Archive for October, 2008

Content-aware resizing knows what you want

One of the biggest challenges of user experience design is predicting what the user wants. The best system possible is one that knows what you want completely and provides it before you ask. The worst system is one that thinks it knows what you want but is always wrong. An example of the former is sitting down to your computer in the morning and seeing the two new sites you always open first ready and loaded. An example of the latter is Clippy, the adaptive menus in Microsoft Office 2003, and any scene from the Jetson’s.

Two ways to predict what the user wants are by 1. knowing him better, and by 2. having more intelligent tools. A browser knows you go to Huffington Post and the New York Times every morning, because it sees your daily browsing habits and knows you’re liberal scum. But if a task is common and difficult, sometimes a more intelligent tool can be the fix.

Here’s a more intelligent tool to get excited about: content-aware image resizing in Photoshop CS4 (hat tip: Frederic Wenzel). This feature lets you resize an image while respecting its subject and complexity by scaling the non-complex, boring bits. Adobe has a promo video up, and here is a video from the Israeli researchers who thought of it first. This is a photo editing task which is normally quite difficult and tedious, and with better tools the user experience is massively improved.

Facebook is acting like your mother, and she’s very disappointed in you

I hate online ads, in part because they are anti-user experience. Good user experience enables users by giving them positive interactions with the content and tools they want to access, while advertising steers them away from what they want to access. While user experience caters to users’ wants and needs, advertising attempts to hijack them. User experience focuses, advertising distracts.

Fair enough, we’re intelligent people and know that pinching the monkey won’t win us an iPod. But lately, I’m even more disturbed by Facebook’s acutely targeted advertising. It goes beyond critisizing your purchases and begins to critisize you. Mossop pointed out to me last week that Facebook is analyzing your profile and selecting ads which more than suggest a product, suggest you should be living your life differently. I checked my own profile, and here’s what I found:

Lots of engagement rings. Nowhere in my profile have I mentioned an interest in getting married, but I’m a female over a certain age and I fall in Facebook’s targeted social bracket. Facebook thinks it’s about time! Facebook wants grandchildren!

The trend here is disturbing – that as advertising becomes “better,” it begins to sound less like an annoying child and more like a judging peer group. You know you’re fat, because ads are telling you about diet plans. You know you’re old, because ads are telling you about wrinkle cream. We’ve heard complaints that advertising gives us unreasonable expectations from body image to income, but in the pre-digital age these expectations were leveled at no one in particular. With the internet, these ads are targeted at you – your life, your problems, and your choices. If we continue to not care how much companies like Facebook and their advertisers learn about us, the projection here is grim – that advertising becomes a more increasingly personalized, feeding on our insecurities and urging us to conform through consumption.

I’m not trying to be alarmist here, but only say that we must care about where our data goes. The game here is becoming more interesting, because the nature of the internet and even free speech is at stake. Yesterday, the Guardian wrote that the South Korea, a democracy, would like to more heavily police the internet and essentially terminate its anonymity (link). Steps away from anonymous data are harmful ones. Gabe’s dickwad theory aside, the anonymity of the internet is a wonderfully subversive thing – it can guarantee freedom of speech for those otherwise without it. Mitchell Baker has been posting recently about why Mozilla should think about and respond to data (introduction, related topics, what Mozilla should do). Here, she write that Mozilla’s principles of enriching lives, providing security, and giving us control of our online experience “are at risk if individuals have no control over the creation or use of the data that describes us.” How to protect users while still steering away from proprietary data will be a difficult problem to tackle, but we’re in a good place to start the discussion.