On David Pogue’s newsletter today he talks about how poorly designed user experiences affect people. The title of the post is “It’s the Software, Not You“. He mentions a couple common user experiences with poorly designed, or mediocre interactions.
- An airline kiosk that asks the user to enter detailed flight information even after the user has swiped his credit card (Note: Probably a poorly thought out security measure)
- A taxi point of sale interaction that only allows the user to select set dollar amounts for tips no matter what the distance or quality of the ride (Note: $0 was not an option)
- The irritating Windows software installer wizard (Note: He suggests a fantastic solution)
This reminds me of the MOMA kiosk I mentioned in a blog post a while back that required users to make selections at the kiosk then go to the counter to finalize the purchase – isn’t the whole point of automating a process to avoid making people go to the counter?
All of the user experiences fail at two things:
- They don’t use information they already know, and instead rely on the user to make up for their ignorance/laziness
- They don’t understand that people don’t want to use software, they want to accomplish tasks
Every time I am asked to design an interaction, I pray I don’t forget that the goal is to, at the very least, make it easy for people to accomplish their goals and, at the very best, make it enjoyable. I have failed numerous times at designing experiences, but I hope I’m learning from my mistakes.
So I’ve read a lot of complaints, like this one, recently about Google’s launch of Knol. Jason Calcanis from Mahalo wrote a great post about Google becoming a content company that raises some excellent points about the potential affect it could have on startups and “Google-dependent businesses”. My first reaction to reading these posts is – what took you guys so long to see this, and really what’s the big deal?
The following issues are frequently mentioned:
- Google giving Knol’s unfair advantage in search results – I noticed that when Googling for “Knol” Wikipedia’s article came 3rd and Knol itself came 4th. Odd. The only advantage I saw was that the Knol folks bought the top ad slot. I would wager they actually had to budget some cash and compete to get that slot though. Take a look: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=knol&btnG=Search
- Regarding Pagerank specifically- Since when does Google release exactly how they calculate Pagerank? Oh and I don’t remember anyone complaining when Video Results from YouTube started appearing at the top of the page except for perhaps some video startups that no one cares about who are still living off of VC money.
- Regarding Publisher Competition – As far as I know, anyone can create a Knol, and monetize it. In fact, isn’t this just another place where content publishers can create awareness for their content and make money? Oh and Google hosts it for you, provides great tools for collaboration and publishing, and it’s free. Maybe now some non-technical folk will feel comfortable putting what they know on the Web. If all of your traffic and some of your revenue comes from Google (see Google dependent businesses), shouldn’t you either thank Google or engage in marketing alternatives? When it comes down to it, if you’re scared about losing traffic, do something about it.
- Google “becoming” a content company – Google is and always has been a publisher. Remember the lawsuits about Google publishing copyrighted material in search results? Now consider that Google runs YouTube, Blogger, Picassa, Maps, Orkut, Earth, DoubleClick, Adwords, Books, etc. Google has been a content publisher since day 1, but Google is not a content creator. Someone still needs to create the content in the first place. This gets into a whole other rant about why a whole lotta folk have to rethink their distribution methods. Basically, they should have been working on this since the invention of the Web, and if they haven’t they should go out of business.
- What about Wikipedia - I love Wikipedia. It contains the sum total of human knowledge and mis-knowledge to date. Of course there are some problems. Many domain experts don’t feel comfortable with it because anyone can edit, it hosts a ton of content that no one can make money on, they don’t like it when multiple articles address the same topic, and educators don’t trust it as a source. Knol seems to address those problems. We’ll see how it plays out. I think it’s a good idea to have some competition.
Some thoughts after trying to use Knol. It almost crashes my browser on every page load. I have no idea what they’re trying to load into the page, but it’s a bitch to browse. I never get search results for anything I’m interested in. It’s slow. It’s going to take a long time for it to catch up in content. I still haven’t seen a search result for a Knol on the first page of Google results other than when I searched explicitly for “Knol”.
\Yes, this is my second post in two days talking about Google. Yes, I am a fan. Yes, I don’t care how big the bandwagon is or even if they become an evil empire. Google is far and away the most useful company on the Web today.
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So, I bought my iPhone 3G the day it came out. The lines and heat were ridiculous, but I got lucky and was able to cut in line when two of my friends decided to give up, drop out of line, and go home. Even with being able to skip in front of a few hundred people I still waited at least three hours. Here are some of my observations on the phone and the process.
