CAT | Usability
Millions of people sleep at night completely unaware that personalised search has steadily been revolutionising the way they see the web and, as with most Google led initiatives, there’s essentially nothing we can do about it…or is there?
Imagine the internet as a vast department store filled with everything you could possibly think of and many things you’d rather not. Google’s place in this department store is the plucky store attendant; tell them what you’re looking for and they’ll gladly guide you to the relevant bits of the store. In the carefree days before personalised search, Google would guide everyone searching for ‘shoes’ to the same shop filled with only the most relevant items, presumably shoes. Now this store attendant takes us to our own bespoke storefront filled with shoes in exactly my size and taste; some utopian retail fantasy where the bricks and mortar are data culled from my past shopping excursions and those of my friends. It’s a favourable analogy: this notion of personalisation has been the death of the retail high street. In the online world where everything is freely available in shiny web 2.0 style, the consumer and search user expects, nay demands, to get exactly what they want.
But the façade of user control is a thinly veiled one. The problem with the covert landing of personalised web over the past few years is just this – it’s entirely justifiable from a user experience point of view. Hate them as you will, but the Panda and Penguin updates did actually provide better results for the casual searcher; this has always been Google’s prerogative despite the indignant gnatter of the SEO’s keyboard. This new UX incentive seems a little twisted though. Clearly everyone likes what they like so there is considerable justification in throwing up related items again and again in search results. But we may also like things we don’t know we like and more importantly, things Google doesn’t know we like. Perhaps I don’t want the same Italian restaurant in my area, but even after the food poisoning subsides the search history remains. I want to holiday somewhere new this year, far away from all my friends and everything they like and generally everyone else on the web, will Google let me? What if I want to boldly go where my search history has never taken me before?
Internet searchers have responded to the increasing relevancy of Google’s search results by making it their shop attendant of choice (alas poor Jeeves, I knew ye not), but personalised search have moved away from this key metric. The notion seems to be that by showing us results we’ve responded to before before, Google is second guessing our future preferences, presumably to make the choice easier, quicker or remove it altogether. But my search history is a terrible approximation of who I am and what I want and thus what is relevant to me. What if I’m on a public computer, my friend’s browser, his Gmail account, what if I mistyped those saucy search terms and never want Google suggesting them at work again? The illusion is that I have already chosen these results through my past search activity, that I am in control here – the reality is that Google’s algorithms are in control.
So is personalised search better in any sense? The pedantic answer is that it depends what you mean by ‘search’; Google, after all, would be the first to concede that not all searches and searchers are the same. Whether any of this bothers you or not will probably depend on whether you’re the semi-mythical user who always knows exactly what they want, or, more likely, if you’re just conducting a basic informational search. But to fall in the other camp you don’t even have to construct leftist arguments about equality and freedom of online information to all, you just have to posses that very human characteristic of mutability.
One site that seems to recognise this is Match.com. Their occasional suggestions of people who don’t fit your ‘type’ recognise the fascist half-truth that the people probably don’t know what’s good for them. ‘I am not just what I search’; a new kind of social rallying-cry against the algorithmic oppressors. Don’t shout it from the streets, rage against the search engine my friends. Turn off personalised search now and rediscover the joy of finding what you weren’t looking for.
The mouse and keyboard have been around for 50 and 140 yrs respectively – offering fast typing and precision cursor clicks at your fingertips, they have become the essential office tool. But outside the office, cutting-edge computer interfaces are changing our gaming and social lives. Xbox Kinect became the fastest selling electronics device when it went on sale two years ago – its motion sensing technology makes for a more intuitive, easy-access interface than the games controller, which explains its broad appeal. New interfaces are also revolutionising the mobile phone industry. Touch keys are out, touch screens are in; and with iphone 4S, the focus is on voice control commands thanks to Siri. What’s next…thought control?
In fact, thought-controlled technology already exists in the form of thought-controlled wheelchairs and monkeys controlling robotic limbs and there is huge potential for expansion of thought-controlled applications for disability assistance. The technology represents the ‘brain-computer interface’ which uses our brain’s physiology. Nerve cells communicate via electrical impulses: when a nerve cell fires, most of the impulse passes onto a neighbouring nerve cell, but electrical leakage means that some of the signal escapes, making detection possible. Brain-computer interfaces detect and interpret electrical signals, and because the different thoughts and emotions that we experience are associated with different arrays of electrical impulses, a computer that can learn what these different signals mean could potentially read our minds. In practice, signals are detected using electroencephalography or EEG – electrodes are placed in different regions on the scalp and pick up the electrical signals from different regions of the brain.
