Eating one’s own UX

Lou Rosenfeld, who is taking the contrarian move of starting a publishing company devoted to user experience books, has raised the question of how to improve the UX of technical books.

Hallelujah! One of the chagrin-inducing aspects of my iSchool experience this year was being assigned to read a usability book that was itself unusable.

Perhaps once he gets this worked out for his own books he could create a niche doing UX consulting for the publishing industry…

Reviving application-based research in computer science

Ed Vielmetti has blogged about his attempt to find good research papers in what he calls “experimental computer science” for a conference to be held in 2007:

Experimental computer science generates “artifacts”, things that you can use and touch and see and experience directly. The most famous example of the field would have to be Doug Englebart’s 1968 demo of his new mouse. Englebart had written some papers about the mouse for peer-reviewed journals, but that did not get his work wide attention. It was putting together a demo and a video that showed the system (not just the schematic) in action and demonstrating what it could do that made it real for people.

(There’s fascinating historic footage of Engelbart’s mouse demo at Stanford’s Mouse Site.)

Ed’s criticism of computer science research resonates with me. I got my undergraduate CS degree in 1984. Since then I increasingly have the sense that if I were to return to a CS graduate program, I’d spend my time doing proofs about algorithms. Personally I’d be more interested in doing research that involved building stuff. (Not building enough stuff is my chief criticism of the non-CS graduate program I did eventually enter, but that’s another story.)

What I want to know is, is there a better name for what Ed wants than “experimental computer science”? Are these “applied” papers, papers about “systems”, “how-we-done-it-good” papers, N-letter acronym or YABA papers? There must be a buzzword that the authors of “micropapers” use to disparage their dwindling competition.

Shadows coming to light

At last the place I’ve been working this summer is ready for its product to be blogged about. It’s called Shadows and you could say it’s another entry in the social bookmarking arena, but with some important additional features. Shadows not only supports tagging bookmarks for recall and discovery, but also creates a discussion space for every URL on the web. In a way it’s a bit reminiscent of the old Third Voice idea, but instead of an overlay of graffiti, Shadows adds a blog-like comments feature to any page on demand.

Shadows is in an early beta stage and there are a bunch of additional features in the pipeline — UI improvements, RSS feeds, tag clouds, a Flickr-like “friends” feature, an API. But the core functionality is up if you’d like to take a look: www.shadows.com.

Shadows

My role includes some things I can’t blog about but I can say I’ve been doing interesting IA-ish work on helping define the feature set. I’ve also been recruiting and supporting a crew of beta testers. If you try it out and have comments or suggestions, by all means let me know.

PlaceSite: social network with a sense of place

PlaceSite creates a local community site for coffeeshops and other physical locations frequented by WiFiers, with presence indicators to tell your friends when you’re in the house.

According to Wired News it’s a new project by Sean Savage of FlashMob fame. It’s currently being tested in some cafes in San Francisco. The intention is to have a free version for cafes and a more fully-featured commercial version for conferences.

It will be interesting to see whether there are characteristics of some cafe-based communities which make it catch on in some locations and not others. I would think that the size of the community, the prevalence of WiFi use, and perhaps the lifestyle habits and average travel time of community members would make a big difference. The cafes I frequent in Austin are small enough that a quick scan of a couple of rooms is enough to tell you whether your friends are there. On the other hand, if the presence indicators are visible from offsite and if the community is based on foot traffic, I could imagine popping over to the cafe if I was at home and noticed that a friend was there.

And then there’s the Lovegetty idea: let strangers tag their interests so you know when someone shows up who’d be up for a game of chess (or even something more, uh, strenuous).

I haven’t dug into it far enough to know which of these features it actually incorporates.

Unknown knowns and knowledge management

A link from the ever-fascinating Language Log took me to the ever-enigmatic k’alebøl‘s post on Rumsfeld, Bush and the Swedenborg conspiracy.

In it he discusses Donald Rumsfeld’s famous fascination with known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Now, I have my differences with Donald Rumsfeld, but I’ve never understood the ridicule he’s gotten from some quarters on this point. To me it seems like sound epistemology and an extremely useful thing for a man in charge of a war to be be aware that there are threats he doesn’t know to be afraid of and questions he doesn’t know to ask. In fact, my criticism of Rumsfeld’s policies could hinge on my belief that he has failed to take his own advice.

