Progress, Trust, and Going to the Pub: London Search Social write-up

Thursday 14th January, 2010
The Elgin on Ladbroke Grove

The Elgin, via flickr/Ewan-M

There’s a theory that claims expertise and associated salaries increase more rapidly in cities than they do in the country because physical proximity decreases the cost of sharing ideas (I’m desperately trying to dig up the source amongst the noise; which is either ironic or poetic depending on how you look at it).

The interwebs are a different beast. Proximity doesn’t exist in the same way, perhaps instead becoming a cultural rather than a geographic measure of separation. The cost of spreading an idea on the internet is more related to trust than physical distance.

On the internet, that trust must be earned by expertise and clear communication. In the physical world people behave differently, people tend to trust each other more quickly and be more open when they can look each other in the eye, or buy each other a beer.

[Only on a technology blog would you find a justification this obscure for going to the pub.]

On Tuesday we held this month‘s London Open Source Search Social at The Elgin in Notting Hill. This was the first time we’d used our shiny new Meetup account to organise the event, so it was nice not to have to send out reminders manually (laziness #ftw).

A few notes from the evening for those whose memories are as bad as mine

There’s plenty missing, and some of this may be fictitious.

Bruno from Jobomix talked about his use of Hadoop to detect duplicate job data, leading to a conversation about Pig and Cascade, then other distributed systems like Scala. Ben from OneIS brought up the subject of Duby, a Ruby-like-but-tidier language targeting the JVM, and when prompted gave us an outline of his company’s free-text graph store.

We talked about duplicate detection in various fields, thresholds, and the cost of false positives. We touched on human relevance testing; Richard told us he’d found people generally need to be paid to do it and not for more than 30 minutes at a time.

Joao from the Royal Library of the Netherlands told us how they digitise and index millions of pre-digital documents per month. Ben told us about a method of querying Xapian from Postgres using an SQL JOIN.

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Sad to see Modista die

Monday 11th January, 2010

I should state at this point that these are personal opinions, not those of my employer.

While the first reaction when a potential competitor folds is to celebrate, that reaction is both immature and short-sighted. Not only is it a sad state of affairs that one company can destroy another using just the costs of the patent infringement process (regardless of whether the patent is valid or the infringment is demonstrable), but since competition is the fire that drives progress and innovation; seeing competition fold for any reason other than poor products is always disappointing.

Daniel Tunkelang has a eulogy of Modista over on the Noisy Channel.

Respect to AJ Shankar, Arlo Faria, and any others on the team; you guys did some impressive work.


As the browser war hots up, Google has Bing in its sights

Monday 11th January, 2010

Google Chrome advertising (via flickr/iainpurdie)

As any self-respecting nerd will have noticed, and others have already noted, Google recently started advertising its Chrome web browser on billboards and in newspapers around the UK. This represents an escalation of the second phase of the browser wars, and one of the few occasions Google has resorted to billboards to advertise a product.

Why bother advertising a free product?

The answer to why Google are advertising Chrome (which is a free download) is unsurprisingly similar to the answer to the bigger question; why bother building and supporting a free product?

Google make money by monetising user’s searches. People are great at optimising finding and using short-cuts, and modern browsers have built-in search bars. In short, more people using your search bar means more money, and Chrome (like Firefox) defaults to searching on Google.

Billboards – dated but still relevant

Let’s face it, it’s not Google’s style to put up great big billboards. It’s not smart, it’s not targeted, it’s not high-tech. However, ironically those attributes are exactly why they work in this situation.

Google’s main competitor in the search space is Microsoft (who have incidentally been advertising their search engine Bing heavily) and Microsoft’s largest user-base is the slow-moving majority who get Internet Explorer bundled with their PC. Via its default status in Internet Explorer Bing is by default used by that same slow-moving majority.

Since the majority is too big to be worth the extra cost of targeting; the common or garden billboard is a suitable way to get through to them (at the same time as reinforcing the brand with nerds who already know about it).


