Game-like Elicitation Methods (GEMS) for user research

So the brilliant Rashmi Sinha of Uzanto has launched MindCanvas, a new user research tool that uses game-like activities instead of traditional surveys to gather user research data. This is combined with expert data analysis from Uzanto (which will limit scalability of the service, but provide significant insights well beyond an automated collection of graphs).

I've been thinking about design games from a business stakeholder perspective for the past year or so, and it's interesting to see Rashmi's take on design games for participatory design with users.

Congrats to the Uzanto team for shipping, best of luck!

Axure RP Pro: Rapid prototyping and documentation tool for website applications

I don't do as much formal specification writing these days as I used to, but I've been noticing some promising software for prototyping and specification writing lately. Could be that I've become so entrenched in the Visio world that I never pick my head up to take notice any more.

I downloaded the demo version of Axure RP ($589 for Pro, $149 for Lite version) after quickly viewing their Flash demo. This Windows only tool allows you to build a page hierarchy for a site and then design the pages by dragging and dropping widgets (like Visio stencil objects) onto the wireframe pane. As with Visio, you can link widgets to other pages and then generate the document as an HTML prototype. What intrigued me most was the Microsoft Word specification document that it produces, providing the wireframes with notes for all of the page objects.

Software like this seems like a real time saver for rapid development, which is the kind of work I've been doing a lot of lately without the actual prototyping bit. That is to say, I turn over informal specs and wireframes on short schedules. To be able to handle all of these tasks in one tool seems great. Anyone have any experience using this or similar tools? Which do you like best?

Sliders are the key

At dinner a couple weeks ago when I was in SF, David Weinberger and Peter Merholz came up with the silver bullet of interaction design: Sliders! All interaction that is a selection should be a slider! Amazon is on the same wavelength, their new AJAX diamond search is sliderlicious heaven! [update: this is all in fun, sliders do have issues, see comments for more.]

Seriously, it's a great AJAX example. Still seriously, there's issues (like showing active options that don't actually exist - set the price to $100-$1000, and the next slider, for carats, doesn't show you what the carat range is that intersects with the 'under a thousand dollar' price. Greying out the inapplicable options, and moving the slider to the top of the actual carat range of sub-$1000 rocks would be good).

37 Signals launches Backpack

37 Signals publicly launched Backpack today - an online personal info manager that's part wiki, part to-do list, part file storage. The best thing so far is being able to use email to add content to pages (each page gets a unique email address). You can even set up a to-do list with email, or add files to pages simply by attaching them to an email and sending to the specific page. There's a free version, and plans from $5-$19/month.

Lots of interesting thinking - I hope that the email-back-into-the-system feature gets implemented in Basecamp soon.

Coveo: Decent search engine, free for less than 5000 documents

Coveo is a site search engine from the makers of Copernic desktop search. Looks comparable to others in the entry-to-mid market, but is currently free for 5000 documents or less. I'm digging into the technical docs right now to look for things like synonym control and best bets, but haven't found them yet. Runs on Windows. Anyone tried it out? Thanks Ben Skelton

Flickr Related Tag Browser

Felix Turner of Airtight built a fun browser to view Flickr tags, including the tags related to the current tag, plus thumbnails of photos for the current tag. Thanks Matt

Opensource Rich Internet App server

Laszlo Systems provides a platform to develop Rich Internet Applications, and announced at Web 2.0 that they have open sourced their basic server. That means that there’s an open platform for developing RIAs that doesn’t require any knowledge of Flash itself - just a new markup language similar to XHTML, XUL, etc.

Google Desktop Search

Google has launched their integrated desktop search in public beta. The most interesting thing is that rather than being a desktop application, it simply adds another tab to Google’s search results, and displays indexed desktop content from email, Office documents, etc.

Blogger redesign from folks at Adaptive Path and Stopdesign

Blogger relaunched today, upping the ante for Typepad, the paid blog service from SixApart (makers of MovableType blogging software).

Behind the scenes, Adaptive Path and Stopdesign collaborated on the new functionality and look. Folks at Blogger share some of the new features that position the service to bring blogs to the masses. For web geeks, the fact that a handful of the best designers in the medium created new templates is pretty cool too - and it’s interesting to see how many of those templates take the CSS Zen Garden approach and simply restyle the same codebase.

KnowItAll: New list compiling search engine

New Scientist reports on a search engine being developed at the University of Washington, called KnowItAll.