Anyway, I had noticed the same thing that k’alebøl did: one of the cells in Rumsfeld’s contingency table is missing. Rumsfeld doesn’t address unknown knowns.

From the Knowledge Management Systems class I took this spring I gather that KM consultants see that cell as their bread and butter. In their jargon it is called “tacit knowledge” (which differs somewhat from the use of the term in psychology). The KM expert’s job is to help you capture tacit knowledge, tame it, burn your brand onto its rump, and move it into the Known Knowns corral.

(At which point you can fire the staff who knew things you didn’t know they knew and move operations offshore to where people know only what you tell them to.)

Del.icio.us gets tastier

Why didn’t I install this ages ago? Yoz Grahame’s del.icio.us search plugin for Firefox. Now I’m just two clicks, the typing of a search term, and one retrieval away from my bookmarks. Sweet. My outboard brain just got 100% more efficient.

Perhaps more significantly, del.icio.us has a new tagging interface. In the past, Joshua Schachter had expressed a reluctance to taint users’ immediate intuition of the best tags for an item by giving them too much guidance from their own or others’ past tagging behavior. He seems to have backed off from that position some: the new del.icio.us tagging form gives you tag recommendations, then shows you a low-fi heatmap of your complete tag list with the recommendations highlighted, as well as the most popular tags used by others. The form is nicely dynamic with a whiff of RIA and ajax about it, too. A great improvement in functionality next to the multi-step process that used to be necesssary to tag an item then look back and see how your usage compared with that of others. Although as with the rest of del.icio.us, it’s unlikely to be clear to naive users quite what’s going on.

del.icio.us tagging form

I feel gratified because this is just the direction I was hoping to see tagging interfaces move in in the not particularly earth-shaking paper I wrote for a class this spring (“Tags: What are They Good For?“). Now let’s see whether Schachter or others find ways to make tagging easier still.

Vlogging == slogging

Chandrasutra has posted some thoughts on video blogging , to which Tony Walsh replied with a screed in the comments:

[Vlogging] robs me of granular control over my information. Text is somewhat random-access, and easier to skim. Video and audio are more sequential and harder to breeze through. With video and audio, I am at the mercy of the media creator. With text, I’m the boss. …

Then there’s the fact that video footage isn’t very search-friendly without spending time manually-annotating the footage or providing a transcript.

Hear, hear. Video and audio are too damned real-time.

Of course there is inherently visual and/or auditory content which calls for multimedia. And I suppose that vlogging is a good thing if it empowers some couch potatoes to become active producers of video culture rather than passive consumers. But I see vlogging as a special case rather than as the natural next step in the development of blogging.

Which reminds me of another semi-curmudgeonly point I’ve been meaning to make on the related topic of podcasting.

Has there been a semantic shift in the term “podcasting”? When I first heard of it I thought it referred to the practice of aggregating audio in the form of RSS feeds and automating its delivery to your MP3 player. I understood it largely as a way to time-shift your online audio listening — TiVo for npr.org and bbc.co.uk, you might say. And it was a natural fit with MP3 bloggers and other aggregators of online music.

But now I hear podcasting used to mean “audio blogging”, with a number of people working on turning their daily thoughts into audio feeds. That’s a fine experiment, but unless they’re producing content which is most compelling in spoken-word form, I’d probably rather just read it.

So — did podcasting mean audio blogs all along, or is that a more recent development?

After the publishers walk the plank, will the APA and MLA be far behind?

It’s the time of the semester when grad students get grumpy and it’s showing in our blogs. Elsewhere I’ve laughed a bitter laugh over Laura K and SCIgen. Meanwhile Badger wonders how much of herself she’d have to give up to make it in academia: would she have to mute her feminism and all the intense personal writing she does, not only in her blog but in the poetry zines and literary translations she’s been putting out for years just for the pleasure of it?

It looks to me like it will be a long while before blogging counts for anything at tenure time. However, I wonder whether the open access movement will bring that day closer, or at least reduce the distance between academic writing and blogging.

