Posts tagged “search”

Chauncey’s War Story: Secrets, Security and Contextual Inquiry

UX architect Chauncey Wilson shares a rather scary story about permissions gone missing.

In the 1980s, I worked for about 7 years at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) as a usability engineer. My group was led by John Whiteside, who pushed to make usability a serious discipline informed by metrics, fieldwork, and lab studies. The method of contextual inquiry was developed in our group by John, Karen Holtzblatt, Sandy Jones and Dennis Wixon. We did a lot of fieldwork to refine our methods and inform product teams about how to improve their products.

During my tenure at DEC, I set up a set of interviews with a major client who must still go unnamed. The client did military research and used some of our products. I got clearance to interview people at the site with the caveat that all videos, tapes, and notes would be surrendered when I left. I would analyze the data at their site and do a presentation about my findings, leave all data, and not discuss any details of my interviews. I got to the site early in the morning and signed in at the front desk. In those days, we had 8mm video cameras as our primary tool for field interviews. I had permission from the senior security chief to videotape the screens and record sound for 5 different users of our DEC products. I started setting up my equipment for the first interview and about the time I got to mounting the video camera on a tripod, three really large security guards with weapons blocked the exit to the office and asked me what I was doing (“I’m here doing some research for DEC”), then they grabbed my equipment and took me to a holding area and proceeded to interrogate me. I said that I had sought permission and had an agreement with the chief security officer – but that agreement was not to be found.

My name had been on the visitor list and the people I was interviewing vouched that I had set things up with them, but there was no clear approval for videotaping. I asked if they could contact their security chief, but he was on a vacation in the Virgin Islands. While they called and left messages for him, I spent a few hours in the holding area (you might call it a “cell”) concerned that I might go to prison. Though it took a while, they did catch up with the security chief and took me back to the cube where I had started my set-up and let me continue.

I spent a week at this site and noticed that the guards walked by and checked in on me a lot. Every night when I left during the week, they had me empty my pockets and remove every item from my briefcase. On Friday, I put together a report and presented to an audience of very serious people who asked no questions. I left all the data, submitted to my final contraband search and left the most bizarre field visit of my entire career.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software [] – [Spin in this article is that using computers to manage super-human levels of complex data will have employment consequences.] When five television studios became entangled in a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit against CBS, the cost was immense. As part of the obscure task of “discovery” ­ providing documents relevant to a lawsuit ­ the studios examined six million documents at a cost of more than $2.2 million, much of it to pay for lawyers and paralegals who worked for months. But that was in 1978. Now, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, “e-discovery” software can analyze documents in a fraction of the time and cost. In January, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, CA., helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000. Some programs can extract relevant concepts ­ like documents relevant to social protest in the Middle East ­ even in the absence of specific terms, and deduce patterns of behavior that would have eluded lawyers examining millions of documents.
  • [from steve_portigal] PG&E launches huge paper chase for pipeline data [SF Chronicle] – [You think you have a lot of data to process? Obviously their record-keeping incompetence is just now being surfaced and they have taken on a data task that is beyond human scale. We can create systems that we can't manage!] For the past couple of days, forklifts have been carting pallets loaded with 30 boxes each into 3 warehouses outside the 70-year-old Cow Palace arena in Daly City. Friday afternoon, there were still more than 100 pallets stacked outside the warehouses waiting to go in. "There are 100,000 boxes in there, and you can't believe the papers spread everywhere," one PG&E employee said …"There are records in there going back to the 1920s. "We're looking at all kinds of parameters, and our data validation efforts are going on throughout the service area,…We're doing a 24-7 records search involving at least 300 employees and contractors, and we're working to confirm the quality of our data through collecting and validating our gas transmission pipeline records."
  • [from steve_portigal] Hong Kong, 2011 [Flickr] – [My pictures from our recent trip to Hong Kong for the UXHK Conference]
  • [from steve_portigal] Understanding Culture, User Research and Design with Steve Portigal – [Reserve your tickets now for either Toronto event: a lecture on March 8 and a workshop on March 9. The lecture will focus on culture, insights, and design while the workshop will be a hands-on opportunity to practice synthesizing user research data into opportunities and concepts. Hope to see you there!]

