s not all! Because you can also annotate the map with drawings and text. So, let’s say I have a favorite place to look for parking in that area. I can show it like I have here. (Browser caveat repeated…)

Now, there’s one more bit of coolness. Let’s say you wanted to buy your dates some flowers before the show. In AskCity, you enter “florist” in “businesses” and “hayes valley, san francisco” in location. You’ll get the same kind of results, but look at the map — there’s a red outline showing the boundaries of the Hayes Valley neighborhood.

Ask Neighborhoodmap

This might be the first time you could search *neighborhoods* in a local search engine. The neighborhood data happens to be powered by UrbanMapping (whose CEO, Ian White, spoke at my IDEA conference). I don’t know how robust the neighborhood database is, but try it out in your city — it’s an interesting option when looking up local searches.

AskCity is now a stable in my search repertoire, and is oftentimes the first place I look before heading onto CitySearch, Yelp, and the like. Kudos to Ask for truly innovating in a space that needs it.

What will Ubiquitous Personal Video lead to?

A few weeks ago, Youtube launched the ability to directly grab webcam feeds and upload them (login required) — no intermediaries.

Also around that time, I, and millions of others, bought MacBooks, each of which has an iSight camera built in. So, what are the opportunities that such Ubiquitous Personal Video offers?

Video chat is an obvious answer. But less obvious (at least to the hearing community), is how deaf people use Youtube to communicate. How does video allow for new markets for the deaf, or maybe those having trouble with written language?

We’ll also see a proliferation of software that uses video input, like the Delicious Library, which “scans” UPC symbols captured by a camera. What will it mean now that it’s so easy to catalog everything you own?

Video games such as Freeverse’s Toysight, that integrate physical input captured on video, will become more prevalent.

Will we start seeing gestural interfaces? I wave my hand in certain ways and things happen?

Who knows exactly where it will all lead, but we no need to seriously consider video not as output, but as an input device. That makes things interesting.

The Branding of Polaroid

Doing some research on the history of photography lead me to “The Branding of Polaroid,” a remarkably detailed look at the development of the Polaroid brand, by a principal instigator. It’s rich with stories, images, and perspective — there’s enough content for a small book! It’s a bit tricky to navigate — use the “chapters” listed under “Archives” to go from beginning to end.

Update: I just remembered this page on the evolution of Kodak’s brand logo. It’s fascinating to see it improve until 1971, at which point it seems to backslide, with the numbingly bland mark they have now:

interesting : important :: novelty : everyday

Ryan, pointing to a post by Matt, comments briefly: “… when we’re at our best, we shun novelty and design the everyday.” It reminds me of a comment Bruce Sterling made in his closing talk at IDEA (MP3), where he implored designers not to pursue and fetishize that which is interesting, but to engage in what is important. This is hard for designers to embrace, but it’s true.

In talking to Ryan about this on IM, I realized that this might be what’s at the heart of my struggles with the Design Community since I joined it. I addressed this is my (very long) conversation with GK van Patter, “…I’ve spent much of my career fighting small-minded design thought, particularly in the world of graphic design where the cool, novel, and stylish is lauded over the useful, usable, and truly deeply engaging. I have to point no further than the “interactive” design annuals published by the likes of Communication Arts or Print, which celebrate pretty screenshots instead of tools that solve real problems.”

The Experience of Disneyland™ Resort

Yesterday, Stacy and I went to Disneyland™ Resort. Her first time ever, my first time since, I think, Grad Night in 1989.

Since I last went, I’ve become a bit of a design geek. And now work for an “experience strategy and design” company. And Disneyland is definitely a standard-bearer when it comes to experience design. At least, one form of experience design, quite literally an experience-on-rails design, where the point is to direct the audience to very specific experiential outcomes. (As opposed to, say, user experience design, which expects the user’s motivations and behaviors to significantly effect the experience.)

My biggest fear was that the park would be totally crowded — as you head into the holidays, people on vacation fill the place up. Happily, going on a Tuesday 6 days before Christmas proved wise — we never waited more than 25 minutes for any ride, and many rides had only 10-15 minute waits. (I remember hour-plus waits from my childhood.)

