The Complete “Nothing New Under the Sun: Designing for the Small Screen” Arc

Note: this was a two part post and so apropos that we’re reposting now, on the eve of our releasing Reading Virtual Minds Volume II: Experience and Expectation, don’t you think?

Nothing New Under the Sun: Designing for the Small Screen, Part 1

I read an interesting post on Andy Beal’s Marketing Pilgrim blog. The post, by Janet Driscoll Miller, was iPhone May Present New Mobile Design Challenges. It was interesting because it was yet another example of Nothing New Under the Sun.

I commented on the blog, “This reminds me of an early consulting project I was on. We saw from the client’s web data that people were browsing their site using these odd sized, small screens. It was their browsing patterns that explained what was going on. We decided to create an all-text site to accommodate them and business went up. This was years ago, though. Nothing new under the sun, yes?”

Here I’ll share a little more on this. It’s a fond memory and, at the time, it was a nice piece of research.

NextStage’s first client was a B2B specializing in warehousing technologies. They noticed a decrease in online sales even though their web traffic was increasing and asked me to figure it out. Their focus was on bandwidth, page load times, things like that, and were ready to do a major overhaul of their website to make it “friendlier”.

Okay, I thought. But friendlier to whom?

We attached our tracking tools to their website and noticed two fascinating features of the increased traffic; the browser window sizes were small and oddly shaped. That was interesting and the kicker was something (and I’ll admit to some vanity here) that (I think) only NextStage’s Evolution Technology could determine; the patterns in the page navigations.

It was the patterns which revealed the mystery of increased traffic and decreased sales. Visitors would navigate busily then stop for a period, navigate busily then stop for a period, navigate busily then stop for a period. They never closed the browser window. They might keep it open for hours at a time. But during these hour long visits they would navigate busily then stop, navigate busily then stop.

These odd navigation patterns did end up with online orders but only of specific items. Usually items located at the top of the client’s webpages.


Nothing New Under the Sun: Designing for the Small Screen, part 2

This is part 2 in a two-part arc trigged by reading Janet Driscoll Miller‘s interesting post, iPhone May Present New Mobile Design Challenges, on Andy Beal’s Marketing Pilgrim blog.

I commented on the blog, “This reminds me of an early consulting project I was on. We saw from the client’s web data that people were browsing their site using these odd sized, small screens. It was their browsing patterns that explained what was going on. We decided to create an all-text site to accommodate them and business went up. This was years ago, though. Nothing new under the sun, yes?” and am sharing more of this story in this arc. Part 1 described the problem and provided pointers to the solution. Here I share the solution itself.

As I wrote in the previous post, it’s a fond memory and, at the time, it was a nice piece of research.

This was a case of listening to the silences rather than the sounds. The pauses in navigation were extremely regular, too regular and over too long a period of time, to be un-noteworthy. Also, the pauses had different periods depending on the visitor but were consistent time-wise by visitor; a visitor might have consistent pauses of three seconds and another perhaps of five, but the three-second visitor always had three second pauses, the five-second visitor always had pauses of five seconds.

Was there variance? Yes, a little. That was a clue. The variance was organic (by which I mean “biologic”) in nature, not inorganic (by which I mean “machine-based”). More correctly, the variance was biomechanical, not automated.

I thought about biomechanical mechanisms that follow pause-activity, pause-activity natures and realized I was observing cursorial tracking behavior. Humans, like wolves, are cursorial hunters. We use to jog after our prey and follow them. These evolutionary roots remain with us and even manifest themselves in screen navigation patterns.

Here I was witnessing people following prey, stopping to gather their kill, following prey, stopping to gather their kill, … But I also knew nobody was navigating a website while killing that night’s dinner.

What could my client’s clients be doing that mimicked that behavior?

Because I worked in warehouses to support myself in high school and college I quickly came up with the answer; my client’s clients were walking through their warehouse, stopping at each rack and checking inventory. The small and oddly shaped screen sizes were due to the end clients’ realizing they needed to reorder something and coming to my client’s website while the end client was checking inventory, carrying a handheld.

Why were only the top items on a given webpage being ordered? Because navigating a regular webpage much further was too much trouble.

Easy solution; offer a text only page for customers coming in through handhelds.

Yes, NextStage’s client was thrilled. Their online sales increased dramatically, all the good stuff.

For me, though, it was the detective work, the research, that made it worthwhile.

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Nothing New Under the Sun (Fahrenheit 451)

I’m taking a few days to reread Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The first time I read it was in Ms. Johnson’s English class (high school), then again sometime during my mid-20s. This time I’m reading it because it’s simply good reading and not much I’m finding on the shelves catches my interest these days.

Like all good speculative fiction, Fahrenheit 451 is both highly prophetic and highly laughable. It presages iPods, HDTV, road rage, Wikipedia, OnDemand TV, birth by Caesarian to minimize impact on mom’s timetable, … Quite a bit. It also suggests that a good yearly income will be a few thousand dollars a year. I’ve thought about suggesting it to readers several times and backdown until I read this:

Number one, as I said, quality of information. Number two: leisure to digest it. And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.

This really got my attention.

