Google Correlate Draw, Finds Data That Fits Drawn Pattern

Used to be that you first had data. Then you did analysis to figure out the patterns and trends in it. Now you imagine the pattern and Google Correlate Draw checks if there is a search term that correlates to your pattern. This is awesome.

In case you can’t yet make out what the fuss is. Imagine how a person picks a dress to buy, they find a dress that fits them. Now reverse it, pick a dress and imagine finding a person who would fit it. See that!

Google Correlate Draw Examples

Note: the blue lines are what I drew and Google Correlate plots out matching data in red.

Downward trend

And guess which search term pops up? Windows Server 2003 Enterprise! And a near perfect correlation too 🙂 LittleSnapper

Upward trend

Ends up lots of people had parking tickets on their minds. Am sure city councils would have seen their parking ticket revenue increase in this period. Google Chrome

Sine wave-ish cycle

Curiously the term ‘adware free’ seems to have had a fluctuating fortune. Google Chrome

Further thoughts

Correlate Draw’s approach brings out interesting possibilities. The basic idea of search using something other than text has been attempted before. For example i)Google Goggles, search for images or ii) Voice interface to search term entry or iii) Shazam, search for songs based on recorded snippet, all try to think of search as an activity that transcends looking for “textual” information.

But what is intriguing about Correlate Draw is its ability to search, or should we say match?, for patterns in quantitative data. And that too using an intuitive drawing interface. That twist of expressing a search query as a drawing is what makes this so interesting.

Imagine this. What if an research analyst in a financial firm ‘draws’ stock price movement patterns and have the system bring up companies whose stock price correlates with it? What if every time-series data could be searched in this manner?

There is also the UX aspect. The variation that can be expressed in a drawing can never be matched in a regular search interface. You could have textboxes to capture certain terms, sliders to express value within a range, a drop down to capture a single item out of a set and so on. But the expressiveness in a drawing would be hard to beat.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. What do you think about Correlate Draw? How far can you push this idea?

NY Times App on Chrome WebStore Rocks!

In short, the NY Times web app on Google WebStore is all kinds of awesome. For the slightly detailed version of why I think so you will need to read further.

Why is NY Times App on Chrome WebStore Special?

The NY Times app has to be viewed in the specific context it lives in. The factors as I see it are

i) News business model is disrupted, to put it mildly. Follow NeimanLab or Clay Shirky to understand how the internet has changed the rules for news firms.

ii) Adoption of Smart Devices like Apple’s iPad, iPhone and various tablet devices have added to the challenges of news firms. Everyone is trying to figure out how to deal with this new distribution channel and how these technology advancements can be used to present this content.

iii) The need to differentiate with quality of news and how its presented. Quality is firmly under the scope of editor-journalist world view and the market’s demand for it. And presentation is a function of technology and the narrative devices the editor-journalist wishes to use.

iv) Ability of large organizations, not just within the news industry, to see the writing on the wall and proactively take measures to address them. Not the half-hearted lame moves that pleases the proletariat and does little to materially improve their situation or at least help understand the ground reality better.

I have to acknowledge that there are lots more organizations that are at the edge of how content can be packaged and delivered. I would quote Flipboard as an example, my earlier post on them is here. Flipboard innovates in presenting content that arrive as links via Twitter and Facebook streams in a magazine format on the iPad.

Web News UX Evolved

Now let us go through some screenshots with a brief description of each.

The home page is a really standard view, nothing special here. But neat typography, a clean layout and not complicated. On the right hand side is a tabular menu that lists the various sections. Clicking each section provides a fluid page transition behavior.

A little subtlety around the scroll behavior. Its like having the newspaper on a 2 dimensional plane. Vertical scrolls are between sections and horizontal within sections. Try using the scroll arrows in the app and you will experience this.

Clicking ‘Customize’ option brings up the customization interface, almost like a designer mode. You will see that the tabular menu has changed now to show a list of options. The next screenshot has a better view of the options here.

Each option is a theme, again nothing special. But the point is this, for a large traditional news firm to get it to this extent is nothing short of amazing. This is standard HTML content, rendered in different layouts, or should I say mashed up differently, based on the theme chosen. The default theme applied is titled ‘Serendipity’ and its visible in the first 2 screenshots you see above.

The ‘Doric’ theme is a columnar layout, presumably a reference to Doric columns of Ancient Greek Architecture. In my book even a passing reference to Greece gets the inner nerd all jelly-like.

