ARCHIVE: July, 2005

A Prediction about IE7

I’m not in the habit of making predictions, although I really do enjoy seeing trends and wondering where they’ll go, but I do have a prediction about the upcoming IE7 browser, currently in beta.

Before I get to my prediction, I must say that I’m really impressed with the IE team this time around: they seem to be listening to developers, which is an area that they have been poor in during the last few years. The efforts of folks like Molly Holzschlag and others who are working on behalf of the WaSP are really great, and I think the eventual outcome is that developer’s lives will be easier, and MS will get much better publicity than they currently have.

OK, my prediction:

If IE7 supports the “table” value applied to the “display” property (as in display:table), then you’ll see a huge migration to using this instead of using either floats or absolute positioning.

In fact, I’ve used this technique on a production site, and it works fine even now. On Safari and Firefox it looks like a table. On current versions of IE (which don’t support display:table), it simply looks like one big column.

You can see my implementation here:

More on RSS/Subscribing

Keith over at Asterisk continues the discussion on the various ways to subscribe to a blog.

Also, faithful reader Marilyn recently suggested the term “sign up” instead of “subscribe” because subscribe sounds like there might be money involved. I wonder, though, if “sign up” has similar problems.

As I put in the comments at Keith’s blog:

Google homepage now allows for subscription to RSS feeds and never mentions the words subscribe, syndicate, or feed. I found that very interesting, considering the reasons alluded to.

Also, Dave Sifry’s comment that RSS will succeed by disappearing seems to be spot on.

We shouldn’t need to know what technology we’re dealing with unless we’re the publisher.

What are we Missing?

One of my favorite authors is Jorge Luis Borges. In high school I borrowed a book by Borges from my English teacher that I’ve been thinking about ever since: Labyrinths. In the short parable “The Witness”, Borges contemplates what is lost when someone dies:

there was a day that extinguished the last eyes to see Christ; the battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of a man. What will die with me when I die, what pathetic or fragile form will the world lose?

This is Borges at his best: asking questions like this. I wonder what is happening now, while we live, as we become so consumed with media and text and video games and all the things that fracture our attention. What are we missing? What have we overlooked? What miracle has occurred that we just haven’t noticed?

What people are in need who are being ignored? What innovation has been born that we haven’t acknowledged? What new genius is in our midst that we haven’t understood?

What we pay attention to isn’t always deserving of it. We could be missing the blossom of a wild rose.

Great Discussion on Tagging and Decentralization

There’s an interesting discussion going on between Kevin Marks and Stowe Boyd about tagging and decentralization. It’s a very important discussion because it involves the issues behind how we’re going to tag things in the future (if at all).

It was started by Jeff Jarvis, who was imagining a Semantic Web service for restaurants: Made for the distributed world

Stowe Boyd responded by agreeing that people would want to have their own content (in this case restaurant reviews) located on their own site and not on other sites. He makes the point that it is unfavorable to have to link to a proprietary site to look up a tagspace (e.g. Technorati): Jeff Jarvis on Made For A Distributed World

Kevin Marks responds by saying that tagging isn’t as proprietary as Stowe thinks it is, and that the freedom of being able to change tags over time makes it non-lock in: Understanding true decentralisation – the microformat model

Stowe responds by pointing out that people won’t change their tags over time, and that right now we need to link to some tagspace and so at some level it is lock-in: Kevin Marks on Tag Decentralization

I highly recommend reading this stuff if you’re interested in tagging/decentralization. I learned a lot from it…

Update: Marc Canter adds his take on the discussion, pointing out that the goal is to structure microcontent, and that the microformats way of doing things is only one of the possibilities.

Google Maps Ads Hybrid View

If you haven’t heard yet, Google Maps has added a hybrid view to their mapping service, allowing you to overlay the street names on top of the satellite images.

This is truly useful because you can see individual buildings (even houses) as well as the name of the street they are on.

Perfect for stalking.

Here’s my town of Newburyport, MA.

Paradox of the Active User & Tryability

Faithful reader Len responded to my last post by pointing out that tryability is akin to the Paradox of the Active User, a concept originated by John Caroll and Mary Beth Rosson.

The “paradox of the active user” is the persistent use of inefficient procedures in interactive environments by experienced or even expert users when demonstrably more efficient procedures exist.

In other words, people don’t take the time to figure out how the thing works before they go ahead and use it. They don’t read manuals, they don’t work through tutorials, they don’t always adapt when the interface changes. To get optimal efficiency with the application, they would do these things first, saving them a whole lot of time in the long run.

Here’s an excerpt from one of Carroll’s books: The Paradox of the Active User.

