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January 31, 2007

February Smart Answers

Who knew such a cold month would have so much going on? Awards shows, African American History Month, Johnny Cash's birthday…February's looking like a full dance card. Look to Smart Answers to give you the info you need.


 

FEBRUARY: Smart Answers for Important Dates

Feb 1: Thomas Edison completes the world's first movie studio (1893).
Feb. 2: Groundhog  Day. Oh, all right. Here's some movie clips.
Feb. 4: Super Bowl Sunday. Also Rosa Parks' birthday, and the ninth anniversary of Bill Gates getting a pie in the face. We're just saying.
Feb. 11: The Grammy awards.
Feb. 12: Abraham Lincoln's birthday.
Feb. 14: Valentine's Day. Better plan that evening out!
Feb. 19: Presidents' Day. Which doesn't actually fall on a president's birthday this year. Just be happy for the long weekend.
Feb. 20: Mardi Gras Day. Also what would have been Kurt Cobain's 40th birthday.
Feb. 22: George Washington's birthday. See above.
Feb. 25: The Academy Awards.


FEBRUARY: Recently Added Smart Answers

The Latest News Images

If you're searching Ask.com for images of newsworthy subjects like Iraq, GW Bush, or the Screen Actors Guild Awards, you can expect the latest photos hot off the wires.

Anime Characters

We've got Edward Elric, Tsurumaki's FLCL, even Kimba the White Lion. TetsuOOOOOOOO!

--The Ask.com Smart Answers team

What? did none of you see Akira?

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January 29, 2007

Ask Q & A: Michael Ferguson, Senior User Experience Analyst (Part Two)

In Part One, Michael told us about his path to Ask.com, what a Senior User Experience Analyst does, and gave us examples of good and bad User Experience. Today, we're going to find out his favorite examples of offline usability, who he considers authorities in the field, and what's the most usable thing in his home (hint: it has an "i" in its name).

What's the most annoying usability mistake you see on the Web?
Using "Click Here" makes me go kookaburra. Just have the link text describe what's behind it! It's like having a note on a door that says, "Turn the doorknob below and push to get into the kitchen," instead of a sign just saying "Kitchen."

Who is/are your User Experience guru/s?
Of course I started out reading some of the canonical stuff from Dan Norman and Brenda Laurel and a host of others, but now there's so many people doing good work. Now you buy a coffee maker and there's this whole unboxing experience that sets a mood, gives you history and tips, and propels you into the using of the thing, wrapped in a warmly branded context.


You started building sites at a time that many consider to be the "beginning" of the Web. Any favorite projects from the early days?
Joel's Gizmonic Antsite (archived site), comes to mind. I did that with Mystery Science Theatre 3000's Joel Hodgson. He was always asking things like "How can we get an ant to jump out of the screen into a user's lap?"

What are your rules for Web usability?
Usability's not really governed by rules. People tried that a bit in the mid-90s and they just don't apply universally--it's more "what works for this user and this business in this situation." Some general themes I keep in mind:
1. Speak clearly: use direct and simple language.
2. Make it clear where someone is in the experience and what their choices are. Make the choices distinct from each other.
3. Reduce work on the user's part wherever you can. Less to think about, with fewer clicks, keeps them in the flow.

What have you not seen in search that you think should be incorporated?
I don't know how we'll do it, but when I search I'd like to have a sense of where else there'd be good information. Offline resources like libraries and social groups that meet and exchange information or online services that may be behind registration systems. The interface now implies "this is it, we've searched the whole of everything and here's what you get."

Any "out-there" user experiences (online or off) that you think will make their way into the mainstream?
From an urban planning and environmental standpoint, I hope shared car services (like Zipcar and City CarShare), which are a hit in a few urban areas, can scale to less physically dense communities. There's a lot of relief in having access to a gassed up, insured car with parking only when you need it. This feels obvious to city-dwellers, but I expect some suburbs will want to share resources sooner rather than later.

User experience is your primary field of expertise. What's your secondary?
Probably enjoying music. I go to lots of shows and have been known to do a form of "dancing."

What's the most usable thing in your home?
My bike. It does just what it should and delights me.

What books or sites would you recommend for someone interested in user experience?
As far as blogs, I'd say Adaptive Path's blog, Kathy Sierra and Dan Russell's Creating Passionate Users, Christina Wodtke's Boxes and Arrows, and Luke Wroblewski's Functioning Form are good places to learn more about current issues in user experience design. A great, fast, entertaining overview of usability is the book Don't Make Me Think! by Steve Krug. If you have anything to do with making Web sites, at least read that.

