Category Archives: user experience

idiomag – a missed opportunity

Idiomag’s value proposition is great: A daily personalized music magazine. Unfortunately they take it too literally.

I signed up in January 2007 and have been to the site only about 10 times since, typically as a result of an email notification that new content is available. These notifications seem to come in spurts. Sometimes I get one every day for a few days in a row. And then nothing for weeks.

2 days ago I received an email that promised new content on Dinosaur jr, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, Nada Surf. Awesome! I click through but can’t find any of this content. Instead I find Hot Hot Heat and a History Channel ad. Yesterday the email promised Radiohead, Nada Surf, Weezer, Kasabian. Again, the content of the “magazine” didn’t match. We Are Scientists just isn’t Radiohead. And I couldn’t figure out how I would get to the content I came for.

The idea is great but the execution sucks. The virtual magazine does indeed look like a real magazine (except for the videos). Nice layout, glossy look and you can even flip the pages, all done in Flash. Unfortunately this interaction model doesn’t really work on the Web.

How to fix it

Idiomag has good content but makes it really hard to access and share. They have built in sharing functionality but it’s really hard to discover. They will have to drop the magazine-style if they want to become successful.

I would publish the same content (including all the meta data/tags) in an invisible blog. Expose the main genres as their own page/blog (basically a tag search on the main blog). The same recommendation/matching engine can still act in the back and produce a customized main page based on tags and meta data. Users would still have their personalized content but in a form that is easier to consume. I could then subscribe to my personalized RSS feed and go check out the full rich-media blog whenever I feel like it. Enable comments and ratings and even suggest new things based on what similar users find interesting. And all of a sudden sharing is easy through simple linking.

But what about the widgets

Idiomag is available as widget for an impressive amount of sites. I just added the one for Facebook and suddenly I do see Dinosaur jr, Nada Surf and Hard Fi. At least a partial match. However it doesn’t seem to play very nicely with the new Facebook design. Widgets are great for distribution but Idiomag has to fix their main site first. And please make the edit Interests easier too. Thanks.



When mobile phones become networked sensors

The Coming World of Mobile Sensors does a great job illustrating how mobile phones will impact our future. We’ll soon think of mobile phones not only as communication devices but also as sensors. This talk on Sensor Networks at the Lift conference first changed the way I think of mobile phones back in February 2007.

Imagine mobile phones as sensors constantly recording your geo-location, speed, altitude, temperature, nodes in proximity etc. Let’s ignore privacy concerns for a second. The data could be anonymized for example.

Data for personal use only

Even if the data is not shared with other devices some interesting applications are possible, e.g.

  • Personal diary of locations – searchable
  • Tracking of commute time – recommendations for best commute time
  • Weather history – searchable
  • Live blog geo-tagged photos as you take them

Data shared with nearby nodes

Now let’s allow the mobile devices to communicate with nodes in their proximity:

  • Personal diary is now also aware of who you were with at any given moment
  • People you keep running into but haven’t met can be introduced automatically

A German startup called aka-aki built a social network on top these two ideas. Your Bluetooth enabled phone tracks other phones in proximity. It basically keeps a trail of who you cross throughout the day. Another way to meet interesting people. Love it!

Data shared between all nodes – centrally aggregated

The real power of mobile sensors emerges when they’re networked together and the nodes have access to all the data (e.g. aggregated centrally). This totally changes the applications that are possible:

  • Real time traffic for your commute (I’ve written about this before)
  • Real-time weather in all locations as well as weather forecasts
  • Heat maps of sensor density indicating events

What other applications can you dream up?

How to improve PG&E’s usage and charges graph

I was pleasantly surprised that PG&E includes graphs for usage and billing history on their website. You can view electricity usage and charges in a pretty neat (but simple) graph.

I’ve been living in my current apartment since March 2007 which is the first data point on the x-axis. I wonder if there is a limit to how many months they show?

Making it easier to compare

The electricity usage is obviously seasonal and you can see the ups and downs in the graph. It would make more sense to have a 1 year wide graph and overlay last years data over the current data in a line or area chart. This would make the comparison easier and more meaningful. Alternatively a 12-months trend line would provide additional information but with a significant delay.

I created the above graph using Google Docs. I like the look and it makes comparing the charges from one year to the next a lot easier. Even adding another year shouldn’t impact readability. Now I have to find out why I’m paying 15-20% more this year.

It would also be interesting to compare usage and charges in the same graph. Am I paying more because I’m using more or because electricity is more expensive?

What are other companies providing?

Not much. I would love to have similar graphs for my bank account, credit card and phone bill. In fact I initially started this post rambling about AT&T and how they make it really hard to look at usage history. I’ll save that for another post. Maybe I’ll whip out Greasemonkey and create a little script…

Update 7/8/08: I’ll have to check out Skydeck for my AT&T billing needs. Still in closed beta.

