Category Archives: User Experience

The morbidity of the Facebook Timeline

Not much happened in my life between being born and 2007.

When Facebook rolled out its “Timeline” to replace their Profile pages, it seemed like a neat gadget.  It seemed like an odd move to get rid of the activity stream that had been on Profiles before, but it was kind of neat to see an overview of the person’s life, along with the large picture they could choose to show at the top.  The Timeline is more visually interesting and distinct than the Profile, but over time something about it bothered me, and I didn’t really get get my mind around it until now:

The Facebook Timeline is morbid.

Where are we used to seeing the “timeline” paradigm?  History books.  Timelines are used for tracking progressions of significant events chronologically, events that usually have an explicit beginning and an explicit ending.

When I look at my Facebook Timeline, I feel it is a weird mesh of the profound and the trivial.  It lists a string of mostly insignificant events, things I’ve liked, comments I’ve posted, photos I’ve uploaded, songs I’ve listened to, and other nuggettes of daily life.  Alongside these minutiae, at one end is my start (birth), and at the other end…my end.  That’s pretty heavy for a social network profile page.

The timeline therefore becomes an online tombstone in progress.  Someday, nothing I do will show up on it anymore, and my friends and family will come to my Facebook Timeline to see what happened in my life, and they’ll see that I liked this viral cat video, or listened to Lady Gaga on Spotify.  Maybe a few significant events will be sprinkled in between, but how much of what we do every day on Facebook is really significant or worth remembering for more than a few hours?

It is this unintentional memorializing of the trivialities of life that I object to, and why I wish Facebook would bring back the old Profiles.  I liked them when they felt fluffy, when they were fleeting, and changed constantly based on my whims, and captured the essence of now rather than documenting my existence for future generations to peruse and be amused by.

If I wanted to create a memorial to myself, a summary of my life, a memoir, I would do so on my own.  There are probably sites dedicated to this.  But why force this morbid paradigm onto my daily communications with friends and family, without giving me a choice in the matter?

Most design decisions Facebook are very much about living in the moment.  The News Feed, the Ticker, Chat, Messaging, Open Graph, Places – all have been built to spread information about NOW, about what I’m doing, where I’m doing it, and whom I’m doing it with, so to slap a layer on top of this that turns my Profile into a living document of my life is intensely off-pitch.

As it stands, the morbidity of the Timeline has largely turned me off from using Facebook.  Hopefully Facebook will realize the error of their ways and rebuild Timelines to be more temporal and less monumental.  Time will tell…

 

Google+: Better than Buzz and Wave, but no Facebook Killer

So I finally got in to test out Google+, and I have to say it’s definitely an interesting product.  I can’t dismiss it the way I did with Google Wave.  Here are some of my first impressions:

Circles

Adding friends to your Circles starts out fun but quickly becomes a daunting task.  G+ appears to use my Gmail account history to suggest people that I might want to add to my Circles, which is convenient, but regular Gmail users like myself may end up with an overwhelming number of recommendations.

I have 500 recommendations (presumably this is a maximum), and I just don’t want to take the time to sort them all into Circles. Maybe I’ll whittle away at it over time…I stopped after 40 friends because it’s just too tedious.  This is why the Friend Lists never took off over at Facebook, but I don’t think it’s a good sign that Google hasn’t really improved upon the concept aside from slapping a nifty UI on it.

It’s not immediately clear that people whom you add to your Circles will receive an email notification.  I added several people whom I’m not close to, but I just wanted to follow their updates (like Twitter), and they may be rather confused when they see that I’ve added them on G+.  Google needs to work a little on this process to make it more clear what’s going on, and what the consequences of your actions are.

The Stream

In “The Stream” (like Facebook’s Feed), you can see updates from anyone whom you’ve added to your Circles, without them having to approve you as a friend (although they are notified, and can Hide or Block you after the fact.)  This makes G+ work a little like Twitter, actually – you can have a 1-way relationship, more of a “follow” than a “friend,” but you still need to know someone’s email address in order to “follow” them, so don’t expect many celebs to be joining up or ditching Twitter for this.

Using 1-way relationships is a very interesting product decision, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.  It’s possible that people may develop a Twitter-like usage pattern, where they follow a lot of people that they don’t know, particularly in business circles.  For instance, if you can get the email addresses of people in your industry, you can just start following their G+ updates, but of course you’ll only see content those people make public unless they add you to one of their Circles and publish to that Circle.