This has immense potential to benefit the lives of the severely disabled. With the help of a brain-computer interface, ‘locked-in’ patients who are paralysed except for eye movements could control a wheelchair, create a message or even operate a robot. This possibility is becoming a reality thanks to technologies such as ‘BrainAble’ and ‘BrainGate’. Although helping the disabled has been the driving force for brain control interfaces, the technology already has more frivolous applications. For example, a ‘mind-reading’ gaming headset is already on the market. The ‘neuroheadset’ allows the player to control basic on-screen movements such as push/pull and lift/drop using thought alone. The headset also detects facial expressions using motion-sensing technology, which is used to project the player’s emotions onto their on-screen character.
Imagine where the technology could take us: an ipod that could shuffle to different tunes according to what mood your headset picks up from your neural signals. And how about a smartphone operated by thought commands. Rather than talking aloud to your phone as with iphone 4S (“what’s the weather like in London” etc.), which can be rude or embarrassing in some contexts, you could find out more discreetly using thought commands. A rival technology hoping to offer smarter more discreet information access is Google’s augmented reality glasses. Location-specific information would be projected onto the lenses, for example, warning the user of tube disruption as they approach a subway entrance.
Let’s not get carried away – there’s a reason the gaming character could only carry out simple actions. By the time the neural signals have reached a headset they have already had to pass through quite a lot of bone and tissue and are therefore weakened and distorted. For disabled patients, electrodes can be surgically inserted into/on the surface of the brain to get a clearer signal, but few gamers would go that far for their hobby. It’s also unlikely that an external headset could be used to achieve accurate cursor placement and for this reason, the mouse is not likely to be rivalled by brain-controlled cursors any time soon. On the other hand, a thought-controlled cursor has been invented using electrodes placed on the brain surface rather than into the brain tissue. Once brain-computer interfaces are commercially available, they could have real potential to help paralysed patients.
At the risk of sounding like an Edwardian school boy, I think Twitter is magic. I mean this in the supernatural sense (fitting, as it was Halloween last weekend). The mysteries of the internet have always struck me as evidence of occult intervention somewhere - some particularly intuitive websites send my eyes scouring the page for evidence of pentagons – but Twitter really takes the biscuit.
Twitter gives words the sort of power that has traditionally been associated with witchcraft. When a tweeter writes a particular formula, their words create a genuine effect. However, ancient runes have been replaced by a very modern symbol: the hashtag. This tool bridges the divide between words that communicate and words that perform an action. The hashtag may have originated as a way for participants to organize material on Twitter, but it has developed real power.
When Livestrong wanted to raise awareness of cancer, they tweeted the words #beatcancer. Each time the hashtag was consequently repeated, PayPal and SWAGG donated $0.05 to cancer charities. Suddenly, words didn’t just say something, they did it. Formerly only magic users have been attributed the power to use words to such tangible effect.
It could be that this unprecedented power is a symptom of larger scale decline. For a time the internet was fertile ground for writers. Text-only blogs abounded as technological restrictions limited communication to text. Now however, many brands use text merely as a gateway into a multimedia experience. Thus we come to another use of the hashtag. Recently, an Orange campaign offered to record certain hashtagged tweets as songs. In doing so, the campaign reduced text to the status of prototype; not quite the real thing.
Of course, there are benefits to an increasingly visual online experience. Key examples are increased usability and ease of access. Firstly, in contrast to a dense paragraph of text, video narratives require less initial commitment from the user. Thus, in using visual media, designers and developers are reacting to the requirements of casual web users. Another instance of these benefits is something we at Open CC have developed with the Whitechapel Gallery. We have enriched an exhibition with additional text, images and film which are accessible to smart phones. This is enabled by QR Codes – 2D barcodes which, when scanned, circumnavigate the need for a textual URL. The aim is to provide the user with engaging content immediately – without the requirement to type an address on a fiddly keypad interface. The reward, without the effort.
All this goes some way to explaining why, when I read media blogs, I am often struck by the apparent consensus that text will soon be obsolete. The future, we are told, lies in digital rich media – brimming with images, videos and interaction. We have seen that whilst text is used increasingly as a tool for linking one source to another (rather than as a reliable documenter itself), it may soon become redundant even for this purpose. Perhaps, then, the magical power of the hashtag is not only a triumph, but a swansong.
It was only ever a matter of time before our two main channels of media communication were united. The Internet has revolutionised everything from accessing news to purchasing music – our social lives are managed online, and now the opportunity to transform television has been given the green light.
