Games, UI, and the implicit web

Joypad
I was a console programmer for six years. Games are the only pieces of software that people use purely for the joy of interacting with a computer. There’s no reason to play, except to have fun.

This means that the user interface is crucial. With other software, people will put up with the pain of a bad UI because they’re trying to accomplish some real-world task. If a consumer picks up a video game and it doesn’t let them have fun within a minute or two, they will give up on it. The interface has to be easy and fun. It can still be deep, but that complexity must be intuitive and discoverable, and not presented like the Space Shuttle’s control panel.

What really excites me about the implicit web is the promise of using the gathered data to turbo-charge everyday interfaces. A simple example is Firefox’s address bar; it remembers the URLs I visit, and when I start typing a new one, the suggestions are in most-visited order. By contrast, I wouldn’t class Google Suggest in the search box as an implicit service, since it doesn’t customize the suggestions based on my behavior, and it’s a lot less useful for me.

When I was working with Nintendo, the holy grail was the ‘one button game’. Think Mario 64, where you managed complex interactions with a 3D world mostly with the joystick and a single button to jump. Stumbleupon is the web service that’s closest to this, I’ve heard it described as the ‘Forward button‘ for the web, and it really delivers a lot of value with very little input needed from the user. Google Hot Keys is my attempt to move searching in that direction, though there’s no implicit component.

One of the parts I’m most anticipating about Defrag is seeing all of the innovative interfaces that the teams will be showing off. There’s so many possibilities for improving the user experience, I can’t wait to see what people are coming up with!

Funhouse Photo User Count: 1,817 total, 93 active. Still growing steadily, but slowly, with most of the additions coming through the product directory.

Event Connector User Count: 77 total, 4 active. Still working with conference organizers, not much to show yet though.

Hiking in the Angeles – Condor Peak Trail

Angelesmountains

Yesterday me and Liz made it up to the Angeles mountains just north of Pasadena. Rising up steeply from the valley, the peaks reach around 6000 feet, giving both great views and some punishing climbs. Liz had just bought a Tom Harrison map of the western end of the Angeles, and we picked a promising trail, Condor Peak. I’ve put up a Google map covering the route we took, it turned out to be a lot of fun.

The drive up there was pretty short. We got off the 210 at Sunland, then onto Oro Vista and continued around 8 miles as it turned into Big Tujunga Canyon Road. The road was heavily potholed at the start, but got better, and wasn’t too twisty which made for a more pleasant drive. There was only one other car in the parking lot, and we met them a short way up the trail coming back after they’d only gone a little way.

The trail started off by switchbacking up from the lot, but then descended and headed back toward the road. At about a mile and a half, there’s a side-trail that forks off and heads down to a picnic area near the road, which might be an option as a starting point if you want to skip the first section. One nice feature of the trail is the provision of mile markers. They start off with roman numerals until the fourth mile, which has an arabic ‘4’, and then after that they give up marking the numbers. They’ve done a great job building the trail along some very steep rocky slopes, and they keep a tough but steady grade for most of way. Given the terrain, that’s quite a feat of route planning. It worked out to around 500 feet up every mile, which is work but hike-able for us.

There’s a lot of switchbacking up and along ridges, passing through scrubby chapparal with some of the biggest Yucca I’ve ever seen. After about the fourth mile, you start to get some views over the reservoir, and across to Josephine Peak and into the Valley. We started late, so we made it about six miles up before we had to turn around, at around 4300′ elevation, 2000 feet higher than the trail head. The trail was visible and clear ahead of us, but I’ve only mapped it as far as we walked. It looked like you’d get some really good vistas if you continued up to the eight mile point, and Condor peak at 5070′.

View Larger Map

Funhouse Photo User Count: 1,777 total, 75 active. I ended up working on my day job most of today, along with some halloween decorating, so I didn’t get to make any of the changes I was planning.

