October 14, 2007

The IEEE Secret Handshake?

Posted in Usability tagged at 9:49 am by mj

This morning I decided to plop down $215 for an IEEE + Computer Society membership. Note I said I decided to, not I did, because the IEEE wouldn’t take my money.

I’ve been considering joining IEEE for a while. I’m happy with my ACM membership (the Digital Library is awesome), but occasionally there will be a spate of good articles available only through IEEE. Plus, I expect a different perspective from their publications than you get from ACM.

It started with an ominous warning:

It appears you are using Firefox on Linux UNKNOWN. This site supports numerous Internet browsers on multiple platforms, however, it is best viewed with Internet Explorer 6.0 on Windows.

While I was surprised the warning doesn’t reference Internet Explore 4.0 (think 1997), I continued on.

Next up was “Web Account” creation. Which requires usernames to be entered in ALL UPPERCASE. (Huh?) When you fail to enter a password of the correct length, or a username in all uppercase, it takes you to an ugly error screen.

Somehow, I managed to make it through the cumbersome registration process, only to be greeted with this screen:

Update: This was not the original error message. The original error message was much less user friendly. The above error message was generated when I tried to do a screen capture, but mistakenly hit my ‘back’ button first. I didn’t notice the difference until I attempted to send IEEE member services the same screen shot. Bah.

Nice error message, folks. It appears my account was created, but the membership could not be added to my cart. No problem.

I started over. Only then to forevermore add memberships to /dev/null:

That’s right. It claims to have added my membership to my cart, but the same page says my cart is empty.

Either I’m not cool enough, or they don’t want to just straight up tell me that I don’t qualify, or I need to find the secret handshake. But whatever, I’m not sure I want to join IEEE at this point. If I have this much trouble just signing up, what will my experience be when I want to search for articles or view their online periodicals?

For what it’s worth, I did also try Internet Experience 6 on Windows XP. Without first logging into my account (in case my account was wonky). On IE, all I get is a completely blank screen (no screen caps from Windows), even after I log in.

Granted, the ACM registration/renewal process sucks raw eggs, too. But at least they always accept my money.

January 26, 2007

Webshots Integrates User Videos

Posted in Usability, webshots at 5:17 am by mj

Just before the holidays, Webshots launched videos. What I love about this is that videos are just another way to tell your story, and fit seamlessly into your albums. The coolest part of this, IMO, is the new slideshow.

(See an example slideshow at Webshots. *ahem* wordpress.com doesn’t yet support inlining Webshots videos or slideshows.)

While we do have a Video channel, our intent is for videos and photos to complement one-another, and to coexist on the page. Mark, our lead designer, has done a great job since mid-2006, and the natural fit of videos is one area where our August redesign is starting to pay off. (More payoffs will be apparent in the coming months.)

The one thing I think we did wrong is having a separate video search. This was a product decision made early on, with some technical ramifications. While it’s great to be able to effortlessly see the latest videos–overall, or by keyword–it’s the one area where we’re intentionally segregating photos and videos, and I’m not sure if that fits in with what our users will want. I think we should improve on that by making photos and videos searched together by default, and supporting a photo-only or video-only filter as an advanced option.

It’s interesting to note that, at launch, we supported higher resolution and better quality videos than the obvious rival YouTube. I was blown away by our team’s tests that showed the same video uploaded to each, and ours was obviously far superior.

Alas, that did not last, as many DSL connections could not support the increased bandwidth, so we had to scale back. Now, our videos have only a slightly greater encoded quality than YouTube, and our resolution is comparable. Longer term, I’d expect us to support multiple encodings/resolutions, and serve the best version that your connection will support.

January 19, 2007

Good-bye, Findory, & Are We Ready for Personalized News?

Posted in Personalization, Search, Usability at 10:04 pm by mj

Greg Linden–founder, architect, designer, programmer, visionary, banker behind Findoryput Findory on autopilot until its resources are depleted.

Findory has been my primary start page for quite a while. Sure, it had its shortcomings. Too many of its sources were aggregators: Slashdot, Metafilter, Planet fill-in-the-blank, and so on. Clicking on a news story through one of those aggregators meant weeks or months of getting stories from them in your top results.

While its traffic peaked in 2006, Greg recently lamented on his blog that Q3-Q4 saw a serious decline in uniques. I suspect that’s what sparked his introspection.

I stand with those asking Greg to open source his code, or at least produce a well-footnoted, well-referenced book from it.