The ‘Flow’ layout is quite interesting. Its like a Web 2.0 style word-cloud but with titles and a brief description all laid out end to end in a sequence. Ideal to quickly scan titles, without the distraction of pictures.

Or if you really prefer the staid but efficient line based interface, much like RSS readers, then you would like the ‘Lines’ theme.

Other themes are Gallery(for of course a gallery of images contained within each article), Stack(a stack of articles one over the other..), Slideshow etc. There is another theme called Priority but I could not quite figure how the priority was being decided, especially whether it is curated by a human or an algorithm.

NY Times Could Do More

I see the theme infrastructure ripe for extension. I can think of a few options:

i) Better Filters: Category based filters and popularity(most emailed, commented etc.) is already available. But let us say we could filter this by region, and tie it to my social graph. Then I get a Flipboard-like experience of NY Times news.

ii) Sharing: Right now it is possible to share articles to Twitter, Facebook etc. But within this interface I would love to be able to see how popular an article is. FriendFeed and Feedly already do this by indicating popularity against each article.

iii) Consumption-based Customization: Right now categories are defined upfront and I get to apply themes within them. In addition I would like to see news customized for me based on my past consumption patterns and working out with which news topic I have engaged the post. Bubble up these suggestions automatically under the Serendipity theme. Until I ask why a particular option has been suggested don’t offer the information to me. Pandora’s web interface does this rather well, by giving details on why a particular song has been suggested.

There is lots more I wish to guess about here, especially about i) the workflow that might surround the publishing system here ii) how the iPad form-factor has clearly influenced the design thinking here iii) how a HTML UX is comparable to what a native smart device can provide etc. But will stop here for now.

What do you think, am I justified in my excitement? Or are these fan-boy symptoms?

Ditching Google Reader and Chrome, Feedly is in the House

 Feedly

I confess. I have an RSS addiction. And I believe I have found my perfect fix in Feedly.

I have used a variety of RSS aggregators. Between the rich and thin client approaches I have tried many. And even wrote some simple aggregators of my own.

As I said, I have an RSS addiction. And I typically let nothing come in the way of my feeds and me. The aggregator has to do its job and get out of the way.

In a space that I had, mistakenly, thought was commoditized, and was largely wrapped up by Google Reader, comes an innovation that blows every competition away. 

Feedly. Integrates with Google Reader seamlessly. From importing the feeds to keeping your shared and starred items in sync. Wiring to FriendFeed, Twitter. 

As if all that were not enough, there is the mini-bar that sits in a corner of the browser. And with minimal intrusion to your browsing experience, can share the current page on Twitter, check the activity levels on FriendFeed and more.

What really awed me was the user experience on the home page. The layout is like a magazine. The entries are grouped, highlighted and quite pretty to view.

All actions like sharing, staring entries can be carried out in line within Feedly. The GReader-ish inline expansion of collapsed entries. It is all there.

This add-in weaned me away from Chrome. I now get my RSS fix from Feedly on Firefox.

If there is anyone out there who still doubts the need for standardized data formats, say like RSS, check out the magic in Feedly. Arbitrary sources publishing content as RSS. Laid out, aggregated, grouped and all decked up for your viewing pleasure by an add-in.

Take it from a freshly minted convert, this is what you have been wanting all your life! 🙂

Twitter and Frameworks for Serendipity

“Allow users to define your app” goes the refrain from Josh Catone on ReadWriteWeb in this post.

Definitely an interesting notion. I too have been following Twitter and its Bartimaeus-que ability to shift shapes. Right from being able to add an expense thru to Xpensr, or being able to add a reminder to Sandy..Twitter seems a ubiquitous endpoint, much like a telephone, acting only as a conduit to carry commands to a given destination.

But this openness is not something that can be built consciously. It is difficult to predict which application would be more amenable to adaptation by users in brand new contexts, short of actually rolling out a product and seeing what sticks!

But a simple rule of thumb could be used-
i) Start from simple systems
ii) Change minimally when confronted with new need
iii) Yet retaining backward compatibility
iv) Serve
v) Repeat as required

Numerous examples come to mind to illustrate this but HTTP, TCP/IP standout as familiar examples. Anything that aspires to universality, it seems, ought to heed to the principles of evolution.

Bottom line, no amount of upfront planning is going to tell you with any certainity if users are going to ‘play’ with your application. Starting simple, listening to customers and a willingness to drop pre-conceived notions can inform whether the product you have is a framework for serendipity!

