I love like.com
(now this is what I call innovative search)

Like.com

Mary, my colleague who was in the room when Michael first sent me a link to Like.com can attest to how much I enjoyed playing with Like.com when I first saw it. And I’ve liked playing with it since then too! Within a short time from first hitting the site I had a few thousand dollars worth of shoes on my wishlist (I’m not telling how many of them I actually bought!). I’ve been looking at shoes online for a while now, and nothing else made me feel like a gal in a shoe shop as much as Like.com did.

You see, this is a site that *really* gives an online experience of what it’s like to try to find a pair of boots to buy that is anywhere near as rich as actually going to the shops and browsing (but without all the crowds and the hassle). In fact, it’s like being in the biggest and best organised shoe shop in the world. Your wish is their command.

I’ve been talking and thinking about the online shopping experience for ages now – talking (but strangely, not blogging yet!) about how the search and list style of presentation is so incredibly uninspiring, so empty, compared to the ‘toyshop’ type experience of real life shopping. In a real life shop, all the merchandise is arranged in a way that guides you into the experience, that moves you through the merchandise, that present similar types of merchandise together so that you can compare and contrast, and get a sense of what the current trends are.

Online shopping does none of this. Until Like.com, that is.

When I get to Like.com I have much more interesting paths into the merchandise than just choosing ‘boots’ or ‘casual’. Rather, I can get boots like Britney. That’s a much more exciting prospect. (Assuming, of course, that’s she’s not having a bad hair, track pants and ugg boots day!)

Then I get to see a whole stack of shoes that are kind of like Britney’s.

And then, I can tell Like.com to focus on a particular style of heel, and get me more shoes that have that kind of heel. Or I want that style, but can you find me some in red?

*sigh* It’s like having your own personal shoe shopper at your beck and call.

And as much as I adore the visual browsing (and I think it is browsing and not really searching), they then through in some fantastic faceted navigation, so that I can use a whole range of facets to further refine the range of shoes in view – from price range, to brand, to store, to heel style. So useful. So easy. Such a great way to finally find a few great pairs of boots.

(Sidebar: Can you see why all the boy bloggers have had so much trouble getting enthusiastic about Like.com? For once, they don’t have the domain knowledge to see how excellent it is. They much preferred the more geeky facial recognition that Riya was working on before.)

(Oooh, and while I’m tangenting, I have to say how the look of Like.com and the celebrity connection reminded me a lot of a great design/fashion site in Australia called Miijo)

Miijo

When I recently gave Ms Dewey a bit of a hard time, I got a few comments saying that I shouldn’t be criticising people who are trying to innovate. Well, here is an example of the kind of innovation I applaud. Here is a new way of approaching an old problem, of using technology innovatively, of taking a convention and making it better. And this innovation is good because it understands what the user is trying to do and it supports their experience and helps them achieve their tasks in a way that is better, more effective and more delightful than either the current online options OR the real life equivalent.

Go, have a play. Get yourself some Britney inspired boots. You’ll love it :)

Podcasts are boring (Hot tips to hold attention)

I keep getting distracted when I try to listen to podcasts. My mind wanders, I check my email, before I know it I’m doing something entirely different and have forgotten that there’s someone talking in my ears. The podcast becomes background noise. I stop listening.

You could say it’s my fault. That I don’t have good concentration, or discipline. That I don’t care enough. But it’s not me, it’s them.

Podcasts are boring.

(At least, the ones that I’ve been listening to that are produced by people who are supposedly interested in design and user experience…. I know there are some that are really cool and interesting… but that would make a boring title).

Yes, yes, so you’re really smart and probably pretty well known… that’s why I’m listening to you. But you still have to make an effort to reach through the microphone and grab me by the earlobes. Lots of people are trying to get in my ear these days, but too few are putting any effort into making it a great experience for me.

