Thought / Simple vs. complex interfaces (Part 1)

In order to psychologically approach interfaces, one might always need to contextualise them, as cognitive processes are affected by the environment they’re immerse into.

Some complex systems require complex interfaces and steep learning curves for users to acquire an adequate state of mind (air controllers, train controllers and operators, jet pilots), and simplifying them might “seduce users into shallow cognitive behaviours,” but this might not be the case at all levels, where sometimes there’s no need for any learning and fulfilling an activity might suffice.

So for example, the process of sending an email might be enhanced by a step by step wizard experience (reminding the user to select a sender, write a message, append an attachment, etc.) while the driving of a train or an airplane might benefit from a steep learning curve that assures and enhances the attention and modal cognitive approach of the user, as train operators and air controllers can prove.

Learning an interface is a process affected and mediated by context, and so is any cognitive approach, I would argue.

Thought / Mediated content (Part 2)

In an interesting article (some time ago) Leisa Reichelt talked about trends in Gardening tools for Social Networks.

If you have the time to go through it (it is a lenghty article) it might do for an interesting read. Main points seem to be:

  • Social Networks have very few or no tool to trim your contacts
  • Statistics can help you visualise your use of the network and thus educate your decisions on its optimising
  • Tools for building your contact network tend to be a kind of switch behaviour. Either they’re in or out, end of choice
  • That choice, oftentimes, is made in a particular moment which can affect the choice itself (busy vs free time)
  • Once commited to a choice, it is difficult or irrelevant for you to revisit it
  • Categorising or tagging people might help, but people are not very good at that

I’ve been thinking much about this issue, and I also see the necessity of categorising network assets (contacts, messages, applications, notifications), but I keep finding myself more into the automated side of it.

Lacking of a better word, I have called it ‘mediation’, being it the process of intelligently filtering these channels of communication. It goes much into ‘Smart Agents’ as it might be the system that decides on how to make this filtering for you, educated by some preferred methods or variables by you.

It might sound unrealistic, and perhaps in a near future it might be more convincing. I think some of these networks and the intrinsic statistical-aware condition of the internet can help making those categorising decisions.

The way I see it the system is nurtured by information in the form of your friend’s feeds: photos, music, blogs, you-name-it. All that information then is passed through custom filters, which are nothing else than your own friends. Filtered information then arrives to you.

It is simple: you know your friends, so you know Dave knows the movies you like, and Sarah’s music taste just matches yours so well. So you filter movies by Dave’s Netflix profile, and music by Sarah’s Last.fm selections. Movie suggestions then are matched with Dave’s watched/wishlist/rated movies. Likewise music suggestions are matched against Sarah’s favorited music, or even suggest you new music Sarah has recently liked or added to her profile.

At the end you get only the ones that make it through. You could even add a level of serendipity to your system by filtering “new music suggestions” both by Sarah and Chris, or by adding a metafilter such as Peter’s blog feed, since Peter sometimes blogs about music.

Or better: you create one metafilter that just sends you all the music all Dave, Sarah, Chris and Matt like, and another that is only Dave’s five-starred music, and combine them. I can imagine as much fun here as you can have with playlist creation on iTunes. The upside here is you know your friends, so they do all the work for you. Sweet.

Easier than tagging people or categorising friends of friends, I’d say. Who wants to give it a try?

Thought / Broadcast yourself ™

We seem to still be in the broadcast yourself phase of the internet.

Blogs, twitter, feeds, gmail, digg, you name it: think of any of the customary ruling trendy growing online services/apps, they (mostly) all seem to have one thing in common: broadcast information.

Email was (and probably still is, beside social networks) the online killer application. Its method was simple: send a message to someone, or to many. Then there was the blog, which was one message to many, commented, in time. Then twitter, a short message to as many subscribers, with multiple channels. Then we got facebook, publish to one, publish to a group, publish to many, publish to all. Then friendfeed, which summarises all the stuff your friends are broadcasting. Then a million mash-ups and hacks to mix them all and have, well, more information per square pixel.

So now that we know how to broadcast our stuff, why don’t we start focussing on filtering it? Mediating it?

It might be the time to build a live filtering system that allows you to get only the information that is relevant: per channel or per situation or per location or per genre or per several other reasons and situations. Systems are robust enough to support the load, and there’s enough computing force to make for intelligent systems of processing.

Or simpler: we just need to use our peers as filtering profiles: “please just suggest me the posts of this blog that have either been read by my friend john or have been read by most of my network,” or “please suggest me movies seem by most of my network, but don’t send me movies that anna and peter have liked.” Simple. Perhaps not, but certainly not impossible.

Not so long ago, 50 years ago or so we were already talking about smart agents and mediation. I guess this is the moment to start shaping those words in to reality.

Or die under the weight of thousands of friends’ and foes’ tweets, feeds, posts, photos, books, music, radio recommendations, and emails.

