Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. – Calvin Coolidge
Archives for August 2006
I’ve covered geotagging in Flickr before, but it’s been problematic, relying on a very specific combination of browser, scripting and patience that is difficult to come by. Well finally Yahoo has joined the power of Flickr with the extensibility of Yahoo! Maps to add built-in geotagging within Flickr.
What is geotagging? Geotagging lets you pinpoint where a photo was taken. Visitors can then see that location, or conversely, they can browser for photos by location. It’s another easy way of lowering barriers to participation while collection rich information from users. Nice move, Yahoo.
If you’re interested, you can check out my new Flickr map.
Telligent Systems’ Community Server is a full-featured forum system that has blossomed into a content management system (CMS). It includes a gallery, file management, blogs and a portal system, all running on .NET.
Having move my own sites to PHP over a year ago, I haven’t had a need to really check out Community Server thoroughly. Until now. I’m helping setup a forum in a Microsoft environment, and it offered the perfect opportunity to give Community Server a try.
Having cut my teeth on Snitz Forums running ASP, and used both phpBB and Invision Power Board before settling on vBulletin, I’ve had experience with a number of forum systems. How does Community Server compare? Let’s just say, I’m impressed.
Community Server provides excellent integration of blogs, image gallery and file library functions — three of the most popular components of an online community. The portal features inline editing akin to Google Page Creator. The UI for both users and administrators is the best I’ve seen, although a bit slow on a shared server. But what really impressed me is the presentation. Blogs are presented with Digg-like comment and read stats; the portal features cotent in well-designed, Web 2.0-ish rounded-corner-modules; and everything has a clean, polished look about it.
Of course, there is a downside. First, you’ll need to be running on a Microsoft IIS web server with .NET 1.1 or 2.0 and Microsoft SQL Server. Generally speaking, monthly web hosting costs for this setup are slightly more expensive than the typical LAMP solution. But if you’re running on a Windows server platform, or comfortable programming in .NET, you should definitely check it out.
Oh, and a note to the vBulletin developers, definitely check out Community Server’s tagging, blogging, and stream-lined administrative interface. Please?
I wanted to say thanks to the many wonderful people I had a chance to meet at UXWEEK2006 (in no particular order): Steven Berlin Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good For You and Emergence (which I’ve added to my “must read” list); Ray Daly of the NEA; Chiara Fox, Dan Saffer, Brandon Schauer and Ryan Freitas, all of Adaptive Path (who organized the whole shebang); Jace Cole of Allstate Insurance; Bradley Horowitz of Yahoo; Betsy Pitlick of Washington Mutual; Luc-Rock Paquin of Canada Business Industry; Bryan Busch, Geniant; Jeff Veen, Google; Craig Duncan of the UN OCHA in Geneva, Switzerland; Alice Yeo, Autotrader.com; Jane Louise Webster, Council on Foundations; John Vincent, LL Bean; Kevin Lingerfelt, Americans United for Separation of Church and State; Dan Brown, author of Communicating Design; and Bryan Chamberlain, Nationwide.
To anyone I’ve left out, my apologies. To all, I look forward to the next time our paths cross. For photos, check out the UXWEEK2006 tag on Flickr.
Author’s note: Yes, this has been sitting on my desktop awaiting publishing for over a week. Whatever.
Everyone that I’ve spoken with agrees that the keynotes for the conference were really top notch. Barbara Brennan from the Smithsonian Air and Space Musueum walked us through the process of designing something very different from a website — the ‘America by Air‘ exhibit. It takes about two years to prepare an exhibit, pulling together the script, developing the visual graphics, building the exhibit itself and preparing the various artifacts (old planes, new planes, models, etc.).
A few notes on the process. There is a basic script for the exhibit, but each part of the exhibit needs to stand on it’s own, since there is no control over what people look at, or in which order.
The message of any particular display was broken into several components. There may be a featured object (a plane, a model, etc.). There are highly visible graphic elements that pull out the most salient points. There is detailed information about the display for those interested in reading it. And there are other visual elements (photos, drawings, etc.) that are used to augment the information panels. Each display can speak to the audience at different levels of detail, as appropriate.
Sounds a lot like modeless design in the web world, necessitated by the fact that Google brings visitors directly to any page of your website (see How to Start Customer Research by Mark Hurst, especially the quote “Google has made home pages virtually irrelevant”).
Next up, Kevin Cheng from Yahoo! shared a method for documenting design concepts through comics. Kevin had a kick-ass presentation that made us believe we too could be artists. Reality is a bit more harsh. One of the exercises had us all hand our badge to the person on our right, who proceeded to draw a cartoon portrait of us! The picture Allstate’s Jace Cole drew of me was, well, let’s just say that a stick figure would’ve been an improvement.
