Net Neutrality at risk: the Internet as we know it will change

What’s about to happen will affect us all in ways we can’t yet imagine.

The current nondiscrimination principle of “network neutrality” forbids phone and cable companies from blocking or even discriminating between or entering in special business deals to the benefit of some sites over others.

For example, as Suzanne succinctly puts it on “Net neutrality is the idea that all information is created equal, therefore, it should be available to all users of the internet without the interference of big companies stating what can or can’t be viewed. For example, if there was not net neutrality then Google could choose to not allow any Gmail users to receive emails from Yahoo accounts and vice-versa. Also, wireless carriers could sell tiered services that would allow some people to get information faster than others.”

I found this image uncredited on another blog. If you know the author, contact me via the main Blue Mouse Monkey site.

However, net neutrality is “dead man walking”, because the DC Circuit Court is about to rule probably in favor of Verizon.

As Marvin Ammori writes in Wired, “Despite eight years of public and political activism by multitudes fighting for freedom on the internet, a court decision may soon take it away.”

“The implications of such a decision would be profound. Web and mobile companies will live or die not on the merits of their technology and design, but on the deals they can strike with AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and others. This means large phone and cable companies will be able to “shakedown” startups and established companies in every sector…”

Read the whole article on Wired »

Your Economy website re-launched

Blue Mouse Monkey is thrilled to announce the launch of the new website. Your Economy is an interactive resource center where you can explore and analyze economic activity in your own region and nationwide. YE houses more economic data than the U.S. census bureau, and it depicts the dynamic journey of jobs, sales, and establishments evolving through time.

We were particularly happy to work with Your Economy to improve the website, as we had been engaged in the first redesign in early 2012. Since then the needs of the project changed, and to take advantage of evolving web technologies, we decided to redo the whole site from the ground up. The result is a highly interactive, javascript-rich solution that enables you to dive deep into complex economic data in a matter of seconds. The YE website is designed to be user-friendly to a wide range of audiences, including the White House, state governors, economists, industry analysts, economic development experts, and the media.

Kaggle: what you can do with big data!

Kaggle website screenshotAs the grim news of the NSA’s data mining sinks in, I’d like to shift gears on that topic and highlight the up side of big data.

Kaggle is a website that hosts competitions for data prediction. Data wizards compete to come up with solutions — solutions that elude experts in all kinds of industries — and so far are beating the experts hands down.

When given the chance to play with data (and write algorithms to analyze it), data scientists are able to see solutions without being distracted by industry assumptions or specialist knowledge. As Kaggle’s Jeremy Howard says, “Specialist knowledge is actually unhelpful.”

Competitions include developing an algorithm to grade student papers, developing a gesture-learning system for Microsoft Kinect, and predicting the biological properties of small molecules being screened as potential drugs. Kaggle has approximately 95,000 data scientists worldwide, from fields such as computer science, statistics, economics and mathematics. The data scientists rely on techniques of data mining and machine learning to predict future trends from current data. Companies, governments, and researchers present data sets and problems and offer prize money for the best solutions.

As Howard says, “Winners of Kaggle competitions tend to be curious and creative people. They come up with a dozen totally new ways to think about the problem.” (New Scientist vol. 216, No. 2893)

Way cool!


The Disciplines of User Experience Design

The deeper I go into user experience design, the more I realize how broad the topic is, and also how difficult it can be to explain to someone for whom the idea or term is new. I appreciate Thomas Gläser‘s Venn diagram of the discipline and how it relates to many other disciplines. On various sites where the diagram has been posted commenters are quick to point out what’s missing, e.g. why doesn’t sound design overlap with interaction design?  But, as Mark Wilson points out on,

…to critique a piece like this is to ungratefully overlook its utility: Don’t see this as the only road map for the entire UX design industry, but a postulation as to why it’s so darned complicated to nail good UX. To think anyone could be an expert in each of these circles is sheer absurdity. Scratch that: To think any designer could be an expert in each of these circles is sheer absurdity, but to recognize that every end user is an expert in each of these circles is highly important. As humans and end users, we might not know what makes an experience right, but we certainly know when it’s wrong.


