Usability Rant – Searching the Web for Documents, and saving them locally

I spent much of the morning (as I frequently do on weekends) doing research on a topic which has caught my interest through the week. I use a number of sources – sometimes just a web search, often a more targeted search like ACM’s or IEEE’s digital libraries. Usually, I do not read the documents I find right away. I like to search, find a significant number of interesting papers, and then I transfer the documents to my Tablet where I can read them, mark them up, and take notes.

This morning I was searching one of the digital libraries (I will not say which one, because I do not think my issue is with a specific library, as much as with the whole web), and saving the documents out to a sub-folder in my Documents folder under Windows Vista. So, the sequence of actions was like this:

  1. Perform a keyword search on the topic of interest
  2. Start looking at the list of hits presented 10 at a time (like almost all web search – I have already talked about how much I hate this model)
  3. I click on the available PDF to view it, which opens another browser window (Rant #1: I cannot right-click and save this document because the link does not point at the actual PDF, but to some sort of delivery system).
  4. In the new window, I am asked to authenticate myself for this content, even though I have already authenticated when signing in to the document library site (this is Rant #2).
  5. Having re-authenticated, I finally get to see the document (in the latest Abobe Reader UI – which I am not too fond of either – maybe it will grow on me).
  6. I click the button to save a copy of this PDF, and a File Save dialog pops up. (Rant #3: Every time I go to save, it defaults to my Documents folder, as opposed to remembering where I saved the last dozen or so documents. Rant #4: Where ever the focus is in the File Save dialog, it is NOT in the list of documents and folders – so I start spinning my mouse wheel to scroll down and find the folder it should have defaulted to in the first place, only to notice nothing is moving, so I have to click in the list box, and then start scrolling. Rant #5: Wouldn’t be nice to have a button somewhere, similar to the Save and Save As buttons, but which allowed you to “Save this to the last place I saved stuff and where I have been saving stuff for an hour”, in one click?) 
  7. About once every 5 or 6 saves, for some reason it DOES remember what folder I was saving to, which is a good thing, but because it is not consistent, it further interrupts the rhythm of my work. (this is Rant #6)
  8. Periodically as I am going through the search results (in that annoying “10 at a time” list), I will click to view a document and once again be prompted to authenticate, presumably because my session has expired or something. (Rant #7: This should not happen. I have not been away from my keyboard, and I have not paused my work in anyway. The session time-out should detect that I have been active all this time, and should reset. I should not have to repeatedly re-authenticate.)

Admittedly, these are all minor issues. Individually, they would seem not even worth talking about. Together, however, they destroy the overall experience of what I am doing. The destroy my train of thought. They force me to break out of thinking about WHAT I am doing, and think about HOW I am doing it. They waste my time, a fraction of a second at a time. And they annoy the crap out of me!

The sad thing is that this is not an isolated experience. This is the norm, rather than the exception. The computers and software upon which we have come to depend, and which are supposed to make our lives easier, on a frequent and consistent basis, rudely interrupt us with stupid questions and inconsistent behaviour.

There is constant talk in the technology world about “the next big thing”. I, personally, would be thrilled if the “next big thing” were a concerted effort by the technology community to make the current big thing WORK PROPERLY!

Another interesting article on an Electric Vehicle

Zero Motorcycles cranks out whisper quiet electric bike – Engadget

 This is another interesting concept. Unfortunately, I have a problem with the whole concept of electric cars – at least with ones with batteries which need to be charged from the electric power grid. In terms of a solution to our energy problems, or to global warming, these really make no sense whatsoever. All they are doing is moving the problem from one place (vehicles) to another place (the power grid), where the environmental impact is potentially as bad or worse. If even a small percentage of our vehicles were switched to electric, the impact on the power grid would be enormous.

While I admire the idea behind this effort, I believe the environmental advantages are largely illusory.

Brainstorming is a bad idea?

Looking at the quote on Marc Andreessen’s blog post Why brainstorming is a bad idea, I am forced to concede to the evidence presented, even though I am a big fan of group brainstorming. I wonder, though, if similar studies/experiments have been performed using what I refer to as “structured brainstorming”, meaning (to me) group brainstorming using tools/techniques/games designed to drive idea generation? I wonder if the results would differ?

The Future of the Tablet PC (does it have one?)

Reading a post by Loren Heiny, Will the Tablet PC find a new advocate?, got me thinking (again) about the future of the Table PC – more worrying about whether the Tablet even has a future. I am worried that because of the complete mess Microsoft has made of marketing the tablet platform, without Bill’s continued visible support behind it, the Tablet will either disappear, or be relegated to a very narrow niche product.

I think I have mentioned (over and over) that I am a big fan of the Tablet PC. I think that in many respects it is far more innovative than anything to come out of Apple in the last 10 years or so. And in terms of the industry as a whole, it has opened up both a hardware and potential software market well beyond Microsoft (take note of that all you Apple fans – what has the ultimate closed source community at Apple produced that has benefited any business other than Apple?).

