Home > blogging, interface design, web2.0, work > histograms be damned

histograms be damned

If there is an ultimate irony in my personal universe, it is discovering a post by someone I've never met entitled Freitas on Civility.

Yes, the post was in reference to something I wrote previously on Jimmy Wales and steak knives and blahblahblah… but, man. I should just frame that and give it to my long-suffering parents; they have forever fretted that I'd not learned "the two Ts" (as they called them): Tact and Tolerance. I have managed to make it to adulthood without mastery of either, but at least people are quoting me when I write about civility and social software.

Elsewhere in writings online…

Sphere has been released for a bit now, and its gotten some decent reviews [here's one, thanks Jack], and some well considered criticism as well. Dan [read his book excerpt!] brought a particular post to my attention, so I'll point you to it.

I like what it says, for the most part (there's a bit of confusion between stylistic and interface concerns throughout), though I do feel I should respond to the comments regarding how hard it is to find the histogram date feature that's spotlighted on every Sphere screenshot that's getting passed around:

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.

Let's be upfront about the MeasureMap histogram that got baked into Sphere: it is not easy to discover. Yes, I did that on purpose. Hell, it's as far out of the way as I could convincingly argue Tony and his team to put it. So you know, I'll never apologize for not giving it a button in the primary search nav. I'd have buried it in an "advanced search" cul de sac if they'd gone for it.

Know why? Because it's eyecandy for Web2.0 retards.

It's novel and nifty and wholly unnecessary if the results are half as good as the Sphere team are commited to making them. I know these guys – I spent too many days in front of whiteboards with them figuring out what I was building to not understand that they are attempting to get the user off the results page and to the posts they're looking for. They're very interested in you finding what you're looking for. Really. The sentence-filter, the stripping down of the T'rati clusterfuck-as-interface model… behind all of that, the point was to get people to good results.

[update 5/10 8:33 AM PST]: Yes, the histogram has a purpose, and value, to users who wish to know the volume of conversation on a certain meme over time. I agreed to it's presence entirely for that reason. The point is not that the histogram has no value, or that it was included as a craven attempt to exploit web2.0 buzziness – the point is that the design decision to obscure it was intentional, and made because the users who will need access to that widget day-in/day-out are an edge case. And the easiest way to crowd anything simple and elegant is to start designing to edge cases.

Designing for the TechCrunch crowd is a mook's game. Designing for users means making things straightforward, lightweight, and uncluttered.

And if a few people question why I'm tying a novel event to a pull-down, at least I'll know in my heart that they are echoing the notation I put in the wireframe when I designed the thing in the first place. Good catch is what's in my head when I read those comments. That and ain't client work a conundrum sometimes?

Sphere wouldn't be half as good as it is without the dedication of a group of guys who're committed to making the algorithm behind it way more impressive than the front end Adaptive Path helped them build. The whole interface was built to be flexible as user behavior, system capability and advertiser demands evolved. If the histogram got your attention, great.

I'm hoping you'll stick around to see if the search actually takes you where you were looking to go.

  1. ZF
    May 10, 2006 at 8:10 pm | #1

    I arrived at Sphere interested, after reading about it and seeing an example elsewhere, in whether this particular piece of ‘eye candy’ had been deployed in a way which would make it useful. I too couldn’t find it and quickly left, convinced that the UI design process was screwed up, as you now confirm.

    Congratulations on finding a spectacular new way to have the technical development process foul up a company’s communications strategy and launch implementation.

  2. May 10, 2006 at 10:31 pm | #2

    Me, I had no idea what Sphere was, so followed your link and entered “Ireland Map”. The result page is a complete spamfest.

    Daily use isn’t likely to become a problem if that’s your best shot.

  3. Chen
    May 10, 2006 at 11:14 pm | #3

    Because Sphere doesn’t make one feature easily available, it means their design process is entirely flawed? One crack doesn’t reduce a stone to rubble, young padawan. That said, the histogram isn’t so difficult to locate it can’t be easily found if you knew what its function was. If you didn’t, it was because you were after eye-candy, and likely wouldn’t have been a target user of that feature, anyway.

  4. Chen
    May 10, 2006 at 11:18 pm | #4

    probably the reason two people have made immediately knee-jerk posts are because they’re antagonized by the post’s tone, just linked here from kottke and really have no idea what Sphere is. now I’m not an expert, but http://www.technorati.com/search/ireland%20map is more by about anyone’s definition a “spamfest” than Sphere’s results.

  5. May 10, 2006 at 11:37 pm | #5

    hey ryan – you and AP did great work for us. I’m sure there is some tweaking here and there that needs to happen but overall, we’re pleased with the AI, design and very comfortable with the decisions we made as a group. Nothing is perfect with us being the latest example – :)

    Tony Conrad (Sphere Founder)

  6. May 10, 2006 at 11:52 pm | #6

    kind words, tony. thank you.

    the design for sphere has always been intended to adapt to user needs – tony and his team are not only sensitive to that, they demanded it from the beginning. if one of the tweaks they need to make in the future is to surface the histogram, it’ll be because I misjudged the audience and what they were looking for.

    i’m totally comfortable with that.

  7. May 11, 2006 at 11:35 pm | #7

    hey Ryan,

    well, I’m just excited that you and Dan read my post and I think this is a pretty measured response (retards aside). ;)

    I hope I’d respond as well as you have if someone criticised something that I’d designed.

    It is really interesting to be able to get a little bit closer to understanding how the design decisions were made – there are always factors that we can’t see from the outside.

    I think the way that the histogram seems to have become *the* visual for Sphere in blogland has organically created user expectations for how prominent the histogram will be in the interface. This isn’t necessarily something that you could reasonably predict in the design phase.

    Anyways, as I said to Tony, I’ll be interested to see how Sphere evolves in the coming months. Oh, and I really liked your essay. All designers (interaction and otherwise) should do that. :)

  8. May 15, 2006 at 11:33 pm | #8

    Retards aside, indeed.

    I agree completely with you that the histogram has become the de facto visual representation for Sphere on blogs. I should have anticipated that; having spent so much time looking at MeasureMap this past year, I completely spaced that many people have NOT had an opportunity to play with the histogram. In many ways, Sphere was the public debut of that functionality – something I could never have anticipated when we were designing it.

    Thank you for your kind comments re: my essay and my response to criticism. I *liked* what you had to say – and I hope you don’t mind I used it as an opening to talk about the more vitriolic comments I’ve seen elsewhere. I’ve subscribed to your blog, and I’m looking forward to more comments and critique from you.

  1. May 17, 2006 at 9:50 pm | #1
  2. September 5, 2006 at 4:52 pm | #2

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