The paradox has something to do with ego: “I can figure this out without help”. But it’s also got an attention factor: “I don’t have time to figure this out”. Both are incredibly interesting symptoms of modern computing, and with both we end up trying to keep from being distracted by applications that could potentially make things much better for us.

No Learning Curve as the Most Important Feature of a Web App

Jason Fried says that the most innovative software in the next 10 years will come from companies like his, those who build web-based applications for very small businesses.

Though much of Jason’s mantra seems to be “do it our way”, I think that most of what he’s saying dovetails nicely with the notion I’ve been playing around with: tryability.

Jason says: “What they (independent freelancers) crave are low/no-learning curve, simple focused tools that let them get their work done quickly and then get out of their way.”

Note the low/no-learning curve part, I think that’s key. This is exactly the feature that people need when they can’t find an immediate answer to the question: “how is this application better than the one I’m currently using?”.

It’s not that people aren’t smart enough to figure this stuff out on their own. Given enough time, anybody can do anything, or close to it. It’s that we lack the window of attention to do all the things that we want to do. How long, do you think, would it take to evaluate all desktop email applications right now? One day, a week, a month? The point is that nobody is going to take the time to find out!

So, web apps get rid of one major hurdle that steals time: downloading, installing and upgrading. This is a main point that any web-based app provider makes, and it really makes a difference.

What makes even more of a difference, however, is having No Learning Curve. If I can start using an application immediately, and find it useful, then I’m a customer. The fact that I don’t have to install anything is great, but it doesn’t show the value of the application. Having No Learning Curve does.

Ideal Tryability = No Learning Curve

More on Tryability: It’s an Attention Thing

Sometimes we spend a lot of time and effort doing various things that we don’t want to be doing because they just have to be done:

  1. Between yesterday and today I’ve spent 5 hours trying to get my wireless network working with the VoIP box
  2. Between yesterday and today I’ve spent 3 hours doing various things with my car, taking it to the shop, calling about it, explaining how bad it is driving recently, etc.
  3. Recently I spent 8 hours trying to get rid of viruses on an old windows box at home. So frustrated, I gave up and asked Jason from work to do it, promising him a share of the money I make on it when I sell it on eBay

Sometimes we refuse to spend a lot of time because they just don’t have to be done:

  1. Trying out new things when we have a decent one to begin with
  2. Taking the time to install new software that we’re not sure is useful yet
  3. Taking the time to learn something new when doing it the old way takes x amount of time
  4. Doing something the old way after we’ve learned the new way
  5. Seriously considering a new idea when it potentially conflicts with our established thoughts

Tryability is a new term I made up to represent the pain of trying something new. In a similar way that “usability” is a measurement of how usable something is, “tryability” is a measurement of the effort involved of trying something new. It is made up of several factors:

  • learnability: how easy is it to use for the first time? (or learn new features)
  • usability: how easy is it to use over time (includes learnability)
  • effort: the time and energy involved in trying it out
  • attention: the attention it takes to find and learn about it (as opposed to learning to use it)

These things all overlap, of course. The reason why I’m using the new term “tryability” is that it involves an attention factor…things get much harder when there are other things to attend to. In other words, we have to make an effort to divert our attention to try something. We could probably house this under “usability”, but usability testing is often conducted in controlled situations…which don’t include fractured attention.

For web applications tryability is crucial because tools are making it so easy to post information online. How many ways are there to make a web page? A million?

Something to Try: Two types of Feed URLs

As a sort of follow-up to my post on the interface elements for subscribing to feeds, I’ve provided two feed URLs below in order to see what various platforms do with them. One is in the regular http:// format, utilizing the http protocol, while the other one uses the feed:// pseudo-protocol.

Specifically, it would be nice to know what platforms support feed://, so we can migrate away from those instances where people click on an http:// feed and get a bunch of XML that doesn’t mean anything to them.

Also, I know you’re already subscribed to the feed, but test it out on your platform anyway, so we can see what works and what doesn’t. Note, there may be different effects depending on where you’re clicking on them. For example, the action taken when clicking within a web-based screen reader might be different than a desktop reader.

Let me know how it goes…

Instant Tryability: the Big Advantage for Web-based Apps

Update:Added attention/tryability graph. To follow up on yesterday’s post: application innovation is happening on the Web at a much faster pace than it is on the desktop, allowing people to switch away from Windows to their OS of choice. Driven mainly by Google and Yahoo using open APIs, this innovation is showing that web-based apps […]

Continue Reading: Instant Tryability: the Big Advantage for Web-based Apps

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