Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Friday, January 20, 2006
When Tim Berners-Lee created the first web browser in the early 1990s, the links in the text were identifable because they were underlined. It wasn't possible to change the color of the text as Berners-Lee did his work on an early NeXT workstation. While these machines had plenty of cool features (see another article I wrote), they only had a four tone gray scale display. Modern browsers, and the displays we view them on, come in color.
Yet underlined links are still used in every web browser. I hate it. I think it's unnecessary and it makes the text appear busier and more difficult to read. So, the first thing I do with any new browser is to uncheck the "Underline Links" button. Here's a contrived example of the difference this can make. First, here's some text from Wikipedia without underlines. By choosing a darkish blue for links, the main text flows well from black to blue and back again. Yet it's still easy to figure out where to point your mouse to click on a link. Now the same text with underlines:
If everything is a link, why differentiate?
A real, non-contrived example is the list of feeds as it currently appears on bloglines.com, shown below. This appears in a separate frame on the left side of the browser window. Clicking on any one of these links changes the content in the big frame on the right side of the browser. This is essentially a menu -- every one of these lines is a link. An additional visual cue to demonstrate that these are links is not needed, and yet, their stylesheet forces it on me.
Moving on to the next example... "I know there's a link here somewhere"
Another bad use of underlines is assuming that users haven't turned off underlined links. The Signal vs. Noise (SvN) blog, from 37signals, is guilty of this assumption. Ironically they are also the authors of the book Defensive Design for the Web (as well as the Ruby On Rails web framework and various web applications).
Here's how I see text on a snippet from SvN: Quick - where do you click to read the source article? There is no visual cue! When I move my mouse around, I find that the link is magically highlighted when I move over it.
Trying to follow links from this blog is like playing a video game.
Since most people either like the underlines or don't ever bother to change any preferences, I'll accept that this is a personal choice. But, if a site, such as SvN, decides that it prefers to use only underlines as visual cues for links, then it should be sure to enforce this using its stylesheet. It's not hard. In fact, 37signals already does so on their home page. (The SvN page does get positive marks from me for deciding that one visual cue to show links is enough -- they just need to make sure that their users see that one cue)
I need to finish this rant with clarifications about Bloglines and 37signals. I like the way the 37signals guys think and I own (and recommend) the above-mentioned book. I use Bloglines every day (although lately I've been forcing myself to use the invisibility cloak greasemonkey script to limit the times I catch up on news). Now, if they could just understand the way I feel about underlines.
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
If you don’t agree that this is the coolest application you’ve seen in a long while, re-read this post over and over until you agree, because you are wrong. I am in love with Pandora.No, wait, that's not very useful; accurate, but not useful. It's a streaming music application with a great recommendation engine, or, as my wife said when I described it to her: "the ultimate mix tape."
You create a "station" by suggesting a single artist or song and the Pandora application streams more music to you based on the data from the "Music Genome Project". As described in the podcast, Pandora employs trained musicians to analyze individual songs for some 400 attributes. From this, their recommendation engine suggests new songs for you to listen to. So, rather than relying on popular songs recommended by other users, it attempts to make recommendations based on musical qualities. You can also give some hints by explicitly giving a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to a song or by offering additional artists or songs as representative of the curent station.
About six or seven songs into my first station, seeded initially with R.E.M. and a similar band, The Feelies, it has produced mixed results -- good suggestions with songs from Collective Soul, The Cult, and Man Break, but off the mark with Iron Maiden and Poison. After giving the thumbs down to those last two, the quality picked up. Later I tried a couple different stations with different types of music. Again, I gave thumbs up and thumbs down a little bit and the selection of music improved.