Here’s the lesson that I draw from Findory compared with, say, digg, memeorandum and memetracker: Context is king.

People say they want personalization, but not in a void. What’s more important than personalization is social context. For news, that means: who’s talking about this story? what are the reactions and additions to this story? do other people like this story? is it a story that crosses social cliques?

And, yes, it also means that what the A-listers write about carries more weight than what, say, I write about (a Z-lister?), regardless of overlapping interests.

As Greg has pointed out previously, personalized search means a smaller shared context among searchers, which is good for fighting spam (in the short-term). But is it bad for searchers? How do you share your search results with somebody else by simply copying the URL?

That problem is magnified with personalized news. Although you may get stories that are really interesting to you, you may just as well get no interesting stories since your interests aren’t generating much worth writing about at the moment. And you’re less likely to engage in a shared cultural experience.

I take note that the good bloggers didn’t use Findory to find interesting things to write about. I don’t think Findory’s bugs and little quirks are the reason for that. I think it’s the lack of social awareness, which suppresses to the social cues we use to find interesting stuff.


June 8, 2006

The Next Generation of Search

Posted in Personalization, Search, Usability at 9:45 pm by mj

More and more I find myself thinking, “Those guys at Yahoo get it.”

The latest example is Andrei Broder from Yahoo! Research, who, at last month’s Future of Web Search Workshop, gave the keynote talk titled, From query based Information Retrieval to Context Driven Information Supply [link is a PDF].

While this is a CTO-level presentation (i.e., high level, few details), it was well illustrated and to the point (and quite funny in spots).

According to Broder, Classic Information Retrieval makes all the wrong assumptions for the web context: classic IR ignores context, ignores individuals, and ignores dynamism (which is to say, the corpus is static). This is one reason I’ve never put much faith in academic search criteria (such as the TREC corpii).

He goes on to outline the first three generations of web search: from keyword matching and word frequency analysis (1st generation); to link analysis, clickthrough feedback, and social linktext (2nd generation); and, currently, in the midst of “answering the need behind the query” (3rd generation), which is mostly about supplementing core search with tools (spell checking, shortcuts, dynamic result filtering, …), or with high-ranking, high-certainty results from verticals (maps, local searches, phonebooks, …).

And what of the newborn 4th generation? It’s about going “from information retrieval to information supply” (emphasis mine), which is all about implicit searches: personalization, recommendations, …and, of course, advertising.

If you know me, it’s this 4th (and possibly 5th, see my notes below) generation that I’m always harping about. I wrote a bit about the future of search last year. I make a bit of an ass about it sometimes, but it turns me on.

And advertising, of course, is the big payoff from a corporate POV.

His final slide (slide 49) lists the challenges with this 4th generation of search: it involves a lot more data collection, a lot more data modelling, a lot more math, and a lot more understanding of the significance of the relationships between users and content.

What I find even more interesting, though, is what Broder left out:

  • Search is well on its way to being integrated into normal navigation (faceted search is just one step)
  • Social networks can, and should, affect relevance (social search is just one step)
  • Search is being used as a platform, and soon, partners will be able to affect relevance for their users–providing yet more information to the core search system
  • Search will soon be but a mediator between users and content–whether integrated into normal navigation or not–which provides the missing context for advertising, which can not be merely gleaned from content matching, or third-party user profiling

Did he stop short because much of the future of search makes Yahoo’s current search business positioning irrelevant?

Or because he has his team secretly working on the 5th generation of search and doesn’t want to give away his edge?

Or maybe he just wants to underpromise and overdeliver…

(Like via Greg Linden, who is one of the few bloggers I’ve made time to read in the last two weeks.)

April 9, 2006

Tag Usability 101: Essence of a Tag

Posted in Search, Tagging, Usability at 11:36 am by mj

Tim Spalding of LibraryThing (the plural version of which appears to be a squattor) recently wrote a nice (and funny) little response to a multi-versus-single-word-tag thread on the TagDB mailing list.

For good or ill, most web users have no such intuition. 99.9% would never speak of the “union” of two tags, this being some sort of trickle-down from set-theory talk. Far fewer would have that intuition in terms like “find all pictures tagged both ‘london’ and ‘trip.'” And of those, few would have any idea how to do it. Yes, most search engines allow all sorts of clever boolean logic (+london +tip -“pigeons shitting on me in trafalgar square.”) No, nobody uses that logic.
“London” and “trip” make sense on their own; “Spring semester” does not. The union of “spring” and “semester”? How about the union of “spring,” “training” “red” and “sox”? Or shall we look for the union of “springTraining” and “red_sox”? Congratulations, you need an “about” page to tell people how to tag, and your users are all programmers.