Grades and thoughts on the rides we went on

  • Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters
  • Grade: B-. I didn’t know this ride existed until we went in the park. As fans of the Toy Story movies, we decided to give it a shock. It’s essentially a slow-moving immersion ride combined with a shooting gallery, where you try to save the universe (or something) from Zurg. It didn’t suck, but I did feel that the “interactive” aspect deterred from the experience — I was so focused on zapping little Z’s with my ray gun that I didn’t really engage with the ride’s narrative.

  • Disneyland Railroad
  • Grade: B. Walt had a fascination with transit, demonstrated by the multiple ways you can get around the park. For what it is, the Disneyland Railroad is a perfectly fine respite from the clamor of the rest of the park. The “Grand Canyon” bit is a bit bizarre (it’s so poorly rendered), though the dinosaurs were kinda cool. This is the only ride that really exposed the seams behind the park — shortly after we got on (in Toon Town) we passed a service area, with stuff stacked in plain sight that should have been hidden.

  • Enchanted Tiki Room
  • Grade: B. “In the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Room…” For sheer goofy pleasure, this attraction (not a ride — you just sit in a room) is quite charming. Audioanimatronic birds and statues sing a medley of songs. My only disappointment — at the start of the show, the Cast Member introduces it with what was essentially an apology about how dated the audioanimatronics are, but without them, we wouldn’t have great rides like Pirates of the Caribbean. You don’t start an experience with an apology. Just like the Room be the Room.

  • Haunted Mansion Holiday
  • Grade: C. In my memory, the Haunted Mansion is among my favorite rides at Disneyland. It had a delightfully fun and moderately macabre sense of humor. I didn’t know about this “Haunted Mansion Holiday” until we approached the ride. It seems that for the last three months of the year, the Mansion is taken over by a “The Nightmare Before Christmas” theme, with Jack Skellington, Zero, Sandy Claws, and all. Well, I don’t like it. And I don’t think I don’t like it just ’cause it’s a change. I think I don’t like it because it’s just so out of place. “Nightmare” is not a house-centered concept, and wedging that world into this one leaves both wanting.

  • Indiana Jones Adventure
    Grade: C. This was totally new to me, and I had no idea what to expect. It’s a moderately thrilling ride, where you’re in a Jeep, careening through sets inspired by the Indiana Jones movies. It suffers from the same maladies as so many Hollywood blockbusters–charm and emotion is replaced by crass spectacle and special effects.

  • It’s A Small World Holiday
  • Grade: B. This endures the “holiday” makeover far better than Haunted Mansion, if only because the music is altered to include Christmas carols, so you don’t have that one melody relentlessly drilled into your head. It’s heard to impugn It’s A Small World — you get what you come for — but I was surprised at how no attempt was made to hide the ceiling. Disneyland is typically so good at making their rides all encompassing, but here, you see the boring tiled ceiling plain as day.

  • Jungle Cruise
  • Grade: B. One of the originals. It’s notoriously flaky from a technical standpoint, and was inoperable when we first went by. So we didn’t ride on it until night time, which requires the use of lights on either side of the boat to see everything (and I suspect you miss many details). Still, a silly little ride down a river, with some expertly rendered audioanimatronic animals, and bad bad bad puns from your boat guide.

  • Matterhorn Bobsleds
  • Grade: C. A lame roller coaster. Does provide a nice view of the park, though.

  • Mr Toad’s Wild Ride
  • Grade: B-. This was the only storybook kiddie ride we went on. It’s okay.

  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Grade: A-. Still my favorite park experience. It’s so rich, through and through. Some of the sanitizing that’s happened since I last rode it is a shame, but is also made up for by the addition of an audioanimatronic Jack Sparrow that is *crazy* lifelike.

  • Space Mountain
  • Grade: B+. Stacy’s favorite ride. It’s a roller-coaster. In the dark. With lights acting as stars and comets and galaxies. It’s a pretty tame roller-coaster, as such things go, but fun all the same.

  • Splash Mountain
  • Grade: B. I ended up liking this more than I thought. Loosely based on “Song of the South,” which I’ve never seen, the whole ride is an excuse for the final plunge where, most definitely, you will get wet.