The problem now, of course, is that the Tablet is old news. It is 5 years old, has not lived up to early predictions that soon “every laptop sold will be a Tablet” (though in real terms has been reasonably successful), there is a shortage of really “tablet specific” or even “tablet aware” applications (notable exceptions of course are OneNote and MindJet MindManager). It has really missed the boat on the hype cycle it could have generated. And now, the primary champion of the platform, Bill himself, is no longer involved in day-to-day operations at Microsoft.

So, whither the Tablet PC? Loren makes a number of good points in the referenced article – and I will not repeat them here (hey, go read the original!). I agree whole-heartedly that the fact that those of us who support the Tablet PC have our work cut out for us if the momentum is to be maintained. I have been looking for projections about the size and growth of the Tablet PC market, but doing a Google search I do not see anything that is newer than about 2004. Are there any more current projections out there?

Another thought I had, beyond Loren’s observations, is around open source and the Tablet PC. The hardware specifications for the Tablet are fairly well defined. Unfortunately, the only software that supports it is Windows (not that I dislike Windows, but it means the entire Tablet PC industry is at the mercy of Microsoft’s decsions about continuing the platform). how about some of these really innovation open source types take the Tablet PC to new heights? Lets create a Linux-based (or not) OS, put a novel, Tablet-specific UI on it, and drive the Tablet market in that way? I know there are people out there who have put Linux on the Tablets, but I am talking more than just getting so it doesn’t crash, and works like a laptop with a funny shaped mouse. Something that really IS a Tablet computer. That would be a really innovative use of Open Source!

Thoughts?   

Innovation and Collaboration

Interesting post on consultaglobal called Innovation And Boundariless Design. I was really sucked in by the opening quote

“Innovation often arises out of crossing disciplines and combining technologies”.*

This is a battle I seem to have on a continuous basis – trying to convince people that innovation must be an interdisciplinary effort, and must involve people from almost every part of an organization, and outside the orgainzation. This is especially true if you are working towards wide open innovation of business processes, internal technologies, as well as new products. Good ideas and design input can (and must) come from everywhere.

Another aspect of this interdiscinplinary approach, and the cross pollination of ideas and technologies it encourages, leads to compounding of ideas in much the same way as one compounds interest – two innovative ideas combined together in a novel way lead to improved value much greater than either innovation on its own.

This (as well as the question of whether design for manufacturability comes before human factors, or vice versa) always reminds me of the old (?) idea of integrated product teams (I cannot recall where I first ran into this – whether it was in the telecom world or military projects). The fact remains that it is almost impossible to separate engineering, human factors, or any other aspects of design into entirely sequential steps – they must be integrated, collaborative, iterative activities.

As the referenced post points out, however, none of this matters unless the whole process brings value to some customer – it is not innovation if it does not bring value.

(*) Pushing the Boundaries of Design by Jessie Scanlon  

Playing to the critics

This is a follow-on post to my earlier discussion of New Product Ideas – How hard can it be?. In that post I talked a bit about what I consider to be the “fundamental” questions in coming up with a new business idea:

  1. What do you want to be (multinational, micro-ISV, etc.)?
  2. What domain do you want to work in (horizontal apps, specific vertical, specific technology, etc.)?

I also promised to discuss, in a later post, what do once you have figured out these two simple questions. Sorry it has taken so long to get back to this.

Getting Ideas

So now you know what kind of a business you want to build, and you have an idea of the space you want to be in. Where do you go from here? A quick Google found several hits with suggestions for generating new product ideas. Here are a few (I am not endorsing any of them – they are just a few from the first page of hits ):

There are a few random thoughts that I have on the subject. A big one to me is the fact that you cannot spend all of your time “playing to the critics” (hence the title of this post). In the software world, playing to the critics means, among other things, trying to do what the analysts and marketing gurus and other “experts” say you should. I am not saying you should not read and absorb as much as you can from these sources, and indeed from any source you can. However, the ideas ultimately have to come from you – they cannot be analysed into existence, and you can wait for someone else to tell you what to do.

So where do ideas come from? Well, getting ideas is like anything else. It takes practice, and the more you practice doing it, the easier it gets. Here are a few of the approaches I use:

  • Keep a notebook for ideas (I know, everyone suggests this). I personally use my Tablet PC for this, using a combination of OneNote and Mindjet. I like this because I typically have my Tablet with me all the time, and it allows me to capture ideas I get anytime and anywhere – in meetings, seminars, anywhere.
  • Set aside time for brainstorming. Whether it is daily or weekly or whatever, it is good to set aside time brainstorm. It will be hard at first, but it gets easier with time. I will admit that sometimes this is my best approach for getting ideas. Other times, ideas come at me so fast using the first method that I do not really need to set aside time for this. I try to anyway.
  • Read as much as you can. Learn new things as much as you can. Read anything. Read web sites. Read blogs. Read books. Read magazines. Read things in your area of expertise. Read things in other areas (I find many of my most novel ideas come from “cross-over” concepts that I pick up). Read, read, read, read.

Ultimately, these are approaches that work for me. You will have to find ways that work for you. Back before my Tablet PC, I used to keep several flipchart pads on the wall of my office. I would fill these with ideas, tear off the pages and tape them up all over my walls.