If you add someone to your Circle who isn’t using G+, they’ll get your updates via email, which is either an awful idea or a fantastic one: if you don’t have G+, you’ll get your inbox spammed by your friends who do, so that could motivate more people to join, or it could just annoy them.  Maybe both. It’s a little risky, but if people surrender and sign up for G+, it’ll be a big win for Goog.

Update: I received this via IM from a friend today:

why is google+ spamming me when they know I’m not a member and I can’t join? load of crock

One side effect I noticed: I’m hesitant to share things with my Circles, because I don’t want my friends who aren’t on G+ to get emails for every little thing I share.  It’s okay on Facebook because people are already there, and if they happen to see my update, that’s cool, but most things I post to Facebook, I do NOT want to send to my friends via email, or I would have done that in the first place.  Once all my friends are on G+, it’s not an issue, but that’s a long ways off.  Until then, I may have to “unfriend” my contacts who are not on G+ just to avoid spamming them, or I’ll have to post things as “Public” without posting to a Circle.

The Toolbar

Once you’re on Google+, you’ll see a toolbar on any of the common Google sites you go to – Gmail, search, Docs, Picasa, etc.  There’s a “Share” button at the right of the bar, so you can easily add things to your Stream from any of those sites.  A smart move, and it should kick start sharing.

G+ has some neat features, but I’m not sure how Google is trying to position it.  It appears to be a direct Facebook competitor, as I really can’t imagine myself using both for very long.  It’s just too much sharing, too much work to maintain friends lists, too much seeing what my friends are up to, and too much “hanging out.”

I really wanted to see Google tie their tools together as a part of G+.  All of Goog’s consumer tools still exist as independent entities, when most should be tied into one interface.  Picasa is tied in (to some extent), but Gmail and Calendar are totally separate still, which is unfortunate.  If Google could reposition G+ as the only site you need to go to for your daily communication needs, they’d have a leg up on Facebook which is struggling mightily to integrate email functionality. Hopefully they’ll move this way soon.

Hangouts

Hangouts are audio/video chat rooms. I suppose Google wanted to be clever by giving them a hip, in-your-face name, but it’s often rather confusing.  How’s this for clear product messaging: “Hangouts: Have fun with all your circles using your live webcam.”  Oy.  I started “hanging out” by myself, and it posted to my stream that “Joel Downs is hanging out.”  When I finished the experiment, it told my friends “Joel Downs hung out.”  I’m sure my friends were fascinated.  It’s even better than the inane Facebook Places updates like “Joel Downs is at Starbucks.”

Sparks

Sparks are interests.  You type in things you’re interested in, and Google recommends content for you.  I assume it’ll put recent recommendations in my stream, but I haven’t seen that yet.  It could be a nice way to keep on top of topics you’re interested in if it works well, akin to Google News Alerts or Yahoo’s Alerts.  We’ll see.  Why does Goog call them “Sparks”?  I have no idea.  They definitely built in a bit of a learning curve.

Other Stuff

I won’t cover the Photos or Profile today…neither section seems particularly robust or different.

Summary

Google has a good product here, but so far I think it’s too little too late.  Google+ just isn’t well differentiated from Facebook, and it certainly isn’t any easier to use, in fact, the terminology alone may relegate its usage to a younger audience that digs the hipness and wants to spend the time to figure out how to use it.  It’s much more interesting and robust than Google Buzz was (not a high bar), but it’s hard to picture many people either 1) switching away from Facebook or 2) using both G+ and Facebook regularly.  My guess is that G+ will attract the same demographic as Gmail, but will have a hard time going beyond that.  Google will have to do some serious work to woo Facebook users, and they need to do it fast.