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] DVRs Can’t Handle New Show’s Title [] – [A UI edge case that wasn't designed for ends up becoming a mainstream concern. "What are the chances that'll happen?" comes true, and now workarounds must be created] It turns out that the search tools on some DVRs cannot find the new show, “$#*! My Dad Says,” because the symbols cannot be read. (Maybe some DVR developers could not foresee a world where TV shows would have a dollar sign in the titles.) Before the show’s premiere on Thursday, CBS released a viewers’ guide of sorts on Wednesday to help people program their DVRs accordingly.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] – [This site seems aimed at designers but could also be the seed of a User Literacy effort to raise awareness among consumers] This pattern library is dedicated to Dark Patterns: user interfaces that have been designed to trick users into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise have done. Normally when you think of “bad design”, you think of laziness or mistakes. These are known as design anti-patterns. Dark Patterns are different – they are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interests in mind. The purpose of this site is to catalogue various common types of Dark Pattern, and to name and shame organizations that use them. [via @kottke]
  • [from julienorvaisas] How to shrink a city [The Boston Globe] – [The shrinking economy has forced a new way of looking at strategic planning and innovation in the housing and urban planning sector.] “It’s so contrary to what most planners do, it’s contrary to what we spend our time teaching students, [which is] all about how do you manage growth and accommodate growth,” says Joseph Schilling, who teaches urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech University and helped launch the National Vacant Properties Campaign. “The challenge for planning is how do you adapt existing tools and planning strategies to deal with an economy and market that is either totally dysfunctional or will have maybe slow, modest growth at best.”
  • [from julienorvaisas] Americans Demand Crispier Outside [The Onion – America’s Finest News Source] – [Alas, if only the elusive consumer would come out of hiding and just tell us what they want, nay, what they need!] Irate citizens have rallied in front of shops and drive-thru windows nationwide to outline their demands, which include extra chunks, meltier bits on top, that classic buttery flavor the whole family can enjoy, and a wider array of sizes, shapes, and colors to mix and match. Sources are also calling for cleanup to be a breeze.
  • [from julienorvaisas] What If Google and Bing Waged a Search War and Nobody Noticed? [Advertising Age – DigitalNext] – [Full of quippy critiques of the nutty design evolution of search, reviews, online advertising from a "real person's" perspective, this slightly ranty column by Kevin Ryan is really a lament to how beholden so many of our experiences are to today's digital monoliths.] Instant search is another one of those solutions created by engineers completely out of touch with humans. Like instant coffee, it sounds like a good idea until you have to consume it. My guess is boredom and fatigue from all that free food and the happiest work environment on the planet has finally taken its toll. In other words, idle hands solve problems that don't exist.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Learnvest: Our mission is to provide unbiased financial information to all women – Women have come a long way financially over the last three decades. Women today make up half of the professional work force and are found to buy or influence 80% of all consumer purchases in the United States yet they continue to lag behind men when it comes to managing their personal finances. According to a 2006 Prudential financial poll, 80% of women say that they plan to depend on Social Security to support them in their golden years and 38% of women 30-55 years old are worried they will live at or near the poverty level because they cannot adequately save for retirement. So even today–despite coming so far in many ways–too many women are still ignoring their finances. LearnVest provides a solution that is relevant and timely – it is something women need.
  • Some Queries Prompt Google To Offer Suicide Hotline [] – Last week Google started automatically giving a suggestion of where to call after receiving a search seemingly focused on suicide. Among the searches that result in an icon of a red phone and the toll-free number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are “ways to commit suicide” and “suicidal thoughts.” The information takes precedence over the linked results and is different and more prominent than an advertisement. Guidance on suicide prevention was suggested internally and was put in place on Wednesday.
  • Virginia Heffernan – The Medium – Online Marketing [] – An online group becomes formally classified when it comprises an advertising category. That’s the magic point in e-commerce: when the members of an online group turn eager to purchase, say, tank tops or bottles of sauvignon blanc as badges of membership in communities like the ones that flourish at or The voluminous content that these sites produce — blogs, videos, articles, reviews, forums — becomes the main event. To sell actual products, the company then “merchandises” that content, the way museums and concert halls and, increasingly, online newspapers hawk souvenirs, including art books and hoodies and framed front pages. At the moment when content can be seamlessly merchandised, a group has generally developed robust forums in which the members (hoarders, mothers of twins, bodybuilders) develop codes and hierarchies and a firm notion that this is a place where they can finally be themselves.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Confessions of a Book Pirate [The Millions] – I own around 1,600 physical books, maybe a third of which were bought new, the rest used. I buy many hardcovers in a given year and generally purchase more books than I end up reading, so I have not chosen to collect electronic books as opposed to paper books but in addition to them. My electronic library has about a 50% crossover with my physical library, so that I can read the book on my electronic reader, “loan” the book without endangering my physical copy, or eventually rid myself of the paper copy if it is a book I do not have strong feelings about.
  • Google’s "Search Stories" advertising – Very powerful quick ads made of screenshots only, show how using Google for search (and other) is an element – perhaps integral – of the stories that our lives are made of.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Twitter's suggested users for you to follow – This lacks any personalization and reinforces the unfortunate star system that (social) media supports, but it's a good example of a "how to get started" scaffolding that I've written about before
  • Jimmyjane's Sex Change Operation – my article on Core77 – We were invited to designer-sex-accessory firm Jimmyjane to learn more about their history and their approach. My thoughts on the company and its mission are posted on Core7.

