An Arc90 Lab Experiment : Readability

Last night, we released Readability, a small but powerful little bookmarklet that cleans up Web pages worth reading:

Readability was created because prose on the Web is becoming increasingly painful to read. It cleans up a page and presents only the content worth reading in a customizable “reading view.”

cgfa_meissonier1 More often than not on the Web, we find ourselves standing in the middle of a junkyard when we’re trying to read. As content providers attempt to monetize their Web presence, they’re undoubtedly reaching a point of diminishing returns. All they need to do is check their server logs for the number of “print view” clicks they’re getting. Users aren’t printing. They just want some semblance of normalcy when they’re trying to read.

Readability finds its inspiration from a few different places:

  • Mandy Brown’s thoughtful In Defense Of Readers published on A List Apart.
  • iA Japan’s seminal post The 100% Easy-2-Read Standard that lays out the importance of clean, readable typography on the Web.
  • Marco Arment’s infinitely awesome Instapaper – a great tool for marking items for reading later. An equally impressive iPhone app is a first-class citizen on my iPhone.
  • Joe Clark’s rant on the shortcomings of reading on the Web entitled Unreadable.

The reception so far has been great. People are clearly frustrated with all the insanity that surrounds posts and articles these days.

You can install Readability in your Safari, Firefox or IE7+ browsers by visiting the setup page. It takes just a few seconds.

Speaking at the IA Summit 2009

iasummit Tim Meaney (fellow partner at Arc90) and myself will be giving a talk at this year’s Information Architecture Summit in Memphis. It’s called Discovering & Mining The Everyday. A brief summary:

In our world today, machines are an indelible part of our everyday lives. We rely on powerful devices to help us find information, organize our lives and make decisions. What if all these machines that help us in our everyday lives actually “listened” to our actions? One of the most challenging aspects of the Semantic Web is introducing its concept and benefits to the everyday population. But do we really have to?

In this talk, we’ll contrast the way we make discoveries today by testing theories within controlled environments to a world where correlations can be discovered by simply peering into and querying data gathered out of our everyday actions.

We’ll provide examples of technologies that are partly doing this today. We’ll alsotouch on the privacy concerns that arise out of such endeavors. Finally, we’ll outline examples of how we may benefit from such a “universal semantic store.”

There’s been all kinds of press of late around the ability the derive answers out of our actions and how machines can help (e.g. Google predicting flu trends based on search patterns). It should be an interesting conversation.

Tim will be posting periodically on this topic at the Arc90 blog leading up to the conference. You can find out more about the IA Summit by visiting the conference website.

Finally, if you’re going to be there for the summit, or live in Memphis, don’t hesitate to drop me a line so we can meet in person.

Bulletin: Social Web Apps Are Turning Us Into Infants

The Guardian reports that Lady Greenfield, Professor of synaptic pharmacology at Oxford and the director of the Royal Institution, is warning that social sites on the Internet are turning us all into a collection of blabbering infants. Some choice quotes:

[S]ocial networking sites “are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity”.

crying-baby-726264 Oops. Greenfield goes on to put forward the possibility that there’s a link between all this short attention-span theater and the tripling of prescriptions for attenion-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Oops again.

Another interesting observation:

Social networking sites can provide a “constant reassurance – that you are listened to, recognised, and important”.

This facet of it is really interesting to me. Growing up, I never had casual friends, only a few close friends. As we gather buddies, followers and “friends” through social networks, you can’t help but wonder if this key distinction – from a real friend to one that you added to your list on Facebook – will be lost on a new generation (or already is).

Bias Is Your Friend

A week ago, I said this about the NY Times article skimmer:

Put simply, it’s better than the NY Times front page.

Since then, I made a commitment to replace the NY Times front page with the article skimmer. All that noise would obviously be trumped by this wonderfully elegant and ad-free view. Right?

Wrong.

I’m going back to the NY Times front page. I really hate being wrong, but I think it’s worth exploring why, as a designer, I thought this was better, but as a user, it really wasn’t. I think there are two reasons why I’m going back (maybe more, but I can only think of two):

  1. The overall structure, however noisy and chaotic, of the existing NY Times front page is forever burned in my mind. This is a painful reality: I’ve gotten comfortable and familiar with something that is less than ideal. For all its faults, I’ve learned my way around the NY Times front page. So designers be wary, the less-than-ideal becomes the ideal for an existing user base over time.
  2. In the NY Times Article Skimmer, all articles are created equal. You’d think applying a democratic use of grids would help matters. It didn’t for me. I value relative weight as I skim over the front page. When I view the regular NY Times page, I allow myself to get pulled in a few directions depending how the editors or layout people decided to take me. Features, big stories, editorials – they each have a different footprint which actually seems to make life easier.

So there you have it. I was wrong. Completely wrong…at least in my case. I think an over-arching lesson learned here: take off your design lab coat and be a user for a while. It’s not easy to do sometimes, but it goes a long way.

The kneejerk reaction with design is to apply objectively agreed-upon practices devoid of bias. This view is too narrow and probably a bit dangerous. The on-the-ground sentiment and understanding of how things work within the user community says a whole lot. Bias is your friend.

Kindling 1.3 Released

kindling-logo Last week, the All-Star team behind Kindling, our idea management application, released version 1.3. This release has all kinds of great features and tweaks including a leaderboard (where you can track the top participants in Kindling), email digests, volunteering, instance-wide announcements, advanced search and more. The Kindling Blog has all the glorious details.

Congratulations to the Kindling team on this impressive release!

Two Excellent Documentaries On The Financial Crisis

If most of us weren’t interested in global or U.S. economics, we sure are now. The flow of news over the past twelve months or so is pervasive. I’m the first to admit I’m a layman when it comes to this stuff.

If you’re looking to understand things a bit better, there are two documentaries that recently aired that are well worth viewing:

  • Frontline (one of my favorite programs) has a riveting hour-by-hour, day-by-day account of meltdown that took down some of the biggest banks on Wall Street. It’s called Inside the Meltdown and it’s as riveting as any episode of 24 (trust me). It is available for viewing online.
  • CNBC’s House Of Cards (not available online) provides the back story of the past five years and how everyone in the U.S. real estate market collectively lost their minds.

Who needs the Bourne series when real life is as exciting as this?

NY Times Article Skimmer : Better Than The Real Thing

Man if there ever were an argument for “less is more” the NY Times Article Skimmer is a score for “less”:

nytimesskimmer

Put simply, it’s better than the NY Times front page because:

  • It loads really fast.
  • It compartmentalizes information so I don’t see the 560 links and blurbs all at once, and of course…
  • It has no ads.

The last point is obviously a sore spot for newspapers online these days. Most are really struggling to figure out how to stay viable as the world goes electronic. I think this prototype is a lesson learned: keep things neat and orderly and don’t turn your web presence into the Magical Mystery Tour.

If that commitment is made, I think newspapers will be pleasantly surprised. In my opinion, people would pay for this peace and quiet. Also, if you tastefully dropped an ad (one single ad instead of eleven plus Google Adwords) few people would mind.