Event Connector User Count: 77 total, 7 active. Not much change, but I did run across the Web Community Forum in my research. They look like a very clued-up team focused on using social tools to build communities online, and they already have a high level of Facebook integration on their blog, with links to themselves, their group, and an event for their upcoming conference.

Wildfire coming our way

Smokeysky

That’s the view from our house, those clouds are all smoke. There’s a large wildfire a few miles upwind of us, and we’re getting the full show, red sun, falling ash and all! We’re in little danger here since they built a mall on the grassland across from our house, but I hope that the fire-fighters we know like Frank Padilla and Dave Updike are taking care.

There’s two major local fires. With winds gusting up to 90 mph for the next three days, and a drought that’s left the brush dry as tinder, they could both cover a lot of ground before they’re controlled. Down in Malibu, on the south side of the Santa Monica Mountains, the fire’s smaller but in a heavily settled area and has already taken out some houses. The Castaic fire’s to the north of us, it’s much bigger but is burning through wild back country. There’s also a lot of smaller blazes as the wind knocks down power lines.

We know from our trail-building experience how much fuel has built up in the Santa Monicas. In some places, there’s dead brush above head-height, it’s been decades since a fire’s been through. I’m hoping there’s been enough warning for everyone to get out of harm’s way, because those sections will burn hot and fast.

Slinky companies and public transport

Slinky
Yesterday, Brad posted an article talking about bubble times in Boulder, and quoted a great line from Bill Perry about how they spawned ‘slinky companies’ that "aren’t very useful but they are fun to watch as they tumble down the stairs".

Rick Segal had a post about why he took the train to work, and how people-watching there was a great reality check to a lot of the grand technology ideas he was presented with.

And via Execupundit, I came across a column discussing whether people were really dissatisfied with their jobs, or just liked to gripe and fantasize. One employee who’d been involved in two start-ups that didn’t take off said "Most dreams aren’t market researched."

These all seemed to speak to the tough balance between keeping your feet on the ground and your eyes on the stars. As Tom Evlin’s tagline goes, "Nothing great has ever been accomplished without irrational exuberance." I’ve been wrestling with how to avoid creating a slinky with technology that sounds neat enough to be funded, but will never amount to anything. To do that, I’ve focused on solving a painful problem, and validating both the widespread existence of the problem, and that people like my solution.

I’ve turned my ideas into concrete services, and got them into the wild as quickly as possible. Google Hot Keys has proved that it’s possible to robustly extract data from screen-scraping within both Firefox and IE, but its slow take-up suggests there isn’t a massive demand for a swankier search interface. Defrag Connector shows that being able to connect with friends before a conference is really popular, but the lack of interest so far in Event Connector from conference promoters I’ve contacted shows me it won’t just sell itself. Funhouse Photo’s lack of viral growth tells me that I need to provide a compelling reason for people to contact their friends about the app, and not just rely on offering them tools to do so.

I really believe in all of these projects, but I want to know how to take them forward by testing them against the real world. All my career, I’ve avoided grand projects that take years before they show results. I’ve been lucky enough that all of the dozen or so major applications I’ve worked on have shipped, none were cancelled. Part of that is down to my choice of working on services that have tangible benefits to users, and can be prototyped and iteratively tested against that user need from an early stage. Whether it’s formal market research, watching people on trains, or just releasing an early version and seeing what happens, you have to test against reality.

I’m happy to take the risk of failing, there’s a lot of factors I can’t control. What I can control is the risk of creating something useless!

Funhouse Photo User Count: 1,746 total, 70 active. Much the same as before, I haven’t made any changes yet.

Event Connector User Count: 73 total, 9 active. Still no conference takeup. I did experiment with a post to PodCamp Boston’s forum to see if I could reach guests directly, but I think the only way to get good distribution is through the organizers.