Google makes simplest homepage in the world hard to use

Google has been testing a new homepage lately that strips everything off the page except the search box and their logo.  That’s right, no “Google Search” button, no “I’m feeling lucky” button, no global navigation at the top, and no legalese at the bottom. Note: currently only some users see this new version of the homepage. And now, a week into the experiment, they’ve discovered that it’s freaking people out.  What do you do when you see a search box with no “Search” button next to it?  You probably wait a minute and wonder if the page is broken, right?  Is it still loading?  If you wait, will the button show up? So what does Google do when they see they’re confusing the heck out of people?  Rather than realizing that their old design was plenty intuitive already, they provide documentation explaining the new design.  One of the oldest rules of interface design (for simple features) is: “If you have to explain the interface, it’s too hard.” 500x_500x_firefoxscreensnapz1-thumb_08 But now, as noted by TechCrunch and Valleywag who found two different versions of the wrecked homepage, Google has included text below their floating search box to tell you that they’re actually doing this on purpose: “Hey everyone, despite how it looks, this page isn’t broken!”  Google: if you have to tell us the page isn’t broken, there’s something horribly wrong.

googfade

Google Wave’s Fatal Flaws

So I got my Google Wave invite a couple weeks ago.  I have been fairly skeptical of all the Wave hype lately, but I was still intrigued and very much looking forward to seeing what it had to offer.  I logged in, and…didn’t know what to do.  I felt like the first guy in the world to have email – it sounds like a cool idea, but there’s nothing to do until you know other people who have email, too.

Wave allows you to send invites out to 9 friends, so I sent some out.  And waited.  A week later, finally they started showing up, and I could really see what Wave had in store.

Wave is slick, and pretty, and for the most part fairly easy to start using, but it has too many flaws that will keep it out of the hands of mainstream users and limit its adoption to tech-savvy user groups.  My biggest issues with it are:

  • No email integration. This is supposed to be the communication tool for the next century, but it isn’t backwards compatible with the communication tool(s) for the last century.  Surely someone will write an extension to allow it to interface with email, but at that point you’ll lose all the cool Wave features, making the whole exercise moot.
  • Nothing to do until you know people who have it.  Adding an email extension would alleviate this.
  • Built by programmers, for programmers. As Lifehacker points out, “the first search command every Wave newbie needs to know (is): with:public” which will allow you to see public waves and is very useful when you have no friends using Wave yet. Really guys?  Resorting to cryptic command lines in a supposedly mainstream web app?  Let me guess, was this documented somewhere in your man pages?
  • No notifier application. If you’re not in Wave, there’s no way to know you have new Waves waiting for you.  There is a third-party app to do this, but it’s annoying that I have to have a notifier for my email and Wave.
  • Watching people type in real time. Internet “old-timers” will remember that the original tools for instant messaging over the Internet (like “talk”) worked like this.  Surprisingly, it’s not much fun to watch other people type and correct their own typos.  Really.  ICQ and AIM popularized the “wait until they’re done to send the message” model, and no one looked back (until Wave.)
  • Editing other people’s messages. If I want to collaborate on something with my friends, I’ll tell you.  Don’t just let other people edit my messages willy-nilly.  It’s fun for a few minutes to edit what your friends said, but threads can quickly become chaotic and impossible to follow.  There’s a reason message boards don’t have this feature.
  • Google Wave

    Click for larger image

    Un-novative thread presentation. In a giant leap back to 1997, Wavelets are organized by thread first and not by date.  This means that responses to any message within the wave get indented directly below that message rather than showing at the bottom of the Wave, so new messages end up located all over the place within the thread.  In long threads, you may have to scroll up and down for several pages to find the new messages.  For ‘net old-timers, you may remember that many of the first, primitive online forums were arranged like this, but somewhere along the lines everyone discovered that it was easier to follow a conversation by always posting new messages at the bottom and just quoting the message it was in response to.  It’s not as elegant from a purist perspective, but it’s much easier for the user to follow.

  • Replay. The only reasons the Replay feature needs to exist are 1) the flawed thread presentation mentioned above and 2) the fact that anyone on the thread can edit any message.  Using replay isn’t fun or interesting – it’s tedious, and it’s there to compensate for unintuitive UI and unnecessary features.
  • Worst offense: Too many things in one. Wave seemingly tries to replace your email, your IM, and your Google Docs, but doesn’t do a great job on any of them.  I much prefer using my IM client to talk to my friends, so I’m not giving that up.  Gmail is a better email client, and Google Docs and Spreadsheets are pretty great for collaboration, so I’m not giving those up. (Gmail and Docs already have messaging built-in, and it’s executed rather nicely, btw.)  By trying to do so much, it doesn’t do anything well.

I should have known we were in trouble when this was the first line of the “Getting Started” wave: A wave can be both a document and a conversation. For how many users would a statement like this make any kind of sense?  For someone like myself, that’s a pretty deep statement and worth some pondering, but how would that help my mom figure out what’s going on?

