Tagging versus categorizing emails

Word is Yahoo will soon be coming out with its OddPost inspired version. Ethan Diamond, one of the Oddpost founders, now working on Yahoo mail thinks that users are more likely to use folders than tags to organize emails. I tend to agree. I like the controlled messiness of del.icio.us tags for my bookmarked urls. And the social discovery of others’ bookmarks is very compelling. But for something as personal and important as my email archive – I prefer either a combination of folders and robust search.

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How to build a software product on the cheap: Open Source + Usability

Joe Krause recently wrote that “Its a great time to be an entrepreneur“. Yes, it is. Joe talks about cheap hardware, free infrastructure software, cheap global labor markets, and search engine marketing. There is another reason that its a great time to be an entrepreneur – an excellent example of which is Joel Spolsky’s latest project: CoPilot.

Take a good open source software. Something really useful. Something well built, that solves a real problem. Something like VNC. You can take your pick from the many flavors of VNC – Tight VNC, Real VNC, Ultra VNC …- . There is no better way to share your screen with someone – if you are willing to deal with the usability problems that come with it.

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The rising star of corporate anthropology

corporate anthropologyTwo recent articles about anthropology in the corporate environment caught my eye.

The article in Fortune magazine focuses on anthropological work at Microsoft and contrasts modern corporate anthropology with its origins:

“Their fieldwork is far removed from the popular perception of the anthropologist as lantern-jawed adventurer in baggy shorts and pith helmet, canoeing up the Amazon in search of the proverbial lost tribe. But there is a certain correspondence between Microsoft’s research agenda and the work of those old-time anthropologists, many of whom were funded by colonial governments that needed to understand their native subjects in order to rule them more effectively. The modern version of this knowledge-power dynamic is Microsoft, a multinational technology colossus that hires anthropologists who study the natives in order to sell them more software.”

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Designing for the Google generation

I just spent a few days watching people use a search interface for a site (lets call it Site X for now). What stuck with me the most was how different the design challenge was if the user was of the “Google generation”. Everyone showed the Google carry over effect – expectancy of high relevance, fast searches. But for undergraduates who had grown up with Google, it was as if that was the only experience they could deal with. Anything else was too complex, too slow, too not Google.

Take Participant Y (Lets call her Susanne). Susanne is an undergraduate in a California University. She needs to find some information on Site X – she knows it houses some special types of information, not found anywhere else. She does not know much about this topic.

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BayCHI panel on “Recent Innovations in Search”

The search field is heating up again. There have been a spate of innovations and acquisitions by various search companies. Particularly exciting have been innovations in Local Search, Desktop Search, Maps, and Image finding.

I will be moderating a panel at BayCHI on this very topic on April 12th. Panelists include John Battell of SearchBlog, Udi Manber CEO of A9, and Rahul Lahiri VP, Product Management for Ask Jeeves.

I am talking to two more panelists. Look forward to an announcement soon.

Rich Internet Applications BOF at ETech 2005

Jon is moderating a BOF on Rich Internet Applications at ETech this year.

“Javascript Rich Internet Applications (like google maps and oddpost) have burst onto the scene in the last six months, with a host of new applications that communicate asynchronously with the server and thus eliminate “page refresh” from the user experience (using the XMLHttpRequest API). Meanwhile, existing XML-based development frameworks that export SWF files (like Lazslo and FLEX) are gaining traction.

What are the trends in RIA development? Will 2005 be the year of the RIA? How does design change when we move from the location-based metaphor of the web to the application-like flow of an RIA? Which technology approach offers the most benefits, and what are the tradeoffs? And do users even find value in RIAs?

Feel free to bring a laptop with your software installed if you have an RIA you’d like to demo.”

Mark this on your calendar if you are headed to ETech this year. Go to Jon’s site to find out more.

Google’s pragmatic, data-driven approach to user interface design

Marissa Mayer director of Consumer Web Products at Google, spoke at BayCHI on Tuesday evening. Some interesting points she made:

(a) When she first got involved in User Interface Design at Google, she was asked not to spend more than one day a week working on the interface! Also, she was asked not to give her opinions, but to provide data. So right from the beginning, design at Google has been very data driven.

(b) They do a lot of usability testing (mostly discount tests), both task-based and think aloud. From what I understood they do look at statistical significance of such test results.

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Recommended readings in HCI

Finally, I have put together the long promised list of must-read HCI books. These are some of the books I have found very useful and worth keeping handy. I tried to keep the list short, but comprehensive, covering many areas.

The list is geared towards someone who is trying to learn HCI on their own.

I will be adding a list of articles to this soon. But this should be a good start.