Facebook and event promotion

Partyhat
As I’ve been approaching conference organizers to try Event Connector, I’ve been surprised at how few have Facebook events. It seems like a no-brainer to me if your audience includes anyone under thirty, since it only takes a couple of minutes to create an event. In return, you get a great platform for potential guests to discover your conference, and attendees to hear from you and each other before and after the event. You’re being given permission to market to them, and even better, the participants themselves will spread the word as their attendance shows up on their friends’ feeds, and they get involved on the discussions on the event page itself.

Most of the events I have run across have been unofficial, started by participants rather than organizers. Without publicity from the promoters, these tend to attract only a few guests. To be effective you need to include a link to the event in some material that goes out to a decent number of your guests.

I don’t think it’s that conference organizers don’t want the benefits that facebook events offer, since I see a lot of organizations trying to hand-roll similar services. PodCamp Boston has a page listing all of the attendees who wanted their names to be public, but as a plain text alphabetical list, it’s a lot harder to discover friends than the equivalent on facebook. Facebook events are popular with guests, the New Media Expo 2008 one picked up over a hundred guests in the first few hours after it was created, and this is for an event almost a year away!

Trying to put myself in their shoes, I’d guess that the main obstacles are the fact that no one else is doing it, it’s an unknown quantity, it feels a bit out of their control, and they’ve never needed it before. It does require a willingness to try something new, but the reward for doing so before it’s mainstream is that you’ll get a lot of buzz, publicity and guest goodwill for taking that leap!

If you’re an event promoter, I’d highly recommend you set up a Facebook event, and give it a little promotion. It’s quick, free, and offers both you and your guests significant benefits.

Even better, once you’ve got one set up, you get an Event Connector for free. Go to the main page of the app, and your event will show up at the top. There’s a link you can mail out, and free blogger, typepad and facebook profile badges you can distribute. It adds value to the plain facebook events by allowing users to see which of their friends, and friends-of-friends, are going, which supplies the social proof that will persuade them to sign up.

Funhouse Photo User Count: 1,729 total, 63 active. The same steady growth, and looking at the breakdown, I see the same pattern of non-viral acquisition of users, mostly through the directory and searches.

Event Connector User Count: 72 total, 8 active. Still very quiet, with no conference signed up, and a trickle of users from the directory.

Facebook’s new application statistics

Addstats

I’m a statistics junkie. Picking some significant metrics, and sticking with them to measure performance is the only way to figure out what’s working and what isn’t. I usually try to design in some measurement tools, but that’s hard with Facebook apps, since their setup hides the referring address/previous page and other useful information.

Luckily, they recently introduced a new statistics page for every app, which you can access from the More Stats link below the application name, from the main developer page.

The first big innovation is the ability to see how many people added and removed you during the previous 24 hours. Before, you could only guess at this by comparing the user totals from day to day, but this wouldn’t tell you how much turnover you had from people removing your app. The most useful part of this, and one that’s a bit hidden, is that the total number of adds is actually a link. If you click on it, you’ll see a bar graph like the one above, showing you exactly where your new users came from.

The top picture is for Funhouse Photo, and it tells me a lot. I was suspicious that my app was very non-viral because the growth in users was very linear, but this confirms that I’m getting the majority from the directory and direct searches, rather than feed stories or other friend-to-friend communications. To improve growth that needs to change, and I’ll be able to tell very quickly if alterations to the app help by looking at those stats.

Less exciting, but still very useful, are the response metrics. I’ve had a recurrent problem with time-outs on my facebook apps because they’re doing heavy processing on the server. It seems like any page request that takes more than 8 seconds to complete results in a Facebook error screen for the user, so to work around that I had to implement asynchronous Ajax loading of page elements that might take a while. Looking at the response statistics shows that both my apps that use this aren’t returning error pages for any users, something I couldn’t verify before.

The final interesting feature is a selection of the URLs that were requested from the app recently. This sampling is a great way to figure out how people are using your app, which features they’re accessing and how often. My apps generally encode a lot of information in the URL using GET rather than POST, so I’m able to get quite a fine-grained look at my users’ interactions with them.