Wave is truly a technical marvel, and the fact that it works as well as it does is impressive.  It’s easy to see why the room full of developers at the Wave unveiling was in awe.  But, you must do more than impress developers to build a tool that the mass market will adopt.

Ultimately I think Wave will find some fans within tech-savvy organizations because it could be useful for collaboration and communication in situations where everyone in the company is using it (competing with Yammer), but it won’t gain any significant market penetration compared to email or IM.

Related posts:

Mr. Magazine: Cater to your customers

On the newstand

On the newstand

For subscribers

For subscribers

In a recent post on his blog Mr. Magazine, Samir Husni discusses the recent trend of magazines producing a single issue with two different covers, one cover for placement in newsstands, and a different cover for their subscribers.  It seems that for distribution on newsstands, the covers were more sensational and sexy, with  more lists (8 reasons your diet isn’t working) and more lascivious content (“The Sex of your Dreams (& Hers.)”)  Notable magazines using this technique are Men’s Health, US Weekly, and Bazaar.

What surprised me about the article was Husni’s dramatic objection to the practice:

I do not believe that the single copy cover should be any different than that of the subscriber, if we are in the business of customers who count and not just counting customers. Subscribers do visit the newsstands and what they see their should match what is on their coffee table.

Husni doesn’t seem to give any reasoning for his assertions; he just thinks this is the way it “should” be.  The way I see it, if you’re not just “counting customers” and you actually think your customers count, why not give them an experience they want?  If you know that most people in a certain segment have a certain preference and you have the ability to cater to that preference, why wouldn’t you?  Naturally, newsstand issues need to be more marketing oriented, so the headlines should be more attention-grabbing.  If someone wants to put a magazine on their coffee table, they many not want lewd headlines about sex tips all over it.  So why wouldn’t you give your readers what they want?

I applaud the magazine industry for this step in the right direction.  Websites have been delivering customized experiences for years, so it’s about time that magazines took a page from our…book?

How to fix online advertising

The internet publishing industry did itself a serious disservice when first designing ads for the web.  Rather than learning from the newspaper and magazine industries, they reinvented the wheel by designing ads that were as unobtrusive as possible, and they’ve been paying for it ever since.

Remember the first standardized ad size?  It was 468×60, an amazingly small ad unit by today’s standards.  You just can’t fit a meaningful message on an ad this size (especially with today’s larger screen resolutions), and to compensate ad sizes have been creeping upwards over time…from the original 468×60 and 125×125 to
250×250 to

120×600 to

728×90 to

300×250 to

160×600 to

336×280 to

300×600 to

flyovers, pull-outs, interstitials, and a whole new set of big ad sizes.

I say it’s about time we started showing huge ads.  We online publishers have been limiting our success for years, ever since that first tiny ad size was standardized.

To see why this is the case, look at print magazines.  Those guys have huge ads.  One of the most common units they sell is a full page!  They sell full pages, half pages, quarter pages with the smaller eighth- and sixteenth-page ads getting either shoved to the back of the magazine or spanning several pages so they can tell a story.   Certainly it is true that the print mag industry is hurting these days, but that pain is because of rising printing and distribution costs and an oversaturated market, not because of their advertising model.

TechCrunch AdsOnly now are we online publishers finally seeing ad standards that are competitive with the print mag standards (One could argue that interstitials are full page ads, but most don’t take up anywhere near the whole page.)  TechCrunch whines childishly about these big ads having a poor user experience, but I posit that TechCrunch’s alternative of a superabundance of small ads create an even worse user experience than one or two large ads would.  TC shows ELEVEN ads before you even get below the fold, 10 of which are deprecated 125×125’s that allow for virtually no design, messaging or branding benefits, and they make the whole page look messy and cluttered.

Large ads are simply better because:

  1. There is more room for compelling design
  2. There is more room for compelling messaging
  3. Page layout is easier – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen page designs compromised by trying to fit a 300×250 ad.  Interstitials and full page-wide ads are actually easier to design around
When will ads on the web be this cool?  When they're large enough

When will web ads be this cool? When they're big enough

Print mags have much larger ads than websites, so do they have a poor user experience?  Of course not.  In many magazines the ads are so cool that they’re almost considered content.  Magazine readers realize that you need to see ads to get cheap/free content, and website readers only whine about big ads on websites because:

  1. We have conditioned them to see small ads
  2. Online ad creative is often poorly designed (not visually appealing, message isn’t compelling, etc.), and
  3. Online ads are often poorly targeted

We have been trying to fix the Problem 1 for 15 years, and once we do fix it, the advertising folks will fix Problem 2 for us because they’ll have much more space to work with, as they do in print mags.  As for targeting (Problem 3), AdSense was the biggest quantum leap in this space, with behavioral targeting being the next wave; there is plenty of work going on in this area.

