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.