From "always-on" to "unifocus" - from attention buyers to attention generators
This is something that I have thinking about lately as I work back and forth between Flash, Flex, and WPF. One thing is becoming clear to me lately. I love having the XML markup layer that is present in both Flex and WPF. It makes it much easier to keep a clean separation between the model and the view in data-driven applications. Data binding is another powerful tool that I instantly begin to miss when working in Flash.
Another feature of WPF that I really wish Flash would adopt is the generation of code when drawing graphics in the Flash IDE. It's great to be able draw graphics in Blend and then immediately be able to see the code that was generated. This allows you to fine-tune properties of the graphic in code. The fact that you will be able to generate XML animation data from the Flash timeline is a great step in this direction.
So let's say that Flex Builder had the ability to draw graphics and had a timeline for generating XML animations. Would there still be a need for the Flash IDE? One reason that I can think of would be that Flash allows you to create much more optimized code and smaller SWF files. Publishing an empty Flex project is already over 150k in size.
I think Expression Blend is a great example of a tool that could exist in the Flash world. You can create graphics visually and at the same time be able edit the code being generated. You can animate using a timeline which also is generating editable code. Built-in support for data binding and component styling are also nice features to have.
I'm sure that I'm missing a lot of reasons why this wouldn't be a good idea, but it's something to think about anyway.
Ok, so that was a crude title, but it's appropriate. The fellas over at Nuance Labs are blogging their application development in real time. Nuance is developing a web-based application to tackle the challenges of the GTD way of things. They describe their blog as sharing "a behind the scenes view of creating a web service to organize your life."
This is not a novel approach. Indeed, the folks at Carson Systems blogged the development of Amigo at Bare Naked App and are now using the domain to blog the sale of DropSend, their file transfer application.
The content of these sites appears to be very detailed and honest. Nuance's blog just revealed the name of their app and gave interface designer D. Keith Robinson space to describe his initial thoughts on building out the system. Carson Systems has even gone so far as to divulge financial information about DropSend.
What are the benefits of such a move? Easily the biggest benefit has to be the buzz it generates (see: this blog post). However, there is a more important factor to consider, and that is the humanization of the companies involved. No, we don't personally know the people at Carson Systems or Nuance, but we will feel their pain as they struggle with the same frustrations we struggle with. We will see their successes as they happen, we will know the application was flawed, fixed, and built with passion. And because of all this, we will trust the product and it's team before we have even used it. If it works and the blogs get a following, then it is an incredibly powerful marketing tool.
Both of these companies are small, consisting of a mere handful of employees. Could a large organization pull this off? I think they could, but it would be a hard sell, both internally and externally. Internally, people tend to be very distrustful of divulging secrets and problems, and externally it will be hard to convince the public that the information is unfiltered and real. Microsoft has tried a bit of this with their developer blogs and I think it went a long way towards the acceptance of IE 7 in the overly-fickle community of web developers (a community I am a part of).
Personally, I'd like to see more of this type of communication, but it may be too much for many companies to swallow.
I follow developments in news aggregators because they often serve as a bellwether for how we are collectively dealing with the task of finding important things in the vast information infinity of the web. Strategies differ considerably between the many companies in this space, but most offerings fall on what is becoming a well-defined continuum. In one corner, there is Google News representing the robots. On the other end is Digg, representing thousands of bored-at-work geeks. Both ends of the spectrum offer clear reflections of an important shift in journalism. While once upon a time there were editors to determine tone and journalistic "brand," the critical factors in determining the editorial vision of an aggregator are decisions about its technology.
My pattern of news checking throughout the day takes both ends of the spectrum into account. In the morning, I do a quick sweep of something like Google News. At this point, I'm not looking for angles, just the big stories. Once I've absorbed those, I switch gears. I'm now looking for perspective and small surprises. This is the kind of thing it's much harder for an automated reader to pick out. Google's traffic ranking used for picking out news wasn't designed to troll the long tail. Finding something unique and surprising is pretty hard for even a human to do - which is why sites like The Drudge Report get huge amounts of traffic. As it turns out though, it's something that thousands of people can do if their responses are filtered and weighted correctly, and that's what Digg is all about. Digg is not about to tell you exactly how they do it, but it's reported to be a calculation between momentum (tons of votes) and influence (user often submits highly ranked links).
The important difference is that while Google News presumably reflects the vox populi, it seems voiceless. The top stories are repeated there as elsewhere, and since they're all redistributing the same AP stories, whether you get the news there or on CNN is relatively unimportant. Digg, by contrast, has as much of a voice as single-editor news blogs like Drudge Report. Digg can surface anything, but the news it does surface is a clear reflection of a particular community's interests. Digg's voice is not the best thing to listen to if you want deep political insight or serious cultural critique. It is, however, extremely good at picking out stories that are just interesting. It's very rare that I go to Digg without clicking on something.