Funhouse Photo User Count: 1,723 total, 95 active. As I mention above, I’ve got new insight into the growth pattern from the add statistics. It explains why growth is so linear, there’s little friend-to-friend spreading of the app.

Event Connector User Count: 71 total, 11 active. The add source statistics show that most of the trickle of new users came from the product directory, which is what I’d expect since I don’t have a conference signed up yet.

Facebook app submission

Checks

There isn’t an official guide on how to submit your app to Facebook’s directory, so here’s what I’ve found after going through the process several times.

You don’t have to submit your app to the directory. I never did for Defrag Connector, since it was distributed directly by the conference promoter, and wouldn’t have been helpful to the general public anyway. The strength of the directory is that it gives you access to the early-adopters, people who are actively looking for a new app to try. What you want long-term is an app that’s viral, so friends spread it to their friends to reach a much wider audience, but the directory is a good way to start the ball rolling.

In preparation for submission, you need to go to your Developer application and click on My Applications. Below each of your apps is an ‘Edit about page’ link. This is where you can provide a short description, a screenshot, and importantly, set the two directory categories you want your app to appear in. I’ve got no statistics to back this up, but it seems like "Just for Fun" is one of the most popular categories, so I’d recommend that if possible.

Next, make sure your app has an icon, by going to ‘Edit Settings’ for your application. Even though the icon is part of the optional fields section, Event Connector was initially rejected for not having one.

Once you’ve filled out all the information on those pages, you can click on "Submit Application" to the right of your app. There, you’ll need to fill out another description, and supply a larger icon for the directory listing. Once you’ve done that, your app is almost ready to be submitted.

The final hurdle is making sure you have enough users. You need a minimum of five to demonstrate you’ve been testing your app, and that you can personally persuade five people to use it. Hit up your friends and get them to give it a test run, and let you know what they think.

Once you’ve met all those conditions, you can submit the app for review. I’ve found it’s taken me two to three days, and as far as I can tell the inspection is fairly perfunctory. I can’t imagine it’s a sought-after job reviewing the apps, and I’ve had a spotty experience with the quality of the examination.

I submitted Event Connector four times in total before it was accepted. The first rejection was for the lack of an icon, which I fixed, but then the next two were random and confusing, claiming that my app had no content, and then that it violated the ToS because it gave access to secret events. Since there was little information in the rejections, and after research I couldn’t reproduce the problems, I resubmitted the app unchanged both times, and it was eventually accepted. Unlike the Firefox directory, there’s no two-way communication between the reviewers and the app developers, so I wasn’t able to get any additional guidance.

Once you’re in, you should get an immediate spike in the number of users, as the app shows up in the ‘Just added’ section of the directory. Then, I’d expect a steady flow of users, the size depending on the categories and appeal of your app. Hopefully you can gather a good base to build on with some viral distribution.

Funhouse Photo User Count: 1,697 total, 76 active. Still ticking upward, with fairly slow growth.

Event Connector
User Count
: 67 total, 6 active. I’m getting the Facebook equivalent of cosmic background radiation, in terms of new users through the directory. Still an uphill battle winning a new conference.

Privacy and the implicit web

Securitycamera

Implicit web apps rely on access to information you don’t want everyone to know. Unlike traditional server driven web sites, implicit web apps often run on the user’s own machine. This gives them access to all the user’s data, whereas a web service can only see a small slice covering what the user did whilst visiting that site.

The only difference between an implicit web client app and spyware is intent. Fred Wilson has a quote "If someone’s going to spy on you, it’s probably best if it’s you." I think "If someone’s going to spy on you, it’s probably best if it’s us" is a better reflection of the current state of the implicit web scene. We aren’t empowering users by letting them own their information, and control exactly what is revealed. Instead at install time we’re asking them to sign over the right to pull all their information onto our servers.

