Cities Rating à la Web 2.0

Cities like everything, in the user-centred Web 2.0 life that you as readers of this blogpost have, deserve a rating. Easy to remember ratings, that residents, visitors and businesses that drive the economy can contribute to. Visually meaningful ratings like the page-rank on Google toolbar – just simpler!

Ratings have been around for ages and some people visiting cities check the Michelin guide for restaurants. Michelin says “Stars represent only what is on the plate. They do not take into consideration interior decoration, service quality or table settings.” And that’s exactly what a city rating should do! Forget the monuments, the stretch limos, the celebs that live in it, and anything that doesn’t do anything for you. Rate it on what it offers to make your life better at that instant. Just like thumbs-up for “like” on Facebook.

So here’s the rating key:

  • The wanna-be cities will be called WB for short.
  • The ones faring less than that will be called WC, not only just because “C” comes after “B” but also because they would share the acronymn with the bowl.
  • And then, to complete the rating key, WA cities – to mean waa’ a city!

vote now!

Start using it… comment below or on TripAdvisor and use the above measure. Just credit me, and if you make some money share it with me.

London, Paris and Rome are WA. Greetings from London!

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A review of the usability of some US eGovernment websites

A few days ago, I came across the website of  NIC Inc. They call themselves “the people behind eGovernment” and so I had a look at some of the websites in their portfolio. I actually only looked at those that NIC claim have won some awards. I assumed (rightly or wrongly) that the rest would not be as good.

Below, I am listing particular features which I liked in some of the sites and I am making some notes about why. I would love to hear your thoughts.

  • Common to all the ones I liked
    I like the fact that service clusters are listed at the top part of the screen, that they stay there all the time and that the layout changes little or not at all. I like the fact that as a basic accessibility feature they all have an option for font sizes. They also all have a prominent Search-box. Finally links to the social-media are always there and prominently displayed — Oklahoma went as far as producing widgets (see below).
  • Utah http://www.utah.gov/
    I particularly like the clean look, especially the stylish icons and how they spring up on-mouse-over (even if I am not sure about the scroll thing). Same applies to the effect that the top menu bar produces on-mouse-over, opening up myriad of links related to the particular option (e.g. business). I like the layout, the design and the way you get a complete look at all that Utah offers in the 2 min it takes you to scan the homepage. I also like the search box, and how in less than ten words under the control itself, it prompts the user about how to use search — making no assumptions about how versed with search s/he is. I don’t like the fact that they used graphics for the headings but I like the way the headings are well placed for catching attention during a quick scroll.
  • South Carolina http://www.sc.gov/
    I like the fact that the most important services are immediatley available. I like the fact that there is also a link called “All online services” which takes you to a long list.
  • Oklahoma http://www.ok.gov/
    I like the scrolling overview at the very top and the fact that the top part serves as both a one-word title for the “slide” as well as a clickable-menu. It could have been better aesthetically designed but the idea is very good for a quick tour and fills the space with more useful information than a plain photo of a smiling woman or the Statue of Liberty. I particularly like their widgets. Imagine if governments could make their data available in their open gov initiatives and, also give incentives to other (non-gov) data-owners to open up theirs. Then open APIs could be used to allow people to harness data, crunch it and splash it intelligently in a widget… look at the UK government’s Apps list.

I look forward to your comments!

The Evolution of “Usability” in a more UX-aware environment

The term “usability” is defined in the international standard ISO 9241-11 “Guidance on Usability”:

   The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a context of use.

ISO 9241 is a standard with 28 parts, and talks about the ergonomics of computer-related products. The concepts behind usability as a quality aspect in software are further entrenched in ISO/IEC 9126 standard on “Software Engineering – Product Quality”. ISO 13407 is a development-oriented standard on “Human-centred design processes for interactive systems” and seeks to provide guidance on human-centred design activities throughout the life cycle of computer-based interactive systems. The principles are thus well understood and have been researched profusely within the area of Human Computer Interaction (HCI).

Web 2.0 has however added a new dimension to usability. Users no longer fit a “specified” profile (as thought out in the definition quoted from ISO 9241-11 mentioned above) which may be used to form a clear design approach. Instead, Digital Natives want to interact with Web systems in a way that they can personalise their experience – products need to evolve and adapt to the individual user’s specific requirements. Myhill (2004) borrows the term ‘Desire Line’ from the area of urban planning to describe this concept as follows:

   A desire line normally refers to a worn path showing where people naturally walk. Desire lines are an ultimate expression of human desire or natural purpose. An optimal way to design pathways in accordance with natural human behaviour, is not to design them at all. Simply plant grass seed and let the erosion inform you about where the paths need to be. Stories abound of university campuses being constructed without any pathways to them. Planners responsible earn great respect for their cunning in allowing the desire lines to form before finalizing the construction of the paved pathways.

