Archive for the 'usefulness' Category

iPad: Sit and listen, don’t speak

I recently had the opportunity to use an iPad for a while at work (I know, I’m already well behind the cool kids).  I found the device not wildly exciting, for two main reasons.

The first reason is that it is a single-user device, so in a situation where one has been bought for everyone to have a play with and try, the device is very nearly hamstrung. Admittedly with a little more effort I probably could have convinced the thing to talk to my itunes account and downloaded some free apps and cool stuff, but the fact that this was not obvious means this is not a device to be shared between people who don’t share passwords and credit card details.

The second thing that was more immediately obvious, and more confounding was that within even a few moments of interaction it was clear the iPad is very much a device for consumption, and not for production. Although the touch screen would make the ipad an obvious choice for some kind of gestural or pen-based input, this isn’t available (perhaps Apple are still smarting from the spectacular failure of the Newton?), and the native “keyboard” is noticeably clunky to use. This means that for all production purposes–even those which involve consuming media (such as annotating books or pictures, gestural photo or video editing)–that would seem ideally suited to a touch-based interface, the iPad in it’s native state is essentially useless. Even doing a Google search on this thing is hard. And while there are pens you can buy, and keyboards, and apps and all kinds of workarounds, it doesn’t change the fact that all of these things are not what this large and expensive piece of equipment was designed for.

I’m not alone in my assessment of these limitations of course. Larry Marcus says that the iPad is no replacement for a laptop unless you are primarily a consumer. Nathan Jurgenson at Sociology Lens reinfirces that prosumption is not where it’s at for the iPad. Jeff Jarvis, in his must-read review calls the iPad vapid and shallow, and points out how it is a move backwards from the open content the web made possible. Cory Doctorow takes it one step further and points out the iPad itself is a closed device. Jonathan Zittrain points out that even Apps don’t make the iPad open because they are vetted (and makes some very interesting points about a large antitrust suit against another technology company).

None of this is to say that the iPad doesn’t have a market; Jake Simms thinks “grown ups” will like it, Steve Myers reports on a panel at SXSW that suggested the iPad is designed for “laid back” computing, and Kathy E. Gill says we will have to wait and see how people use it in their consumption activities.

Personally, I won’t be getting an iPad; I have a netbook that does all the consumption things an iPad does except nice ebook reading, and there are cheaper ebook readers (if and when I decide to get one) and plenty of prduction things besides. While iPads are very du jour, I think they have missed a number of interesting interaction possibilities afforded by a touch screen, and I will be interested to see where they go from here.  Any iPad users care to comment on their use?

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Kartoo was clearly not for many users at all

Phil Bradley posted on Saturday that Kartoo, the visual search engine I blogged about as part of the 23 Things programme, is gone.

Back when I posted about Kartoo the first time, I mentioned a number of reasons why it might actively alienate some users, including its treatment of culture and gender–this isn’t a good start for a search service trying to break into a market that already has such clear dominance (Google accounted for about 70% of all searches in December, and is working to expand its range of services and thus its market share).  Had Kartoo really offered something interesting, then it could have attracted continuing use from those it didn’t offend at first sight, but like I and many of my fellow travellers on the 23 things program discovered back in 2008, Kartoo also didn’t offer anything interesting or useful in its interface or its results (and in fact it was downright hard to use).  Given how much you have to offer to break habits that work for users, Kartoo fell far short of the mark, and while I’m not so convinced that it had nothing to offer that I’m glad its gone, I’m not surprised either.

Why users like federated search (even though they shouldn’t)

‘Federated Search’ is a library term, it refers to search engines that search a variety of library databases (things that contain journal articles, conference papers and the like) and combine the results in some way to be presented to the user.