Using search engines to compile a list - like the top 50 greatest blues guitarists by record sales, say - involves a lot of drudge work because you have to visit many web pages to gather the data you need. But the next step in search engine technology could make creating such lists possible with a single mouse click.

KnowItAll, a search engine under development at the University of Washington, Seattle, trawls the web for data and then collates it in the form of a list. The approach is unique, says its developer, Oren Etzioni, because it generates information that probably does not exist on any single web page.

The US Department of Defense’s research arm, DARPA, and Google, are so impressed that they are providing funding for the project.

Morae - Usability video solution from the makers of Camtasia

One of the hassles of usability testing with video is handling all the equipment. Editing the video into something useful is an even bigger challenge. Some professionals have looked at screen recording software as part of the solution.

Now TechSmith, the folks who created Camtasia, have released Morae, an integrated recording and editing solution for usability testing. For $999 USD you get three applications for recording, annotating, and editing usability video. That's pricy compared to consumer screen recorder software, but if it works well and you do a lot of video based testing already it's probably worth it. For people like me that mostly just watch and type notes in a discount testing arrangement, it might be a tool to start using video without the huge time crunch of capturing and editing tape.

Microsoft Application Archetypes - developing guidelines around types of application

Microsoft is working on expanding their user experience guidelines for the next generation of Windows "Longhorn" with a concept called application archetypes.

The one-size-fits-all approach to the Windows user experience is becoming less useful. We're planning a new approach that recognizes a set of different models for "Longhorn" applications. We're calling these models archetypes, meaning "something that serves as the model or pattern for other things of the same type."

Interesting to see the different archetypes they've defined: Document editors, Database apps, Production/development environments, E-commerce, Information/reference, Entertainment apps, Viewer apps, and Utility applications. The most interesting part - the lines between the desktop and the web really seem to blur with some of these, and IAs and others with a web focus will need to embrace and extend to stay relevant.

As well as general guidelines, the team is working on a book of "user experience recipes" for different archetypes - taking design patterns and showing how they integrate together for a particular purpose. The recipes are heavily based on scenarios following a particular user through several tasks (I wonder if they have personas for each application archetype?) You can see the sample recipe for Database apps.

(on an interesting sidenote, check out the graph at the bottom of the article showing how people rated it. One for Widgetopia...)

37Signals boys have been busy - Book and new project management application

This is old, but news to me: 37Signals has released their book Defensive Design for the Web. Congratulations! While "contingency design" might be more accurate, the tie in to defensive driving will help communicate the topic to non-UX geeks.

On another 37Signals note, they've released Basecamp, a web based project management tool that is clean, simple, and effective without all the headaches of Sitespring (Macromedia's discontined foray into the space) or PHPCollab (open source Sitespring attempt). Well done.

Social Circles: Mailing list social visualization

On Rhizome, Marcos Weskamp points to "Social Circles" (requires Flash), a mailing list social visualization tool. Not sure if it's art or a serious attempt at creating visualization software, but the product is interesting. It interacts with mailing list archives, plotting messages as they happen by linking people to threads and showing, I think, either frequency of referrals to a user's original postings or frequency of postings by that user by enlarging the size of that user's representation on the diagram. Use the drop down menu in the upper left corner to pick a different list -- Flashcoders seems to be pretty active. Then press the "Play" button to watch the recent posts get plotted. Would be nice to see better filtering options in this application, e.g. ability to focus on related nodes either by thread or by starting with specific users, linking to/viewing messages. It's hard to understand the context of the relationships here. The "Display object" function shows subject headings, but the text is illegible when superimposed on over other nodes. Interesting nonetheless.

K-Collector v. 1.0

evectors announces k-collector version 1.0, an RSS aggregator aimed at the enterprise market. If you haven't seen k-collector in action, it's worth checking out. The aggregator organizes weblog entries on four dimensions: what (subject/topic), who (as subject or author), where (events, geographic location) and when (date of publication). More about k-collector from their "About" page:

k-collector is an enterprise news aggregator that leverages the power of shared topics to present new ways of finding and combining the real knowledge in your organisation.

Weblogs are most commonly published by individuals and organised chronologically. This presents a challenge when considering weblogging in the context of business groups which might expect information to be organised in more meaningful categories. The k-collector architecture, and applications based upon it, deliver an interface targetted at business users.

The k-collector archicture combines clients for leading weblogging software with a server based aggregator and web application. WWWW is the first such application and is aimed at small business groups.

