Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Enjoying Thanksgiving with Social Media

A lot can be said about the value of social media, with arguments for real business value or ways to stay connected with friends and family or even that most of it is just egocentric drivel. As one of the purveyors of egocentric drivel in my Twitter stream, I can understand that it's not for everybody. I did find a way to garner at least some faint interest in naysayers, however.

Last year I hosted Thanksgiving dinner at my pocket-sized house and practically counter-free kitchen for a dozen people. Since I had been in the kitchen almost non-stop since the prior afternoon I wasn't in much of a position to entertain my guests, but I did have something they found fascinating. I had just discovered the Brightkite Wall.

For those who don't know, Brightkite is a microblogging service, like Twitter, that also has built-in support for photos and geolocation, allowing you to "check in" to a location and post messages and images about the place (or event, etc.). It predates Foursquare, but does not use the game model at all and allows you to check in from anywhere in the world, not a restricted list of pre-defined cities.

Watching the Brightkite wall, waiting for guests.

The Brightkite Wall essentially turns your display into a simple electronic billboard, showing a stream of posts (text and images) as they come through the service. Last year I fed this directly to my television and let my family watch people comment and post photos throughout the day, watching shot after shot of peoples' meals, kitchens, families, turkey failures, plate mishaps, and comments about naps. It seemed a little voyeuristic, but it was also a great way to experience Thanksgiving across the country as a whole, feeling some sort of connection with people I've never met. We watched meals ebb and flow with the timezones, people try to juggle more than one stop, and many missives about things for which people were thankful (and more than a few for what they were not thankful). It became quite an interactive affair in my house as everyone commented on their favorite images or updates and as they pressed me to post photos of our meal.

Some guests before dinner.

I finally get to eat.

This year I am not hosting, but I am bringing my laptop so, just in case anyone remembers, we can fire it up and watch this little slice of Americana play itself out throughout the day.

If you want to try this yourself, I have some configuration suggestions. First of all, you don't have to have a Brightkite account to use the wall. I recommend creating a Universe Stream instead of limiting it to one geographic area, one person, or one search term. Make sure you disable check-ins. You don't need to see that some guy named Ed checked in at 1313 Mockingbird Lane, you just want to see the comments and photos. If you want to see Twitter posts, you can enter Twitter search terms. These will help filter the tweets that get folded into the stream. You may need to adjust settings when you do it — when I ran this last year I didn't worry about Twitter spam or vulgarities.

Click for a full-size view of the configuration screen.

This little experiment made it much easier to explain what social media is and how it works, and I think it made for a richer Thanksgiving. I do recommend a big enough display that people can see from across the room, since nobody who's overeaten on Thanksgiving wants to be crowded by others around a laptop.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving and I look forward to your Brighkite posts (and tweets).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

4 Principles of Mobile UX Design

Boxes and Arrows has an article titled "Four Key Principles of Mobile User Experience Design" written by a former academic mobile UX (User eXperience) researcher. As the author transitioned to private sector he felt that when mobile UX was discussed it was too driven by the gee-whiz factors and not practical principles of mobile user experience. He authors these four principles as a result, which I am summarizing here.

1: There is an intimate relationship between a user and his/her mobile device.

The example the author cites is loaning your phone to someone on a hot, sticky day. Most of us are uncomfortable letting someone fiddle with our phones — partly because of personal data on the phone, and partly because we are so physically tied to our phones we don't want others to soil them.

2: Screen size implies a user's state. The user's state infers his/her commitment to what is on the screen.

The author argues that the declining screen real estate between movie screens, TVs, computers and, ultimately, mobile phones corresponds to the commitment the user has to watch a movie. The real point I take from this that it is far easier to abandon a non-functioning site when on a mobile device, when your attention is already probably minimal, than it would be if you were using a full computer, with the ability adjust a bad experience through browser features and so on.

3: Mobile interfaces are truncated. Other interfaces are not.

Mobile phones themselves do not offer the full array of input options as a computer does. A small QWERTY keyboard (at best), touch screen, and maybe some accelerometers are a far cry from a 12-key number pad, but they don't offer all the options that a desktop computer offers with a mouse, multiple document interface, accelerator/modifier keys and so on. Expecting users to casually enter as much data on the mobile device as they would on their desktop computer is a bad starting point. This has always made me wonder why the .mobi TLD was approved when it has one more character than .com.

4: Design for mobile platforms — the real ones.

The author reminds us that there are four components to mobile devices: Voice, messaging, internet, and applications. It's common for the industry to get caught up in manufacturer-specific features and forget the core of the platform.

Read Up!

There are some good comments on the article furthering the discussion of mobile as a platform beyond just web browsing.

Friday, November 20, 2009

YouTube Will Automatically Caption Your Video

Three years ago YouTube/Google added the ability for video authors to add captions to videos. Over time support for multiple caption tracks was included, the expansion of search to consider text in captions, and even machine translation support for the captions (see my other post about machine translation risks).

Even with hundreds of thousands of captioned videos on YouTube, new videos are posted at the rate of 20 hours of video per minute. For many companies (and not-for-profits and government agencies), YouTube provides the most cost-effective and ubiquitous method to distribute video content to users. So many of these organizations (particularly not-for-profits and government agencies) are required by law (US and elsewhere) to provide captions for video, but don't have the experience or tools to do so. Users who are deaf are excluded from fully understanding this content as a result.

