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May 1999

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  past petermemes

November 30, 1999
Laboratory, Of The Future! Lab.01 is an interactive expo space developed by the good folks at Fork Unstable Media.

Is there ever enough? A profile of Too Much Coffee Man creator Shannon Wheeler is featured at *spark-online, a smart new alterna-pop culture ezine.

November 28, 1999
Condemned to repeat it.
Talking about the internet startup life with my dad, he drew the analogy to the television industry in the early 50s (A reportedly good chronicle of early TeeVee is The Box.) I responded with, "And I hope we don't fuck things up the way they did." He replied (and I paraphrase), "Of course you'll fuck it up. You can't help it. You'll go after the money, like they did, and that will be that. That's how things work in capitalism." Sigh.

The tyranny of hierarchy. Grappling with the fundamental limitedness of hierarchy. Epinions.com, like many sites, rests on a hierarchic classification of, well, everything. And as the site grows, this taxonomy expands and its utility regresses for two main reasons. First, such structures simply become unwieldy to traverse. Second, different people classify things differently, and as a hierarchy grows, more and more items will be placed in ways dissonant to the user.

I guess my problem is that hierarchy is a top-down approach that states, "This is how things are. Obey."

What's a more bottom-up approach? To let the data speak for itself. To let the users create their own classification needs. To exploit relationships between information. People ought to be able to slice through data as they see fit. An example on Epinions is the gift area--it organizes some products according to the type of person who would appreciate it, crossing the site's item-type centered categories. But this is a small step, and this cross-categorization is one we derived, so it still has a bit of that top-down feel.

This relates to some way-new interface concepts. Inxight's Hyperbolic Tree visualizes hierarchies. While it's kinda neat that you can see a massive hierarchic space in a single window, it still suffers from the burden of classification. And I think this limitation will continue to prevent this interface from becoming popular.

On the other hand, PlumbDesign's Thinkmap allows viewers to decide what's useful. The Smithsonian Without Walls interface has weightings for "era," and "theme," bringing forward the kinds of information that you desire. The data is connected through relationships; among other connections, chemistry set connects to toys connects to war toys for boys connects to gender roles.

Hrf. That's all for now. Still mulling. Searching around, I stumbled on this CHI 95 paper about collaborative filtering that bears on this discussion.

November 26, 1999
Snuffle. Sally Tenpenny won't return my email.

We are amused. Though I can't say I "get it," against my better judgment I'm enjoying Daze of Our Lives, state of the art 19th Century humor.

J'arrive! Philip Greenspun points developers who are "tempted to go the closed source commercial software route" to my bvsucks page.

Philip's "Using the Internet to Pick Up Babes and/or Hunks" is funny and touching and, ultimately, envy-inducing.

Ever feel like you were being watched? I was forwarded an email written by a BroadVision employee, addressing point by point my bvsucks page. It begins "This is a site that we have been aware of for some time now." With this and Philip's note, I've updated the page. (I won't go into details here, and bore those wise folks who aren't web application developers. Though, those interested in corporate cluelessness might find it entertaining.)

November 25, 1999
In the spirit of today's holiday comes this delectable online comix blast from the past.

November 22, 1999
Faulkner look out!

November 20, 1999
. I wonder if Sally Tenpenny will go on a date with me.

You say "intuitive," and I say "familiar." Responding to the Don Norman quote below, my dad illumined a rather significant problem in interface design discourse, the misuse of the word "intuitive." An often strived-for goal is an "intuitive interface," by which is meant that the interaction model for a device is immediately apparent without training. However, only sentient beings can be intuitive--it's a quality of personal agency, not an attribute of an object.

Five years ago, Jef Raskin (key architect of the original Macintosh) took this terminology to task in the essay "Intuitive Equals Familiar." (Go read it, it's good stuff.) Unfortunately, designers haven't learned, and even the inestimable Don makes the mistake of confusing intuitive (which, as Jef notes, ought to be "intuitable") with familiar -- "things that are intuitive almost always took thousands of hours of practice," and furthermore confuses intuition with a priori reasoning (see the quote below from November 16). This is intelligible to other designers mired in HCI discourse, but rightly struck my dad as inherently contradictory.

Considering the semantic predicament surrounding intuitive/intuition, and the foolhardiness of striving for an immediately apparent interface anyway, it's probably best to strike those notions from our design vocabulary.

Seek and ye shall find. The britannica.com search interface provides exemplary feedback. Query on "string theory" and it returns a single prominent result on "superstring theory." The same search on Encarta returns a list of useless results. Britannica's database doubtlessly uses intelligent keywording and related terms to provide the user with the one result she most desires, which is dead-on most of the time. Encarta most likely simply offers up a full-text index of their entire database, leading to a large number of irrelevant results. It's the old garbage in, garbage out maxim.

November 16, 1999
Time keeps on slipping...
Eric points me to the Whatever Wall Clock, similar to the chronometry concept I wrote about November 5.

I <heart> Don. He opines,

Forget intuition. It's highly overrated. And usually irrelevant, wrong, or both.

Blogrolling. Creative Good's new goodexperience.com blog focuses on ease-of-use news and information. And, as it's the kind of person that I am, I already take issue with one thing Mark has to say for interacting with palm devices: "The keyboard is better for bit entry than Graffiti (the Pilot-specific printing method), but it's not as good as voice recognition." I don't take personal issue, but this assumption that voice interfaces are The Wave of The Future puzzles me. Jeff Hawkins, creator of the Palm Pilot and the new Handspring, was quoted saying,

"Hawkins told how his make-pretend method led him to conclude that voice recognition will never be a good way to control computers -- a notion that goes against current wisdom, including Microsoft's, which is sinking millions of dollars into researching the endeavor.