I’ll admit to being vain but this has nothing to do with my presaging anything. More likely its an example of seeds planted long ago (high school and my mid-20s were long ago) bearing fruit.

Sometimes without our knowing it, the future comes back to haunt us.

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Nothing New Under the Sun (Who’s Laughing Now?) or “NECN and the Candidate’s Face”

First thing, I’m not endorsing any political candidates or party. Do I have personal opinions? Yes. Do they get in my work? Sometimes I wish they would (more of this in my next post). Fortunately, one of the things we at NextStage knew early on in translating theories into technology into tools was that humans are biased. It’s the nature of the beast, if you will, and on one side of the equation we rely on it. Not so on the other.

NextStage created a bunch of tools which remove the human element from one side of the equation while leaving it on the other side of the equation. Give NextStage some material to analyze and it goes through our tools. We don’t even look at what you’ve given us. Straight through the tools without us touching it so our personal prejudices don’t get involved. That removes the human bias from this side of the equation. On the other side, what comes out of the tools is the biases of some 30,000 people (as I write this, 6 Feb 07) as they apply to the material you sent in. “Here’s how 30,000 people (or some demographic represented therein) will respond to your material.” It’s all done mathematically and contact NextStage if you’d like a demo.

What does this have to do with NECN, the candidate’s face, who’s laughing now and nothing new under the sun?

I was watching NECN this morning and they were doing a story about a conservative republican candidate who’s got a place on FaceBook. They were laughing about it. “Boy, isn’t (candidate) ahead of the game. I don’t have a place on FaceBook.” That kind of thing.

On one level, I don’t blame them. There is a certain irony, a conceptual juxtaposition, in a conservative republican candidate getting on FaceBook. But this is a political season and FaceBook, as UM Lowell’s Dr. Martin Moser can tell you, is the place to be if you want the largest share of the young voter demographic.

Okay, so maybe this is a good move on the candidate’s part. As in anything, I wish the candidate well and will patiently observe what happens. NextStage patiently observed what happened in the last Presidential election cycle and predicted who’d win where and by how much months ahead of all others.

It’s nothing new under the sun because mumblety-mumblety years ago I was watching the David Letterman show. It was the very beginning of the internet as we know it. Letterman was talking about some webpage he’d seen and invited viewers to go find it. “Just type in ‘W W W dot W dot W W dot hello dot W dot dot dot dot com W’. I think that’s it.”

I remember laughing because it was (and I think still is) funny. I also remember thinking that he didn’t have a clue what he was making fun of because the ‘net was going to “rewrite the world”, so to speak.

And this itself harkened back to a Johnny Carson show where Carson read the lyrics of the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus”, mugging to the camera and Ed McMahon, the whole audience laughing. “This is what the young people are listening to?” He asked. “This is what we’re afraid of?” my parents’ generation wanted to know.

Well, yes, I think. That music and a few years before it is my music.

I may laugh, ’tis true, but I also watch and listen. It helps me to appreciate that there’s truly nothing new under the sun.
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The Complete Nothing New Under the Sun (Buying Computer Time) Arc

Note: this post was originally four separate posts. We collected them all into this single post because blogging rules have changed, there’s no reason these days to spread something out like that and we’re too tired to put up four separate posts. We’ve learned to live with these things. – C&E

Nothing New Under the Sun (Buying Computer Time, part 1)

I’ve written previously how being around long enough in any field teaches you that there’s nothing new under the sun, one time dealing with privacy and another time dealing with RIAs, specifically AJAX. Consider this another installment in the Nothing New Under the Sun series, this time dealing with buying computer time in order to answer complex questions.

I was reading an article , Amazon puts network power online, in Nature that talks about making its computing resources available for a fee.

According to the article, Amazon started this service as a test in August ’06. Costs are US$0.10/hour of computing time and US$0.15/gigabyte-month of storage. I can understand the appeal to Amazon and any other company with huge computer farms at their disposal; their own internal requirements won’t make efficient use of their system’s capabilities. Allowing other users access to the computer farms distributes the costs of maintenance, etc., across a wider audience, hence is a benefit. I also appreciate that no computer system, from PC to massively parallel systems, is ever utilized at 100% or anything close to it. A desktop PC could solve the same problem Amazon’s computer farms could, the only difference is that the PC might take years to do it while the computer farm might take minutes or days. The savings to those making use of Amazon’s largess is in time, not actual results.

Nothing New Under the Sun (Buying Computer Time, part 2)

The reason this is nothing new under the sun to me is because, way back in high school, we had a TTY (I think that’s what it was called) in one of the math classrooms. If you were very good and an even better student, Ms. Foley, head of the math department, would give you an access number (mine was “10022,14506”, that I remember) and a password (nope, not telling you) so you could log into Dartmouth’s computer and play games.

I wasn’t that good a student nor was I that good, period, so Ms. Foley decided I didn’t warrant computer time. I shared my plight with a friend at church. This friend is ten years my senior and took me under his wing, I think because he needed help building a harpsichord at the time (Hi, John!). John taught me to love Bach (still do), how to play manual instruments (still do), was and is one of the greatest minds in Logical Calculus I ever met (still use his methods for the most part), and, as it happened, was a researcher at Lincoln Labs in Lexington, MA.