As soon as online publishers and advertisers can fix these problems, user experience will improve, ad rates will improve, and we will finally see the maturing of the online advertising model.

Vyoom: get your pitch straight!

Rule of Product Management #675: If you’re going to post your mission on your homepage, make sure people can get behind it.  Vyoom, a new “real-time” social network presents their philosophy front and center on their homepage:

We at Vyoom believe members should be rewarded for connecting and sharing with friends, family and co-workers in a real-time environment.

Excuse me, what?  Why exactly should I be rewarded for chatting with my friends and family?  Shouldn’t the mere activity and social interaction of sharing helpful, entertaining, or personal information with my acquaintances be reward enough?  It sure is on Facebook, Twitter, email, or even in person.  Why do I need to be rewarded for this?  If I’m using your site because I want to be rewarded, I’m likely to overuse the site, flooding my friends and family with information they don’t want, and ultimately having them all block me and/or add me to their spam filters.

Further down on their homepage, they claim they have a “real-time” social network that lets me see what my friends are doing and customize what updates I want to see.  Their meta description (shown to search engines, but not on the site) describes them as a

Social network with advanced social capabilities and true real-time data streaming in both a public and a private network all in one platform

This featureset actually sounds like it might be interesting and differentiating, so why lead with the messaging about rewarding me for communicating with friends?  If you have a great new tool that will make my communications easier, lead with that.  You don’t need to bribe me.  If the product is that cool, I’ll use it and I’ll do your marketing for you by telling my friends.  This is a classic case of a split personality site – they seem to have a cool product, but their lead pitch doesn’t even mention its strengths.

And while we’re at it, Rule of Product Management #425: Avoid underlining words that are not hyperlinks.  Their homepage is riddled with underlined words that unfortunately I just can’t click on.

And you might be asking if I actually used the site…well, no.  I tried – I registered, but never got my confirmation email, and you can’t use the site at all without it.  I tried signing up with a different email address, and the registration form broke.   Sorry guys, I’m done.

Wolfram Alpha is a feature, not a search engine

Update 4/29, 5:21pm: Wolfram updated his blog today and linked to his demo video, and the product does look as niche as I feared.  It is “smart answers” on steriods, and while it may complement regular search results nicely, it’s not moving the field of Internet search and indexing forward at all.  Perhaps it’s the press’s fault for pumping up Alpha as the next Google – clearly it is not, nor are they trying to be.  They’re tackling a relatively small problem (compared to indexing the entire Internet) and they appear to be targeting a small audience (academics and scientists), so we should probably stop discussing Alpha in the same breath as Google, Yahoo, and the rest.  Please move along, nothing to see here.

Much ado has been made lately about Wolfram Alpha, a new-fangled “search engine” due to release in May that promises to give answers to questions that are asked in plain English.  Predictably, it’s much ado about nothing.  Techcrunch responded today to leaked screenshots by sitting on both sides of the fence, saying it’s unlikely Wolfram has “something Google doesn’t or can’t build in a year,” while also saying that their own guest editor’s predictions of Wolfram’s search greatness are “persuasive.”  Which is it, guys?

Let me boil it down for you based on what I’ve read so far: Wolfram Alpha’s pitch is that their search engine is built to answer plain English “computational” questions, i.e. questions that have specific answers that can be calculated.  To do this, they are sucking in all the databases they can find – population stats, weather stats, census data, geographic data, and any other corpora that are readily available.  

Once they have all the data compiled, they make it mine-able using plain English queries.  In his TechCrunch guest article, Nova Spivack gives three sample queries that are supposed to show the awesome potential of Alpha:

  • What country is Timbuktu in?
  • How many protons are in a hydrogen atom?
  • What is the average rainfall in Seattle?

It’s great that Alpha can answer these, but did Spivack bother to try these queries in Google?  Google gives an answer to every single one in the summary of the top result.  I didn’t even have to click through.  Hopefully these are just shoddy examples from Spivack rather than an example of how lame Alpha actually is.