Bevan and Curson’s (1998) tutorial on Planning and Implementing User Centred Design makes reference to Bevan’s (1996) Usability Context Analysis methodology for “gathering and documenting information about the characteristics of the intended users, tasks and environments.” This is based on the recommendations of the aforementioned ISO 13407. While this remains recommended even in the development of Web 2.0 systems, the concept of “desire lines” and thus the ability for Web systems to adapt to the user’s needs through usage itself, becomes ever more relevant. Myhill (2004) cites Belam, Martin (2003) who describe a usability aspect of the BBCi Web Site where the “web user interface and the information structure, such as their subject index” are adapted “based on what people are typing into the Search facility” which are, in turn, checked for “desire lines” on an hourly basis. The concept of tailoring the site to ‘hits’ has now evolved to tailoring the site to the individual ‘user’. This ‘intelligence’ is in fact now considered standard – Google uses it to tailor ads, Amazon uses it to recommend other purchases you can make, etc…

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned Roto (2007) as I believe it is one of the key works of the UX Manifesto.  Roto, from Nokia Research Centre, notes – and I agree – that it is important to note the subjectivity introduced by “experience” since this makes each user a different stakeholder to product design and each experience a personal perception. Usability, as may be confirmed by the definition in ISO 9241-11, is what Roto calls “a product attribute”. A User Experience (UX) starts with the expectations raised by peers, is formed during the interaction with the product and continues to be affected beyond the interaction stage by all that we all that I hear about it or its manufacturer. In this sense, Usability is only a subset of UX.

When does User Experience start?

Today, I started a poll called “When does a User Experience start?” In the last hour that the poll has been active we have had some good feedback:

When does UX start? (Poll results)

We have 12 replies… 75% of respondents believe that UX starts with the person hearing the product. 16% and 8% of respondents respectively, believe that UX starts with deciding to use the product and starting to use the product.

I encourage you to look at Roto (2007) “User Experience from Product Creation Perspective” to read more about this topic.

But before contaminating your views with Roto’s please vote at the poll! It is one question with 4 options… please take 2 minutes to share your view.

Avatar Prelude

I should have watched Avatar 3D yesterday night. But the cinema was fully booked and we will have to watch it some other day. Those who hear the word Avatar for the first time when they see the name on the film’s poster, may wonder what it means. Others will have come across the term when using an internet forum or online community, and still don’t know. I came across it some years ago when working on a virtual presence project at the dawn of P2P. But I only just found the inspiration to look up the meaning… and I am sharing it with you.

According to Wikipedia the term Avatar was first coined by Neil Stephenson for his novel Snow Crash (1992). However, the truth is that the name Avatar was probably created for Ultima IV (1985), an Apple II computer game where the succesful player will see the protagonist turn into an Avatar after having understood the eight vitues and descended into the Stygian Abyss. The name Avatar is coined from the Sanskrit word avatāra which means “descent” – the term is used to decsribe the Hindu equivalent to Christian “incarnation”, whereby a god descends from the heavens to earth. In fact, according to the Wikipedia article, “the Sanskrit noun avatāra is derived from the verbal root tṝ “to cross over”, combined with the prefix ava “off , away , down.”

Ultima IV is among the first of the role playing games. It was first released for the Apple II but then saw its incarnation on other popular platforms such as the Amiga, Atari, Commodore 64, Sega etc.. The name Avatar is, in this sense very adapt as it sees the player descend to adopt the personality of the virtual persona in the computer game. I must have been too young to remember this game and, so I cannot talk about it. But I have found it available for free download, and it is apparently compatible with the Windows platform.

I also haven’t read Stephenson’s book – Snow Crash – but, I am tempted by the Amazon reviews. The book was published at a time when the internet was becoming commercially available. In 1992, Delphi was the first to offer national access to the internet [a brief history of the Internet]. Stephenson’s foresight and the closeness which his “Metaverse” has to the internet, has also motivated academic texts. In Basel (2007), Snow Crash – discovering the Metaverse the author points out that:

the most important contrast between the Metaverse and a traditional gamespace is that the former bends to the whims and desires of the user within a given set of rules, whereas the latter is tailored and controlled by the designer to convey a specific experience to the player. 

I have come across other texts, but have not researched the topic. Jaynes et.al. (2003), The Metaverse: a networked collection of inexpensive, self-configuring, immersive environments, seems like an interesting paper. If you can refer others, please do.

Let me just leave you to Avatar… :)