The class did make a valid point. The key is to use personas and tell a story. Whether you use a narrative or comic-style storyboarding, the story is the key. How will the user interact? The story explains it more clearly than raw facts and figures ever could.
Information visualization is one of those topics that sounds incredibly dull when expressed in words. Edward Tufte knows better, and so does Michal Migurski of Stamen. He has been working on a number of map-related information mashups, and shared a slew of really interesting ways to look at information — some of which I had seen before; others were new to me and blew me away.
I’ll mention a few that really stood out for me.
- Newsmap – This sucker blew me away. Newsmap takes data from Google News, including the number of articles on a given news item, and creates a tree-view of the news. News with lots of coverage consumes more area. Different categories (world, nation, business, sports, etc.) get different colors. More recent news uses brighter shades; old news gets increasing darker. This is a fabulous way of seeing what’s hot at a glance.
- Fundrace is fascinating, although maybe a little Orwelian. It shows political party contributions by city. Not surprisingly, urban areas tend to support Democrats; rural generally Republicans. Where it really gets fun is when you zoom to the city level. Check out uptown New York and you can see contributions on a building-by-building basis.
- And just to prove that information visualization doesn’t require Web 2.0 magic, there’s Week In Review, which is hand-drawn by a group of friends who meet each week at a different restaurant and sketch out what mattered (to them, at least). Good stuff.
The day wrapped up with a field trip to the Air and Space Museum’s storage and restoration facility, where we got to see them working on graphics production (signage; display panels); restoration of planes, engines and other museum pieces; fabrication of the exhibits and storage of various artifacts. I was struck by two things. First, I was amazed by the size and scope of the facility. Dozens of buildings with tons of equipment and artifacts. It reminded me of that final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where a forklift carries the Ark away in some nondescript, cavernous government storage facility, never-to-be-seen again.
The second takeaway was that everyone who worked there, from the graphics production, to exhibit fabrication to restoration, all had a love of planes. Many of them were recreational pilots themselves, but all of them had a passion for aviation. And they each had their particularly proud moment. The guy in the restoration shop (who started there in 1974), worked on the restoration of the original Wright brother’s plane. The curator was especially proud of the world globe from Juan Trippe’s office (longtime president of Pan Am airlines). Trivia note: the movie The Aviator uses the actual globe from Trippe’s office, afterwhich it was donated to the Smithsonian.
No matter who you talked to, they had a sense of pride in their work, a love for what they were doing and a passion for doing it well. The clearly saw this as their opportunity to leave a legacy.
A Few Closing Thoughts on UXWEEK
Powerpoint can be effective. The presentations had a consistently high level of quality. They were extremely light on text, and used imagry to support the presentation.
It pays to go outside of the same-old conference circuit. There was a good cross-section of industries represented; even better than what I’ve seen at KM World or similar conferences. The cross-polination of ideas was invaluable. I was amazed at how some of the topics could be very nearly carried over directly into my world.
Interaction doesn’t end with the closing session. Some of the best interaction occurred over a beer hours after the last speaker. Don’t hole up in your hotel; your email can wait. Get out and spend some time with new people. Find out what makes them tick. Learn something new.
Want more? Yeah, I didn’t cover everything. So check out the UXWEEK wiki for even more good stuff.
Good God… I’m wracking my brain to remember just who gave the keynote! Ah yes, Jeff Veen, now of Google and formerly of Adaptive Path, gave a keynote on Designing the Next Generation of Web Applications. He contrasted some of the emerging systems with their older counterparts, such as traditional (and expensive) content management systems (CMS) like Vignette vs. Typepad. As it turns out, most people don’t need a big, heavy, expensive tool–they have simple needs.
One of the key qualities of next generation web apps? Participation. Rather than the site dictating a stringent hierarchy, the users define the information architecture. You can see this in action at sites like Flickr and del.icio.us, where users create the categories using tags.
You can download Veen’s slides here.
Another good, tactical session was Ryan Freitas’ Facilitating Collaboration: Web Technologies That Work. Freitas described the tools that he actually uses when he’s working on a new project. His toolkit includes: his work email, his secret IM address, his mobile number, del.icio.us, secondverse (his blog), a wiki, flickr, his twttr name (for group SMS), vyew.com for online conferencing, and Writely for realtime collaborative editing (which Google has now opened up for anyone to use again).
The toolbox approach was interesting, but Freitas admits that it’s a lot of disconnected parts to keep track of. I would consider using a web-based RSS aggregator such as Netvibes to create a virtual control panel for the project. I also challenged him and suggested that in addition to blogs and wikis, a project can and should use forums (he agreed).
