Search Visualization – at least I am not the only one

There is a post About visualization tools over at Tech IT Easy. It is nice to see that I am not the only one who would like to see a better way to work with search results. Why is it that over the last 10-15 years, almost everything on the Web has become more and more visual, but search has stayed largely the same?

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!

"3D" browsing and searching

Came across a post today called Exploring the 3D Search, about an application called SpaceTime (www.spacetime.com). It is a browser and search front end, which presents the results in a 3D “stack”, and allows you to scroll through them in that way.

While I like the initiative of trying a new visual approach, as I have discussed previously, this is really just another way of presenting a list. It is a start, but still not what I am looking for in a really new, “next generation” search visualization.

It is definitely worth checking out, though.

Second Life: What’s the Big Deal?

Ok, so I have been thinking about this post for a long time. There is a constant stream of hype around Second Life and the opportunities which abound in that world. It is very hard to look anywhere on the web without someone raving about Second Life. Am I the only person in the world who just does not get it? I understand the concept – I mean I have spent time over the years in various online collaborative environments, ranging from IRC, text-based MUDs, web-based chat rooms, IM (hey, I had a 5-digit ICQ number), helped build a voice over IP conferencing system, and wasted ridiculous amounts of time in online games like Ultima Online and World of Warcraft. I have often thought about the integration of collaborative goals with the immersive environments like WoW. I think there are definitely possibilities, and the success of Second Life seems to be proof of that.

My problem with Second Life is with the implementation, not the idea. I have been on Second Life quite a bit in different spurts over the last year, having spent I think enough time there to get a good feeling for how it works. To be really blunt, I found the graphics in it to be really clunky and laggy, and not visually compelling at all (as one of my kids said, “so last millennium”). The interaction with the virtual world is very frustrating (largely due to the lag, I would guess). I wonder how much of the draw of users to this world is driven from the hype OUTSIDE of Second Life, and not by anything inside, because I saw nothing inside to bring me back.

Maybe if someone were to create a better implementation, with the graphics most people have come to expect, without the lag, I might come to believe in the model. Until then, all I see is hype driving yet another wave with little behind it.

I have a lesser problem with the idea of trying to replicate the real world in a virtual environment in order to improve collaboration. I think it is a far better idea to create immersive environment which does not imitate reality, and which takes advantage of this to enable collaboration.

Am I the only person who thinks that the emperor has no clothes?

Fluffy Red Towels

Ok, so what do fluffy red towels have to do with software development, innovation, or usability? Let me tell you a little Monday morning story….

Last weekend I was swimming in the pool (which is exciting in itself, since a week earlier we were under a heavy snowfall warning!). When I got out of the pool, I grabbed one of the new towels my wife bought recently. I was thinking to myself “wow – these are really nice towels – nice colour, very fluffy, and very, very soft to touch.” I was impressed. After a few minutes of towelling off, I realized something was not quite right. I was not getting any less wet. Perhaps it had started to snow again? In reality, the towel just was not absorbing anything at all. It seemed to be like one of those shirts with the spill-resistant coating – a nice feature in a shirt, but not quite so nice in a towel. The towel, despite being very nice in appearance and superficially pleasant to use, failed to fulfill its single biggest functional requirement – you could not dry anything with it!

It occurred to me that this is a good metaphor for much of what goes on in product design – in software and elsewhere. Many products which do take into account usability and user experience, do so at the expense of functional design (yes, realize that there are even more products out there which implement functionality and ignore the user altogether). This brought home to me an important fact: as important as usability is, it does not mean squat if the product fails to fulfill its functional requirements.

Things that should just work – my smart phone

Ok – so I got a new toy this week: a Palm Treo 700wx smart phone. I have never been a really big fan of the whole smart phone/blackberry kind of thing, mostly because I am rarely away from a computer long enough to need another eMail device. But, the company was upgrading our cell phones, and since I do not really use a phone much (I think I get about 4 calls/year), I decided to go for something that could do something other than talk. I also figured it would give me a chance to do some Windows Mobile development experiments. I have had the device for 3 days now, and I really like the form factor/engineering of it. Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to do much else with it, other than look at it.

Our provider has not yet figured out how to hook it in to either their voice or data network (even though they supplied the phone).

So, while I was waiting for that to work, I decided to play with it from the local side, by hooking it up to my PC. That is when I hit another problem. The install kit for the phone does not recognize Windows Vista (which I am running). After a bit of digging, I realized that I do not need to install the ActiveSync software, as Vista has the Windows Mobile Device Center. So, I download that, get it installed, and plug my phone into the USB port. Windows recognizes the new device on the port and proceeds to install the drivers. All seems happy. I launch the Mobile Device Center. Unfortunately, my phone does not show up as connected. I spent a significant amount of time playing with it yesterday – working through various troubleshooting guides I have found. Still no luck.