I’m no expert in podcasting, but I know what I like ;) Having spent the last few days listening to a whole bunch of podcasts, this is what I’ve learned:

  • Don’t over prepare and don’t read from a script. Definitely don’t try to ‘fake’ an interview. It sounds artificial and lifeless and dull.
  • Have a plan. Once you get started with your podcast it’s pretty easy to ramble on and on. This is not a good idea. Know what point you want to make or what information you want to share, have a strong structure and stick to it.
  • Talk about something interesting. Just like my wishlist for conference presentations, I’d also like your podcast to be full of meaty information not just a top level review, I want you to take a position and argue it (bonus points if it’s a controversial position and you can back it up!), and I love hearing about real life examples and stories.
  • If you must edit, try to keep it subtle. Personally, I’d be aiming to keep the podcast authentic sounding and to edit as little as possible. I’d rather do a few takes and minimal editing than try to hack together something coherent from rambling single take.
    Why shouldn’t you rehearse your podcast? You’ll do a better job the third time through than the first.
  • Don’t be cool, be passionate. If you care about your subject matter (and you should if you think you’re worth listening to), then put a bit of enthusiasm into your delivery. It was always the voice that held my attention – speakers who had LIFE in their voice, and HUMOUR and HUMANITY. People who were passionate about the topic of the podcast. And don’t cut out the bits that make you seem human. This is the joy of the podcast… you make yourself more human.
  • It’s a performance, not an internal monologue. Think about how you’d prepare for a conference presentation. Take away the slides and all the same ‘how to’s’ pretty much apply. You can’t just get three of your mates on the phone (no matter how A-list they maybe), shoot the breeze and call it a podcast because you’ve got some big names chatting. Have you seen all those posts about how panel sessions at conferences often suck? These kinds of podcasts are worse.
  • Keep it snappy. Set yourself a time limit and stick to it. For me, I’d prefer a podcast around say 15 minutes long. Any longer than that and I’ll probably lose concentration or get called away to do something else. I’d LOVE a really satifisfying 15 minute podcast to listen to every day.
  • Be creative. What can you do to make your podcast a better experience for your users? I don’t know the answer to this, but I have some ideas that I reckon might be kind of cool… podcasts use music a bit these days but I’d quite like to see a bit more. What about sound effects?
    I’m thinking of radio plays – sound effects, characters, storytelling, suspense. Lists? Vox pops? Talk show? There are lots of different genres from which we could be drawing inspiration.

Now that anyone who wants to can easily grab a microphone and start pumping out the podcasts, I think it’s time to raise the bar. So, if you’ve to something to say, and you want to say it in a podcast… take a little time before you hit record and think about how you can give your audience a great listening experience.

What are our tips for making podcasts not boring? And what podcasts do you recommend?

Ms Dewey – Lessons in how NOT to design a search engine, brought to you by Microsoft

Ms Dewey

If you’re going to design a product with a smart ass attitude, then you really need to make an extra effort to make sure you get it right. Ms Dewey, a recent entrant to Search Engine Land, has all the attitude, but none of the smarts required to pull it off.

So, here’s the idea in general. You put a hot chick on a screen with a search field. So, you figure you’re going to get the edge on the male 18-35 market, yeah? Fair enough. What about the other 52% of the searching population.

Well, if Ms Dewey had not just the looks but also the intelligence to deliver a good search experience, they hey – she’s got potential to become the poster girl for information architects and interaction designers the world over.

Sadly. She’s just a pretty face. Ms Dewey doesn’t just fail to deliver a good search experience. It’s downright annoying. It’s not that I’d prefer a different interface, it’s that I can’t stand using this one!

The concept is a little fuzzy to start off with. After all, most people would agree that people who are performing the task of searching are really looking for it to be a rapid transaction. Enabling people to get their search done quickly and to give them fast and accurate results are the keystones to good search experience. How does the Ms Dewey character add value to this? Well, frankly. It doesn’t.

Not only does it take a LONG time to return search results (around 10 seconds when I was playing with the site this evening), but you have to go through an annoying and repetitive inanity from the character before you get your results. (Something about a girl always being prepared). This adds no value to the user experience. All it does is make me wait. And wait.

I can’t tell you what the results are like, because for some reason or other, there were no search results available for anything. When it is working, apparently, you’re given results from the Microsoft Live search engine – with some special Ms Dewey Easter Eggs for searches on terms such as beer and boobs. Lovely.

So, in terms of passing the first test – letting me achieve the task that is my key reason for being at this site – Ms Dewey fails abysmally.

There are other things that really bother me about this site though.