  • Jakob Nielsen Usability engineering. San Diego: Academic Press.

    (A good methods book. Nielsen’s only book that I keep in my shelf)

  • Don Norman The design of everyday things. New York: Basic Books.
    (Helps understand how design is important in everyday life. Makes you see the world around you in a different – more design-centric way)
  • Edward R. Tufte The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Graphics Press, 1992)
    (Very inspirational. Shows what good information design can accomplish.)
  • Alan Cooper, Alan Cooper: The inmates are running the asylum

    (Helps understand the importance of and challenges with doing good design in the corporate environment)

  • Peter Morville & Lou Rosenfeld Information Architecture for the world wide web
    (A really good book if you are going to be designing for the web, and will need to do any content wrangling)
  • Jeff Johnson GUI Bloopers
    (Not the easiest read, but a handy reference for design principles along with examples).
  • A basic cognitive psychology textbook: Pick up a recent textbook that is easily available. Must be published no earlier than 2000 (important to have recent perspective). (Some possibilities: Robert Solso , Sternberg
  • A basic social psychology textbook: Get an easily available textbook that has been published no later than 1996. (Some possibilities are: Myers)
  • Simple statistics with Excel: (Howell is a good stats textbook, but it might make more sense to buy a “Teach yourself stats with Excel” type book if you will be doing this on your own. I need to do some research to make a specific recommendation).
  • A basic research methods book: It is important to read at least one research methods book. Helps understand interviewing, study design, surveys, observation etc. My preference is a academic research methods book. I am still to find one book which covers a whole bunch of topics.

Some other beginner resources

The design of high-heel shoes: looks or comfort? – You cannot have both

A Washington Post author writes about the “illogical psychology at work when a woman buys a pair of shoes” and speculates that it is “some curious synaptic misfire in the cerebrum that causes so many women to give form precedence over function”.

If you are a woman, then you recognize this particular form verus function dilemma. At some time or the other you have stood in a shoe store and looked longingly at a pair of very pretty but totally impractical shoes. My last visit to a shoe store, I asked my friend, “So can I do this?”, as if the shoe was a challenge that I needed to conquer. Egged on by her I bought it and took it on my next trip. But just for safety I also packed an older, more prosaic pair. Guess which one saw more wear during the trip?

This article offers a fascinating look at the mechanics of the shoe industry, the innovations involved in creating more comfortable shoes, the litany of problems associated with wearing high-heel shoes (such as knee, ankle and joint injury). And yet, the reality of the market is that the impractical shoes clearly sell better.

So why are shoes so badly designed? Partly, creating a fashionable yet comfortable shoes is a hard engineering problem. It has to do with impact reduction, padding and cushioning technology…

Shoe designers mostly being men probably has something to do with it. One of the developers of these breakthrough shoes spent some time wearing size 11 high heel shoes to understanding the subjective feeling of wearing such heels. Only after wearing them did he understand how it mimics the dynamic of walking downhill.

Turns out the shoe design industry is fanatical about testing the shoes (who would have guessed that). There are companies that specialize in testing shoes! I wonder if they create video-clips of their tests (like usability testing companies), highlighting sections showing women oohing and aahing over shoes that they can barely stand straight in. Perhaps they use metrics such as “how long it took a woman to walk 20 feet?”. Maybe they have a inferred pain scale based on the subconscious winces.

The article reports on two new companies with breakthroughs in shoe technology, that are taking up the challenge of comfortable yet sexy shoes.

“Oh! shoes, based in Portland, Ore., is trying to solve the high-heel conundrum by slowing the speed at which force is absorbed by the body. By dissipating the impact, the body is protected from the equivalent of a sucker punch.

Insolia, in New Hampshire, focuses on geometry. Its designs decrease the angle at which the foot rests in the shoe, essentially trying to make a three-inch heel feel like a one-inch version.

I think I like the idea of Insolia’s shoe more. Seems to me that if the angle was reduced, then the impact would be automatically better. So I know what to look for next time I go shoe shopping…

In Boston for the DIS conference (August 1st to 4th)

I will be in Boston for the DIS (Designing Interactive Systems) conference from the 1st to the 4th of August. The DIS conference alternates yearly with the DUX (Designing User Experiences) conference. They really need better acronyms than ones that remind me of “diss” and “ducks”.

I do need to take it seriously enough to get my poster prepared. I will be presenting something on our Rapid User Mental Mapping methodology. Specifically how to do rapid information architecture prototyping using the methodology.

I have not prepared a poster since graduate school so this should be quiite interesting. Look forward to some quality time at Kinko’s!