The stated goal of open access is to counter the greed of the scholarly publishing industry, which makes academic institutions buy their own work back at outrageously inflated prices, and to reduce the delays imposed by the editorial process, when nowadays innovation operates at Internet speeds. In some disciplines bottom-up e-print and e-journal systems are well on their way to displacing the for-profit journals, and in others they’re just getting started, but the trend is clear.

Once academic publishing is in the hands of the people doing the writing, will the reforms stop there? Will researchers accustomed to reading and writing research blogs in a more intimate tone, and where a hyperlink is of more immediate value than a formal bibliographic citation, not want to do the same when they write for peer review? Might people refuse to write in the stuffy and citation-heavy form of academic culture?

If that happened would we all get dumber (no more need to substantiate our assertions with references)? Or would we all get more creative (no more APA or MLA style, no more passive voice, no more stating the obvious and omitting the personal)? I’m not sure. But my guess is that pharmacologists and engineers would still find ways to substantiate their claims (which really live in the data, not the references, anyway — when was the last time a bridge collapsed because of a missing bibliography?) and people working in more free-form disciplines might appreciate the opportunity to be freer in form.

To pave or not to pave the cowpaths

In Eric Meyer’s SXSW talk on Emergent Semantics (slides, notes) he referred disparagingly to the design adage, “Don’t pave the cowpaths.” He compared it to the useful practice of seeing where people walk and building sidewalks to match.

But there’s an important distinction between paving the cowpaths and paving the footpaths: people aren’t cows. The cowpath metaphor comes from the common urban history in which rural cowpaths evolved into city streets. As anyone who has ever driven in a city that developed that way knows, the result is picturesque but unusable. The problem is that cows don’t want to go where people want to go, cows don’t navigate the way people navigate, and furthermore cows don’t have the form factor of the vehicles that people want to drive in cities. Paving paths made by people for the use of people is a very different proposition from paving the paths made by cows for use by cars.

This is mostly a quibble about metaphors, but it does have some implications for Meyer’s subject of implementing microformats in XHTML in order to build a “lower-case semantic web” from the bottom up. Once microformats have caught on, will they get us somewhere we still want to go? And more pointedly, does the microformat concept scale up to a system that is coherent and usable once there are a zillion of them?

(By the way, paving real-world footpaths is an idea to be used with care. There are many places where foot traffic completely obliterates the landscape, and if you paved them all you’d have nothing but a parking lot. The solution is to carefully study the footpaths, pave some of them, and plant hedges to protect the grass. Whether that metaphor can be applied to online technologies is an exercise left to the reader.)

Jobs per capita map at Indeed

Indeed.com, the nifty job search site I blogged about not long ago, has now supplemented their Jobgeist with a map of job openings per capita in major employment markets:

Indeed.com map of jobs per capita

Austin looks pretty good, especially compared to the rest of the CST states. What surprises me is that major centers on the east and west coasts are such standouts, fiscal crises and the cost of living notwithstanding.

Now if Indeed just offered a way to correlate this with a ratio of salary to housing price, the job hunter trying to choose a geographical target would be all set. (Note to Rony at Indeed: I guess by now you’re familiar with the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie principle…)

Prison, Queer Eye, Vygotsky and iSchool

My friend Mr. M, having walked out of an abusive situation as a newbie teacher in an inner-city middle school, is now teaching high school in a prison and blogging about it. I have to admire his bravery, both for taking the job and for letting the world know what it’s like. I only hope he doesn’t get dooced.

There are so many gems in his blog that I want to link to all of them. There’s his use of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as a teaching tool — in a prison! Truly the forces of homophobia are in retreat, despite what the red-staters say. There’s his link to an Onion article straight from his first job, “Teach For America Chews Up, Spits Out Another Ethnic Studies Major.” There’s his idea to produce videotaped read-alouds by people who look and sound like his students, rather than their white Middle-American teacher. (Any amateur video producers in the New York area want to help him with that? Or help him webcast the results?)