It’s comforting to have Jakob Nielsen in the world

Siemens website carouselThe latest Nielsen Alertbox posting inspired me to write. It’s Auto-Forwarding Carousels and Accordions Annoy Users and Reduce Visibility and it makes no bones about the uselessness of what at first glance seems like a good idea. Auto-forwaring carousels have become standard issue on websites where the urge is to “tell our story” but the client has a hard time condensing that story down to a few words. So a carousel is set up where the story is told over several slides, each typically featuring a large photo or graphic with a short paragraph of text. But the fear (on the part of the client and the designer) is that most users will not ever see beyond the first slide in the carousel, so the carousel is programmed to automatically rotate through the slides.

To the client and to the designer, copywriter, programmer, and others who have worked on the site, all seems fine because we’ve been knee-deep in developing the content for months and the carousel slides are familiar to us. But what about the new visitor? I know the frustration of having a carousel slide on a new-to-me site disappear before I’ve finished reading the contents, and the fumbling to find my way back (Where’s the navigation? At the bottom? Top right? Under the text?).

I have designed rotating carousels on many a website, often at the request of clients who have come to expect them. But I wonder if they are a fad that will pass. Maybe by 2014 or 2015 we’ll look back on carousels and wonder why we tried to cram so much into our home pages.

Oh, and I also love Nielsen’s comment about “content-free content”. Of the tagline on the Siemens website, “Rewarding.Life.Style.” he says, “This is content-free content to at least 99% of humans outside Siemens’ marketing department.” So true!

This is one of the reasons I like to perform a focus group on a website after it has been built but before it is launched to the public. Real-world users catch the BS-y things that can easily slip into a website during the design and build, and they’ll call you on it.

As I always say, your website is not for you, it’s for your audiences, and making sure their needs are met is highest priority.

MIT establishes Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST)

Photo: Andy Ryan

I’m excited that MIT is recognizing and supporting interdisciplinary collaboration in the arts and sciences with this new center. I’ve always advocated a breakdown of the artificial division between the two disciplines, the overly simplistic “right-brain” vs. “left brain” classifications of not only activities, but people. Creativity is enormous and comes in many forms. Cross-polinnation between arts and sciences can only be fruitful. I can’t wait to see what sort of projects, ideas and resources come out of CAST.

The grant will provide awards to faculty, researchers and curators seeking to develop cross-disciplinary courses, new research or exhibitions that span the arts, science and technology. Mellon funds also will supplement MIT’s existing Visiting Artists program. The goal will be to embed artists’ residencies in the curriculum and create a platform for collaboration with faculty, students and research staff in the development, display and performance of new and experimental artwork or technologies for artistic expression. In addition, the grant will support the participation of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the activities of the Center.

Medium-Sized Companies are the Economic Engine

Blue Mouse Monkey wants you to learn about your economy through a new lens! Did you know that existing, expanding companies contribute most to U.S. job creation? Not startups and not big companies, but medium sized-companies. In fact, from 1990 to 2008 existing companies generated 71 percent more new jobs than startups. And from 1995 – 2009 Stage 2 companies (those with 10-99 employees) represented only 10.9% of all establishments but they contribute a whopping 33.2% of total job expansion. The website has a larger dataset than the US Census Bureau, and they are able to crunch the numbers and come up with these previously unknown facts. See Blue Mouse Monkey’s case study and visit the website.

Your Economy website launched

your_economyBlue Mouse Monkey is thrilled to announce the launch of the new website. Your Economy, a project of the Edward Lowe Foundation, is an interactive resource center designed for users to explore and analyze economic activity in their own regions and nationwide. YE houses more economic data than the U.S. census bureau, and it can depict the dynamic journey of business communities evolving through time. However, the existing website was so complex and confusing that the YE founders had to train users in how the system worked, and they were compelled to manage a continuous flow of queries about usability.

Blue Mouse Monkey rose to the challenge to make the YE website user-friendly to a wide range of audiences, including the White House, state governors, economists, industry analysts, economic development experts, and the media. An intensive audit of processes, and analysis of user-experience requirements led to a complete redesign of the information architecture, user experience, look-and-feel, and written content. And the bright orange and yellow color scheme is a conscious departure from the stereotypical “blue for business” palette.