When the ‘social context’ becomes ubiquitous

I start seeing more articles that emphasize the social¬† ‘features’ over the social ‘network’ (also see my post Increasing relevance by adding social networking features). This video on FriendConnect shows some examples and makes the difference more obvious.

I love Nova Spivack’s comparison to cars and how the choice of a Social Network will come down to personal preference (ultimately determined by brand). For this to happen the Social Networks will have to open up and support a common base feature set. This is already happening today but will accelerate. I’m convinced that soon most of our online activity will be aware of our friends and that ‘social context’ will lead to a more relevant user experience:

  • Amazon book and NetFlix movie suggestions based on what your friends like
  • Craiglist and ebay items from friends of friends
  • Search results ranking enhanced by sites friends clicked on
  • Yelp reviews and ratings from friends rather than 200 strangers
  • News that your friends have read

Things to think about:

  • ‘Friend’ is probably to strong a term. What are better terms? How will this evolve over time?
  • ‘Soocial context’ brings trust. Trust brings economic opportunities.
  • How can the 2nd and 3rd degree be used especially on commercial sites (LinkedIn is already using this)?
  • When will large retail sites grasp the concept and what kind of opportunities will arise?

And the big question is:  How can the Social Networks be open (interop) and closed (privacy) at the same time?

Browser performance issues caused by Flash?

I’ve been having issues in the last weeks where my CPU would peg at 100%. This is typically caused by a web page with an embedded Flash object (e.g. an ad or a music player). Closing the respective tab brings the CPU back to normal. This happens to me on Firefox 2, IE6, Safari 3.1 and SeaMonkey 1.1.9.

I’m running Flash 9,0,115,0. I will try upgrading to the latest version and see if this improves anything.

It’s not the first time that I see a third party component hurting performance and stability of the browser. I wonder how many extension the Mashable guys are running and how those impact the stability of Firefox. Disable/remove all extensions for a few days and see if the browser still crashes as often.

Also see “Firebug and Yahoo! Mail“.

Facebook in Spanish/German/French – now what?

Facebook has launched various community-based translations of their site. I’m currently seeing French, German and Spanish next to English (US) in a drop-down menu. The Spanish version launch received a lot of blog coverage but I almost missed the German and French launch. They’re also working on a traditional Chinese version (and more).

Community-based translation

The idea of community-based translations is not new but Facebook is trying to optimize the result with two twists:

  • A Translation Application allows for easy and contextual translation instead of an external strings file
  • A rating system bubbles up the “best” translations through community-based voting

I haven’t had the time to look at the quality in detail yet but started using Facebook in German today. I will switch to French in a few days.

I’ve tried to add the Translation Application a while ago without success. I just managed to add it now though.

Promoting the new language versions

One of the key questions when launching a new interface language is how to migrate users to it. Typically the user is given a choice via a preference. Facebook went one step further and force-redirected IPs from Spanish speaking countries to the Spanish version. I expected some backlash from users as changing the user experience without their consent is typically a recipe for trouble. I haven’t seen anything so far though.

One thing that doesn’t seem to work quite right: I tried setting my language to German in the logged out state. After logging in the interface language switches back to English. I have to change it again in my account settings.

Impact on local competition

I do expect to see higher Facebook adoption in non-English speaking countries as the interface language is an important factor in the user experience. Network effects, i.e. if your friends are already part of it, are more important than interface language for social network adoption though.

The Spanish launch is targeting the Latin America market where Hi5 is strong. Germany has a Facebook clone called StudiVZ that will now get stiffer competition. Asia has very strong local competitors and entering those markets will be very tricky.

And who will translate the Facebook applications?

Applications are trickier to translate as they’re built by third parties. This leads to a weird mix of languages on profile pages. The larger application companies could collaborate with Facebook and expose their strings for translation too. Smaller applications are probably out of luck for the foreseeable future.

Increasing relevance by adding social networking features

Not every company that’s adding social networking features to its product is trying to become a social network. In fact there is an important difference that doesn’t seem to be well understood.

The goal of enhancing a product with social features is to increase engagement and relevance of the experience. The core feature set is still front and center. Let’s illustrate with an example, say a news site:

Features that enhance the core experience:

  • Seeing what your connections are reading
  • Commenting on articles within your connections
  • Sharing articles with connections

Features that distract from the core experience:

  • 3rd party vitality (e.g. Flickr photo updates, Yelp reviews, …)
  • Profile page
  • Managing connections

And that’s exactly where having a portable social graph becomes key. We will have one main social network where we’re managing connections, checking friends vitality, uploading pictures etc. This will be whatever comes after Facebook. All other products use that social graph to enhance the product experience.

A gaming site that knows your connections/social graph can show you how you score compared to your friends and let you challenge them instead of playing strangers. All this without you having to re-enter all you connections.