This isn’t a big issue yet, because there’s not much awareness amongst users of the dangers. But it would only take one big privacy breach to start people worrying. We need to plan ahead to make sure we don’t get classed as spyware by zealous blockers.

I think the model for the future is something like the Attention Trust. Set up to provide a standard for the treatment of user’s web-browsing behavior, they mandate a set of principles their members must follow. In return, organizations that meet those principles can display a badge demonstrating their trustworthiness.

It’s not perfect, there’s not a rigorous inspection or application process to join, it’s mostly self-regulated, and the rules are focused on web-browsing. But it is an organization I expect to grow and mature as the demand from legitimate implicit web companies to avoid being labelled as spyware gets stronger. They also offer a very interesting Firefox extension for tracking user’s web-browsing, I’m tempted to try a port over to IE.

The trickiest practical part of this is that providing the sort of fine-grained user control will take a lot of extra engineering, and some smart UI to avoid baffling the user with a space shuttle control panel of options. Most services allow you to temporarily disable information capture, but I think one of the requirements is going to be the ability for users to remove data from your server after it’s been captured, and that’s going to be a lot harder to implement.

As I was researching this post, I ran across an article by Alex Iskold on ReadWriteWeb that was really helpful. I guess I wasn’t the first to spot Amazon as the ur-Implicit-Web-App!

Funhouse Photo User Count: 1,686 total, 73 active. The stats have moved at least, but still seem a little flakey, showing data from three days ago.

Event Connector User Count: 65 total, 10 active. No progress on signing up a conference, I will be chasing this up again, and considering some different approaches to reaching organizers.

Hiking trails on Santa Cruz Island

Montanonridge

Santa Cruz Island sits about twenty miles off the southern California coast, and is an amazing place to camp and hike. Never inhabited except by the Chumash Indians and a few sheep ranchers, visiting it is like a trip back in time. Completely undeveloped, without paved roads, power lines or pretty much any other reminder of modern life, it’s impossible not to relax!

There’s daily scheduled boat trips from Ventura, it takes about an hour, and you’ll often see some dolphins or whales as you cross the channel. You cross the shipping lanes, so you may be lucky enough to see a container ship up close too. Call me crazy, but I think they’re one of the wonders of the modern world, and always inspire a sense of wonder. Go to IslandPackers.com to reserve your boat ride.

With over one hundred square miles of back country, there’s a lot to explore. I’d recommend picking up a commercial map before you go, such as National Geographic’s, but I’ve also created a Google map showing the trails I’ve hiked on the eastern National Park side of the island. You can check out the map to build your own trips, but I’ll describe a few of my favorites here.

Cavern Point Loop

The landing point for the eastern side of the island is at Scorpion Harbor. This is the quickest and easiest loop, at 1.6 miles, though it does have some steep sections of uphill. You start off up the cliffs on the north side of the harbor, on a tough uphill climb. If it’s clear, at the top you’ll be rewarded with some great views of both the mainland, and the rest of the island. You then follow the trail along the top of the cliffs to Cavern Point, a bare patch at a cliff-top, where you can look west along the rugged coast. You can then take a fire road back, past the ranger’s huts, but I prefer going a little further along the trail, and then following a trail down a gully to the lower campground. When you’re going down the gully, check out the stone dams built to check erosion. They’ve lasted for decades, despite being dry stone construction, and were built by Italian stone-masons all over the island.

Once you’re at the lower campground, follow the main fire road east back to the pier. Breathe deeply as you pass through the eucalyptus planted by the ranchers. They may be non-native (like me!), but that smell always brings me back to the island.

Potato Harbor

A 5 mile out-and-back, this is a good intermediate hike. The route takes you up to Cavern Point first, but then takes you along the cliffs to a beautiful sheltered cove. Here’s a photo showing the view you’ll get if you make it:
Potatoharbor

From Cavern Point, you can just follow the cliff-top path until it joins with a fire road. Take that for another mile, and you’ll be there.