Last year, bbc.com held a contest to inspire their redesign. The winning idea was something called "BBC Malkovich" - which (taking its cue from the movie) contained a slider at the top that would shift from news suited to your perspective, over to news from the perspective of someone very different than yourself. The design is hypothetical, but if it were possible, it would avoid the danger of overpersonalization that Andrew Shapiro warns about, while preserving the ability to find the kind of things you want to know about. Shapiro's idea, that the middleman we've eliminated online might have a valuable perspective, gets complicated in a situation like Digg in which we're all essentially middlemen.
I'd like to see a news aggregator that took the same idea as BBC Malkovich and applied it across the spectrum of news readers we've been referring to. On one end, you'd get the automated headlines, but then are able to slide some control over to get increasingly vernacular, community-surfaced views on the news. Users would be able to apply the bias of particular technologies like filters over the news. Thinking about it in this way might also encourage us to develop more niche algorithms, such as highly unpopular news, to add as a point along the slider. Dipping a toe into science fiction, imagine if we could do a sort of motion capture on great editors now, translating their vision into algorithms that we can preserve forever. Will the day come when we can do an algorithmic reconstruction of Horace Greeley? Not that he would have much to say about the iPhone and the latest Linux distros, but who knows?
The latest speculations about Google's plans for world domination and what is Googly and what's not.
Ouch. Just a tiny little bit too late. On Thursday, Prada and LG sent out a release introducing their new joint collaboration on a cell phone, which looks and feels and does very similar things as, well, you know, that Apple phone.
Today I had the pleasure of attending the first of three Microsoft Expression launch events. For those who don't know, the Expression suite consists of four products: Design, Blend, Web, and Media. The event took place at Dogpatch Studios who have a great open space on the south side of the city. The morning session was essentially an overview of the suite by the product managers from Microsoft. They showed some impressive demos including a Burton Snowboards WPF application create by Beau Amber from Metalliq. It was great to see someone else from the Flash community working in WPF.
After lunch I was interviewed by InfoWorld about frog's experience using the Expression suite, particularly Blend. There seemed to be quite a bit of press there. I was happy to finally meet Ryan Stewart from ZDNet who is one of my favorite bloggers. I also got to catch up with Tim Sneath, Brad Becker, and Lynda Weinman during some of the intermissions.
Later in the afternoon, frog's own Valerie Casey took part in a panel discussion dealing with the business side of design. This was a great conversation and it was interesting to see the contrasting styles and ideas between Beau Amber and Valerie when it came to user research and testing.
In the last session of the day I had the pleasure of seeing CSS legend Eric Meyer talk about web standards and the Expression Web product. His talk was very entertaining as he is at a point in his career where he doesn't have to mince words. At one point he said "I've never used Expression Web and I never will." He actually thinks the product is very solid but apparently he still does all of his code in BBEdit. This sounds good on stage, but why would anyone want to code without Intellisense, or some other type of code completion?
On the way out the door all attendees received a nice box set of the Expression suite. Overall I thought it was a great event and there seemed to be a lot of energy in the air.
I've been playing with Adobe's latest Flex offering (Flex Builder 2) recently and have been running through the built-in lessons to familiarize myself with the platform. While working through the example on using Flex behaviors, I noticed a very familiar set of numbers used in one of the samples:
The numbers associated with the Text: label, my friends, are the very same numbers central to the mythology of ABC's Lost. Who's the bigger fanboy here, the person who actually put these in the example or me, the guy who immediately recognized them?
According to this article in the New York Times (login may be required), 51% of women are now living without spouses, probably for the first time ever. The article says,
Part of the technologistâs role here is to ensure that the technical solution delivered to the client is every bit as elegant as the visual design, research documentation, information architecture, interaction models, and any other deliverable the project calls for. Since my area of expertise is web-related, I am constantly finding myself cheerleading progressive enhancement and graceful degradation wherever possible.
So what do we do? If weâre aware of the situation (and I trust that all of you are), we create an alternate solution using standard HTML components in the event the user does not have scripting turned on. This may take some time but it is something we owe our clients. Satisfied we have done our job, we move on to the next task. Unfortunately, weâre not quite there yet. The problem with simply slapping an alternate version together is exactly that, itâs slapped together. The first model, the drag-and-drop model, is the centerpiece of our cart. The design, interaction, and information has all been designed to support the nifty dragging and dropping.
And now weâve dropped a piece in that is wholly unrelated and are trying to achieve the same goal. The interaction paradigm has complete changed but nothing else has. The probability of this being an effective solution is low.
It is at this point that we must make sacrifices. In a magic world with no budgets and tuned-in stakeholders, we would go back to the drawing board and ensure that both models are user-centric, supported by the information architecture and content, and operate as best we know how to build them. In the real world, we barely have time and budget to build the first interaction model, let alone a completely blown out alternate model. Unfortunately, at this point we usually turn to the argument of, "Itâs only a small percentage ofâ¦" and the needs of the users go down the drain.
The key to making this situation better is to start thinking about the problems early. If youâre going to hinge your application/site on the latest loopy doodad available, then you need someone there to make sure that the needs of the loopy-doodad impaired are taken into consideration and not left with a wholly unusable application. Sure, invest more time into the one that will win you awards and make jaws drop, but that doesnât mean that it canât be built on principals that translate to less fancy, more luddite-friendly means. .