Shopachu – Incogna’s new visual product browser

Tuesday 5th January, 2010

In the back half of last year visual search outfit Incogna released their visual shopping browser Shopachu. I’ve followed some of Incogna’s previous releases so I thought I’d share some thoughts on this one too.

What does it do?

This site has a very similar model to our own consumer-facing MAST app; Empora. It makes money by sending consumers to retailer sites, who for obvious reasons are willing to pay for suitable traffic. The main forces that influence the design of a site like this are retention, and the clickthrough and conversion rates of your traffic:

Retention – you need to impress people, then ideally remind them to come back to you

Clickthrough – you need to send a good proportion of visitors to retailers in order to make money

Conversion – if the visitors you send aren’t interested in buying the clicked product then the retailers won’t want to pay for that traffic on a per-click basis (although they might be interested in the CPA model, which doesn’t pay until someone buys)

First Impressions

People’s first impressions are usually determined by a combination of design and how well a site conforms to their expectations. I’ve probably got distorted expectations considering my experience working with this type of application, but in that respect I was pleasantly surprised; Shopachu has some good features and makes them known. In terms of design I was less impressed, the icons and gel effects don’t seem to fit and I think there are whitespace and emphasis issues (sorry guys, trying to be constructive).

Finding stuff

It’s fairly easy to find things on Shopachu. The filters are easy to use (although I could get the brand filter to work, could be a glitch). The navigation is pretty easy, although it doesn’t currently provide second generation retail search features like facet counts (i.e. showing the number of products in a category before you click on it).

The biggest interesting technological problem I’ve noticed with their navigation is the colour definitions. There’s a big difference between a colour being present in an image, and the eye interpreting that colour as being present in an image. I think there are some improvements to be made in the way colours are attributed to images (e.g. here I’ve applied a pink filter but am seeing products with no pink returned). Similarly there’ll be another marked improvement with better background removal (e.g. here I’d applied a light blue filter and am seeing products with blue backgrounds).

Similarity search

Shopachu’s similarity search is quite different to Empora’s.  They’ve chosen to opt for maximum simplicity in the interface rather than user control, resulting in a single set of similarity search results. In contrast, Empora allows users to determine whether they’re interested in colour similarity, or shape similarity, or both. Simplicity often wins over functionality (iPod example #yawn) so it’ll be interesting to see how they do.

Another issue is the quality of the input data. This challenge is the same for Empora, or anyone else aggregating data from third parties, in that category information is inconsistent. One effect of this is that when looking at the similarity results for an often poorly-classified item like a belt you may also see jewellery or other items that have been classified as “accessories” or “miscellaneous” in the retailer’s data, another effect is that you often see duplicate items.

Keeping the traffic quality high

An interesting design decision for me is that the default image action on Shopachu is a similarity search, i.e when you click on the image it takes you to an internal page featuring more information and similar products. This is in contrast to the default action on Empora or Like.com, which is to send the visitor to the retailer’s product page.

The design trade-off here is between clickthrough and conversion rates. If you make it easy to get to the retailer your clickthrough rate goes up, but run the risk of a smaller proportion converting from a visit to a purchase. Here Shopachu are reducing that risk (and also the potential up-side) by keeping visitors on their site until they explicitly signal the intent to buy (the user has to click “buy” before they’re allowed through to the retailer).

Getting people hooked

There are a few features on Shopachu aimed at retention, namely Price Alerts and the ability to save outfits (Polyvore style). These features seem pretty usable, although I think they’re still lacking that level of polish that inspires passionate users. I’d be interested to know what the uptake statistics look like.

In summary

I think this implementation shows that Incogna have thought about all the right problems, and I think have clearly got the capability to solve the technological issues. On the down-side; cleaning up retailer’s data is a tough business which will be time-consuming, and I think they need to find a little inspiration on the visual design side.


Avoiding Underground Design Mistakes

Sunday 23rd August, 2009

One of the main challenges in industrial design is guiding people towards successful usage of your product (be it a web page or a transport system). People rely heavily on intuition, and communicating the ideal usage of your product into their subconscious is not a trivial exercise.