For those of you who are new to the idea, YouView (née Project Canvas), in a nutshell, is TV delivered over the Internet. It is a collaboration between broadcasters (the BBC, ITV, Five, Channel 4 and Arqiva) and broadband network providers (BT and TalkTalk) to develop a subscription-free, web-linked TV service combining Freeview digital channels with on-demand content such as iPlayer. This long-awaited IPTV project, hailed as the ‘Holy Grail’ for future public service broadcasting by BBC Director General Mark Thompson, promises to ‘change the way we watch television forever’, and is coming to our living rooms in early 2011. Such proclamations are to be expected from one of the project’s main backers – but they leave the rest of us wondering whether we really need another set-top box to add to our collection and whether IPTV really is the way forward.
The answer from the YouView consortium is, unsurprisingly, a resounding ‘yes’. It maintains that this simple and free-to-access service, with its easy-to-navigate interface, will soon be a necessity for all UK homes. YouView Chief Executive Richard Halton says the scheme is a great alternative for those who lack the ability or inclination to pay a monthly subscription for similar services offered by companies such as Sky and Virgin. These rivals are predictably unimpressed by YouView’s developments. But complaints to Ofcom that YouView will stifle competition are undermined by the fact that they’ll always have the lure of additional premium channels to tempt viewers.
The evolution of Project Canvas has been something of a roller coaster. It didn’t exactly have an easy start, with the failure of a similar BBC project (Kangaroo) back in 2008 still looming and vocal criticism coming from the likes of Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch. To make matters worse, Five opted to pull out of the deal in July (they later decided to rejoin). Recently, the scheme has earned a little more support, and Project Canvas was re-christened ‘YouView’, a name touted for some time, in September. Perhaps it’s just a happy coincidence that this name bears an uncanny resemblance to both Freeview itself and a certain global video sharing site owned by Google. A more appropriate moniker might have been ‘iView’, in keeping with ‘iPlayer’ or, better still, ‘iTV’ – although I’ve definitely heard the latter somewhere before.
In terms of functionality, YouView will enable you to watch so-called ‘Linear TV’ (the channels currently offered via Freeview and Freesat) as before, along with video-on-demand services like iPlayer and 4oD. In addition, you’ll be able to access popular sites like YouTube, Facebook and Flickr and on-demand pay TV – films, US drama and sport – all with a wave of your remote control. A recent YouView press release also boasted that it would be a potential platform for local TV services, making it ‘easier for viewers to discover and interact with localised content’.
It’s true that there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about YouView. It has the usual suite of features you’d expect – HD, a video recorder and the ability to pause/rewind live TV – but what it does do is combine this with the enormous potential of the Internet in one nifty, take-home box. The fact that VoD services are available on something other than a laptop screen (or a Virgin Media package) will be the biggest draw for some.
On top of this, as an open platform, YouView is set to boast a whole array of interactive features – apps, widgets, games, you name it. This presents a massive opportunity for content, device and application developers to dip their toes into the IPTV market. The implications for viewers (or perhaps ‘users’ would now be a better term) look exciting.
It will be interesting to see whether this BBC-backed venture pays off. As competition to take over the small screen hots up from a clutch of other big names like Apple and Google, we have to wonder whether YouView will be the one to make the cut. If you’ve been following YouView’s development, or would like to comment on any of the above, please get in touch!
Most of you will be familiar with Foursquare, which allows its users to check-in at various places around town, and share favourite locations with their friends in real-time, while they’re already at the pub, the park or the gig. The point is to connect friends and places with one another – a bit of ‘planned serendipity’, the buzzwords so frequently tossed around by the architects of this and similar services.
Facebook has decided to enter the location-sharing social media market. The company has unveiled a new feature it calls ‘Places’, which functions a little like Foursquare, but with more emphasis on sharing the quality and stories related to particular experiences, in particular places, with particular people, particularly. The first concern which normally emerges with applications like Foursquare and Facebook Places is, naturally, privacy: Is my every location being broadcast to complete strangers? Will I be digitally cased by prospective thieves who know when I’m home and when I am not? Or, rather than being held up at a late-night meeting in lieu of attending her exhibition opening, will my girlfriend accidentally find out that I’m in the pub with my mates through an automatic check-in notification? Don’t let the specificity of the last example mislead you – these are just a few hypotheticals to meditate on (but for the record, the late-night meeting DID take place).
Nevertheless, there’s no question that over-sharing in social media is the result of both the products and services themselves – and how they’re used. Shortly after Foursquare’s release, a campaign called ‘Please Rob Me’ launched. This site did nothing more than aggregate publicly shared check-ins upon its launch, but its name and the design of the website (for would-be robbers and thieves to see who isn’t home) illustratrated its real purpose: to educate people on some of the more dangerous effects of location-sharing.
