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Sphere (Review): Hidden treasures, 2.0 Orange & the perils of style for design agencies

Sphere Custom Range

So, I (along with the rest of the Blogosphere) have been checking out Sphere since it launched yesterday. Sphere is the latest in a growing range of blog search engines. (I’m also waiting for Gnoos to launch – we’re just days away apparently from having an Australian blog search engine.)

My initial thoughts? I don’t like it. (But only because I’m miffed that my blog doesn’t show up in their search results at the moment.)

Seriously, I’m always interested to see a product that Adaptive Path have launched. Say what you like, but these guys are thoughtful designers. And this time around they’ve exposed the thought process they’ve gone through, which makes it all the more interesting.

So, from a design/user experience perspective, here’s what I’m thinking:

Custom range/Histogram

How hard was *this* to find!! Very. And I was looking for it!

I’d seen their ‘nifty interactive graph’ from screenshots all over the blogosphere, but couldn’t for the *life* of me find it on Sphere. Even after I’d gone and read the instructions.Eventually, there it was. Hidden down the bottom of the dropdown.

Doesn’t that seem a little silly. Design a cool little interactive timeline, then hide it.
(Or am I the only goose who struggled to find it? Majority rules.)

Here’s the Adaptive Path rationale:

It may have been a cool feature, but we had to consider its value to average users versus its capacity to distract. Ultimately we decided that the module would require a trigger instead of displaying by default on the page load. For the sake of advanced users, for whom the slider would be most valuable, we wanted the trigger to require only a single click. We also wanted the slider to be discoverable, but not obvious.

We found that tying our trigger to a “custom date range” option in the filter gave us an equitable solution to all of our design problems. It’s not overt, and though mapping a pull-down option to a non-standard event breaks a few UI conventions, it felt right for what we were trying to build.

Fair enough, I guess…. for me, mapping the pull-down option to a non-standard event didn’t work. It didn’t cross my mind to look there for that kind of functionality, it doesn’t fit with the other filter options in the pull down.

If I weren’t looking for that feature and selected ‘custom range’ I would have expected entirely different behaviour. It’s possible I’d be pissed off at having to wait for the histogram to load so I could see what it was. (Yes, it takes some time to load, although I’m v. impatient).

If it were up to me, I would have presented the histogram as a whole separate display option. Probably as a button. Not as part of the sentence of dropdowns.

What do you think?

Sentence of dropdowns

Just briefly – I quite like this approach. It’s kind of conversational, I think users respond well to it. (This user does!).

Adaptive Path says:

we followed the example set by the FogBugz bug tracking software. I’m a tremendous fan of the sentence-based filter interface they use to help users pare down huge bug lists. With their interface as a reference, we put together a simple, powerful interface for filtering search results.

A single sentence at the top of each page uses plain English to tell the user what’s displayed below. Each word or phrase in that sentence is editable with just a click, and each change filters the results that follow. The screen isn’t crowded with multiple options; instead they become visible only when suited to the user’s task at hand.

I have seen one *bad* implementation of it on the Montreal Tourism site. Bad mostly because the dropdowns load SOOOO slowly. Or the just stop working. I lose patience with that well before I finish my sentence.

Performance people. It counts.

Orange – when I first saw the orange search button on the Sphere homepage I commented: ‘that’s such a 2.0 Orange’.

2.0 Orange

Reflecting on that reaction, I realised that it was because of the RSS/XML icon that has been taken up across so many 2.0 sites. So then I found it pretty amusing to get to the results page to find that I was wrong.

This, in fact, was NOT 2.o Orange! Because there right next to it was the RSS icon – an ever so slightly different shade of orange. Perhaps this is a sign of 2.0 maturity, we need two shades of orange. 2.0 Orange and RSS Orange. ;)

Petty, I know. I just mention it because it was the *first* comments I had on the design. (I know. I’m a dork).

What actually bothers me is the alignment of the RSS line to the search field in the header. It looks a little off to me. And I don’t get why the search button gets a nice image treatment and the RSS image doesn’t.