Here are a few query types I’m hoping Alpha can answer that Google cannot:

  • What was Bank of America’s stock price at close on September 11, 2001?
  • Is next year a leap year?
  • How have home prices in San Diego, CA changed in the last 5 years?

These are questions that have specific answers that can be calculated from readily available data, but (here’s the key) are unlikely to have been written about on the web in a way that would make them findable by Google.  These questions are so specific (long-tail), that Google just won’t have answers sitting around in its index.

I can hear your next question already: if Wolfram Alpha is only good for such long-tail questions, how can it possibly compete with Google?  The answer is: it can’t.  

For all the glowing talk, Alpha appears to be a large set of regular expressions that parse natural language so users can mine a massive database.  This is not dissimilar to how Ask.com worked in the late 90’s when they had a huge, human-built database of question templates allowing them to parse queries and provide links as answers.  Remember how well that worked?

Alpha must be an acquisition play.  They must be developing this answer engine with an eye towards selling it to one of the big players (Google, Yahoo, MS, or even Ask.com) so they can beef up their search results.  All of the majors already have smart answers features (a la Ask.com) that give exact answers to a small set of templatic questions, so acquiring Alpha would make an existing smart answers feature more robust.

TechCrunch reported that an Alpha “insider” today leaked the screenshow below in an attempt to show how Alpha is so much cooler than Google’s smart answers:

Wolfram Alpha Leaked Screenshot

Wolfram Alpha Leaked Screenshot

On the left, we have Alpha’s result for a search on “ISS.”  The result it gives is a map and technical details of the Internation Space Station’s orbit.  Wow.  That is a truly horrible result.  Why anyone would leak this to show the power of the engine is beyond me.  Here’s what’s wrong with it:

  • Who says I want information about the International Space Station?  Maybe I wanted Internet Security Systems or International Schools Services or info about the company ISS A/S out of Copenhagen.  How about a little disambiguation guys?  Clearly Alpha is not trying to be a comprehensive search engine. 
  • Who wants data like that?  If I want info about the International Space Station, I would probably rather see its homepage than some crazy technical data about where it is right this second.
  • What happened to the natural language queries, eh?  Showing that your engine can figure out what I meant by a search on “ISS” hardly shows any natural language parsing ability, and conversely shows the complete lack of disambiguation as I discussed above.
  • Lastly a nitpicky Product Manager thing: at the top, it says that International Space Station is the “input interpretation” of ISS.  “Input interpretation”?  Really?  How many users would have any idea what you’re trying to say there?  This is a product made by nerds for nerds.  I’m a nerd, so I can say this.

On the right, we see Google giving a fantastic answer to the query “maine population”.  (I’ll assume that someone changed the text in the query box to read “california population” after looking up Maine first.)  Google 1, Alpha 0.

Ultimately, Wolfram Alpha is not a search engine, but rather a data mining language for answers about a relatively small set of known entities.  If you want to know about the International School Services, use Google.  If you want to know where Timbuktu is, use Google.  If you want to know the inclination and orbital period of the International Space Station, then by all means, go ahead and use Wolfram Alpha. (Note: Google gives a pretty good result when searching for “International Space Station Inclination.”)  When Alpha finally sells to one of the majors, it will mostly likely settle in as a feature of a search engine, not a search engine itself.

Caveat: all conclusions I’ve drawn are from the information available now.  We’ll see what it’s actually capable of when it launches in the coming weeks.

Why everyone should use Tag Clouds

There are lots of ways to help people navigate a website. My all-time favorite has to be the “tag cloud.”

If you’re not familiar with the tag cloud, it is a navigation tool that has gained prevalence with Web 2.0 and the abundance of user-generated content sites. Many of these sites realize that people are too lazy to categorize their pictures, movies, links, whatever, into a sensible set of categories, so they allow their users to just type any old word in to describe their content. Perfect for today’s ADD crowd. Then, these sites take the most popular words, and throw them in a big, steaming heap, and bump up the font size of the most popular ones, giving you the “tag cloud”. Examples from Flickr and Technorati:

Technorati TagcloudFlickr Tagcloud

Spend a minute browsing these images. Aren’t they beautiful? They give the user a visual workout, forcing them to scan line by line, looking for the big, important tags that are of interest. They help the user practice basic size-recognition as they try to figure out which word is in a larger font than the next, and they help them build those left-to-right reading reflexes that we all so desperately need to hone.