There’s a route known as the Quad Trail that branches off near Potato Harbor overlook. This is mostly unmaintained, and unmarked on most maps. Me and Liz followed it for a couple of miles, it had a lot of punishing uphill, but was generally clear and in good shape. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re an experienced hiker.

Smugglers Cove

You can head over to Smugglers Cove by following the fire road up the hill on the south side of Scorpion Canyon, visible from the pier. You won’t see it whilst you’re hiking on it, but there’s some magnificent rock walls supporting the road, built by the Italian stone-masons. It’s around four miles to Smugglers, but there’s a lot of uphill, so it’s harder than you might expect.

There’s a lovely grove of Cypress trees visible from the fire road. You can take a short-cut through this grove on a single-track trail, and it’s a perfect spot to recover from the struggle up the first hill. Planted for the rancher’s daughter to enjoy, it adds to the Mediterranean atmosphere.

Turn to the east when you get to a junction with another fire road, and you’ll be headed to Smugglers. Once you arrive, you’ll see a grove of olive trees planted by the ranchers, which always makes me wish I’d brought the rest of a martini. Smugglers Cove has an old Ranch House, but the best part is the beach. Exposed to the Pacific, you often get majestic surf rolling in.

Scorpion Canyon Trail and the Old Oil Well

A 4 mile loop with plenty of climbing. You start off heading west along the Scorpion Canyon fire road, and then continue along Scorpion Canyon trail once the road ends, after the upper campground. There’s a trail heading uphill near the end of Scorpion Canyon. It’s possible to continue up the canyon too, rather than taking this Old Oil Well trail, but it’s extremely rocky and technical, so I wouldn’t recommend it. Here’s a photo Liz took as we were exploring up the canyon a couple of weeks ago:
Scorpioncanyon

The Old Oil Well trail is very hard work, you gain a lot of elevation over a short distance. At the top, it joins up with a fire road, and a few hundred feet away is an old oil drill, with a drilling head left next to the trail. This is from an exploration effort many years ago, they dug down several thousand feet, but all they found was water! It was cheaper to write off the equipment than ship it back to the mainland, so here it sits, slowly rusting, good fodder for future archaeologists.

You can take the Old Oil Well fire road back down to get back to Scorpion Harbor.

Montanon Peak Trail

This is the longest and hardest trail we’ve taken on Santa Cruz. It’s 4.5 miles each way, and takes you to the highest point on the eastern island, Montanon Peak, at 1808 feet.

You start off by heading to the Old Oil Well, either by the fire road, or the Scorpion Canyon trail route. Once you’re at the well, continue west along the fire road. The trail itself is pretty well marked, with some signs added recently. Along the way, keep an eye out for the aircraft crash site. I don’t know the story behind this one, but there’s some old wreckage still visible as you pass over a rise.

The trail heads up to a local landmark known as High Mount. There, a trail splits off and heads off 12 miles west to Prisoners Harbor, a trip which I’ve never done myself, but hope to soon. The area gets fog rolling in from the ocean, so make sure you dress warmly. There’s some spectacular lichen and moss, here’s another photo from Liz:

Mossyoak

Stick to the ridge, and head south and uphill, and you’ll find yourself at Montanon Peak. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see a small hut, and some solar panels, for the radio equipment that’s housed up there.

I recommend taking the same trail back, but some maps do show a partial connector to Smugglers. We tried to make a loop down that way on our last trip, and it was a really horrible experience. The trail is non-existent, and getting down involves some scary rock scrambling. Liz had a nasty fall, and was lucky not to be injured beyond cuts and bruises. I’ve included the rough route we took in my map, but marked it in red, and I highly recommend not following in our footsteps!


Funhouse Photo User Count
: 1,638 total, 77 active. I’m wondering if the stats are having a problem, since this seems to be exactly the same as last night?

Event Connector User Count: 61 total, 8 active. I just refreshed, and went from 48 total to 61, so there’s definitely something wild and whacky going on with Facebook’s statistics.