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Email Nirvana, via Xobni and SimplyFile

My email is typically out of control. I routinely used to have messages that were more than a 4-5 months old in the Inbox. My offline pst was large, with a folder structure to reflect the different activities I did. Moving messages to specific folders was pain, so was searching for a particular message, or a hundred other things one wants to do to get a grip on things but just cant seem to do anything to alleviate the situation.

All this was until I discovered two tools, Xobni and SimplyFile. I shall talk about the latter first.

SimplyFile – As the name indicates this is a really useful add-in that makes the proces of moving mails to specific folders really simple.

It might seem like a trivial thing but trust me when you have mails coming in like water from a fire-hose, you want to take quick action on them(or push them to a specific folder, or task them for later action etc). The ounce of proactive action right when you see the mail is often the last opportunity to keep your Inbox organized.

Now after almost a decade of using Outlook a lot I can proudly claim SimplyFile has brought the size of my Inbox to just a handful of mails, sometimes even less than 10.

The trick is this – right after a mail arrives and you click on it, SimplyFile suggests a folder in your pst folder where it thinks the mail should be moved to. If the suggestion seems appropriate, click a button and the mail is moved. If not, then change the folder and the message is moved, note that there is no button clicking. The app seems to learn and predicts quite accurately based on past patterns. I have yet to see a case where it goofed up , but am checking where the edge conditions lie.

I also noticed that I use Outlook tasks more now than before, SimplyFile provides a one click mechanism to add a new task based on a email. This has been amazing to me, no copy/paste of content, just a click and the mail’s body, subject, attachment etc is made part of a new task. Set the date/time/reminder and save!

Small improvements but makes an enormous difference for those who live within Outlook. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

Xobni – Weird name, but boy what a product! Its nameis ‘Inbox’ in reverse but thats the only thing that is out of place about this product. Again an add-in for Outlook. Check the demo here..

There is way too much to talk about but the features that floored me were

  • Threaded conversations – GMail style conversations!
  • Search – I hated enhanced Outlook search. I used to use LookOut that was later acquired by Microsoft, which then morphed into something that carried too much baggage! Now search is quick and relevant. One thing did nag – search is submitted on inbox and the internet. The internet is totally unncessary, am in Outlook let me remain there.
  • Analytics – Whom did you mail the most? What was the active period in which you received mails? What about sent message times? Not immediately useful but provides great insight into communication patterns within your network
  • Stay in touch! – Provides list of people whom you have not mailed in a long time 🙂
  • Usability – Honestly I never used the To-Do bar in Outlook 2007. May be its a defect in how I cognize UI elements, may be am very left-oriented! But ever since I started with Xobni my focus has been on it to execute most of my tracking tasks. So much so I have minimized the Navigation bar altogether, freeing up more screen-estate!

This is how personal productivity apps are supposed to be. Xobni is in invite only beta right now. You could register to be sent an invite. Those who got the invite already could send 5 invites each. If you would like one, on a first come first served basis, please drop a comment with your mail id.

Have any of you used Xobni or SimplyFile? What has been your experience so far?

As for myself Email Nirvana is at hand!

[update: The invites are gone now. Sorry!]

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RescueTime – So perfect yet…

Problem How to measure the time spent on a task? There are a variety of methods, ranging from time keeping in a paper journal to little notes of paper and electronic variety that have been proposed and used. But each of these requires the individual to take note of the start and end times.

This requires a significant amount of discipline to do, which in spite of good intentions might not be feasible when juggling multiple tasks.

Especially for those tied to a computer, with the cost of shifting attentions and applications being couple of key strokes, its easy to get distracted onto something else.

And at the end of day, or the week, when the time arrives to submit timesheets, or even work out number of hours a client needs to be invoiced, its easy to get lost searching through the mails, notes etc to see where time was spent.

Solution Enter RescueTime.

RescueTime is billed as a personal productivity app, allowing a user to see where time is spent while huddled away on their computers. The app has one of the smoothest user experiences I have encountered, especially for a task as intrusive as timekeeping.

Implementation A small installer for the client machine does the job of time-keeping. This data is then sent to the RescueTime website where this data is shown in pretty, yet functional, charts etc.

My experience What I liked immensely about this app is the totally effortless way in which I could know the break up of time spent. Below is an actual chart after using the app for a day. RescueTimeChart

What is missing?

