Friday, August 31, 2007

The problem with knowledge, part deux

In keeping with the theme of maps started by the now extremely famous Miss Teen South Carolina (she should think about a book and movie deal given the amount of press her answer has seen), Isabel (over at God Plays Dice), wrote an interesting post on ways of drawing the US Interstate Highway system.

In particular, she references this map. This is a simplified version of the system.

When you go into a service station and try to find a map in the US, you can't buy this one. Yet, it strikes me as a MORE effective way of displaying interstate routes than a map with exacting coordinates and relationships.

You just don't need to store the level of detail found on a conventional map to understand or navigate your way through this system. This map is perhaps the best internal representation of what most people probably know - the general direction and position of these roads.

When we abstract away layers of knowledge to more efficiently store it for what we USE it for, the details become lost. Testing our knowledge of the details, no matter how simple the test, is ridiculous. When asked to recreate the US highway system, I am sure many people would try and curve roads around landmarks, lakes, mountains, farms fields etc. and scratch their head when they can't quite remember how this or that road curves. Not realizing that a straight grid and a few semi-circles is all they actually know, and need to know.

When you do research on product and brand attributes you see the same effect. While most marketers believe consumers are aware of every differentiating feature of their product/brand, most consumers have already abstracted away these differences into broader 'maps'. 'Maps' anchored by the things they care about the most.

The faster we realize that our heads aren't full of facts waiting to be regurgitated at a moments notice, the fewer stumped Miss Teen South Carolinas there will be.

That's a good thing, right?

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

UK House Price Roller Coaster

Ok, so I managed to actually get this thing working (as mentioned in this post). It's definitely not as interesting as the US one - partly because I could only go back to 1953 and partly because the real wild ride in UK house prices seems to have just started.

As a data visualization it's probably not the most effective. A simple graph would tell you all you need to know. Still, by the time you hit the year 2000, you are on a path that is considerably different to anything in the previous 50 years - that at least is very clear.

Be sure to watch it all the way to the end.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The problem with knowledge

This has to be one of the funniest things I have seen in a while. Poor Miss South Carolina in the Miss Teen USA competition has a hard time answering the question "Why do you think a fifth of Americans can't locate the US on a map of the world?".

To start with, you can't help but feel sorry for the poor girl. Public speaking is tough. It takes experience to overcome direction-less rambling when stumped.

But what is obvious when you look back at her initial reaction is that she was, well and truly, stumped. But why? The question seems so easy! It's obviously a polite way to ask why Americans are so culturally inept and ignorant of even their own place in the world (which isn't completely true). She could have just rambled on about the need for education, more cultural sensitivity etc, any number of PC buzzwords.

She didn't because she failed to deduce that this outwardly innocuous question had any deeper meaning. She was just trying to figure out why someone wouldn't know where the US was - of course it's due to the lack of maps!

The real problem is that the premise of the question is wrong. Not knowing where the US is on a map of the world is not an indication of ignorance or lack of 'worldliness', it's an indication that the knowledge itself is largely useless.

Why would you ever need to locate your country on a map of the world? Yes, there are exceptions, but for most people (at least a fifth of Americans) it's easy to conceive why this knowledge is redundant. And besides, what sort of test do you use? A blank map of the world with no city names and just coastline? Give anyone a globe fully annotated with landmark and urban center names and I am sure they are going to have no problem picking out NY and LA and guessing the US is in the middle. All the knowledge they need to store is that one is on the west coast and one on the east.

This issue reminded me of another test that seemingly showed a lack of attention to detail. When given 20 different versions of the face of a 1 cent coin (with different positioning of the inscriptions etc.), most Americans couldn't pick the correct one. Why? Because you don't need to know the exact features of the 1 cent coin, the knowledge is, again, useless. You just need to know how it differs from the other coins in your wallet, in size and shape, for the system to work.

And that's the problem with knowledge - it's easy to measure in the wrong way. In the case of Miss Teen South Carolina, her undecipherable ramblings might have made her the poster child for dumb blonds, but in my opinion, the question was as equally stupid.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Best4c online flow-chart design site

Just came across this site - Best4c. It's an online flow-chart design tool. It's pretty nifty.

One click on Try For Free brings up the program (inside the browser) and in less than 10 secs you can start to create diagrams.

Easy. Fast. Useful. Everything an online offering like this should be.

For those of you who are still trying to design flow-charts in Excel or Powerpoint, this tool is probably orders of magnitude better!

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Not practical or meaningfull, just... beautiful

A good inspiration piece from our friends at Information Aesthetics.

I was never a huge fan of community art. Just because you invite someone to post something they have created and combine it with other creations, doesn't mean a higher meaning emerges. But maybe that's not the point...