But the highlight of Day Three was Bradley Horowitz of Yahoo, speaking on building community on the web, and lowering the barriers to participation. His talk was fairly high-level, and if you’ve read his blog, you’ve heard the concepts before. Horowitz shared usage patterns he’s seen on some popular Yahoo properties, including Yahoo! Groups, Flickr, and Yahoo! Answers.
In Yahoo! Groups, 1% of the community are creators, organizing and creating groups; 10% are producers, replying to discussions and interacting; and 100% are consumers, reading and theoretically benefiting from the user-generated content from the producers.
They key to getting more users to participate is to enlist them without really requiring them to do anything other than use the website. This was best explained by something called interestingness on Flickr. Flickr is a fantastic photo sharing site, but it’s not for everyone (one of the reasons they have no plans to merge it with Yahoo! Photos). The audience tends to be a bit more technically savvy, even though you don’t really need to be for the basic sharing stuff.
So just what is interestingness? He couldn’t tell us exactly (trade secrets being what they are), but in general terms, it’s a way of identifying photos that are, well, the most interesting. This is calculated by algorithms that use a number of factors. How many people have viewed the photo? How many have marked it as a favorite? How recent is it? Who has viewed or favorited the photo? How many comments has it received? They all factor into the equation. And the interesting thing (no pun intended) is that many of measures are captured without any explicit action on the part of the users. The simple act of viewing a photo makes me a participant in the process.
Yahoo doesn’t have a monopoly on this concept. Digg is another site that provides simple ways for people to participate in the process of ‘digging’ for the top stories on the web. It’s a bit more work; you have register for an account and sign-in, but once you’ve done that, it’s easy to click the ‘digg this’ button to register what you find interesting.
These simple mechanisms for implicit and explicit participation create value by gathering feedback an opinions from a wider group. The producer pool grows from 10% to something larger.
Horowitz finished with a discussion of Yahoo! Answers. This service really isn’t something new, but it provides a question-and-answer format for information that may or not be easily found by search alone. Launched in December 2005, the service has grown to over 5 million users in nine months. I need to take a closer look at this.
The evening’s networking event was held at Heritage India, hosted by the rather hilarious Jared Spool. If usability work ever evaporates, Jared could easily find work as a stand-up comic.
Somebody is going to give me grief for not posting this actually on Day Two of UX Week, but I hadn’t counted on two things, and therefore ask for a bit of slack. First, the free wireless connection here at the Hotel Palomar sucks — there is no polite way to say it. It’s slow and constantly drops my connection. So I gave up trying and packed the laptop away. Secondly, I hadn’t counted on the amount of time I’d spend networking (ahem) in the evenings. And so, here I am on my flight back to Calfornia, writing a summary that’s a few days old. Such is life.
Day Two of UX Week started with a bang. Designer Michael Bierut gave the keynote, describing one of his notable failures (well, not quite, but the project did get started poorly). As part of a pro bono project designed to revitalize inner city school libraries in New York City, Bierut was to come up with a visual identify. The problem? He assumed he understood the problem, rather that actually meeting and discussing with the end users (kids and their librarians). As a result, his “great ideas” (which had been developed in a relative vacuum) fell flat.
In then end, he did end up meeting with the users, and began to truly understand what was important. There were some great lessons, but chief among them was this: know thy audience. Yeah, it’s the sort of common-sense credo that we’ve heard many times before, and yet how often to do we forgo this critical step, assuming (for example) because we ourselves use websites, that we somehow already know what the audience needs and wants. This may work fine if you’re building a website for an audience of one: yourself. But hopefully you aren’t so boring… you’re unique! And therefore, you really need to get the audience perspective.
Bierut’s key was communication. Often it’s just that simple, but when the problem is more complex, the audience may have a tough time verbalizing what they need. This is where usability tests come into play. More on that later.
The best session of the day came Tuesday afternoon. Dan Brown (no, not the DaVinci Code guy–the IA guy). His book–Communicating Design–is all about documention. Documenting content collection; use case scenarios; usability tests and functional specs. Sounds boring, but Dan’s delivered the goods with a great sense of humor and, frankly, it’s a topic that is really useful in a very practical way. Whatever. He sold me — I bought his book.
Adaptive Path’s Dan Saffer held a book signing party at Nanny O’Brien’s Tuesday night. Afterwards, a few of us went hunting for a bite to eat, settling on a sushi place with a really good sake sampler. Represented were folks from the Washington Post, Nationwide, Allstate, some sports website whose name I forget (not one you’d recognize), a home builder consortium, and moi.