  • Star Tours
  • Grade: B+. Star Tours has probably the best queue of any attraction in the park. Knowing that people could be stuck a while, they filled it with things to look at. I love the space tourist travel conceit, see the robots at work is fun, and they even did a good job with the pre-boarding announcement. The ride itself still works well, though it definitely is starting to show its age (expected after 20 years).

  • Thunder Mountain Railroad
  • Grade: B-. A roller-coaster type ride.

    Some Other Thoughts

    So, you know how Disneyland doesn’t serve alcohol? (Well, except at 33, and I wasn’t getting in there…) I wouldn’t have minded if they didn’t feature alcohol so prominently on so many rides… Pirates is obvious, but there are jugs with “XXX” on it on both Splash Mountain and Thunder Mountain, and, perhaps most oddly, booze plays a prominent role in “Mr Toad’s Wild Ride.” After all that display, you can’t help but want a drink.

    So clean! I know it’s one of Walt’s founding tenets for the park, but still, it’s remarkable. Not only are there trashcans everywhere, there are folks with brooms everywhere, too. Stacy thought another contributing factor was one of social pressure — it’s so clean, don’t you want to keep it that way?

    So small! Disneyland covers surprisingly few acres for all that it packs in there.

    Arriving at around 9am, we had planned to spend the entire day there, well into the evening. But, because the lines were so short, we found ourselves pretty much done by around 5pm. We stuck around a bit to see what the park looks like at night (It’s A Small World is pretty awesome), and then headed out around 6.

    Downtown Disney, just outside the park, was disappointing. We were two thirsty and hungry people in search of a drink and maybe a meal, but no restaurant appealed. We got a drink at Uva, a pleasant outdoor bar, and left.

  • Unfinished thoughts on user research

    I’ve started a bit of a discussion within Adaptive Path on the subject of design research, and my concern that designers are flocking to research as a way to not have their work so coldly scrutinized. I just wrote up an email to an internal list trying to capture my thoughts, and have realized that it’s to muddled even for the AP blog, so I’m posting it here, because, well, I look to my readership to help me figure out when I’m making sense and when I’ve lost it.

    I think it goes without saying that I support user research. I love the insights that we’re able to develop, and I do believe it often leads to superior designs. I have no desire to cast it aside.BUT, what I am reacting to is a trend I’ve been witnessing.

    I talk to a lot of designers, both in-house and in the community, and a common thread of late is how much they love research. With a very definite implication that they’re less interested in design, and instead want to focus on how research frames the problem of what to design. I even get a sense that many feel they have grown beyond design, that they’re kind of pooh-poohing the craft of design, that they want to focus on more strategic concerns now.

    My concern is that I think this desire to shift toward research is often motivated by research’s lack of accountability. Design is easy to criticize, easy to test, easy to measure. It is relatively straightforward to determine a design’s success (even if that success is determined subjectively by the key stakeholder). Research on the other hand, is hard to criticize, hard to test, hard to measure. The results of research, typically some understanding of the audience and a plan that takes advantage of those insights, aren’t held up to such scrutiny.

    I fear this emphasis and idolatry of research, for two reasons. First, it loses sight that research is simply a means to an end — that end being to deliver results. Second, if research doesn’t demonstrate explicit value, it becomes a target for line-item- removal, particularly when things get rough.

    Perhaps a tangent, but I think a revealing one, comes from a discussion I had with Jared Spool, when I interviewed him for our website a bit back
    =====
    PM: What are typical mistakes, or misguided notions that you see when observing others engaged in user research?

    JS: I think probably the biggest thing is not understanding the difference between observation, inference, opinion, and recommendation. Those four things are quite distinct and independent of each other. And if you don’t realize there’s a difference, you tend to muddle them up, and then things get very confusing.
    =====

    In the full transcript, Jared defines them essentially as:

    • observation: what you saw (the user clicked a link)
    • inference: why you think something happened, usually because of causality (the clicked a link because they thought it would take them where they wanted to go)
    • opinion: a statement about the situation based on inferences (the link has a confusing label)
    • recommendation: how to change the situation to achieve a goal (the link should be renamed as ______)

    You pretty much have to twist Jared’s arm, or give him lots and lots of money, to make recommendations. Because he doesn’t want to give recommendations unless he’s pretty certain they will lead to the desired change. Which means he needs to collect *tons* of data to give him that confidence. This might seem awfully reductive, but I think it is key, because it makes his research findings *accountable*.

