Wikipedia Vandalized!

January 27th, 2009

On January 20th, like any other day, wikipedia was vandalized. False reports of the deaths Senators Kennedy and Byrd were only up for about five minutes, but this may turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Some news outlets picked up on it, a discussion started, and Jimbo Wales came out in favor of requiring anonymous edits to be approved.

He cites a poll of wikipedia users which went 60-40 in favor of this position, a margin he calls ‘very wide’. This would be very wide for an American election, but given the problems with internet polling (especially ease of manipulation), is this still a landslide?

The debate rages on about whether anonymous edits are wikipedia’s lifeblood or an unnecessary burden. Assuming wikipedia takes a decisive stand on this issue, could this open a niche for other competing services (knol, freebase) to take the opposite approach and get the 40% or 60% of wikipedia’s users who are dissatisfied?

- Matthew Webber

jQuery 1.3 Released; Web Developers Build Shrine to Dollar Sign

January 17th, 2009

The world economy is in recession, but jQuery has gotten $ into everybody’s hands.  jQuery is a popular extension to Javascript, and has recently released its version 1.3 to great fanfare.

One of the library’s most popular features is its $ function, which gives developers quick access to DOM search and manipulation features.  The strength of the $ function, in our opinion, is its recognition of expert user tasks.  Many related common and arduous tasks exist in web programming, especially with respect to DOM and CSS manipulation, and Mark Resig (jQuery’s creator) realized that they could be abstracted into a general syntax.  Thus $ was born.  Thanks, jQuery, for the $ bailout.

- Michael Bernstein

Userfly: The Web Usability Equivalent of Google Analytics

January 17th, 2009

Google Analytics is a popular tool for web site creators to track user activity on their sites. However, usability feedback is hard to come by using Analytics, since there’s no way to know exactly what users are thinking and doing on your site.

Userfly fills this gap.  The model is the same: a single line of Javascript on your page.  Instead of tracking visitation data, though, Userfly logs activity on the page: mouse movements, interactions with forms, clicks, and most everything else you’d like to see.  Then, Userfly saves the session for you to watch later.  Think of it as a way to replay a movie of the user’s interaction with your web page.

We’d love to see Userfly aggregate data over large numbers of users.  Seems like a pretty powerful concept.

- Michael Bernstein

Microsoft Songsmith Demonstrates HCI Research Graduation

January 17th, 2009

Remember that MySong paper at CHI 2008?  The one that used machine learning over a large database of pop music to write chord progressions to match your singing?  As you might have heard, it’s been productized as Microsoft Songsmith now.

I worked with Dan Morris and Sumit Basu (two of MySong/SongSmith’s creators) over the summer, and had a limited glimpse of their march to product.  MySong went through numerous interface iterations and the addition of non-research staff over the period of more than a year to support its transition.

The internet has had a bit of a field day with the campy marketing video, but personally I applaud Microsoft for taking risks with its research properties, and Dan and Sumit for seeing the thing through.

- Michael Bernstein

The Mother of All Demos, 40 Years On

January 17th, 2009

The year 1968 is etched in every human-computer interaction geek’s memory as the year that Douglas Engelbart unveiled his NLS system, introducing the world to a computer system designed around real information tasks and collaboration.  Oh, right, and it was the debut of the computer mouse.  And screen sharing.  And hypertext.  And dynamic linking.  Feel inadequate yet?

If you’re enough of a user interface geek to know about Engelbart, you probably know that recently Stanford hosted a 40-year anniversary celebration of what has come to be called The Mother of All Demos.  If you’re also enough of a geek to be at MIT, that celebration was some 3000 miles away and probably 60 degrees warmer.  Needless to say, you couldn’t be there.

No longer must we feel deprived: SRI has posted video of the event.

Take a look at the original video and some of the reflection panels.  An exercise for the reader: how did Engelbart’s team overlay realtime video as picture-in-picture with late 60’s technology?  (Seriously.  We don’t know.)

- Michael Bernstein

Writing Rich Mobile Phone Applications in Javascript with PhoneGap

January 17th, 2009

To date, mobile phone applications that wish to take advantage of phones’ unique abilities such as GPS location, vibration and accelerometers have needed native code — for example, Objective C for the iPhone — to do so.  The mobile Web, by contrast, has been limited to the same set of Javascript tools that are available on desktops.  This means that these APIs, which are critical to the success of many mobile applications, are unavailable to the web developer.  Mobile Gmail can’t help you find e-mails that you sent in a particular location, though a native Gmail application might be able to.

Enter PhoneGap, a multiplatform tool that proposes to change all this.  PhoneGap, for iPhone, Blackberry and Android, can be packaged as a library into a mobile application (really a thin wrapper around a web browser) that you point at your web site.  Then, your web site gains a Javascript API to all the rich functionality described before.  Viola, a mobile Gmail web site with location tracking!

PhoneGap could open up development opportunities to those without the time to learn those pesky new APIs, who want to develop multiplatform mobile applications, or who simply find web development a more cuddly environment.

- Michael Bernstein

Latest Facebook stats

January 16th, 2009

Out of 140 million Facebook users, 13 million update their statuses every day.  That’s about 9%.  And they’re gaining over 600,000 new users a day.

- Eirik Bakke

Apple, Google, and You

January 16th, 2009

A nice conceptual user interface comparison here. It strikes me that the latter of the three interfaces is the kind that people churn out using FileMaker, MS Access, 4th dimension etc. These tools encourage interfaces like this in the way they are built, especially through wizards that automatically generate for instance a search form for a particular table in a database. I was once a user of such a specialized piece of database software — it was a 4D application written by a small company of three programmers to help with the administration of public Norwegian music schools (in other words, truly obscure). The forms looked exactly like in the third example except that all dialog boxes had an aquarium-themed image background. Occasionally the developers would visit our customer site, taking suggestions for improvement. “Could you do this?” we’d say. “Sure, it will be in the next release” they’d respond, usually keeping their word. Until one day, when we asked “Could you add a field to each customer where we can store X?” and their answer was “Sorry, no can do, for there is no more space in the dialog box.”

- Eirik Bakke

list.it Paper Nominated for “Best Note” at CHI

January 16th, 2009

“Examining Personal Information Keeping in a Lightweight Note-Taking Tool,” the list.it study, has been nominated for the best technical note award at CHI 2009. Congratulations!

- Eirik Bakke

Punishment: An Approach to UI Problems?

January 16th, 2009

It once again seems clear that once someone has first sent out an e-mail to far too many people (even a blank one in this case), chances are a few of the receipients will respond to it, and chances are that a few of those again will find it natural to Reply to All. The State Department’s approach to avoiding the problem in the future is interesting, though: they simply threaten people with some sort of “disciplinary action” for using Reply to All on large lists. Maybe it’s effective, maybe it’s not, but at least those careless spammers will be put to justice. Reminds me of a memorable quote from a user manual, about a special “School features” mode which hides a bunch of advanced functionality from the software in question:

Sibelius doesn’t prevent students going into the Preferences dialog themselves to switch the disabled features back on, but you can threaten them with punishment if they try this.”

- Eirik Bakke