My wife constantly tells me to stop trying to explain the meaning behind movies - I always wondered how you could appreciate something if you didn't understand it as a metaphor? She made me realize that sometimes you just enjoy things and move on.

She's smart like that.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Some more data visualizations - UK house prices

Since looking (and screaming) at the Greatest Ever Data Visualization, I was curious to see what UK house prices have looked like over time (spurred on by my sister who lives there, and was curious to see what it would look like):

House Price by Year

This is a pretty nasty looking trend.

A couple of points though. The vertical scale is plotted against the average of the distribution, not the actual house price. This is because I couldn't (easily) figure out how to adjust the scale in Swivel (something I will be trying to find out how to do later). However, the trend when plotting against the average and the actual values trend is about the same - all equally as scary!

The house prices are for the UK as a whole and came from Nationwide's very useful data download facility.

The adjusted figures were from entering the unadjusted house price into this calculator. It uses the Retail Price Index (RPI) to calculate the value of the price in 2006 pounds. This seemed to be a logical thing to do - adjusting for inflation in everyday goods (as that is how you tend to 'value' your money). However, I have seen shorter runs of adjusted house price data that have different price levels, if similar trends. If anyone knows what additional adjustments are used, please let me know. I might have a bit of a poke around some economic sites to try and find out.

Next step, plotting it to a roller coaster.... stay tuned.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Brand in the Machine

Following on from my previous post about Design, Norman divides good design into 4 stages:

  1. Visibility - simply looking at something (with no direct knowledge of how it works) gives the user the state of the device and the alternatives for action.
  2. Conceptual Model - a 'model' designed into the operations of a device to give the user a coherent and consistent image of functionality.
  3. Mappings - making it easy to determine the relationships between actions and results, between the functions and their effects.
  4. Feedback - the user receives full and continuous feedback about the results of their actions.
For building anything with a User Interface (UI), I don't think you could get four better principles.

The only one I would add though, would be 'Tone'. Tone is almost the physical manifestation of each of the above four ideas. It's really the 'aesthetic' delivered in a consistent and coherent manner.

For the innately visible aspects of design (visibility, feedback, even mappings) it's easy to see the importance of Tone - all great products have it. But for certain products, I think you can even extend the idea to the Conceptual Model. It's about having an elegant, or easy, or recognizable, or familiar (a subtle difference) idea running through a product.

Every PC has a basic conceptual model regarding how files are stored - folders. It's a very structured, almost rigid idea that lends itself to very linear thoughts (file size, position in hierarchy, order, etc.). If you use Google Desktop, the conceptual model of 'folders' is replaced by 'search' - files now have relationships to other files based on commonalities of content and meaning, not a position in a hierarchy. 'Search' is less structured, more fluid, less linear.

Conceptual Models thus have 'tone'. Either one may be appropriate. Which one fits best with the design you have?

All of this is Branding - well removed from what many people typically believe Branding to be all about - but Branding nonetheless.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Design of Everyday Things

I think I let a bit of frustration out in the last post. I'm back to thinking and working on things that matter more to the issues at hand for our business - designing a software product.

And on that note, I thought I would make a brief mention of The Design of Everyday Things - a great book by Donald Norman. What intrigued me about it the most was that Norman first published it back in 1988, yet many design experts consider it recommended reading for today's design issues. When you read it you understand why. The principles he talks about are timeless - conceptual models, visibility, natural mapping. They all hark back, in some way, to the notion that we use visual cues to form expectations of function - that whole 'new language' issue I posted about before.

I am only a third of the way through the book, so look for a more complete review later down the track (and when I get some time as work has seemed to engulf me this week and last).

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Why it's so hard to figure out what's going on

A recent post over at Jaffe Juice caught my eye regarding what sources of information Millennials use to find out about 'trendy and hot products' (paraphrasing here, but that's not far off).

I remembered reading something else about TV advertisements recently among tweens, and found the article here.

So from Jaffe's article, only 29% of Millennials find TV ads informative for new trends and cool products, yet 87% of tweens feel that TV ads are one of the best ways for companies to inform them about new products. (?)

But wait, there's more! 78% of Marketers today believe TV advertising is less effective than it once was. However, if you include animals in your ad (particularly Monkeys), effectiveness improves! But unfortunately, Monkeys aren't any defense against ad skipping - 20% of households have DVRs that allow them to skip over the Monkey Ads! And, believe it or not, ad skipping has been going on for ages - 25% of people channel surfed during ads back in 1999.

Maybe all these tweens just love the humorous ads, because it's been proven humor works. Although people are less likely to buy products from humorous ads - but that's beside the point, isn't it?

Forget TV, we'll just put up a whole lot of 'wow' inducing pop-up rich multimedia, targeted, online ads - oh, 81% of people will block them, hmmmm.