It just looks a little untidy. A little unpolished. I think that’s my general takehome on this design… It’s just not quite as polished as what I’ve come to expect from Adaptive Path. That green bar towards the top… murky, not clean. That logo…? (well, that’s probably not Adaptive Path’s work, but I’m not loving it. It looks kind of dangerous-like-a-chainsaw!

I *do* like the way they’ve presented the search results though. And I think the profiles are very clever and nicely displayed. If you search on something with plenty of content, the Related Media page is also very impressive.

What’s this about stylistic perils?

I wonder what else Adaptive Path are going to do with this Histogram. It always kind of worries me when agencies ‘borrow’ a solution from one product to the next (in this case, from MeasureMap to Sphere). Especially such a high profile and novel UI element. I’m interested that MeasureMap let them do it (they must have good IP negotiators over there!). I think it’s a dangerous path to go down though… it starts to make an agency look ‘cookie cutter’, like you can *tell* the agency who did the design because they have a style. (Like Happy Cog. Love their work, but you can pick it a mile off… to me, that’s not quite right.)

Anyways. That’s probably quite enough of me criticising people who I’d actually be honoured to work with.

What do *you* think of Sphere?

(or 2.0 Orange? or agency ‘style’?)

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11 thoughts on “Sphere (Review): Hidden treasures, 2.0 Orange & the perils of style for design agencies

  1. Despite AP’s involvement, Sphere looks just like every other 2.0 site out there. The layout is pretty much a copy of Technorati’s, the colour scheme is garish, and the mismatched orange of the two buttons is bizarre.

    The histogram component is difficult to find, took a minute to load on my machine, and seems to do very un-2.0-like server roundtrips on every interaction. I predict a very quick dropoff in its use once every Techcrunch wannabe out there blogs about it.

    Most importantly, though, the search results are about as useful as those from MS Live, which is to say, not very. And how many users really care about the average words per post in a given blog? This is what I would call “design by Web 2.0 wonks, for Web 2.0 wonks”.

  2. hrm… i wonder how many users *would* care about the average words given per blog.

    I think that I do actually care about that in terms of choosing which blogs I read (although, I’m going to have to think about *how* that factors into my decision).

    But is it useful information at that point in the evaluation process (at the search engine, before I’ve seen/read the blog)? Perhaps not.

    It smells a little like another ‘game/competition’ in the making. How long before someone posts on the ideal average word count and we’re all obsessively using Sphere to see how close we are to ideal? (or something like that)

  3. ooh, i hadn’t seen Feedtagger or Ansearch. I’ve seen and used theAustralianIndex quite a bit :)

    Interesting. Who knew we needed so many ways to find Australian blogs ;)

  4. Hi Dan – I just had a chance to read your post. not sure where to start but your blog is a good place.

    We do need to crawl your blog. I checked our index and verified that we actually do crawl dismabiguity but there’s a bug keeping it from displaying – we’ll get it figured out.

    Once we get that out of the way, here is why (despite the two shades of 2.0 orange – first time I heard that but very funny and correct) I hope you give sphere another try (once we’re displaying your blog posts!):

    1) it will get better with user input
    2) we offer relevance based results, not subjecting users to the luck of chronology – if you want to search by time, you can do so in spherre but we believe enabling the user to search for relevance within specific time frames is much more interesting

    Regarding your comments on the histogram, (custom range), we’d like to use it as our lead results page – but we couldn’t do that at launch – too hardware intensive ($) for a start up. Having said that, you make a great point, why hide it – something for us to re-think.

    Also, you didn’t mention the sphere it! bookmarklet but I’d like to get your thoughts on this app (our favorite).

    Although it wasn’t what we wanted to hear, thanks for posting on us and we hope you’ll keep noodling on the site and give us your feedback.

    Tony (Founder Sphere)

  5. hey Tony,

    thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a note. (I’m going to assume it was intended for me and not Dan!)

    i have to say that I didn’t have a play with the Sphere It! bookmarklet. I will go back and have a play and let you know what I think.

    Let me tell you – I understand that when a site is being designed there are many factors in play that determine how things are done that go well beyond what the best user experience might be. Particularly when you’re launching a new service.

    I’ll be interested to see how Sphere develops over the coming months, and I can see myself using it reasonably regularly… particularly if Technorati keeps crapping out (aka timing out) as much as it has been lately.

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