Also check out Designing for Interaction by Dan Saffer. It breaks down the process of collecting user needs, creating and testing great experiences, and doesn't focus just on the Web. Design issues for physical devices and spaces are covered as well.

Beyond that, it's always good to read stuff from fields outside of your business to get ideas.

What would you do to make this Q & A more user-friendly?
I'm highly satisfied. I'll definitely recommend it to friends.

 

Ken Grobe
Product Content Manager
Ask.com
 

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January 26, 2007

Ask Q & A: Michael Ferguson, Senior User Experience Analyst (Part One)

       
          

"I like solving puzzles," Michael Ferguson notes in his Q & A, "And I'm curious." For Ask's resident User Experience guru, it's that curiosity that's has taken him from Lollapalooza, through the 1990's tech boom, and up the ladder at Ask.com to his current position as our Senior User Experience Analyst.

Michael's interactive experience goes back to production work on CD-ROM and digital interactive kiosks and art projects for the 1994 Lollapalooza tour. Later that year he started an interactive design & production company, adding educational and entertainment CD-ROM projects to his CV. Projects for the Web followed, and Ask.com soon came a-calling.

Michael started Ask's first in-house group focusing on understanding User Experience. He's our first stop when we want a better understanding about end-user motivations and behavior--so we made him our first Q & A interview as well. In Part One, we learn more about his work with Ask, usability in general, and how it factors into his beef with DirecTV.

"Senior User Experience Analyst"--that's a mouthful. What's that entail?
A lot of the job is gaining insight into people--their motivations and behavior. I try to understand them in all aspects of their lives, and then focus on how they find and use information, especially with search. I then help the design, marketing, engineering, and R&D teams build valuable and delightful experiences. (At least, I hope I'm helping!)
 
I also act as an evangelist for users--both publicly and within the company. The more empathy for user experience everyone involved has, the better products we deliver.

The job title is a wink to The Daily Show, where Jon can turn to the "Senior Media Analysis Analyst," or the "Senior Star Trek Analogy Analyst," et cetera. If someone doesn't pick up on that, it still sounds legit.

User Experience in 30 words or less. Go.
User Experience is the full range of thoughts, feelings, needs, values, perceptions,  abilities, and goals people bring to your product or service, and then experience while using it.

With two words to spare. How do you get that across to the various disciplines at Ask?
Basically I work to understand user needs, and help the product design and search  teams to get ideas in front of users. We keep in mind that user experience includes  understanding brand perception, culture, technology, usability, the competitive  landscape, and social and lifestyle trends. Obviously this crosses over into what marketing seeks to understand--so I work with them lots and they help us. Then I interpret user actions and perceptions, and make recommendations to improve the experience. We try to get everyone at Ask to get to know the end user.

What happens during a typical user testing session?
We capture user experience in a variety of ways, from server logs to ethnographic studies, where users keep journals and take note of what happens in their home, work, and mobile experiences. The basics are always the same: we have people complete tasks with our (or our competitors') products and see how it goes.

We have some basic rules for user testing:
1. Make the user comfortable--let them know they are not being tested, the product is.
2. Listen and watch carefully--there's often an illuminating story in an offhand remark.
3. Thank and compensate them!

Funniest thing you've ever seen in a user testing session?
You definitely meet all kinds of people. But there was this one guy who somehow got through the original screener interview who didn't know how to use a computer. I think he thought it was going to be a focus group where he could fade into the background--but it was a one-on-one session with me. He sat there terrified.I felt bad for him, so I taught him some basic stuff about how it all worked and gave him his money.

            

Who's doing user experience right?
With so many businesses focused on customer experience, it feels to me like generally everyone's doing better. Even local government and the IRS have been trying to be more approachable and "usable," both in physical and virtual spaces. Online, I'm impressed with Wesabe, which shoots the tricky whitewater of mixing social network collaboration and your credit card activity. Check out all the ways they get you comfortable with that--like the CEO's phone number front and center.

Who's doing it wrong? What's your best recent example of a bad user experience?
Um, DirecTV telling me on January 8th that they can't install my new service 'til February 7th--three days after Prince plays the Super Bowl half-time! And this is after they set up my account and took my credit card. Now, I understand that this time of year is hard: football season combines with the Holidays to move lots of TVs. But it's like that EVERY YEAR. So DirecTV needs to manage hardware inventory and installation contracting to account for that seasonal burst. Ugh. Otherwise, I like their service a bunch.

Come back Monday, when Michael makes some book and website recommendations, offers some celebrity dish, and tells us his favorite offline usability examples--including the most usable thing in his home.