Thought / Make the client happy

I’ve been thinking about a phrase that stuck on my mind some days ago, perhaps because of a song from Simon and Garfunkel: keep the client satisfied. The original song line says ‘keep the customer satisfied’ but I got it stuck in my brain with ‘customer’ exchanged for ‘client’.

I started to feel there was something in the phrase really bothering me. It was the word ‘keep’, but why? Then to see why, I started playing with the word, looking for a substitute and I found ‘make’. Make the customer satisfied. It does not work, so I changed ‘satisfied’ for ‘happy’ as you cannot make someone satisfied.

Then it kind of struck me. Two things. One: in order to be satisfied, you have to be happy about something, and continue being happy about it as long as you feel satisfied. Two: it does not matter what that thing is or if it changes through time, it has to continue making you happy in order to keep you satisfied.

In the end it seemed to be about making you happy and keeping you happy. So first: make them happy, and then: keep them happy, that’s how I saw satisfaction in function of time. Better, durable, total satisfaction.

It seemed interesting, but something was still bothering me. There was something about ‘keep the client happy’ that was smelly, fishy, not right; and there was something about ‘make the client happy’ that resonated and vibrated and sounded just right and wholesome.

Keeping someone happy is not that difficult, it requires not to break the current equilibrium of happiness that someone has, perhaps by continuing feeding what that someone’s reality is fed on. Keeping a client happy is just feeding them back what they want to believe that makes them happy. If they come, for example, with an idea about the whole site being blue, and you make it blue, you keep them happy, supposing the blue site made them happy in the first place.

Making someone happy requires more, much more precision, power and interest, and much more knowledge too. It supposes to create something that generates happiness on someone. It also supposes no matter in which state the client is, a higher state of happiness can be achieved, and perhaps maintained. ‘Make the client happy’ might require you to convince them, for example, of what you’re doing will make more sense for their company, and that that will make their customers happy, and that will make them happy in the end, as it might not be obvious that it will make the client happy from the beginning.

There’s something about keeping the client happy that is to me about keeping the status quo, there’s something exactly opposite about making the client happy that is to me about going out and making what’s needed for them to be happy, whether they were it before or not.

Might be a mannerism, but the make the client happy sounds much more right, and courageous, to me.

Thought / What the new iGoogle could have showed me

Lately (and perhaps constantly since they opened their Google Labs), Google has been coming with more and more new ideas integrated with their products. recently they deployed a new interface for iGoogle, their personalised widgetised front page.

According to Lifehack, seems that opinions are divided but uniformly: 45% liking it against 55% that don’t agree with new changes completely.

The first time I saw it, I honestly did not like it, as it takes a rather wide left bar of space on my homepage, a bar that right now (in a default state) looks empty.

I also did not have ideas on what to add, as my homepage has been slimmed down to the bare minimum through time, containing the following gadgets: a translator, a google reader, a quotes of the day, an I Ching reader and the very inspiring ‘places to see” gadget (widget).

I don’t know if I need more, mostly because I don’t know what’s out there. On spite of not feeling the need to use that new tabbed space, I decided to explore it for the knowledge’s sake. Interestingly, Google offers a “I feel lucky we’ll fill in the tab according to the name” create a tab option that, to tell the truth, might be good or bad, but it gives you a starting point.

Now I have some tabs that I know I won’t use until I start using them, I guess, and an idea of what was wrong with the moment I got to see google’s new addition.

The problem was google changed an interface I was used to without giving me anything else to leverage my knowledge or start using the new features. Moreover, the new features were hidden until I clicked on the new buttons. Explorative can be interesting, but it might not be a good strategy al the time and with every audience.

I imagine that if they took the time to explain the new features, the advantages and the potential, and at least give you a starting point, it would have been easier to assimilate and probably like from the beginning, instead of pissing off more than half their users.

A good example is what 37 signals does in their backpack product: once you create a page, they let you know what you can do, and what is the starting point, the next step, the thing to do.

So you get enough to start: either start clicking around, get to the tutorial or, if you’re feeling lucky, get some ‘inspiration’ whatever that means.

Another usual problem when designing interfaces is when the designer draws it as it is full of items, like in the typical screenshot they have shared since around July

But more like what I saw when I opened my homepage to the new interface

You can notice a lot of empty space to the right, and pushing all my content to the right, making it more prone to go out of the viewframe.

Perhaps the web designers at Google did not realise most of us will have only one tab, and that by having it closed by default as they decided, it will look like they stole all that space from us. It can happen that by designing for fully adopted states we forget to design for the first (and usually empty) state, thus missing the fact that people will see what your wireframes/sketches/designs don’t show: a lot of empty space stolen form my homepage.

Perhaps users are also difficult to satisfy when their known interfaces are changed from one day to another. So why not give some information and ideas on how to use those awesome new features the google team has been designing for almost a year?

Change is good, mostly if it goes forward and makes our lives easier, but guidance and explanations are not that démodé yet.