Nothing New Under the Sun (Buying Computer Time, part 3

“What are you doing this weekend?” John asked, and thus began my many years of fun weekends and summer weeks at Lincoln Labs TX2 facilities. I doubt if anybody in high school or later in college knew I was playing on DARPAnet (that’s what the internet was called in the early days), emailing researchers at Carnegie-Mellon, RPI, Brown, MIT, Berkeley, Los Alamos, Stanford, UCLA, … . And let’s not get into the overseas people I was corresponding with (NextStage will never get another government contract if I did, I’ll betcha). This later led to John and I going on a roadtrip for one glorious summer in which we stopped in at Penn State College Park (I think it’s University Park now) so I could learn viola da gamba (that one I didn’t keep up with. Sorry, Erin), played at Carnegie-Mellon’s now famous robotics labs, climbed what the U of Pitt students called “The Tower of Learning” and CM students called “The Heights of Ignorance”… it remains in my memory as one of my most favorite times.

But I digress…

Nothing New Under the Sun (Buying Computer Time, part 4)

The Dartmouth TTY in my highschool, my forays into extended computing at Lincoln Labs, and my hanging out with CompSci students at Northeastern when John was travelling on business and asked them to babysit me for a weekend, were all being done on computers that leased time to various groups in order to amortize their own maintenance costs. The massive computers I was programming and playing on at TX2 were not having thier full computational capabilities exercised at any point in time, nor were Dartmouth’s nor were Northeastern’s nor any other research facility I visited in my teens. Letting me play on them didn’t increase their load one bit. Each of these machines leased time to groups, researchers, corporations, in order to answer questions which these separate entities couldn’t solve in a timely fashion themselves.

I’m glad Amazon and others are making their computer farms available for those in need of such computational beneficence, and there’s nothing new under the sun…

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Nothing New Under the Sun (The Complete Humanic Search Engines Arc)

Note: this four part arc is presented here as a single post

Return of the Humanic Search Engine, Part 1

I seem to be encountering search engine material quite a bit lately. One item which caught my eye, “Guides Do the Steering” in the Jan 07 Omma, reminded of a conversation I had a few years back with some folks at Progress Software. The article mentions that the ChaCha search engine uses 15,000 “guides”. These guides are real people all over the US and are subject matter experts, or SMEs.

These SMEs will help people find what they’re really searching for. It made me think of what I wrote in another post, “It’s not a matter of information overload, it’s a matter of data mining at the personal relevance level — There’s a search engine tool I want to see.” The intersection of these consciousness streams is what flashed me back to that afternoon with Progress and why, once again, there’s nothing new under the sun. We’re going to be exploring this in a three part arc starting today. Stay tuned…

Return of the Humanic Search Engine, Part 2

Progress had invited NextStage to create a “success” metric. This metric could be used to determine which partner was going to be the most successful, which meant it could be used to predict a company’s likelihood of success, which meant it could be used to determine which companies it would be a good idea to partner with (for the record, NextStage picked “four for four” of the top economic performers in the Progress partner stable simply by analysing all the partner homepages using its TargetTrackTM tool. This is documented in Chapter 4 of Reading Virtual Minds).

During the conversations around creating that success metric, we talked about what Progress was doing to make itself more search-friendly. One thing they’d done was higher a bunch of “search experts” and by that I mean “people who really know how to search real well”. These weren’t SEO companies per se although some may have worked at search engine companies and optimizers at the time. What they were, more to the point, were people who were SMEs in how to search. They were hired by different companies to do two basic things.

Return of the Humanic Search Engine, Part 3

One, these SMEs were going to create kind-of-sort-of training material. This material was to be used by people wanting to search for things so they’d learn how to search properly. What?

Two, these SMEs were going to help Progress make their site more search-friendly by helping Progress redesign their site along the ways people wanted to search. (and by whose definition, that?)

My skepticism showed, I’m sure. For One, a tool is going to have either limited use or few users if substantial training is necessary in order to use it (something which was picked up in the Noisy Data thread). For Two, what’s in the parentheses has it all; whose definition of “the ways people want to search” are you going to use? What people? Which people?

Now ChaCha is bringing back SMEs to help people search.

Return of the Humanic Search Engine, Part 4

NextStage recognizes well over 5,000 cognitive, motivational/effective and behavioral personality types, ie, “different ways people do things”. This allows us to create very specific personae for our clients and to accurately understand behaviors and behavioral motivators for an incredibly large population.

One way to think of things is that there are three ChaCha SMEs for every NextStage personality type. That would be great.

But another way to think of it is ask “How many of NextStage’s 5,000 personality types are represented by ChaCha’s 15,000 SMEs?” or, more to the point, “How many different ways can ChaCha’s 15,000 SMEs search?”

I wish ChaCha the best in this and am rooting for them. I also worry that their 15,000 SMEs might be simply 14,997 other Progress SMEs “who really know how to search real well” but not necessarily the way I or others need something to be found.

In any case, there’s nothing new under the sun.

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