- Waited in line for hours but the activation process took all of 5 minutes. The whole time I was in line I was wondering why the Apple Store had employees standing outside and milling around instead of all hands on deck activating phones. It would have been nice to see them processing requests outside basically walking around with a bag of 3G’s, a tablet (if Apple made a tablet) and a credit card reader selling/activating phones. They could have at least had a VIP line for existing iPhone customers. Oh and when is someone going to build a credit card reader addon and point-of-sale software for the iPhone/Touch?
- It was so hot one of my friends who dropped out of line was absolutely exhausted. Waiting in the sun ruined her weekend.
- Met the CEO of a startup. We talked shop – user experience, how to make content actionable, etc. He’s in closed beta right now so I’ll save commentary on his stuff till a later date.
- I got a black 16gig. I like the plastic better than the metal, and it fits in my pocket better. I just wish Incase would hurry up with their Slider case for it.
- I now have 1700 songs and 1 movie on the phone with an assortment of apps. Oh yea, there is about 3gigs of free space left for all the pictures I don’t take.
- The voice quality and volume is way better. No doubt about it. Although I will say voice gets a wee bit “peachcanny”.
- 3G is a ton faster than Edge. It’s not even close. I’ve actually mistaken my 3G connection for slow wifi in some cases. I know this isn’t the same for everyone, but the coverage in NY isn’t bad. The 3G also has a significant range increase on detecting wifi signals.
- Battery life is about the same. I charge just about every day. I don’t mind because I use the internet and apps on the thing constantly. The only sure-fire battery killers are games like Super Monkey Ball. I’m on wifi most of the time I’m browsing and I think all of my settings are close to default, although I do check email every 15 min.
- Favorite apps so far are: Shazam, Pandora Radio, Twitteriffic, and Urbanspoon.
- Least favorite apps are: Where, Loopt, WordPress (cause I can’t get it to work), and AIM.
- App updates for Facebook’s app and Pandora have definitely helped.
- Syncing takes forever because it decides to back up the phone every time. I’m sure I can figure out a way to turn this feature off if there is one, but I don’t have to sync nearly as often anymore.
- Some things are slower. It seems like typing has hiccups – doesn’t matter what is being typed or in which app. Contacts are slowish, and every once in a while the sound effects don’t make noise. I am starting to think it has something to do with how I hold my phone and the proximity sensor not the actual phone though.
- It’s crashed four times since I got it. AIM crashed it twice, Super Monkey Ball crashed it once, and Facebook once. No data loss that I know of.
Let’s see. I think that’s all I got right now. If you have any questions post a comment. Oh yea, I definitely like it much better than my previous iPhone, and I’m actually surprised to hear myself say it.
So I just took a couple minutes to check out Cuil, because Techcrunch can’t stop posting about it. Not too shabby for an early version. They need to work on their speed. I searched for “shoes” and it took quite a while for the site to render. The 3 column layout makes my head hurt. It’s tough to scan quickly. A friend once told me that there’s a lot of evidence to support single column vertical list layouts for results because they’re much easier to scan. I believe her because she worked at Y! and because scanning staggered blocks of text w/ images in multi-column layouts makes my head hurt. One last thing on Cuil – their categorization system is pretty cool, but I wonder if clicking and discovery what’s in those categories might be too much work for some folks. See: “Satisficing”
I’m a search user, and in this case, I’m probably closer to being a typical user than a power user. When I use Google, I never use Advanced Search or fancy-schmancy queries. I just type in what I think I want, hit the button, and see what I get. If I don’t get what I think I want, I try again. It usually works. The main limitations being:
- I need to be looking for something, and I need to know something about what I’m looking for.
- If the perfect search result isn’t indexed and I’ve never seen it before, it functionally does not exist for me. For people who use search engines as their primary gateway into the Web, this ends up making their engine of choice the canonical source for all things Web related. Something anyone working on the next big search innovation should remember.
Now on to the not-so-secret search secrets that mention in the title of this post.
I guess there are two ways to approach search. One way is to position your search as a service. In real world terms this would be similar to seeking advice from an expert like a travel agent, interior designer, matchmaker, personal shopper, etc. Some cool things about search as service are:
- People usually don’t mind waiting for it or paying for it, because they wait and pay for it in the real world.
- Search as service is a filter not a sort. Presumably you wouldn’t need to even attempt to index the entire Web, you just need to know the best results for the given search, and it’s likely that only a handful are necessary. The best search as service would likely return 1 perfect result.