    I’m going to leave it at this for now. I’ve probably already blathered too much.

    The Ghost Map and the inevitability of cities

    Traveling through Chile and Peru while reading Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map gave me a perspective on the book I would not have gotten had I read it in my comfy confines of the San Francisco Bay Area.

    Quickly: the book chronicles the uncovering of the cause of a cholera outbreak in 1854 London. John Snow and Henry Whitehead prove conclusively the waterborne nature of cholera (in the face of the more conventionally accepted “miasma”, or airborne, theory). There’s a lot more to the story, and it reads a bit like CSI: Victorian London.

    Comment: “The Ghost Map,” is a remarkably misleading title. It refers to the map of the Soho neighborhood drawn by Snow depicting the proximity of cholera deaths to a particular well. The map was made famous in information design circles by Edward Tufte. For those of us familiar with the map, we want to learn more, and for those who are not, well, “The Ghost Map” is definitely evocative. Here’s the rub: the map isn’t mentioned until the conclusion (page 191), and, it turns out, the map was not an investigative tool–Snow and Whitehead had already figured out what was going on before they ever drew a map. The map was a means of explaining to others what they figured out. The map, frankly, is among the least important elements of the story at the time (though it became an icon of the story after the fact.) The title strikes me as a disingenuous ploy. Anyway.

    Johnson’s Thesis: At the time of the cholera outbreak, in 1854, the idea that a city of millions could sustain was debatable. Was it possible to cram all those people together, or was disease and decline inevitable, a la ancient Rome? Snow’s discovery of waterborne disease transmission meant that systems could be developed to protect the populous, and this infrastructure, in turn, allows for large populations in relatively small spaces. Johnson finds this story important because Snow’s discovery proves the viability of cities — and Johnson is a self-proclaimed unabashed urbanist.

    Urbanism: While urbanism can be seen as simply the study of cities, it’s clear that for Johnson, it’s like feminism or socialism — it’s a principle worth *advocating*. In the last chapter of the book, Johnson offers a paean to cities, citing such facts as people in cities are healthier, and that cities have less environmental impact. At the time of the book’s publishing, the world had crossed the threshold of more than half of the global population now lives in cities (up from 2% in 1854).

    3 billion people can’t be wrong!

    Like Johnson, I’m a fan of cities. When I travel, it often involves urban exploration, and I cannot imagine myself being happy living in anything other than an urban environment. However, having just visited Santiago, Chile (pop: 6 million) and Lima, Peru (pop: 9 million) it’s clear that we have to set our pom-poms aside and consider the development of the modern megalopolis highly critically.

    Another thing I read while traveling was a recent New Yorker article on Lagos, Nigeria, which the author depicts as something akin to hell on earth. The author juxtaposes his (miserable) experiences with breathless commentary from folks such as Rem Koolhaas, demonstrating the disconnection from reality that urbanist cheerleaders suffer.

    Because when you look at Lagos, or when I looked at Lima, I really had to wonder: are such cities a good thing? Lima is a city built on fear. It’s grown phenomenally in the last half century and, in doing so, has seen a marked increase in crime, brought upon by the economic disparity within the citizenry. Everywhere you go, you see armed guards. Boring middle class apartment buildings are ringed with electrified fences. In public places, chairs have straps to latch your purse. This all comprises a literal architecture of fear.

    I’m typically not given to such moral judgments (good/bad) about such things, so I was surprised that was my first impulse. But it was brought into stark relief in the brief conversation with the driver who picked us up at the Lima airport to take us to our hotel. Finding out he had lived in Lima for 12 years (he was from a town just north), I asked, “Do you like it here?” and he said, without hesitation, “No.” He lives in Lima purely for the economic opportunity, as, I’m sure, do many of the other 9 million.

    The growth of cities in the 20th century make their development feel inevitable, and cities are clearly the world’s primary economic engine, but when that inevitability makes people feel like they’re trapped in circumstance, what have we achieved?