This should not be this hard. To me, this is in the category of “things that should just work” – especially since both devices are running versions of Windows. Maybe I expect too much.

I will repeat myself on this…

This should just work!

PS – anybody who has made this work, please leave me a comment with any suggestions you might have!

 PPS – why are data plans so insanely expensive in Canada, compared to the US? It cannot just be market size – is it just because they can get away with it?

Fewer hurdles

One of the best sales guys I know told me that a large part of the sales process is removing objections on the part of the buyer. I guess one of the best ways of removing objections is by gettting rid of hurdles before they become objections.

MyMicroISV has an interesting post on 13 Fewer hurdles = more micro-ISV sales. I whole heartedly agree witht he items he lists. It amazes me (not just online, but in the real world) just how hard businesses sometimes make it to buy thier products. A case in point would be when I bought my current Tablet PC. It took (seemingly) forever to find a way to buy, mostly because the vendor seemed only to want to sell as part of vertical solutions. A consumer wanting to buy a tablet just did not seem to fit thier model (I think that this is a problem with the whole Tablet PC marketing scheme, but that’s another story).

When thinking about removing these hurdles, it occured to me that the same philosophy cold be applied to software design. How many of the programs do we continue to use which annoy the heck out of us, only because they are the only option, or the least annoying option? How many opportunities exist for just, plain good software, that does what it is supposed to do, without annoying the user? This goes back to what we all used to be taught as part of our first-year programming courses: Keep It Simple, Stupid! (I wonder, do they still teach this?).

There is a very great focus now on adding features, making things prettier, going for the latest whiz-bang bells and whistles, when in reality, what is most needed is software that just works, and does so without being annoying. This seems to be a great opportunity for the Micro ISV model.

 How hard can it be?

Search Result Visualization

It is amazing to me that there has been so little change in the look and feel of web search results over the last 15 years. Yes, the actual search behind the presentment has improved somewhat. I can now do searches and not have the first to pages dominated by porn sites. But we still get our results back in pretty much the same manner – first 10 hits listed as text, hit next, 10 more hits, hit next, and so on. Is this really the best we can come up with?

How about something more visual, to enable/support some level of “exploratory search”? How about an historical context, that not only looks at what you just searched for, but takes into account other things you have searched for recently – almost like a “search session”? How about keywords to always identify when you are searching – like a retained context.

These are just a few thoughts – I have a bunch more, but I would really like to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

Friday morning rant…

This morning I am going to talk about various things which have been getting on my nerves this week (leaving aside the obvious things that always get on my nerves, like bad government, war, etc.).

  1. Software that constantly interrupts the flow of what I am trying to do by asking me stupid questions. I know many people have talk about this before, but it seems that no one actually writing software ever listens. Software should only ask you questions when it really needs to. It should never ask for confirmation to do things which are (or should be) reversible. I go to uninstall a piece of software (this happens with my Bluetooth mouse driver, Visual J# Redistributable, and almost everything in the Windows ecosystem) , and I am very intelligently informed that “if you uninstall this, you may not be able to use it anymore”. Isn’t that what “uninstall” means? What a completely useless bit of information. And, if I really need to use it again, I can always reinstall it! Many UI developers will argue that they are simply protecting the user from making mistakes. In reality, they are just doing the easiest thing so that the software does not have to take responsibility for keeping things clean. Implementing undo functionality everywhere is messy and time consuming. But, it is the right way to do it for the user. So, my note to developers is, stop wasting my time with stupid questions!
  2. Software that does not uninstall itself properly. I am getting really tired of software that installs a bunch of stuff on my computer (not just spyware, but stuff that is actually necessary to the functioning of the software), but does not clean up after itself when it uninstalls. One of the worst offenders in this category, I think, is Visual Studio. Uninstalling Visual Studio seems to take forever.
  3. Installing Open Source Software. Is it my imagination, or does a lot of open source software go out of its way to make itself hard to install on a Windows platform? To be fair, there are some projects out there which are very good about this (Apache, Tomcat, JBoss all spring to mind), but there are many which seem to be trying to be difficult. Is it a question of trying to make people think it is Windows fault that this stuff is hard to get working, so that people will be encouraged to go elsewhere? Or is it a just a lack of caring? If open source wants to dominate proprietary software, the fact is, it has to be as clean and easy to set up and make work.
    (Then again, I have run a lot of closed-source software with the same problems – not sure what their excuse is either!)
  4. Web sites that override the back button. What is it with these sites? Do they assume that their content is so compelling that there is no way you would ever want to leave? Or are they trying to stop you from leaving (like you are not going to find another way out)? This web site behaviour is just plain rude, and inconsiderate of the user. For the most part, if a site does this, I will never go back.