But what prompts me to post about him here, rather than in my other blog, is some of the things that he and his commenters have to say about teaching methods. One of them asserts that teaching should be boiled down to the Vygotskyan method:

1. I do, you watch.
2. I do, you help.
3. You do, I help.
4. You do, I watch.

There’s not really a lot of doing or watching in the program I’m in — with the exception of public speaking, which may be the most useful specific skill we will all share by the time we’re done. Is there a point at which learning by doing becoming less important than learning about doing? Or is that a classic fallacy of advanced education?

This relates to an interesting discussion of whether learning specific tools should be part of our curriculum (that link is the tip of an offline iceberg), but more on that another day.

SxSWi warmup: Austin IA cocktail this Thursday

If you can’t wait for the schmoozefest that is SxSWi to begin, here’s a warmup:

What: Austin Information Architecture Cocktail and Networking Event
When: Thursday, 3/10/2005, 6:00-8:00 PM
Where: Vivo Cocina, 2015 Manor Rd.
Who: Everyone is invited. Sponsored by the UT Austin student chapter of ASIS&T.

As for SxSWi itself, don’t forget to read David Nunez’s essential guide.

RIAs and the death of the page (rumors greatly exaggerated)

I’m in my final morning of the Information Architecture Summit in Montreal. One of the costs of staying in a cheap off-site hotel was that I didn’t have ready access to my computer (not wanting to lug both a PowerBook and the conference proceedings with me everywhere) and so haven’t blogged about the conference in the way I’d hoped. Maybe I’ll catch up, maybe not. I’ll start with a session for which I have notes at hand, the one on Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) by Dennis Schleicher, Jennifer King, Tara Diachenko, Pat Callow, Gene Smith, Livia Labate, and Todd Warfel.

RIAs are web apps which transcend the page-by-page model of web design (“the death of the page” was one slogan batted about at the session) and are built on platforms like Flash, Ajax and Laszlo. Advantages of RIAs include smoother transitions based on a wider variety of user inputs and more nuanced responses than the click-and-load model; lower latency because the app can anticipate user actions and pre-load what it will need next; and built-in media support that avoids the gotchas of external players. Some RIAs you may have seen include Gmail, Google Maps, Map of the Market, and Newsmap.

A couple of the presenters showed how they used RIAs in recent commercial applications and the rest talked about the potential and challenges to IA presented by RIAs. They saw the challenges as centering on matters like how to design cinematic elements like plot arc in an IA context and how to create wireframes with dynamic elements or some other method with which to communicate specs to developers. To further the discussion they’ve registered riaia.com, yet to be populated with content.

I have to say that I’m skeptical, not about the potential for RIAs but about the idea that their advantages exceed their disadvantages by enough for the “death of the page” to be remotely in consideration. One obvious problem is that the richest platform for RIAs, Flash, is proprietary and closed. Another which I asked about in the session but which wasn’t seriously addressed was what pageless systems mean for functionality like linking to, saving, and bookmarking content (to which in retrospect I would add harvesting, searching, syndicating and semantically marking content). The only item in this category of problems that got much discussion was how RIAs complicate web metrics (how to log and crunch stats on non-click-based interactions).

I find it curious that the panelists’ view of the challenges presented by RIAs was so IA-centered and not at all user-centered. I’m sure IAs will invent the vocabulary they need to talk to developers and if it means the death of the wireframe, then so be it. What matters most is what RIAs mean for users, particularly the loss of the affordances (see my shiny new usability vocabulary!) provided by the page model.

Taking my skeptic’s hat back off, there’s whizbang stuff going on in the RIA field, especially what Google is doing with Ajax. I hope the panelists do get riaia.com off the ground as a place to keep up with it.

DEVONthink / schoolthink

My hunt for a PDF-wrangling tool continues. DEVONthink is a personal knowledge management app for Mac OS X with which you can maintain a collection of text files, PDFs, HTML and XML files, bookmarks, images and so on. Its big claim to fame is associative searching: select a document and it will show you the others which are related to it. The details of the search mechanism are unexplained, but my guess is it’s a form of latent semantic indexing.