Point taken. But defenders of services like Foursquare and the newly-minted Facebook Places also are right to point out that the privacy risk is generally based on how these services are used – and the way users configure their privacy settings. Besides, is it any more dangerous than telling someone you have a 9-5 job in town? Or updating your Facebook status to let people know you’re on holiday in Spain? In some ways, no – although the ability for Facebook users to check their friends in without their permission is one issue centred on by critics.
While discussion of these location-sharing services is generally dominated by privacy and the dos-and-don’ts of trumpeting one’s every movement (bowel included), it was actually the words “planned serendipity” used briefly in the marketing video demonstration of Facebook Places which struck me. In fact, they bothered me. Why, beyond the fact of their wilfil self-contradiction, did they bother me? The short answer: because serendipity is fun as it is.
Serendipity is one of the things in life I tend to embrace. How often is it the case that the best people you meet, the most interesting facts, the most engaging events, the most enjoyable and fulfilling jobs you undertake, are happened upon by a seemingly random series of events? Serendipity has also served me well when it hasn’t produced the most satisfying or enjoyable outcomes. All the accidental wrong-turns and (so it seems at the time) dead-ends I’ve encountered in my life, figuratively and often literally, were enriching experiences because (I’d like to think) I’ve learned from them and grew as a result. Failure, which is almost never planned for, is one of the most enriching experiences one can have – even if it may not seem like that at the time.
Colleagues and friends of mine claim they use Foursquare more often than not to see what places to avoid: a certain ex has checked in to the Starbucks down the street; a work colleague – to whom a report is owed – just checked in to the restaurant at which you were planning to eat; and so forth. The downside of being constantly aware of the location of your ‘friends’ (in Facebook parlance – not to be confused with actual friends, obviously) might be the impact this has on your choice to seek out or avoid certain spaces.
Contrary to the intent of its architects, Foursquare – when used like this – does exactly the opposite of what it originally set out to do: open the doors to all kinds of new experiences, and connect them through a variety of overlapping networks. Facebook Places attempts to emphasize the attachment of stories and experiences to various locations – like a running review of existence. The service hasn’t landed in the UK yet so it’s a bit early to tell whether or not it will be used in a more interesting way than comparable predecessors.
A close friend of mine who teaches adult education in Canada is trying to use Foursquare as a force for good, with fairly positive results. His students – all of whom have BlackBerrys, iPhones and Android devices – receive points each time they check in at a museum or art gallery around town, but they can only collect and exchange those points – largely in the form of Starbucks gift certificates – by volunteering a five to ten minute presentation on an exhibit or feature piece at one of these places. Many of his students do in fact visit these places – and use Foursquare to see if their friends are checking (in and) out (of) the same spots as well.
It’s not quite planned serendipity, but as a result of his little experiment the number of half-open bloodshot eyes visible during the early morning portion of his class has dropped by over half. Like myself, he hopes that someone will produce an application that brings serendipity back to location-sharing social media products – kind of like if stumbleupon, Facebook and Foursquare had a baby. Facebook Places is in the early stages of its conception – perhaps this is the child we’ve been looking for.
So a recent Geek Dad post on Wired.co.uk asks us whether children are getting spoiled by touch screen technology. It raises an interesting point, particularly in the context of Adam Standings description of catching his son: “smearing his hands all over the TV screen in a bizarre fashion. It turned out that he was trying to change channel the same way he had seen me select music on my iPhone by scanning the Cover Flow system.”
It also interestingly echoes Matthew Robson's glib declamation to Morgan Stanley last summer that 'anything with a touch screen is desirable&apos.
With the developments in gesture based control on the Wii, DS, Playstation Move and Natal, not to mention the iPad and MS Tablet, it&aposs not all that wild a speculation to suppose that the not-too-distant future may see office workers in their cubicles flinging images and files around a la Minority report, like a weird and solemn mass game of charades. But is it spoiling children? Are we setting them up for a fall? Well, no. At least, no more than the development of the telephone or the automobile did (which some might argue is a great deal). Let's imagine a situation where someone who grew up believing touch screen control was completely ubiquitous, was presented with a 1980's gameboy. At best it might excite their curiosity, in the same way that floppy disks or betamax do current adolescents. At worst, dripping disdain.
I would, however, be very surprised to see them left paralysedly clueless, pawing ineffectually at its 2 tone screen. But then, I rather naively think I could get along alright without my mobile phone.
What is worth noting is that Adam's son smearing his hands on the television set may be a harbinger of a real step change in UI design. As people's expectations change to the degree that they think every screen is a touch screen, so UI design will have to keep up. It may be that the UI designer's skillset may be virtually unrecognisable in a couple of years.