Technoschmerz, according to this Boston Globe article on neologisms, means,

“…the emotional pain (schmerz comes from a German word meaning “pain”) caused by difficult interactions with electronic gadgets or unhelpful websites. If you’ve ever felt your cellphone was out to get you, you’ve suffered from technoschmerz.”

This word is long overdue. (Thank you, Kate Greene, for the coinage.) I expect to use it often. If I take my personal experiences with digital technologies (and in running a web design company, I have plenty) and multiply these by the number of people in the world with dependent connections to contemporary digital gadgets, I can only imagine the amount of confusion, delay, errors, and the resulting stress from wrestling with technologies that keep changing, or don’t work intuitively or correctly must be global and massive. Has anyone analyzed the overall cost of this? I wonder what it would amount to when weighed against the overall benefits…

Bruce Sterling's chart of technological adaptation

Bruce Sterling In his book Shaping Things (one of my all-time favorite books, btw) examines the evolving interplay between objects and people. He divides the technosocial realm into several epochs, beginning with ARTIFACTS, which are hand-made, muscle-powered objects, such as spears. Then moving to MACHINES, which are artifacts with moving parts that rely on a non-human, non-animal power source, and require an infrastructure of engineering, distribution, and finance. Think steam engines. Next up is PRODUCTS, and they are mass-produced, non-artisinal, widely distributed, and operate over continental economies of scale. Think blenders. Since 1989 we have been in the age of GIZMOS, according to Sterling. Gizmos are

“…highly unstable,  user-alterable multi-featured objects, commonly programmable, with a brief lifespan. Gizmos offer functionality so plentiful that it is cheaper to import features into the object than it is to simplify it. Gizmos are commonly linked to network service providers; they are not stand-alone objects but interfaces.

Unlike artifacts, machines and products, gizmos have enough functionally to actively nag people. Their deployment demands extensive, sustained, interaction, upgrades, grooming, plug-ins, plug-outs, unsought messages, security threats,…

Sterling goes on to argue that we are moving into the epoch of SPIMES, which are already among us in primitive forms such as the RFID tag. But that’s a topic for another post. For now, GIZMOS are enough to deal with. And according to Sterling, we have long passed the Line of No Return on them. This is the moment when a revolutionary technology becomes the status quo, and a culture has become so reliant that it cannot voluntarily return to the previous technosocial condition, at least not without social collapse.

And dependent we are. Not just on the objects, but the networks that connect them. IMAP email that shows up at home, work, on my iPad, on my iPhone. Dropbox files that do the same. Writeroom for synched notes, BaseCamp for synched project management, FreshBooks for synched book-keeping. Compared with how I managed files and communications a mere two or three years ago, a revolution has taken place in my personal life, and I know it’s been mirrored in the lives of many.

Infographic by Randy Krum,

We are firmly in the age of the GIZMO. Thus I pledge allegiance to the new overlords, and I interact, upgrade, groom, and protect them from security threats whenever they demand it. Because if I fail to nurture these overlords, I become invisible and mute to anyone not standing directly in front of me!

The science and art of democratizing data

Data-visualization virtuosos Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg create a hybrid “artform” (for lack of a more inclusive term) out of data sets. Straddling the realms of science, design, art, and exploration, these graphics reveal interesting patterns in data.

“Data visualization has historically been accessible only to the elite in academia, business, and government. But in recent years web-based visualizations–ranging from political art projects to news stories–have reached audiences of millions. Unfortunately, while lay users can view many sophisticated visualizations, they have few ways to create them.

To “democratize” visualization, and experiment with new collaborative techniques, we built Many Eyes, a web site where people may upload their own data, create interactive visualizations, and carry on conversations. The goal is to foster a social style of data analysis in which visualizations serve not only as a discovery tool for individuals but also as a means to spur discussion and collaboration.”

Carbon footprint of a Big Mac, by Tim Fiddaman

Carbon footprint of a Big Mac, by Tim Fiddaman

Visualizing data that isn’t normally visualized, or is presented in a new way, tells us different stories about the world. From a kid counting all the socks in his household, to trends in editing wikipedia, to a “social network” of the characters in the bible, Many Eyes shows us new patterns that hadn’t been noticed before.

Wattenberg and Viegas now work with Google on a project called the Big Picture Visualization Group in Cambridge, MA, with the goal of making visualizations available to regular  people via Google.