Sunday, August 26, 2007

naming and versioning

Also in Cooper's book (see last post), is a discussion of some significant improvements that can be made in the way the operating system handles file names and versions. While he has some interesting ideas, I prefer to use the idea of tagging that has become so popular with Flickr, Digg, etc. Instead of storing files in a folder hierarchy, why not have a save dialog the allows users to include tags that could be used for future retrieval? It could also store some faceted attributes such as data created, date last edited, size, etc. Then, when the user wants to open the file it becomes really easy and fast to find. A search interface could allow the user to type in a few tags and the file would be recovered. The user would not have to remember where it is in any hierarchy. A browsing interface would also allow a file to be in many places at once - corresponding to all of the tags and faceted attributes.

Another improvement would be to allow renaming in a simple fashion. Now, the user needs to close the file, go to explorer, change the name, and then reopen it. Why not allow renaming in the same way Excel allows sheets within a file to be named - a simple select and type.

And the operating system could also save previous versions so that if the user wants to go find an old version, it would easy to do. Now, the user needs to recognize the need in advance and save them along the way. But given the huge storage available, the system could store versions according to the date they were made and have several available. If the user wants to revert to an old version, it could be easy to find. If the user modifies an older version, it could either be renamed to establish a new stack of versions, or a tree could be created.

Rich annotations could be used to assist users in finding older versions. Rather than just a number (filename.txt v1), it could be tagged with date (filename.txt 08/22/07) or even more richly (filename.txt 08/22/07 5 pages with three embedded pictures) or something like that.

The book brings up lots of limitations of standard productivity software and operating systems. I am not sure they present the best solutions, but they bring up lots of ideas. It gets the juices flowing.

Better design of undo

I was reading the latest edition of Alan Cooper's book on Interaction Design. While I tend to disagree with many of the solutions proposed in the book, he and his coauthors do a fantastic job of highlighting some of the major limitations of current interaction design in operating systems, software apps, and web sites.

My thoughts today are his ideas on the limitations of undo. How many times has the undo function failed to do what you wanted it to do? One of the problems is the LIFO and stack design. In order to undo a past action, you have to undo everything that happened since. And if you do, you can't redo them if you make any changes. What if the system stored the past actions in an independent list that could be independently applied? Perhaps it maintained a clipboard-like buffer where the user could see text (in the case of Word) that had previously been deleted and access it however he/she wants?

Or perhaps the user actions can be stored along with the file. So when you save or close a file, they are not lost. The user could reopen the file and still undo. As Cooper wisely notes - the extra storage required to do this would not be a significant constraint given the large hard drives we all have now.

Another idea they propose is to have different categories of undo. Currently, one can undo text edits, but not document formats. Why not have separate lists so that users can choose to undo recent text changes, formatting changes, or other types of user actions?

I recommend the book. Just this chapter alone highlights many ideas for improving the design of common office productivity suites. I hope the folks at Microsoft read it too.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Banner blindness

The latest Alertbox is on banner blindness (with a cool heatmap still and video). But the point that I want to blog about is his point on making ads look like content to unethically get clicks.

He says that these ads "work" because users look at them as if they are content and click on them because they resemble content. But how is he defining "work"? If the user realizes it is a fake and closes the window as it is loading (or just after), then the ad did not "work." The user probably didn't even see what was in the window. And if she did, she probably has a lower opinion of the company and its products. I hardly think of that as "working."

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Web 2.0 Collaborative Knowledge Building

There are many ways to collaborate in building up a body of knowledge. In the Web 2.0 world, one of the popular methods is the wiki. For the uninitiated, a wiki is an on-line collaborative tool where anyone with access can add, edit, or delete content. In theory, over time the content improves because knowledge is added by each person who participates. And the group can self-manage so that inaccurate information is deleted by the majority. There are some management challenges, such as how to represent competing or multiple perspectives and how to ensure that false information is not perpetuated. But in the right contexts, wikis can be very valuable as long as their limitations are recognized.

But because of these limitations, there are contexts that perhaps should not consider wikis. There are high schools that prohibit students from using wikipedia as a source because the content is not reliable. On the other hand, there are high schools that encourage students to use wikipedia because the content is not reliable - and it is a critical aspect of information literacy to learn not to believe everything you read. Instead of protecting students from unreliable information, we need to teach them how to deal with it. In the real world, all information comes to us at varying levels of reliability and credibility.