An author can associate posts with relevant topics such as project names, people, etc.. The server automatically shares each newly created topic with every other user allowing them to use those topics themselves. News topics are created in one of four intuitive categories: Who, What, When, and Where. The server then uses these categories and topics to provide an effective interface for navigating posts.

Yahoo! SmartSort

Yahoo! is doing some interesting things with its SmartSort, a new product browsing interface allowing multiple sorting options. Seems like a great way to filter out products that you don't want and match the needs you do have. I felt like it could go even further to help you filter out what you don't want. Since they have data on specifications for PDAs (e.g. OS), why not have a sorting option for other features as well? For instance, I'm curious about wireless (BlueTooth and WiFi) options. Why not add that in? Very nice, nonetheless.

Longhorn Aero: Visualization on the MS desktop?

Juan C. Dursteler writes in InfoVis about Aero, a user experience component of Microsoft's forthcoming OS codenamed Longhorn. He reacts to comments made by Will Poole, Vice-president of Microsoft�s Windows Platform Groups, about the goals of Longhorn regarding the user interface:

The concept that Poole proposes is to create a technology favouring the so called "Life immersion", of which Longhorn appears to be the exponent. In his own words the goal is to "embrace the human factors like we've never done before, to really understand how to make that emotional connection to our customers to address all of the product requirements, making it just work, making it something that you can invite and live with every day in new and profound ways from a technological perspective to deliver that immersive experience".

Most of the screenshots show a UI for the desktop full of photographic images/effects, but a key innovation with Aero would be giving users access to their computer data using visualization without as much reliance on the folder and file desktop metaphor. As Dursteler oberves, however, the destkop metaphor will NOT change much. The comments below seem right on to me.

It would be a pity if Microsoft misses this opportunity to offer real information visualisation to the users instead of simply offering special effects. ... The promise of Information Visualisation is to make us more productive, simplifying our life in terms of knowledge acquisition. It has nothing to do with stunning the user with visual fireworks.

GraphViz Site Map script now offered under GPL

Sorry to keep posting announcements about the GraphViz script here. A few people have been asking for the PHP script that runs the GraphViz Site Map Generator so with some reluctance I am now offering the script for free use under GPL. I'm mainly reluctant to share it so openly because it shows my limited understanding of PHP :(. But if you want to hack away at it to make it better, please send me back the improvements you've made. You can grab the script (it's one file), but I'm not going to be offering any major support. Let me know if you use it successfully somewhere.

GraphViz Site Map Generator with SVG output

I updated the Site Map Generator, a proof of concept application (or toy) that shows GraphViz's functionality as an IA tool. This set of updates produces more readable SVGs. View the hierarchical map and radial map demos to see the results (SVG viewer required). Note that due to memory constraints, this only works with files up to about 438 lines, so uploading your huge content inventory might not work.

SVG is pretty cool. Ever since Auke turned me onto it by pointing me to this map showing social patterns and structures in Vienna I've been floored by this technology and vowed to learn more about it. Haven't gotten there yet, but once SVG viewers get better browser penetration, there will be a lot more we can do to help users visualize information by just serving an SVG XML file.

Card sorting roundup

Over at Boxes and Arrows, Joe Lamentia gives the rundown on analyzing card sort results in Excel. This is great, because as good as dedicated card sorting tools are, there isn't a great candidate that is dependable in all situations.

Speaking of which, this is a good time to link up the card sorting tools that I know of...if I've missed any drop a line in the comments [list taken from Andy Edmonds @ Uzilla].

  • Uzilla's UCardSort is under development and works in the Mozilla browser. Update:I neglected to mention a key difference for UCardSort - it's open source, so you can hack away and add features if it doesn't yet do what you need it to do. (thanks for the reminder Andy).
  • IBM's EZ Sort was an early tool that hasn't been further developed. The author has been very helpful in the past when things haven't worked quite right.
  • WebSort is a Flash UI web-deployed tool created by Larry Wood of BYU. I'm not sure what commercial licensing arrangements are available.
  • WebCAT requires server-side Java, and is free from NIST
  • CardZort is a graduate project from Jorge Toro that we've linked up before, and is still under development. He asks that commercial users donate $50

So - did I miss any? If you've used any of these, I'd be curious to hear your experience (I've used EzSort, looked at CardZort, I'm going to install Uzilla's tools and have a look).

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