    "Ethan Imboden worked an industrial designer for firms like Ecco and frogdesign, cranking out designs for everyday products (i.e., staplers and monitors), but grew to feel that he had something more to contribute. After starting his own design firm, he went with a client to the Adult Novelty Expo and saw bad design everywhere. He founded Jimmyjane as a response to that, and set out to use form, color, materials and so on to create premium vibrators. Now he's a visionary creative, with strong ideas about the Jimmyjane brand and how to embody those attributes across a range of products. Imboden fits the Be A Genius and Get It Right archetype we wrote about in interactions."

User experience and Indian cowboys

A few weeks ago I was driving to work and heard a story on NPR about an initiative to use cowboys to clear out the stray yet sacred cattle that roam the streets and marketplaces of New Dehli.

I thought the story was fascinating and wanted to post something about it, but I wasn’t sure which program or even which of several local NPR stations I’d been listening to.

When I did a quick search for the story, I couldn’t find it anywhere. What I did find was one of the best user experiences I’ve had on the Web.

Having trouble finding something? NPR can help you find a story or music you heard on an NPR program.

This was the promise on NPR’s Search page, but all I knew was the general topic of the story I was interested in, and the approximate time and location where I was driving when I heard it. I wasn’t too hopeful, but I filled out the search form anyway.


Three days later, I received this email (excerpted slightly):

Dear Dan,

Thank you for contacting NPR.

The piece you are referring to was aired on the public radio program Marketplace. Although heard on public radio, Marketplace is neither produced nor distributed by NPR.

Here is the link to the story you have requested:

For contact information, or to learn general information about the program, please visit

Hats off to NPR for understanding that many of their customers need to engage in the kind of follow-up activity I was, and for creating a straightforward tool to help us get what we want from the experience.

It seems simple, but in so many cases, companies miss these opportunities completely, or offer solutions that don’t work so easily and elegantly.

Some cows I often pass on my way to work

As far as the Indian Cowboy story itself, I find the tradition-meets-attempt-at-purposeful-change aspect intriguing, as well as the way a whole business model has formed around these cows and the way they’re positioned in the culture.