If there’s one thing we don’t see enough of these days, it’s navigation that really makes people use their head. There are far too many of these “ordered lists” that make it easy to distinguish which items are most important. If you want to do your users a favor, help them hone their visual recognition skills by presenting them with new and different navigation techniques that don’t follow traditional practices. Users love that.

Let’s say you’re Technorati, and you have the choice of showing your users a tagcloud or this:

Most popular topics:

  1. Life
  2. Blogging
  3. Weblog
  4. News
  5. Music
  6. Entertainment
  7. Personal
  8. Books
  9. Friends
  10. Religion and Philosophy
  11. Blog
  12. Writing and Poetry
  13. Travel
  14. Diary
  15. Sports
  16. Survey
  17. Quiz
  18. New and politics
  19. Romance and Relationships
  20. Jobs

Now wouldn’t any self-respecting user find this “list” patronizing? “Oh look, this site thinks I’m so simple-minded that I need my lists ordered by importance. Maybe they think I need a way to get back to the homepage from anywhere, too.” Never underestimate your audience’s intelligence or their desire to be challenged.

Let’s take a look at a site that needs a tag cloud: Billboard’s Top 40 Singles. Now, if these guys had any sense or knew what users liked, they’d show their Top 40 like this:

Akon Augustana Baby Boy Da Prince Beyonce Daughtry Diddy Dixie Chicks Fall Out Boy Fat Joe Fergie The Fray Gwen Stefani Gym Class Heroes Hellogoodbye Jim Jones Jon Mayer Jonas Brothers Justin Timberlake Lloyd Ludacris Mims My Chemical Romance Nelly Furtado Nickelback Omarion Paula DeAnda Pretty Ricky Red Hot Chili Peppers The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus Rihanna Robin Thicke T.I. Unk Young Jeezy

Much better. Billboard: this time the design advice is free; next time I charge you for it.

So keep using those tagclouds, guys. After all, they’re cool, they’re trendy, they’re so Web 2.0, and there’s nothing users appreciate more than a website that isn’t afraid to challenge their sense of logic and order!

When computers try to do too much

You may have seen my previous post about Yedda‘s interest-matching engine. Well, Yedda’s at it again, and this time they seem to think that I’m an expert of some sort on Toilet Paper Rolls.

Be the first to answer

This is an example of computer software trying to be too smart. Computers, no matter how smart they get, will never be able to comprehend context as well as a person, and this is why Yedda has so much trouble figuring out what I actually am an expert in, and what I am most likely to answer questions about.

Last time I brought this up (Yedda said I was an expert on “What’s that smell?”), Yaniv from Yedda stopped by and pointed out:

As for why you received this one, I guess that the Yedda active distribution system figured out on its own that it’s a pretty good match for “tool, basketball, and (?) perfect circle�. Perhaps we should change our slogan to “Interested in silly topics? Get silly questions!�

Gee, thanks, Yaniv. Even if I was just entering “silly topics”, I’d say the “active distribution system” doesn’t seem too smart if it thinks that “tool”, “basketball”, or “perfect circle” had anything to do with “What’s that smell”, or the latest question I got on toilet paper rolls, eh?

The crew at Yedda is asking a computer program to determine the actual meaning of things, and computers aren’t very good at that yet, so this is what happens. The technology just isn’t ready. This is why on Answerbag we ask users to tell us what categories they want to answer questions in using a full hierarchical category structure to give context, and we only send them questions in that category.

Yaniv, my interests may sound silly to you, being based in Israel, but someone from the US in my rough demographic would probably recognize Tool and Perfect Circle as popular American bands. A good categorization system would be able to differentiate a tool that you hammer with, and a Tool whose CD you can buy. Answerbag uses a full category hierarchy to achieve this, so “Tool” is a category under “Musical artists” giving us the proper context to know what the user is really interested in. Yedda’s system tries to figure out what “tool” and “perfect circle” are with no context, and, being a computer system, it just can’t figure out that these are bands. It probably thinks I’m interested in tools and geometry.

A common theme in interaction design these days is to make the system smarter, so the user doesn’t have to think, but this assumes that the system can be made to be smart. However, in order to make certain systems work correctly (like context-determination), we still need to rely on our users to do a little thinking of their own.