Federated searching is a somewhat fraught topic in libraries; many librarians don’t like federated searching and are hestitant to recommend it to library users.  This reluctance is not without good reason–federated search is inferior in many ways to using native database search interfaces, including problems with relevance ranking, the false appearance of comprehensiveness, and the inadequate de-duplication that many offer.  On the other side of this, federated search offers the holy grail of library searching: a single search box (well, almost–federated search usually doesn’t include the local catalogue, though sometimes it does, as in this example at UNSW).  The single search box is seen as being “like Google” in offering users a lot of different content from one search–and even has a slight edge over Google scholar in that search results will usually reflect more closely than Google Scholar which results a searcher can actually access.

Federated search has some issues that would normally be pretty big rpoblems from a user perspective too:

  • The relevance ranking doesn’t really work. Because federated search is pulling in material from a range of sources, each of which use different approaches to relevance ranking and different metrics to express a rank.  Any combination of these results is likely to produces flawed relevance ranking.  This means that often, the most relevant results will not be in the magical first couple of pages.
  • Federated search is very, very slow.  Again, because federated search is searching a number of remote databases and then applying some metric to combine results before these are presented to the user, federated search is very slow. Typically users are unhappy with slow response times, so this should be a real problem for users.

So, we know librarians are often hesitant about recommending federated search, and that users have every reason not to like it…and yet study after study shows that users do like and use federated search.  So why is federated search so popular?

  • One stop shopping: Federated search offers users a one-stop shop, and even though they know it isn’t as good, they will often use it anyway.
  • Time saving: Despite the long load time for search results, users know they will save themselves time (and likely frustration) by visiting only a single site.
  • Search syntax: Search syntax varies slightly from site to site, and federated search allows users to forgo learning the variationson syntax required by individual databases.  Given that we know boolean searching is hard (sorry, paywall), it is easy to surmise that learning less about it is considered a good thing by users.
  • Low user expectations: Users expect library systems to be slow and clunky, so their expectations of federated search are lower than they would be for other web-based services.

Users’ willingness to use a system we don’t expect them to like is an object lesson in how usability principles are not entirely universal: Occasionally users will tolerate unusable systems over more-usable ones because the end result is still a faster and easier user experience.

So, does users’ willingness to put up with the limitations of federated search mean we should stop striving for anything better? I don’t think so.  I think that as web technology improves, users will have less tolerance for slow and clunky systems.  We’ve already seen this at Swinburne with the library catalogue–while it hasn’t changed our users surveys show increasing levels of dissatisfaction as a result of user expectations that have been raised by their interactions with other systems.  I don’t believe that users are going to be willing to individually visit library databases in the future any more than they are now; even Google is meshing different kinds of data in its search results.  I believe there is real benefit to be had for librarians and library users alike in making headway in one-stop searching, I’m very much looking forward to seeing Primo Central and Summon (the next generation of federated search, where metadata is locally indexed making search faster and relevance ranking better) in action.  In the meantime though?  Users still like federated search, even though it is slow and awkward.

One of these things is not like the others: Livingsocial’s recommender services

Last year I did an experiment: I logged every book I read, complete with tags about timing, subject matter, fiction or non-, andf themes, in Google books.  This was inherently satisfying to my curiosity (63 books last year, 24 of whiuch were non fiction), but was lacking something I’m interested in: a recommendation feature.

During the year, I discovered I could also log my books in Facebook, in a service that does have a recommender feature based on ratings (but no tags, sadly–I know, I should have just used librarything in the first damn place).  Thus I entered the exciting world of LivingSocial, which accepts ratings for books, albums, movies…and restaurants.

While I haven’t bothered too much with the music recommender service (though I should try, since my taste is all over the place), but I have found the book service and the movie service to be quite exciting–I’ve seen lots of books and movies I want to read/see.  So when I noticed last night that they also had a restaurant section, I was cautiously excited: I love food and I am always looking for places to try, but I suspected that it might be a US-only service.  It’s not, but I still wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, mostly because it doesn’t take into account the differences between books/movies/albums and restaurants:

  • Availability of large, relatively comprehensive catalogues: There are a wide range of relatively-comprehensive online catalogues for books and movies–think Amazon or LibraryThing. The same is not true for restaurants: there may be listings in the local yellow pages for some towns, some of which may be available online, but these listings would be difficult to harvest and far from comprehensive.  As a response to this, Livcingsocial will actually allow you to add your own restaurant listings, but only after you have rated 20 restaurants.  If you don’t do a lot of travelling, and your city doesn’t have any restaurants listed, this could be a bit difficult.
  • Location dependence: Subject to availability, playing equipment and local censorship laws, books/movies/albums may be enjoyed anywhere.  Restaurants, however, are only really available to those living or travelling (let’s be generous) within say 100 km (60 mi) of the restaurant’s physical location.
  • Amount of information required to make a decision: Everyone has certain requirements of their entertainment, for example:  some people find swearing offensive, some people dislike science fiction intensely, some people cannot abide restaurants that won’t take bookings, some people are vegetarian.  Recommendations for books/movies/music are more likely to meet people’s requirements (going back to our example those who dislike science fiction will universally rate it lower, thus feeding each other’s recommendations) and even if they don’t, it is much easier to find out ahead of time that they are bad (in the example of swearing parental advisory stickers are a good clue). In the case of restaurants, however, there are more paramters in play (food, service, noise level, ambiance, wheelchair accessibility, child-frioendliness, diaetary requirements) and this type of thing is harder to tease out in a five point rating, and often harder to discover before making the time investment to actually go to the restaurant.

The restaurant recommender is based on the same principles as the other recommenders, the amazon style “people who liked x also liked y, and you like x so you will probably like y”.  My experience with it, however, was quite frustrating: I rated a significant number of restaurants (not without some difficulty, as there aren’t that may listed in Melbourne, so I had to go to other cities I had lived in), and then clicked on “recommendations”.  Most of the recommendations were for restaurants in the US, and there was no way to generate recommendations for a a specified geographic region.  If I were travelling to the US any time soon, this might be helpful if I were going to the specific cities where restaurants were recommended for me, but generally speaking, these recommendations are useless.

The problem here is that a model that works well for small physical items has been applied to experiences, and it simply doesn’t work–making the user experience clunky and ultimately frustrating, possibly more often than it is helpful.  LivignSocial would have been better to stick with wine!

Have you ever tried a product or service from a company that did other things well only to be disappointed?

‘Giving back something broken’ undoes all your good work and then some.

In Stephen Donaldson’s Second Chronicle of Thomas Covenant, the protagonist Covenant points out that ‘there’s only one way to hurt a man who’s lost everything: Give him back something broken’.  While that is certainly melodramatic for the tone of this post, it is something than rings true in user experience.  If your system does something good for users and then takes that something good away without good reason it will make the user angry.

Let me give you an example:  Long time readers of this blog will remember how pleased I was with the pre-pay option available at my local supermarket.  Recently the chain involved in that post has brought out a loyalty card which allows you to collect those four cent petrol vouchers on the card, rather than stuffed into your wallet.  This works particularly well for my partner and I, since we don’t own a car and therefore only rarely purchase petrol; it means when we do purchase petrol we can just hand over the card rather than having to remember to save the dockets and present them at the right time.

So far it all sounds pretty good, right?  The problem is, this card breaks the pre-pay option on the supermarket tills.  You can put all the information in, but when you hand the cashier your loaylty card, it cancels the transaction you have begun and forces the cahsier to start all over.

This problem takes a system that works in favour of the customer, and turns it on its head: the customer does the work of entering their information, only to have that work completely wasted.  It would be less annoying not to have the option to pre-pay in the first place. The supermarket needs to fix this problem, or remove the pre-pay option before they get into more loyalty schemes (as is happening in the next couple of months).

What experiences do you have of systems that were working really well only to turn on you at the last minute?