DEVONthink got a lot of attention recently when science writer Steven Johnson wrote an NYT piece about it and similar tools, crediting them with helping him come up with the ideas that go into his work. But in two subsequent blog posts he convinced me that his techniques are not generalizable. He had a research assistant to copy quotes and marginalia from his reading into DEVONthink, and he says directly that its success depended on the quality and granularity of what he saved: “most of the entries are in a sweet spot where length is concerned: between 50 and 500 words. If I had whole eBooks in there, instead of little clips of text, the tool would be useless”. Since I need a tool to manage larger, still undigested documents (i.e., PDFs I haven’t read yet), it wouldn’t work its magic for me. Furthermore, DEVONthink only supports a single hierarchical organizational structure without tags or bibliographic metadata. So I’m still looking for a personal library application.

There — I wrote in two paragraphs what it took me eight pages to do for a class assignment this week. I’m having fun at school, but there’s something about the artificial nature of school assignments which makes me feel I’m doing far from my best work. The two contexts I’m used to working in, on the job and in casual (though not necessarily frivolous) online writing, feel very different. They encourage getting to the point, pruning the decision tree, and writing in a tone suited to the job at hand rather than the stilted mock-scholarly voice that intrudes in my head when I’m writing a “paper”. One of my challenges will be to get my own voice back and to get control over the subject matter — if something’s not worth my or the reader’s time, why put either of us through it?

And in case you missed it, I am enjoying school. Class is still a pleasure, and even the occasionaly painful assignments (and the train wreck of a schedule by which they pile up in clusters on my calendar!) give me a sense of having survived an ordeal once they’re over. The bit of dissatisfaction that’s creeping into this experiment has to do with the concern that I may, as Twain put it, let my schooling interfere with my education.

IA Summit and SxSW

This weekend I’ll be at the Information Architecture Summit in Montreal and then next weekend I’ll be back in Austin for South by Southwest Interactive. If you can read this and you’ll be in either place, let’s get together.

Going meta on metadata

In this week’s Organizing and Access to Information class I fear I steered the conversation into a detour on the subject of metadata. The prof’s introduction to the concept began straightforwardly enough — metadata is data about data, e.g. author, title, publication date, etc. But then as his examples got more complex he began to call things metadata that I would have considered part of the data itself. I don’t have his slides in front of me but I think it started when he put chapter 1, page 1 of Pride and Prejudice on the screen and said that its structure — chapters, paragraphs, etc. — was also metadata. That surprised me, and we spent probably far too much class time working on why. (I feel guilty but not too guilty — I kept offering to drop it, but other people had questions and comments, too.)

It boiled down to this: in my naive interpretation, metadata is information that applies to the “information object” as a whole, or is extrinsic to it in some way. I’d call anything integrated with the meat of the object “data”, not “metadata”. That includes structure and layout information — the information represented in typography and layout on a printed page, or in ordinary inline markup on the web, etc. Of course we can abstract structure away from presentation but that doesn’t mean that the structure is no longer part of the work. Where Jane Austen chose to put her paragraph breaks is as much a part of the novel as the words she chose to put inside them. There were some interesting examples presented in class, such as whether the abbreviation and typography conventions used to identify the parts of speech in a dictionary are metadata. I argued that whether represented through an italic n. or an XML <part-of-speech> entity, the part of speech is an integral part of the content. Or in multimedia terms, the string of bits representing an audio or video stream is the data and it doesn’t make sense to speak of the volume level or amount of cowbell as being a separate thing called metadata.

The prof worked hard to explain his model and I was probably just being thickheaded not to get it. On reflection I see that the concepts of “data” and “metadata” are conventions and where to draw the line is a matter of utility; if it is helpful in a certain setting to call internal markup (or its pre-digital equivalents of layout and typography) “metadata” then so be it. Also, there are many times when it’s good for information to live in both places: you can hear the cowbell in the audio stream, and you may also want an access point in the catalog of your music library which says “Cowbell: track 6890691, timepoint 1:37″.

But I don’t think I’m alone in my naive model. The very next day’s reading assignment was chapter 3 of Erik Ray’s Learning XML, where he defines the term: “Metadata is information about the document that is not part of the flow.” What I’m wondering now is whether these diverging definitions have any consequences beyond occasional confusion.