This conversation is necessary among any team implementing tagging. It’s a basic usability point.

In the single-word corner, we have Ihe tag purists. To them, tags are unstemmed tokens, and tokens are atomic. If you allow phrases and even sentences (e.g., “my trip to london”), you’re moving beyond tags/reverting back to captions/keywords. Tag purists also view tags as facets of an item–attributes or metadata describing some aspect of the item–and frown on tags that seem to represent (or replace) content.

In the multi-word corner, we have what I’ll (lovingly) call the usability police. To them, as to Tim, any notion of the “intuition” of using lists of single words to file and then retrieve items is absurd: most users have no such intuition. Forcing users into fusing words together (e.g., “red_sox”, “hot_dog”, “beer_belly”) is just asking to limit your reach to only the most technically inclined.

The tag purist perspective makes a lot of sense from the IR point of view. Computing tag intersections and unions, related tags, tag clusters, etc., is much simpler than doing the same with collections of full-text documents. This is appealing. From here, it looks as if tags basically distill the essence of a thing down to a few words. It’s like calculating statistically relevant words for free. Plus, it sort of pushes off the question of “Do I use a real search engine, or do I just go with the standard three-table MySQL tag schema?” until your system really, really needs to scale, since there’s no need to compute or analyze anything.

It also makes serving your customers’ needs easier. If I’m looking for things tagged “london,” I’d expect to get back things about people’s trips to London, or London bombings–which won’t happen if another user tags her photos/blogs with “London Bombing” or “Trip to London” or “London – March 2006” without some back-end analysis. But if you do that, then you lose the atomicity of a tag like “hot dog.”

The compromise position some sites have reached is to push multi-word tags inside of quotation marks. That poses a bit of a parsing issue, though (not for the code, but for the human trying to maintain/scan the list).

I think part of the anxiety people are having over multi- versus single- word tags is due to the early hype surrounding tagging as a cure-all for site navigation. In truth, any user input requires the application of IR concepts. Just as full-text indexing results in ambiguities, false positives, and false negatives, so too will any tagging scheme, no matter how intuitive to its users.

The advantages that I see for tagging are:

  1. it provides an obvious navigation alternative,
  2. it allows for dynamically expanding facets (sets of attributes) of items, and pivoting on each,
  3. it’s simpler to index and cluster around a subset of words that the author/reader feel really represent an item, than it is to try to automatically distill the essence of the same item from a collection of hundreds of words,
  4. it reduces the effort required to input metadata for visual items, and
  5. it increases the opportunities for tools to automatically add important facets to an item.

As for my own opinion, I lean heavily toward multi-word tags separated by commas when the only possible input of tags is through a single textbox. I believe, however, this will be rendered moot in the next year as new graphical–and usable–tag management interfaces are developed (and I don’t mean a series of checkboxes on the right-hand side of the page). But this is going to force people to think in terms of IR concepts who’d rather not.

(Dodge an issue? Why, I’d never!)

February 19, 2006

Search Engines Don’t Lie, Part I

Posted in Search, Software, Usability at 1:10 am by mj

Scoble’s been on a bit of a tear lately with his thesis that search engines lie. The implication being that Google, in particular, is intentionally inflating its numbers. What I found most disturbing was his perhaps light-hearted musing:

Why aren’t there any truth in advertising laws for search engines?

Well, just you wait. We’ve seen worse laws.

I’d flagged this for a thoughtful, well-researched post later (which, for me, means “sometime before December…2012”), but then he did it again in his latest “brrreeeport” report.

I’ll attack this from two angles, in two separate posts.

First up, a little analogy.

When I use Mapquest to get directions from Fremont to Seattle, it gives me back an estimate: 12 hours 59 minutes.

But what if it only takes me 11 hours? Or what if it takes me 14? Does it matter to me so much what the actual estimate is? Since they’re giving me a time down to the minute for such a long trip, it must mean something.

Of course, I know (and you know) from previous experience that even some of the streets may be incorrect once I get there. It’s an inherent limitation of the technology. It’s not easily fixable. Investing millions of dollars into being 1% more accurate wouldn’t be worth it. No “truth in advertising” laws need apply. No insinuations that Mapquest is “lying.”