On signs, and the need to carry my camera everywhere

Recently, as part of my work, I have commented on a signage policy for my workplace. Signs fascinate me.  It’s a basic usability premise that simple objects should not need signs, but so often I see a sign that either isn’t working, or which (with a little thought) doesn’t need to exist in the first place. I really do need to carry my camera with me more often so that when I see signs like this I can take a picture, but in the meantime I will describe a couple of examples to you:

There are two ways ofr a sign to fail: not provide the information that is needed, or provide information which may be actively misleading to some or all of the population.  A library I frequent has only a male cleaner; as such when he cleans the women’s toilets he must hang a sign to alert them to his presence in the toilets.  The sign he uses reads “not in use”, and I suspect that this is supposed to mean that it is not in “circulation” (to borrow a liubrary metaphor, but hung on a library toilet door, it reads more like “vacant”.

Signs that don’t work are interesting, but signs that shouldn’t need to exist raise my usability analyst ire something awful.  Recently in a public building I noticed a photocopier with not one, but two signs on it letting users of the space know that the copier wasn’t working.  Now, it’s excellent that the people responsible for the building let users know the copier isn’t working, but two signs seems like overkill, and given that the copier is on wheels, why didn’t they just move it out of the public space?

Are there signs in your work or recreation spaces that make no sense?  I’ll leave you with one I found on flickr, taken by brionv:

sign says emergency exit and office--door is alarmed

The bottom sign reads "door is alarmed"

Human meaning in machine encoding? Thoughts on the semantic web

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, outlines his goals for the semantic web in the book he wrote about the development of the web.  I love his dream, that one day we would be able to ask “find out where a baseball game was played today and it was also 22C”.  I just don’t believe it is very likely to happen, for two reasons:

  • Effort
  • Natural language

The effort question is a really interesting one.  Somewhere along the line, someone has to expend the effort to make human semantic concepts in some way machine encoded, or, alternatively to answer their own questions.  For some, a certain level of machine encoding of the semantics they personally attach to an object (usually in the form of tags) is useful, either for some purpose of their own (information retrieval, for example), or for some social-capital reason (see a more detailed explanation of this here).  However, when a person has only a small amount of information to organise they are considerably less likely to add semantic information to it.

If there is no human being willing to expend the effort to add semantic information, there may be a human being willing to write computer programs to extract such information.  This will be more or less successful dependent on the kind of information to be extracted, and what it is to be extracted from, for example:

This is lesser effort than tagging, because it can be done once and used multiple times, but it is still effort that someone has to expend.

One further approach is, as in this paper (sorry, paywall), leveraging human-created tags to allow machines to do things that look like they understand the semantic web–so in the paper, for example, the author wrote a program that used the way people had combined tags on flickr to unsdersdtand what concrete things (for example tulips) were associated with abstract concepts (for example spring).

In any of the three cases human effort is required to generate the information needed for machines to do the kind of processing Berners-Lee suggests the semantic web ought to be able to do for us.  To actually get people to expend this effort requires them to have a special interest in it, either at a personal level (as with tagging) or a research interest (as with automatic extraction programs.  I think this effort is a major impediment to more widespread “semantic web” applications and uses.

The natural language question is also a barrier, and a much more usability centred barrier.  Even if we could get evertyhing tagged up, either by human hands or automatically, how people would then ask this semantic web to answer their questions is an open question.  glenn, an acquaintance of mine who works in the field (and like his name spelt wiht a lower case ‘g’) thinks that we need query languages, and I am inclined to agree.  If natural language searching on the free-text internet fails (paywall again, sorry), it will surely fail in any kind of structured environment.  Unfortunately, users are known to do poorly with Boolean search, and it is reasonable to expect that other query languages would porduce similarly bad results, so even if the web was tagged up, it may still be fairly difficult for the average user to ask the question Berners-Lee posed in his book.

I think tagging is great, because it imbues objects with personal meaning, and allows people to find things more easily.  I have yet to see evidence of a truly workable (and by implication usable) semantic web, though, and as such I don’t believe people will be able to answer questions about baseball games at 22C for some time to come. I also believe that even when it is possible to answer these soorts of questions, it will be not because of advanced tagging of web-pages, but more form advanced text processing by search engines–and that isn’t the semantic web, it’s search engine companies prioritising user experience.


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