  • The call to action for the search is all wrong. Now, I was there knowing that this was some kind of search engine, but also with experience of things like Ask Jeeves and Subserviant Chicken. The call to action reads ‘Ms Dewey, Just Tell Me’ followed by a text field and a button that says ‘search’. So, this is a different kind of search engine… am I supposed to structure my search query differently? The woman on the screen is ‘conversing’ with me… am I supposed to write my query as a question?Of course, with a few experiments (assuming the search is working) I’d quickly learn that standard search queries are what’s required here…. but Ms Dewey isn’t exactly the most friendly gal. I don’t think she’d be too nice to me if I did something dumb here. The call to action makes the action required from my ambiguous. And it makes me, as a user, uncomfortable.If you’re going to screw around with a convention as strong as this one, you’ve got to think about the outcomes.

    I’d be interested to see the search terms that are being entered and whether or not people ARE actually taking a much more conversational tone in their query structures.

  • The feedback whilst I’m waiting for my results is all wrong. Sure, the text changes to tell me that Ms Dewey is now thinking, but Ms Dewey looks to me as though she’s doing anything but thinking. Thankfully, she does stop the pouting and carrying on, and maybe even cracks a smile, but she doesn’t really do anything different to indicate that she’s actually carrying out the task I’ve asked her to perform. She looks as though she’s about to start filing her nails.If you’re going to make me wait that long for search results, then at least give me the impression that you’re taking seriously the work that you’re doing for me. Especially when you have such a big stage and an actress to do so.
  • Can you be mean to your users and deliver a good experience? One of the nice things about some of the apps that have come out in the web 2.0 era is that many of them have an injection of personality – hooray! I can’t think of any, though, that take an bored and impatient attitude with their users. Rather, they tend to be more friendly and playful.Ms Dewey has much better things to do than wait around for you to make a search. Funnily enough, that’s where all of the work seems to have gone in this project… a series of different sequences of Ms Dewey being bored, or huffy or pouty, or entertaining herself with a magazine or mobile phone whilst waiting for you to search. Personally, I could do without the attitude. Especially that, in reality, it’s me that spends time waiting for Ms Dewey to do her work… all I want to do is make a search.

    Personally, I get enough of this attitude in shops and restaurants around London, and I certainly don’t need it in a search engine.

    And that sequence about Ms Dewey learning more as we search more so she can rule the world…. all the more disturbing when you realise that this is actually a Microsoft project.

Yep, that’s right. Microsoft are responsible for Ms Dewey. Although, you won’t find any mention of them on the site. Microsoft says:

“Who says search can’t be fun? At Windows Live we are constantly exploring new and creative ways to promote our search offering and deliver relevant information in an interesting and engaging way. The Ms. Dewey website is just one example of these efforts.

This is not an advertising campaign. This really just an experiment for exploring different ways to introduce people to search and Live Search specifically. We are not promoting the site but simply putting it out on the Web for discovery.”

Well. I’m dead keen to explore new and fun ways to search, but for me Ms Dewey is a half baked idea that could potentially be interesting, but that needs to be a whole lot smarter and a whole lot nicer before it becomes a valuable addition to the suite of possibilities for search.

What’d you think?

less is not enough

Less is Less - How Cover

OK. So I’m finally almost brave enough to send you in the direction of my very first ever podcast that I did for the Office 2.0 Podcast Jam. (Assuming you haven’t wandered over there and had a listen already.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about this ‘cult of less‘ that 37 Signals seems to be leading and whether, in fact, it has an evil side. Well… ok, not an evil side. But is it all as good as it seems?

I started thinking this when I was listening to Peter Morville give the keynote at EuroIA the other weekend. He was pondering the ever increasing abundance of information that we have around us now, and wondering if it was helping us to learn, to make good decisions.

I wondered the same about information architecture and interaction design.

So, I’ve been thinking a bit about these web based project management solutions such as BaseCamp and GoPlan and thinking about what they *don’t* do when compared to more complex software such as Microsoft Project.

Now, don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that there aren’t some *serious* problems with Microsoft Project but it was, for better or worse, instrumental in teaching me how to be a project manager. This is something that neither BaseCamp nor Go Plan could do.

Similarly, we’ve seen some interesting user testing lately that has shown users asking for more complexity to help enable their decision making.

So our natural response as designers, to simplify the interface, may in fact, be reducing the ability of the people using our software or websites to be able to learn, and to make good decisions.

So, that’s the crux of what I’m thinking of. What do we lose with ‘less’? And is it (always) worth it?

If you want to hear the full blow raving version, you can find it here.

I think I sound a bit less like Judith Lucy in this one :)

Image credit: 37 Signals being featured in HOW magazine