An important thing to remember is not to filter or judge your ideas at the same time you are generating them. Just collect them. Also remember, the best way to get good ideas is to get LOTS of ideas.

Evaluating Ideas

Speaking of this, how do you know which ideas are good ones, and which ones are, well, not?

I try to set aside a regular time every week or two to look through my accumulated ideas. When evaluating my ideas, I look at several things.

Firstly, I filter out the ideas that are just plain stupid. This is hard to do sometimes, because I do not generally like to admit to myself that I have stupid ideas. But I do! Lots of them. Sometimes I look back on ideas I came up with randomly in meetings a couple of weeks earlier, and I really have no idea what I was thinking. Do not dismiss things too easily, though, because sometimes what seems like a crazy idea just seems crazy because it is for something really original. I never throw ideas away – and sometimes ideas on the crazy list come back to life.

Secondly, I compare ideas against the “what I want to be” questions. This allows me to eliminate ideas that are just completely out of scope for what I am trying to do. Some ideas are great ideas, but just do not fit the scope of what I am trying to do. Again, I never throw them away. Maybe next year, I will have changed my mind on what I want to be. Or maybe I will come up with a way to change the scope of the idea and make it fit.

Finally, I am left with a list with a list of ideas which are not obviously crazy, and which seem to fit the model of what I want to do. What next? Well, some time back I posted on here about exactly that. It all comes back to NABC:

  • Does the idea fulfill a real need?
  • Do I have a credible approach?
  • What is the benefit versus cost of the idea?
  • Who are the competitors? What are the competing approaches?

Personally, I still find this the hardest part of the problem. Right now, the approach I use is to transfer all the “surviving” ideas to a spreadsheet, with columns for each of NABC. I start by quickly going through and filling out what I already know for each idea. For some, I understand what need I want to fill. For others, I have come up with a really great approach to filling a not very well defined need (hey – I AM a techie afterall!). This is just a way of capturing what I already know, so it does not take very long. Then I go back and try to complete the need for all of the ideas. This is always enlightening – it still surprises me how hard it is to succinctly express the need fulfilled by an idea, even when I think I know it.

Ultimately, at this stage, I am trying to identify those ideas for which I CANNOT have some answer to the four questions. This filters out a good chunk of ideas at this stage – many seemingly good ideas do not pass this gate.

So what next? Well, the ideas which survive this initial analysis are worth taking a deeper look at. And that will have to wait for another post – hey, it is 1 in the morning!

Evaluating great (or not) ideas

One of the aspects of the innovation process on which I have been focusing a lot of thought lately is the evaluation of ideas. Assuming you have a process for generating and collecting ideas, how do you decide which ones are worth exploring further? And, once you have dug a little deeper, how do you decide whether to keep going, or when to stop? I was just reading a post on Escape from Cubicle Nation: Is your business idea the next YouTube or a Jump to Conclusions Mat where Pamela lists some good guidelines for assessing your business idea’s potential. I guess the only real concern I have is that the guidelines mix the evaluation of the idea with the self-evaluation of the individual with the idea – this is not necessarily wrong, I am just looking at the more isolated problem of evaluating ideas on their own.

I have also been reading the book Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want by Curtis R. Carlson and William W. Wilmot, which I highly recommend. It describes an innovation management approach from SRI International. There are a few ideas I like in this book. A fundamental point that I like is their definition of innovation – essentially that it is not innovation until it creates value for a customer. This feeds into the meat of the approach, which focuses on the analyses of Need, Approach, Benefits, and Competition (NABC). I will not try to explain their approach – the authors do a much, much better job of it than I ever could. A key characteristic of the analysis, to me, is that it is not 100-page document. It is a succinct, few-page description of the overall value proposition.

Coming from the technical side of things as I do, it is my natural tendency start with an Approach – with a really cool piece of technology, some really cool solution – and then to try to prove that it fulfills some need. Unfortunately this often leads to really cool solutions which nobody wants.

This is, of course, the wrong way to do things from a business perspective. From the business side, you always want to start with a compelling customer need. You can then look at how the competition fills that need, and assess whether there is room for a new solution. Only after that do you start looking at your solution approach, and its benefits. Using this approach probably has a higher success rate in terms of making sellable solutions. However, using it exclusively leaves many opportunities for ground-breaking, technology-driven advancements.

In the real world, you need both approaches. What appeals to me in the NABC approach is the emphasis on the fact that, no matter where your idea comes from, or what your focus is, you need to be able to address all 4 of these areas. If your idea comes from the techie side, and is focused on Approach, then this framework forces you to come up with the Need and Competition answers. If your idea comes out of marketing or elsewhere on the business side, then it forces you to at least look at the approach early on. The best thing (in my opinion) is that, in order to address all 4 of these areas, you must draw on expertise from multiple functional groups, thus creating the collaboration which is needed no matter what approach you take. It also encourages us to put ideas in front of customers/prospects early in the process.

Another thing I like about this approach is that the NABC analysis evolves with time. This gives us a tool for continuously evaluating the value proposition as we move through the innovation process with a given idea, giving us a decision tool to help us decide when we have invested enough in an idea.