Ok, Word of Mouth (WoM) to the rescue. It's been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that 90% of people believe 80% of all WoM messages told to them by half of their friends (still trying to find a link for this one).

The lesson for Marketers then is that a humorous Monkey posing as your friend is about the most effective messaging tool there is.

I'm glad it's so clear.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2007

“the truth is nonsense”

I love reading the interviews of Bryan Appleyard. He writes for the Sunday Times in London and re-prints a lot of the longer form articles on his website (after they have run in the paper).

Reading blogs all day long and then reading Bryan's interviews is like eating spam and then being introduced to filet mignon - not that all blogs are 'spam', it's just that good writing is an art form, and we're not all artists (and we don't need to be either).

This one caught me eye recently. It's a sit-down interview with screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, Last King of Scotland). A small excerpt:

With Frost/Nixon, the emotional landscape was “two desperate, emotionally complex men, unable to be intimate”. For both of them, the American television interviews set up by Frost with the disgraced former president had to be a huge success. Morgan discovered so many different versions of what actually happened, he came to the conclusion that “the truth is nonsense” and regards his play as just one more version, “just another fiction”.

I don't know why this particular paragraph caught my eye - or why the phrase 'the truth is nonsense' stuck...

I think it's because it's so obviously right! The truth IS nonsense. Morgan was trying to piece together the events from other people's versions. When no one can agree what happened, what DID actually happen becomes irrelevant, nonsense.

How many time have we tried to search for the 'truth' only to discover a 'whole lot of fictions' - and that ours is just one more.

I don't really know if that's a useful thought. Definitely too deep to worry about right now.

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Monday, August 6, 2007

The greatest ever data visualization

This is an oldie (at least in web terms), but a goody.

Link to the video (I couldn't get it embedded due to some login error).

I showed this to a colleague of mine who was about to buy a house - I think it left a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach (nothing to do with the ride itself).

Why is it the greatest data visualization ever? Because it makes one point, and one point only in the most effective way possible - scaring the bejeezes out of you!

Thanks to the guys at Freakonomics for first pointing it out.

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Sunday, August 5, 2007

Other components of 'user' language...

Since my last post on UI design and thinking about the common language we all use when interacting with objects, I've given some more thought to how we access 'functionality' in today's browser dominated environment.

'Functionality' is just a fancy work for 'stuff we like to do' - like email, IM, picture sharing, information sharing, etc. When we want to do one of these things, we'll go to the site we use. These sites are either boomarked, in our browser History, shortcuts on our desktop, or even links on our customized browser home page (iGoogle anyone?).

Considering we access all this functionality through our browser, wouldn't it be easier to access ALL functionality the same way? i.e. not having to actually open a desktop application? Say you want to run Word - Excel? And so on.

Of course the url would be meaningless, as these are local desktop applications, running locally. Although some functionality could be remote. And of course, they wouldn't open and run the way they do now. They would exist more as 'tabs' in some hybrid browser environment

You could re-design the entire desktop environment to act seamlessly with the way we access functionality on the web. I think it would work.

I guess these things float around in your head when you're building a SaaS product.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A language we never knew we learned

Have been doing a lot over the past week or so to do with Interface Design for applications. There are some really good resources out there, many linked to on the Adaptive Path blog.

It was a post on this blog recently that caught my eye. Dan Saffer was talking to Bill DeRouchey of Ziba about Interaction Design - how you actually create the interactive user experience (of a software application, a website, a physical product, etc.). It's a good interview, well worth a read if you are designing any sort of interface.

The piece that Dan actually quoted from Bill (below), was what struck me (and obviously him):

We’re surrounded by buttons and icons and little blinky lights that can give us examples of how people think about devices and interaction design because there’s one thing that’s definitely true, people don’t approach the product from a void. They’re taking the learnings that they’ve experienced with other products and they apply them to a new product: that’s why you tend to see the same icons over and over that mean the same thing; they have a stock meaning within the language of interaction design. An arrow tilted on its side and pointing to the right means play because it always means play, and because people know it means play when they approach a new device and they see that, they think, “That’s play.” It’s such a simple thing, but it comes down to the core of a visual language that we all share, and I think it’s important to try to deconstruct that language so we know how people are approaching a new product, a new device. So we can make it intuitive and they can tap into what they already know.
So basically, without even really knowing it, we've all learned a new language. It's the language of icons, buttons, knobs, links - all the interface components of modern technology. We expect certain symbols to convey specific functions and we expect these functions to work in the same way across applications - on the web or desktop. 100 years ago this language was non-existent. Hell, 20 years ago it was almost non-existent. My Dad still doesn't know how to use a web-browser!

Adhering to this 'language' when developing an application interface makes the actual design invisible - we spend no time decoding the interface, it just all works as expected. We all know who does this best.

It's a simple idea. But a powerful one.

Now to just try and figure it out myself...

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