Afterall, it’s easily inferrable that Yahoo is lying because their route only takes me 12 hours 44 minutes. Obviously they’re trying to make me believe they have superior road maps, or superior routing algorithms, when, in fact, it’s all a sham. Down with Yahoo! Down with The Man(tm)!

I understand the usability concerns for smaller result sets, and it seems to most noticeably affect newer memes. But knowing precisely how many matching pages there are for a given query is one of those “$1M for 0.001% better” problems that would never get prioritized over more pressing concerns…such as, you know, relevancy, and expediency, and scalability. Hmm.

So in the morning, when I’ve gotten some sleep, I’ll post a more serious explanation of this phenomenon. Not that I’m an authority. Just, you know, it isn’t rocket science.

October 30, 2005

Furl versus other social bookmarking services

Posted in Software, Usability at 9:30 am by mj

For quite a number of months–since January 2004, according to my archive–I have preferred, and advocated for, Furl over Delicious. There were several reasons for this. I thought the UI was better; Furl includes full-text search; finding other people or articles related to my interests was easier; and it was much easier to create personalized, ad hoc hierarchical taxonomies.

This latter point is important because, in most contexts, I am more of a “hierarchical” minded person than I am a “bundle” minded person. (One big exception I’m realizing now is with bug databases, where hierarchy interferes with usability, and bundling is much more useful and intuitive. I may be convinced that the same applies to bookmarks. We’ll see.)

From an implementation standpoint, then, I’ve been hoping to see–or create–tag-based systems with many of the advantages that Furl has.

But lately, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with some of Furl’s limitations, and have considered switching to Delicious or Simpy. (Somebody at work also tells me that The Shadows is good, though I haven’t used it.) In fact, the thing that is keeping me tied to Furl during my busy times at work is really the lack of tools to import my Furl archive into any other social bookmarking service. Which, as far as I can tell, is certainly not Furl’s doing, since they provide their own XML export.

Here are what bother me most:

  1. Filing into multiple categories is hard. At first, this did not bother me, but as time has gone on I realize just how hard it is to apply multiple topics to an item using a select box. That I cannot change the size of the select area, which means I have to manually scroll through all my topics 4-at-a-time, which is more problematic since any ad hoc hierarchy is really a flat space, is a hindrence. More often than not, I don’t even try anymore, which means my bookmarks become more difficult to navigate later on.
  2. When I use the bookmarklet to “Furl” an item, and it has already been Furled, I get a nice little popup that tells me it has already been Furled. But then the edit box doesn’t reflect any of the information–like rating, or topics, or comments… and if I Furl it again, it’s a distinct item in my archive. All bad.
  3. Related to the above, editing (e.g., moving from “to read” to whichever proper category) is too difficult. Leaving aside my objection above, even going into my archive and trying to edit an entry requires so many clicks and contextualizing that, again, I usually don’t do it. So I still have things in my “to read” topics that I’ve already read, because it’s just too difficult to manage them.
  4. Recommendations–one of the things I thought was a huge advantage of Furl over other sites in the beginning–are not dynamic enough, and stabilize over time. It looks like their algorithm is not tuned to weight recent interests more, or to randomly boost certain recommendations every week, or any of a host of other things that could be done. What’s worse, their people recommendations–what they call “Furlmates”–has no management function. With article recommendations, I can Furl it to make it go away; or just click delete and it will go away. But with people recommendations, there’s no way to make a recommendation go away, whether I like that recommendation or not.

As far as I can tell, the people at Furl have rested on their laurels. Maybe this is Looksmart’s fault, or maybe it isn’t. But Furl has not added any new functionality, or enhanced their existing functionality, in the time I’ve been using them. They’ve modified their UI a bit, but that has usually been to display the “Looksmart” brand more prominently. (Such as when they recently changed their submit form to add a bigger logo, which meant the size of the popup was too small to fit the whole form, and they neglected to change the size even on their “Tools” page. I pity the foo’ who don’t know Javascript.)

What’s the positive? The positive to this is it’s a great learning experience for me to see what it’s like, as a user, for a service you initially love gradually degrade relative to their competitors, not as a result of doing anything wrong, but just for being content. My employer has historically had the same problem, and sometimes, when you’re on “the other side,” it’s hard to really understand what’s going on in the minds of your most loyal members.

Plus, I think those of us who have used Furl, and not just followed the pack into Delicious and their imitators, have a different–and maybe better, in some respects–perspective on social bookmarking and related services.