Though the app has been a pleasure I have had to stop using it. The reasons are:

  • Capturing times on applications used is not enough – This has been the big reason for me. I use Outlook to co-ordinate work on multiple task streams. To say I spent 3 odd hours on Outlook is just inadequate. That said RescueTime seem to be addressing this, according to a question in a feature survey, by capturing the name of the file one works on. But even this would be insufficient. 
  • Lack of calendar integration – This is big. When I have a scheduled meeting, any file or app I touch should be implicitly linked. That leads me to the most important reason of all..
  • Lack of Activity context – Multiple activities, each with their own timeline, often overlap and override planned priorities. Each activity will require me to touch multiple apps, mails, files. From a reporting perspective I view each of these artifacts as belonging to the same logical task. I want my reports to be at the level of my activity. Individual entities or applications I have touched should be there but they are not my focus. Allow me to define my activities and switch them easily. Even better infer activity context based on semantics, say based on email subject know that am working on a deal for Acme Corp.
  • Lack of Outlook integration – How many of my activities are planned? How much time was spent on todos/tasks on Outlook?

All said, RescueTime should definitely be given a try. If awareness is the first step towards any meaningful goal, then RescueTime provides you remarkable insight into how you spend your time. What you do with that information will still be upto you!

[update: Other posts from the web that cover RescueTime]

Smugmug, dogfooding

“Hire customers as employees”- found this gem of a quote on a podcast by Scoble about Smugmug. This was given as the best decision taken by Don MacAskill, CEO of Smugmug.

I’d like to mull through that statement a little. Of course the specific industry you work for, or the service you sell might not allow your customers to become employees but the idea of employees consuming the service you produce is a sound one. Familiarity with the product, not just with a section of them performing the quality function is always a key element in ensuring success of any product.

You see it in the concept of dogfooding, at say Microsoft. Or in the Total Quality efforts at Toyota. Regardless of what it is called the principle is to get every employee intimately perceiving the service from the customer’s standpoint.

Watch the demo, I especially like the fact that the Smugmug photosharing application is designed to account for large displays. And it looks gorgeous I should confess!

I have been looking for application UI design guidlines for large displays but am yet to come across anything concrete. Do drop a comment if you know of any.

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Data Visualization

Software engineers are not the artistic type. For every algorithm and data structure they learn and practice, there are a hundred soft issues that do not think about. By soft issues I mean usability, aesthetics and all the general goo that makes us like something as humans.

Bloody hard to define and have one consistent answer, since each human is unique in how they view and receive something. To design beautiful software requires both engineering and aesthetic skills.

One reason why, I think,  engineers find it difficult to deal with aesthetics is because we are tied to a language and world that is rational, logic-bound and where ‘to measure’ means to understand something. The part of us, to most, that feels and perceives has languished without use. But it is my belief that aesthetics can be learnt, may be we won’t turn up into Rembrandts and Michelangelos overnight but hey we could at least decide what is a decent software UI.

On of the ways to achieve this is by seeing and thinking about good UIs, not necessarily of software, to begin with. This is the same technique that budding painters follow, to mimic a masterwork, so that the nuances of light and shade and the experience of yielding such a work come through.

I found such a site today via here. Just to whet your appetite, here is a familiar one based on mind map..

 Or a interesting twist on the old geographical map

  

Or something that makes me go ‘bloody hell’!

 

I understand this is not like learning the alphabets of visualization or designing good interfaces. But I have believed that learning a new language does not mean we stick to the simple stuff, a little toe dipping into masterworks only stretches our conception of what is possible.

So, dream on!

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How hard do you think about trimming process fat?

Here is a great example of the kind of thinking that is critical for keeping your application’s service footprint lean. Larry Osterman poses a series of questions asking why your service process should be running, always?, is it necessary for all users?, in absence of any required hardware? and so on.

Perhaps we can extend this sort of thinking beyond just long running service processes. What about the way software is built? Do you really need all of a heavy weight process like CMM or whatever latest version it has, what about your business process, what redundant steps are you incurring which in turn impacts customer experience?

Go read the article, worth your time.

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What makes customers hate companies

Customer service is the last mile of executing any business strategy. Goof that up and as a best case outcome you have a lost customer, and as a worst case have a full time negative publicity generating entity to deal with. I have always believed customer service to be a key ingredient that makes even average products survive and thrive in the marketplace.

Each market segment and product has its own notion of what constitutes good customer service but the essential principles tend to remain the same. HBR does a take on this crucial step in the product/service delivery process, discovered via here.

This is a paid article, so guess can’t get full access to it but just the start gives an idea of what the problem is.

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