They belong to thousands of unlicensed dairies around the city that make an estimated $120 million a year selling milk and yogurt. The owners of those dairies let the cattle forage for themselves, taking advantage of a Hindu custom of feeding cattle as a spiritual good deed.

It will be interesting to see how New Dehli’s attempts to alter this complex set of relationships plays out.

Japan: URLs Are Not Totally Out

In Japan: URL’s Are Totally Out we see an emerging form of advertising a web presence in Japan: showing a search bar rather than the actual URL. I looked through my recent photos and pulled some examples that show this, but also several examples that use the more traditional (if that’s the right word?!) presentation of URLs.

Search bar:

Traditional URL:

And finally, an ad for a search company (Excite? Who knew they were still around) that uses a URL, and also the increasingly popular QR code (see Rob Walker’s recent Consumed column).

(As a side note, I couldn’t find any pictures in my collection but I also remember seeing many examples of a graphical presentation of a URL that (similar to the search version above) used the visual elements of a browser’s address bar with the URL itself being typed in, complete with cursor hovering over the “go” button)

Neologism du jour: Google pr0nrank

I may not be the first to air this idea, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. Google pr0nrank refers to the number of Google Image Search pages it takes to reach a NSFW/dirty/titillating image for a given search term.

winston churchill is 48; an image of a bodily organ near a face appears on the 48th page of results.

aficionado is 1. The first row of results contain suggestive bikini ladies.

In neither case, of course, was I expecting to find such images.

Search is broken, yes?

For all the credit we give Yahoo and Google for fighting off Search Engine Optimization (SEO) how long has it been since looking up a hotel in either search engine worked? Years, I think. If you want to search for a hotel by name, you’re going to get dozens of hits that are from hotel reservation sites (often the same site under a variety of URLs) and have to look hard to find the actual Ramada page, or the actual Hyatt page. Sure, it varies by hotel, city, chain, etc. but for the most part, the promise of those search engines to bring you what you are looking for – in this particular category of highly consistent search – is totally broken

Some recent searches

Here’s some recent searches that led people to this blog:
‘war and peace and steve’
simpsons marge
name smurf receivers for Washington redskins
we’re gonna need another timmy
‘data deposit box’ partner
cream puff tree for holidays
exploding zit
plantidote face serum buy
portigal environmental problems
homeless signs
3 apples high cartoon
ogoplex myth
kaboom cereal sale
Simpsons Marge
‘jim spagg’
marge simpsons
Anakin becomes Darth Vader photos
ikea rants

New Google feature

southwest - Google Search 8 11 2005 9 04 29 AM.jpg
click screenshot to enlarge

This is an interesting new feature from Google. At least, I’ve only noticed in the last few days, and I haven’t seen it mentioned on the usual blogs that hype every new thing that Google does (I guess this is just an improvement in searching and that’s just so – yawn – less interesting than other Google improvements or innovations).

Looks like the top result for a search (but only certain type of searches – it doesn’t work for portigal or – is it only for sponsored?) come up with not only the links to the site, but also a selection of links to other pages in that site. Interesting tradeoff between useful and clutter. I’m not sure yet what I think; I imagine I’d typically want to open the page anyway, and then use the context of that page to choose my subsequent links. But I guess if you knew you wanted to do something specific on that site, like check arrival times, if there is enough info in the link shown in the Google result, you might try that.

We’ll see what happens. Nice thing about the web – companies can try out new features easily and take them away or improve them easily (sure, it’s not easy exactly, but if you wanted to do this with a car feature, that’d be a lot harder).

I read that somewhere

Here’s what I need – a good search engine for blogs (and technorati and blogdex are useless, so don’t even go there) – I have this happen all the time: I’m in a conversation or a meeting and an issue comes up where I know that I just saw a definitive article on the latest trends linked in someone’s blog. I have about 200 things in my RSS reader, with no good searching there or anywhere else. Maybe a better RSS reader would give better searching. If I go into Google I’m now going back years instead of days, and millions of blogs instead of 200. I want to search on a concept, not a keyword, and really, for this particular situation, it seems pretty hosed.



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