Hawkins said when he's sat around pretending to control his computer by voice the experience is unsatisfactory and uncompelling.

It's not a technical problem, he said, it's a problem of control, of having the machine figure out what you're trying to tell it."

Jakob agrees.

November 15, 1999
You say "Mer-cay-tuh," and I say "Mer-cah-tuh."
Again Lou and I tag-team critique, this time assessing Mercata.com. Some of my column's oomph got lost in editing, but I only have myself to blame (having turned it in way after deadline.)

November 14, 1999
This whole internet startup thing is definitely skewing my perception. You know how in the cartoons, when a character who is really hungry looks at a friend, and the friend looks like a big slab of steak with shoes, and the character starts salivating at the prospect of devouring his friend? Well, I'm not going to eat anyone, but dang near everyone I look at turns into a Potential Hire in my eyes, causing me to worry that I'm being mercenary with my friendships.

November 13, 1999
I don't know how I've missed it, but Starry Night is the neat-o keyword interface to Rhizome's CONTENTBASE, programmed by Martin Wattenberg, who is also the proprietor of bewitched.com (featuring a different starry night), and the creator of SmartMoney's award-winning MarketMap.

November 10, 1999
Get edumacated.
Yesterday I should have mentioned that Richard Anderson teaches a remarkable user-centered design course which alighted me on the path I am today.

November 9, 1999
Lingual maneuvers.
Gino pointed me to Olipop, a delectable interactive gizmo. (Requires Flash.)

More on empathy. The November 5 petermeme on empathy spurred some thoughtful reactions, much of it from folks on the CHI-Web mailing list. Richard Anderson, usability guru nonpareil, pointed me to an article, "Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design." As I don't like to pay for my nonpornographic web content (not that I like to pay for... oh, never mind), I don't know what the article offers, but I did find this distillation of the main themes.

The tenets of empathic design seem completely aligned with contextual design, which, for my money, is the leading process for thinking through design problems.

Karen McGrane, Information Architecture Czarina for Razorfish, and, I believe, the person who wrote "Reader as User: Applying Interface Design Techniques to the Web," emailed me this thought:

There's some sort of ... quality that seems to infuse people who make good info designers. I don't know if I'd call it empathy or kindness or what, but you're right to pick up on it. I can certainly pick up on it within 5 minutes of meeting a candidate.

Many people at Razorfish have commented that the info design group is consistently made up of really good people -- thoughtful, kind, not competitive, always willing to help out a new employee or someone who's swamped. I'd always thought I was just lucky, or that I was just hiring people I liked. But your email made me think that this quality that makes someone a good team member might be inherent to what makes someone a good user-centered designer.

This lead to a further thoughtleap that non-empathic geeks become engineers, and empathic geeks become information designers.

November 7, 1999
GUI Goodness.
Steadfastly resisting the Blog Revolution, an email from Leslie (Ms. Harpold if you're nasty) points us to the Graphic User Interface Timeline.

November 5, 1999
I miss my blog.

Nifty new Epinions.com feature. For all you bookworms and other media hounds--now you can review almost any book, album, or movie. The interface needs a bit of work, but we're pleased as punch with the new functionality.

Forthwith, a fairly scattered series of thought firings.

A Magazine We'd Like To See: Martha Stewart Dying.

Tic toc so what? I'm finding the concept of measured time losing meaning in my life. If I were to design a clock for M & Co., there would be no numbers. At the end of the hands, slowly circumnavigating the clockface, would be the word "Whenever."

I feel remiss, as I haven't been able to follow the series of articles on Salon including How The Internet Ruined San Francisco, and I'm The Enemy!. The latter piece personally upsets me, as it's the article I wanted to write. In June I wrote a petermeme titled Part of the Problem, and I'd hoped to flesh that out into something substantial. My mix of laziness and sudden workaholism is a detriment to my writing output.

I feel your pain. A while back, a fellow information architect and I were discussing whether a mutual acquaintance could do the type work we do. We agreed that while he was a very talented designer and writer, a practiced aesthete, he lacked an essential quality that any user advocate must have--empathy. A successful interaction designer has to not simply suppress his own personality, but must eagerly endeavor to understand the needs, desires, and methods of his potential users. For better or worse, empathy is not a trainable skill--you either have it or you don't.

And while this need for empathy seems obvious, I've never seen it discussed in anything I've read on user-centered design. As someone in the process of hiring interaction designers, I'd love to have an empathy test I could give potential candidates, not that I'd know where to start in developing such a thing.

Continuing this thoughtwander, what frustrates me so much about typical usability engineering is a lack of empathy. Users aren't seen as people, but as subjects, as an Other. Usability engineers don't endeavor to truly empathize with the user's needs and desires. Instead they use accepted methodology (time-to-completion studies, think-aloud user tests, heuristic evaluation) to create an abstract model of the user that neglects the audience's true humanity.

November 1, 1999 [too lazy to archive]
Hahahahaha! We've snagged another one!
Rogers Cadenhead, best known for Cruel Site of the Day and the Drudge Retort, has begun RefererLog, his new blog. Where do you want to click today?