Archive for November, 2007

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Web services that work

20 November 2007

Remember years ago, that neat service that got a lot of press, Wildfire? It was one of those services that you could call, and it did voice recognition — a woman’s voice responded, and she was your personal assistant. But it was expensive and complicated, and the company went for enterprise-level. On the other hand, enter Jott. Free (at least for now) service that you can call — it transcribes and then forwards your voice messages to anyone else’s email or SMS. Now, that’s just dandy, and I probably wouldn’t use it just for that…I’m rarely away from my email for so long that I can’t wait to get someone a message, and if it’s that important, I’ll just call.

But now imagine if that service could send your messages not to other humans, but to other SERVICES. That’s where IWantSandy comes in. Sandy is your personal assistant, and to get her to do stuff or remember stuff, you just send her an email, or even cc: her on an email to someone else. Any date/time/event/contact information is extracted from the email, and added to your Sandy repository. Which is fine and dandy, except I already use iCal. Well. Sandy also syndicates your Sandy calendar, so you can subscribe to it in iCal, and then the events in your Sandy calendar show up as events in your everyday calendar — even syncing to your iPod or iPhone or other PDA that speaks iCal.

The other day, I had Sandy remember stuff about Thanksgiving. I even told her what I was going to need from the grocery store. Now, when I get to the store, I can drop Sandy a quick note (or call her through Jott) asking her for my grocery list, and she’ll email my grocery list to my phone.

When I started using these services, I wanted to dive in and figure out how they work, so that I could tweak them to within an inch of their lives. I started reading the developer API doc. Then Sandy sent me a reminder about an upcoming event, and I stopped reading. I have a basic enough understanding of how it works. But what’s more important is THAT it works. As Ben Schneiderman said at World Usability Day New England 2007, it’s not about what computers can do, it’s about what you can do with computers.

I was telling a colleague about these services this morning. He thought the confluence of these services was pretty cool, and then he asked if any of our ‘clients’ had been asking for this kind of support. I explained that, no, these are bleeding-edge kinds of uses, and only the earliest of adopters would be using them — and those folks can generally support themselves. But what if we set up Jott/Sandy accounts FOR them, and just told them how to use the services? Not how they work, not the ins and outs, just, “Call this number, say these things, and then in five minutes, sync your iPod, and it’ll show up.” We could even create our own wrapper around the services, so as to not make them scary and intimidating or disjointed, or even make them not seem Web 2.0 (which some folks DO find scary). Just, hey, here’s a cool thing. Call, wait, sync. Period.

I’m going to have to play with these some more.

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World Usability Day New England 2007

9 November 2007

First, and most important, kudos to Sarah Horton of Dartmouth College, and Steve Fadden of Landmark College, who pulled together a fabulous, memorable program for WUDNE2007. Ben Schneiderman, founder of the HCILab at UMD College Park, was our keynote speaker, and he remained throughout the entire day to participate — his work is remarkable, and if you haven’t read Leonardo’s Laptop, you should.

A few takeaways from the day:
Five years ago, it was all about what computers can do. Today, it’s about what *we* can do using computers.
Acceptance of universal usability is a slow process. (This I simply do not understand.)
Kurzweil, Dragon, and Inspiration are important tools for many students with learning / mobility / sensory disabilities

Also, a comparison to note. WUDNE began at 9 a.m. with coffee and snacks, there was a keynote by one of the most well-respected scholars in the field of human/computer interaction, we had a team of experts who literally ‘wrote the book’ on universal usability (Sarah Horton from Dartmouth and Pat Lynch from Yale), a pair of folks from Fidelity who are involved hands-on with one of the largest financial-management web projects in the world, as well as a panel of students who are consumers of assistive technology, and Steve Fadden, PhD, director of research and a professor at Landmark College. We had a few posters, lunch was catered by Panera, break with cookies and coffee, and we wrapped it up at 3:30 p.m.

Compare that to one of the west-coast WUD events, in Seattle. Started at 3 p.m. (well, the proper program didn’t really start until 6), had a couple of two hip young speakers, a panel discussion, and then a beer party.

The important thing underrepresented at WUDNE? Young industry up-and-comers.
The strength of WUDNE? Scholarship.
The important thing underrepresented in Seattle? Scholarship.
The strength of Seattle? Young industry up-and-comers.

Something to chew on.