If you think this is new, think again. Anyone who has had the pleasure of studying the Talmud has been doing this in a fantastically pre-web way. But rather than allowing participants to edit the content, each person gets to annotate it. This site has a great explanation of the method. What I like about this is that:

1. It adds reputation management. You can see what the most respected scholar said to make sure that you are getting the "best" information.

2. It does not delete the minority opinions. Instead of getting a single, aggregated page, you get to read what each person thought about it. If you are interested in absorbing the variety, you can do so.

The advantages of this over the typical wiki style are substantial. What amazes me is that we don't have wikis that use the Talmudic format. Maybe they exist and I just haven't seen them. But it would be so easy to create a meta-moderation system for a wiki that allows users to see what five star participants wrote - including minority five star opinions. And if interested, the user could check out some one- through four- star opinions. Maybe these are new participants and maybe they are participants who have been tagged as unreliable. But there are times when accessing these contributions can be useful. And high school students who don't feel comfortable making their own decisions can stick to the five-star content.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

ergonomics entrepreneurship

I just found out that a potential customer of the FIU Pino Global Entrepreneurship Center (where I run the Tech Institute) found us through Google and as part of his due diligence skimmed this blog. Isn't the Internet great for fortuitous discovery?!?!

This entrepreneur may be our third product testing client that wants to test a product that provides ergonomic/biomechanic advantages. If any of my students are reading this, let me know if you are interested in a project for Fall (for credit or a stipend). I love seeing people with no ergonomics background realizing that having ergonomics credibility can be a competitive advantage (in seeking investment as well as impressing customers).

productive friction

One of my favorite gurus (I recommend reading everything he writes) is John Hagel. One concept he has promoted is the idea of "productive friction." When everyone agrees, nothing gets learned - its just a love fest. When people can't communicate because they speak very different languages (marketing v engineering) or because they vehemently disagree (pro-life/pro-choice), nothing gets learned - the sides just throw sound bites at each other. But the middle ground is where innovation happens. You want enough friction to get everyone's juices flowing but no so much that that they drown in these juices (terrible metaphor I know).

Another source is that diversity creates innovation. He defines diversity broadly (not just ethnicity/religion/gender).

So from a human factors point of view - we can imagine the team process of collaborative activity that causes productive friction. If the team members schema overlap completely, all collaboration does is reinforce existing schema component connections. When the schema
have no overlap, collaboration doesn't work because there are no common connections from which to share new ones. You may have had to take my course or be familiar with connectionist models to get my point fully, but basically I am trying to say that its easier to teach Spanish to someone who speaks Italian because there are so many words and grammar in common. But to teach him Chinese is much harder.

And we are not even getting into the decision making bias effects. If the person doesn't want to believe what you are selling, that adds exponential difficulty.

Web 3.0

I have been looking for interest in Web 3.0 for some time now and just praying that it hits the streets before I am too old to use it. The basic idea (copied from sramana mitra) is that Web 3.0 is a combination of content, context, commerce, community, personalization, and vertical search. Her example is perfect:


-I am a petite woman, dark skinned, dark haired, brown eyed. I have a distinct personal style, and only certain designers resonate with it (Context).

-I want my personal SAKS Fifth Avenue which carries clothes by those designers, in my size (Commerce).

-I want my personal Vogue, which covers articles about that Style, those Designers, and other emerging ones like them (Content).

-I want to exchange notes with others of my size-shape-style-psychographic and discover what else looks good. I also want the recommendation system tell me what they're buying (Community).

-There's also some basic principles of what looks good based on skin tone, body shape, hair color, eye color … I want the search engine to be able to filter and match based on an algorithm that builds in this knowledge base (Personalization, Vertical Search).

Now, imagine the same for a short, fat man, who doesn't really have a sense of what to wear. And he doesn’t have a wife or a girl-friend. Before Web 3.0, he could go to the personal shopper at Nordstrom.

I have two reasons to want this. From a human factors point of view - it is the gold standard. It considers just what the user wants and gives it to him/her with no unwanted stuff (the target content, the whole target content, and nothing but the target content).

But also, I have found that my own personal tastes are somewhat unique - so no systems that use generic collaborative filtering or community seem to give me what I am looking for. So for my own personal use, I need some serious web 3.0 action.