Managing PDFs with iPapers

Revisiting the topic of how to manage a personal collection of PDFs, Don Turnbull turned up the interesting program iPapers by Toshihiro Aoyama. It manages PDFs in an iTunes-like interface:

It’s a nifty program but it does have a couple of limitations. It’s intended for use with the medical bibliographic service PubMed, so incorporating PubMed articles is a simple matter of dragging and dropping, and iPapers will then retrieve the bibliographic metadata from PubMed much as iTunes retrieves track listings. For non-PubMed articles, though, the import process is much less straightforward. An obvious improvement would be to make drag and drop work for any PDF and to pop up the dialogue for hand-editing bibliographic data by default when the program can’t retrieve it from PubMed.

Even better would be to support plugins so third parties could write interfaces to PubMed’s counterparts in other fields, perhaps to CiteSeer or Google Scholar. The hardest part there might be determining unique identifiers by which to do the lookup.

Another limitation is iPapers’ model of metadata. It is strictly oriented toward journal articles, so books, handouts, PDF archives of webpages, etc. fall outside its scope. Maybe more importantly, iPapers doesn’t currently allow for user-definable fields or tags. I’m hoping for a tool which will let me sort PDFs by topics, courses, and my own writing projects.

But it’s new and hopefully Toshihiro Aoyama is still adding features. Check it out and send him your encouragement.

Social networking vs. just the apps, ma’am

A new baby was born in my extended family this weekend and I was asked to recommend an easy way for someone without a personal website to share photos. I of course suggested Flickr and the designated photographer started uploading baby pics. But then a few more requirements emerged and I realized that maybe Flickr, wonderful as it is, wasn’t the right choice for this application, so with a heavy heart I sent her on to Ofoto.

Why the change of course? Because despite the intrinsically social nature of photo trading, these people don’t really want a social network system. The requirement that they omitted from the initial conversation is that they want the baby pics to be private. Fine, Flickr can do that, you just have to mark your photos as visible only to friends and family — and then your friends and family have to join Flickr. Ofoto, if I understood their intro right, is perfectly happy just to host an album and let you send out a URL and a password for viewing it. Ofoto’s approach is asymmetrical and not especially social, but sometimes you don’t want to invite people to join with you in creating a beautiful virtual world. Sometimes all you want is a dumb app.

I’m sure there are lessons to be learned here, but it’s late and I still have homework to do so I’ll save them for another day.

Neuglygism

Too many people have been decrying the word folksonomy for me to link to them here. Personally I think folksonomy is quite cute, but it drives me crazy anyway because it implies that a folksonomy is a taxonomy. In fact it’s nothing of the kind: a taxonomy is by definition hierarchical while a folksonomy is all about overlapping categories.

However, in one of the texts we’re reading for a KM course I found an absolutely horrendous word:

Techknowledgy.

Meaning technology as applied to knowledge management. That’s so ugly it’s beautiful.

Personal KM: How do you store journal articles?

[Repurposed from a class blog. Sorry if you see this twice.]

I’m now squirreling away the PDFs of papers that I download for iSchool and once I got into the low double digits I realized that I really need a system. I haven’t found a good one yet. Anybody else?

For starters I’m trying to rename them to something logical (Norman-1993-ThingsThatMakeUsSmart.pdf, Markman-2001-Thinking.pdf).

But beyond that I need to keep them organized (1) in an inbox of assignments to be read and (2) with the courses for which they were assigned. I could also use a way to group them (3) by papers I’m writing. I’ve been bitten by the recent fad for (4) del.icio.us-style tags, so that would be nice. Since book chapters are often scanned without a title page an ideal system would (5) attach them to whatever I’ve got that resembles a standard bibliographic citation. And (6) any system I come up with should scale up and be portable for longer-term use when the semester or indeed iSchool are things of the past.

I could probably do all of the above except for (5) with aliases: put everything in a single folder and drag aliases into separate folders for each course, paper I’m writing, and topical tag. But that sounds pretty klunky, in part because keeping a lot of Finder windows open is problematic on a 12″ laptop.

So what are other people using?