- You get to have an opinion.
Some uncool things about search as service are:
- The amount of content and rate of change on the Web makes it extremely difficult to become an expert. Of course the work it takes to become and maintain expert status is what people pay for. This is probably why you see the search as service model used primarily for limited scope search. Makes me think of sites like Expedia, Kayak, eHarmony, Match, Hotels.com, etc (wow a lot of IAC companies in that list, huh?).
- You have to convince people that you are an expert. Jeeves tried it but just couldn’t pull it off. He has since been fired.
- Service industry folks know that you can’t make everyone happy all the time. For search as service this means that you’re likely to find people who just don’t like your expert opinion. This will reduce your user base.
The other would be position yourself as a utility. By utility I mean a utility like the phone company, power company, etc. This is the direction most traditional search engines go in. The cool things about search as utility are:
- The focus is on being useful, not “right”. As long as you can return useful results you’re in good shape, and of course, the more useful the results the better you’ll do. It is different than being an expert because you don’t need to have your own opinion.
- If people find you useful, they’ll come back often. You can monetize people who come back often.
- If done right, you can become like Google, MSN or Y! and become your user’s canonical source for all things Web.
- You have to know one hell of a lot about the Web. You’ve got to do everything in your power to know about as much Web content as you possibly can. You never know what people will be looking for, and to be useful you’ve got to do your best to give them something.
- As a utility, people take you for granted. You exist to be used. People want to use you to get to somebody else. That sucks, and there’s ultimately an ego issue some companies can’t get over.
- You have a responsibility to be fair. People trust you like they trust the water company. You can’t poison them with ads or artificially manipulate results to serve your financial interest. As soon as you do you risk losing the trust of your users.
Google just happens to be the best at it for a few reasons:
- Google is fast. It’s damn fast. It’s so fast that many people use it multiple times a day and don’t even realize it.
- Google has indexed a lot of pages, to the point where if it exists on the Web and Google doesn’t know about it, it’s probably not worth looking at. – even my blog is indexed. Google has become the canonical source for many folks the way AOL was way back in the day.
- Google’s business model and their features mesh better than any other Web business. Google does everything in it’s power to send you away from Google as fast as they can with the hope that you will come back and do it again. Their ads are performance based, so the combination of people leaving quickly and coming back often makes for more clicks on ads and more revenue for them and their advertisers. This is different than MS or Y! who both, I believe, sell impression-based ads. This means they make more money by keeping you around. Can you see the problem in that if you’re supposed to be ego-less and unbiased? Note: There is some debate about potential Google bias in results since the launch of Knol last week. Use your search engine of choice and search for “is Google a content company Knol” to see what I mean.
OK. So that’s my big long post of the month. I’m not an expert at search. I just use it a lot. So take it as you like it.
So if you read my earlier post about my troubles with my apartment and you actually care, here’s a quick apartment status update: The management company hooked us (roommate and myself) up with a new apartment in the same building, and it’s actually not a bad place (knock on wood). We’ve been slowly, repeat SLOWLY, been moving our stuff in over the past week and half. Today we got most of the big stuff moved in excluding the couch and TV. Tomorrow is the final push to get everything moved in. I’m hoping to be done sometime early in the afternoon, so I can enjoy at least a little bit of a weekend. All volunteers are welcome.
Notice that I haven’t been writing much anymore? Want to know why? Doesn’t matter cause I’m going to tell you anyway. Over the past few weeks I’ve made a concerted effort to use Twitter as much as possible in order to figure out wtf the fuss is all about. That said, I still don’t know the answer other than it’s kinda cool to have a list of “followers” who actually end up reading my 140 character blasts of nonsense.
What I have learned from numerous blog posts about Twitter is that according to anonymous blog-comment experts “Rail doesn’t scale.” I also learned from those same posts that there are thousands and thousands of developers and “software architects” who know everything there is to know about scaling database driven web applications with complex messaging and frequent user interaction. This second point was a revelation to me because I didn’t think there were anywhere near that many experts on scaling on the Web. I mean it really makes me wonder why all these tech companies big and small have such a hard time finding qualified devs, or why companies like Facebook, Google (yes even Google), MySpace, Amazon, and Apple have difficult times keeping their sites up and performing all the time. Next time I go searching for an expert developer, I’m going right to Techcrunch’s comments.
Note: I listed those particular companies because I’ve personally seen errors on sites run by all of them more than once.