This is where the speech recognition features (ASR) of Google Voice come into play. This technology can parse the audio track of your videos and create captions automatically. Much like machine translation, the quality of these captions may not be the best, but it can at least provide enough information for a user who could not otherwise understand the video at all to glean some meaning and value.

In addition, Google is launching "automatic caption timing," essentially allowing authors to easily make captions using a text file. As the video creator, an author will be able to create a text file with all the words in the video and Google's speech recognition software will figure out where those words are spoken and take care of the timing. This technique can greatly increase the quality of captions on videos with very little effort (or cash outlay for tools) on the part of the video creator.

You can read more at the the YouTube Help Center article. You can also read the blog post announcing this feature at the Google Blog. The video below shows a short demo about the auto-captioning and auto-timing features.

Update (August 25, 2010): Paul Bukhovko of FatCow was kind enough to translate this entry into Belorussian: YouTube аўтаматычна захоплівае сваё відэа

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

IE9 First Details

Microsoft revealed some first details of Internet Explorer 9 at the Microsoft Professional Developer's Conference, as reported by Mashable today. Only in development for three weeks, there's still quite a lot of time before it gets to market. According to Mashable, Microsoft did have the following to say:

  • On HTML 5: Microsoft was coy about whether it would support all of the HTML 5 standards, the next generation of HTML. The company doesn’t seem willing to commit to the standard until it is set in stone, but “wants to be responsible” about supporting it.
  • On Javscript: They admit that their previous browsers don’t match the speed of Firefox or Chrome. However, it appears that IE9 looks to narrow this gap. From some of the data they presented, it looks like they’re getting closer to matching the other browsers (though they don’t beat them).
  • On CSS Support: It looks like IE9 will finally get better CSS support, especially for rounded corners. It’s a disappointment though, when you consider the other browsers have supported these things for years.
  • On Hardware Acceleration: IE9 will utilize DirectX hardware acceleration to improve graphic and AJAX rendering. It will push more work towards the GPU. This is actually looks pretty slick from first appearances.

While I can understand Microsoft's position that HTML5 is not set and therefore may not support everything in the barely-draft spec, some of the elements seem pretty well locked in with only minor syntax and rendering issues left to suss out. To that point, I hope Microsoft can at least work in that support. The CSS support is a whole different story. Given how long the CSS2 spec has been out there (since 1996), it would be nice if they'd commit to fully supporting it, even if they aren't yet sure about CSS3 support.

As Internet Explorer's market share is slowly eroded by Firefox, Safari and Chrome (on a trend that, if projected as a simple linear graph, would see IE go away by 2021), Microsoft is motivated to increase the overall performance of its next browser. Unfortunately, given the slow pace at which IE version 8 is being adopted over older versions (still at 34.1% of all IE installations after release March 19, 2009, versus IE7 at 37.6% after release October 2006 and IE6 at 28.3% from way back in August 2001), it is quite likely that even after IE9 is released it may be years before developers can rely on its features on public-facing web sites.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Screen Reader User Survey Results

WebAIM is a non-profit organization within the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University that focuses on accessible web content and technologies. WebAIM conducted a survey of the preferences of screen reader users back in December 2008, gathering a lot of interesting data about how users utilize assistive technologies (you can see the results of that survey at the WebAIM site).

WebAIM conducted another survey in October to track preferences of screen reader users. They received 665 responses to the survey consisting of a mix of disabled (90%) and abled users (10%). It's not a truly scientific survey, but it provides some valuable insight into usage patterns and user expectations.

I've just posted an article, WebAIM Screen Reader User Survey Results outlining the results of the survey. A couple excerpts:


Pie chart of mobile screen reader use.

Most surprising to me was that 53% of those with disabilities claim they use a screen reader on a mobile device. More proficient screen reader users were more likely to use a mobile screen reader. If developers already struggle with building sites for mobile devices or struggle with building sites to be accessible, this can seem like a difficult challenge for many. The survey doesn't gather other information on mobile use, perhaps because they were surprised by its prevalence as well.

Finding Information

Users were asked how they go about finding information on a lengthy web page. 50.8% of users indicated they they use the page headings to navigate (really bolstering the argument of using proper headings in your content). 22.9% use the "find" feature of the browser, 16.1% navigate the links on the page, and 10.1% read through the page (and are apparently far more patient than I).

Go read the rest of the article. Now. Go.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Google Dashboard: What Google Knows about You

Google announced a new service/feature today, Google Dashboard. Given all the services Google offers and all the ways you can interact with Google, it's not surprising many people have privacy concerns and conspiracy theories (do enough people watch The Simpson's for me to make an MLB joke here?). Google announced it in a blog post today (Transparency, choice and control — now complete with a Dashboard!) and included a handy video to walk users through the process of accessing Google Dashboard. Dashboard essentially offers a one-stop view of all the data in your Google account across 20 of its services, including Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Web History, Orkut, YouTube, Picasa, Talk, Reader, Alerts, and Latitude. If you are interested in privacy policies for each of Google's services, head over to their Privacy Center.