People have a habit of making decisions using the first gut feelings they get, rather than slowly and methodically evaluating all the information. Gary Klein published a great book full of fantastic case studies on this subject back in 1999. The consequence for product design is clear; not only do you have to make sure that the usage of your product is obvious, but that there are as few ways as possible the usage could be misinterpreted.

Misinterpretation

Misinterpreted usage is a common problem, you probably walk past examples of it every day. For example, on my journey to work I catch the District Line from East Putney to Notting Hill, (please say hello if you see me) and on the way I go through Earl’s Court.

At Earl’s Court the eastbound line splits and heads in two directions. Every day I see people get onto the wrong train, either jumping off when they realise or cursing when they realise the train isn’t going in their direction. Why? The departure board quite clearly shows the train destinations and these people evidently know their intended routes, and there are only two eastbound platforms.

Looking at the platform’s departure board it’s not clear why people get it wrong every day.

Departure board at Earl's Court

Departure board at Earl's Court

Things become much clearer when you realise that this departure board is not the first source of information everyone sees when they arrive on the platform. Close to the stairs at the Earl’s Court Road entrance is a map showing the destinations reachable on the eastbound platforms. See what you think (below).

Eastbound District Line platform map

Eastbound District Line platform map

I can see two possible interpretations of this map.

1) The intended meaning; both platforms serve eastbound trains and that the following destinations can be reached.

2) The alternate meaning; the platform on the left serves the line on the left of the map, and the platform on the right serves the line on the right-hand of the map.

This is an example of failure to communicate the successful usage of the train platform to travellers. A proportion of people are looking at the map and assuming it tells them which platform serves trains to which destinations. They then stop looking for further information because they think they’ve navigated successfully.

What to do about it

In the example of passengers at a train station simply watching people on the platform is enough to deduce that there’s something wrong, and possibly what to do about it. On the web things aren’t so simple, you can only track user behaviour at a distance through statistics. This makes problems much harder to track down.

Probably the best solution I’ve come across is to use a user experience lab (e.g. Creative Good in NY). These guys will simulate real world use of your product as closely as possible, and use that to uncover what’s going wrong, or right, for you.

For those on a budget, you can get people in your target demographic delivered to your door via companies like Independent Fieldwork. It’s then up to you to use those victims test users to discover as much as you can. This isn’t an easy job though, I’d recommend getting good help if you can, and dropping as many assumptions as you can.

However you do it, communicating the usage of your product is essential.


On the Subject of Web Browsers

Tuesday 11th August, 2009

Creative agency mogul and Javascript whizz-kid Phil Hawksworth has posted a defence of IE6, arguing that in fact IE6 isn’t really as awful as we sometimes make out, and that its entrenchment (which is the biggest annoyance) is caused by the web development community’s own pandering to the IE feature set after the first great Browser War (BW 1).

It sounds weird to hear it now, but as someone who wrote DHTML in the bad old days when the big guns were Netscape 4 and IE 4 and backward compatability demanded IE3 and Netscape 3, I can tell you that IE6 is a dream come true, just like IE5 was when that came out. Yes, I complain about it too, and I know there’s non-standard behaviour, but there are ways of ironing out those inconsistencies without resorting to browser-specific hacks, or except in specific circumstances separate codepaths (the prime exceptions being XmlHttpRequest, vector graphics, and events).

The required attributes for a web browser these days are:

  1. Standards compliance (implemented forgivingly)
  2. Performance
  3. A decent debugging tool
  4. Distribution deals

With the advent of Chrome and the Iphone it’s clear that although IE still holds dominance in corporate applications, in the open web the two competing layout engines are Gecko and WebKit, with Trident a distant and somewhat lame third place. Sorry IE, any browser that doesn’t include a decent dev tool is really going to suffer.


Changing advertising from interruption into value

Monday 13th July, 2009

Reading Seth’s post The CPM Gap today it reminded me that the entire point of Empora is to generate actual useful value to users from what would otherwise be presented as noisy advertising (or a mixed hunt and browse experience).

We’re already seeing vindication of that idea in our engagement and conversion rates.