Ken Grobe
Product Content Manager
Ask.com
 

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January 14, 2007

(Mid-) January Smart Answers

Where did the last two weeks go? Seems like yesterday we were just stumbling back into the office from New Year's. Next thing we know, New Year's Day, the Japanese New Year, CES, MacWorld, and birthdays for Elvis, Bowie and Salinger have just flown by. Fortunately we have plenty of Smart Answers to help us track the rest of the month:

January: Smart Answers for Important Dates 

Jan. 15th: Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Jan. 20th:
Anniversary of Roe V. Wade.
Jan. 27th: Edison patents the light bulb.
Jan. 29th: Oprah's Birthday. Odds are somebody's getting a car today.

January: New Ask.com Smart Answers

The 2007 NFL Playoffs. Keep up with your teams at the office and look like you're working!

Record Albums. Type in the name of your favorite album--get a spanking new smart answer. Great for making picks in your Grammies office pool.

Local Businesses and Events. Looking for comedy in Cleveland, Greek food in Tampa, or the New York Knicks' schedule? Good as done.

The 2007 Mavericks Surf Contest. What can we say? We love the surfing. Mavericks is held on 24 hours notice between January and March, so have your wet suit handy!


--The Ask.com Smart Answers Team

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January 08, 2007

(Best Of 2006)3

It's a full week into the New Year and the torrent of year-end "Best Of" lists shows no sign of ebbing. Bloggers have taken it upon themselves to stave the flood by putting together "Best Of" lists of the "Best Of" lists. No dice: now the BO2 (Best-Of-Best-Of) lists are piling up to dangerous info-overload levels. Clearly, it's time for Ask.com to step in and save the day.

Thanks to Ask.com Blog & Feed Search, we've searched out and culled down to offer you this "Best Of the Best Of the Best Of" lists--or as we call it, the BO3.

"Techfluencers" (as our research department calls them) will get a kick out of The Digital Edge blog's BO list, which links to resources like Jacob Neilsen's "Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design" and Business 2.0's "Top Ten Can't-Miss Predictions for 2007!"

General-interest blog At Least One Cool Thing shares this year's Darwin Awards and 20 weirdest gadgets from The Register UK (spoiler warning: #1 is "Gupi the Robot Guinea Pig").

Bibliophiles (if you know what that word means, you're one of them) will dig Brit-born Sharon Bakar, blogging all the way from Malaysia. Her Bibliobibuli blog offers up a short but sweet page of BO 2006 book lists, including the NY Times ten best books and the 100 best from Canada's Globe and Mail.

Architecture and public space aficionados will want to check out The Spacing Wire's BO lists, especially if you live in New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Toronto.

Right-wing blog Urban Grounds offers a curious set of lists from sources like The Star and Right Wing Views, including the Top 10 Naked People on Google Earth. The naked list is surprisingly work-safe. Urban Grounds' rhetoric? Less so.

And what would this post be without BOs from music blogs & feeds, starting with Pitchfork Media's indispensable Top 50 Albums of 2006. Pitchfork also offers the top 100 songs and top 25 music videos. Jazz lovers should check out the St. Louis Jazz Notes blog's collection of BO lists, which includes picks from jazz editors at Downbeat, Billboard and The Village Voice. Suite 101's Folk Music 101 blog offers a handful of folk and rock BO lists, and Stereogum starts with a few links to BOs and lets their readers contribute the rest via comments. Blogocracy in action!

For those who look on the geekier side of life, comics industry journalist Tom Spurgeon has assembled two dozen of his peers' BO lists on his Comics Reporter blog. There's a "worst of" here as well, plus links to yet more sets of BOs. Our heads are stating to hurt.

Of course you can count on Largehearted Boy for a master list of all the music BOs, and  Fimoculous or an aggregate list of pretty much ALL the BOs out there. Oh, and there's  YesButNoButYes, which has a BO3 list like not unlike ours...making ours a BO4 list! In your face, YesButNoButYes!

Honestly, if we get any more meta, we're bound to make someone's "Best Of" list ourselves. Oh wait--we already did? Well, there you go.


--The Ask.com Team

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January 03, 2007

AskCity Gets You Through Award Season

So that West Wing Season Seven box you received for Hanukkah kept you away from all the "for your consideration" movies (including For Your Consideration) you planned to see over the holidays. And now awards season is fast upon us. Worry not! Let AskCity be your guide.

Let's say you heard that one of the really good ones this year was directed by Clint  Eastwood--but you don't remember the name of the film. Fine. Just go to AskCity from the Ask.com home page and search using his name and your area (city, town, or zip code will do)...

...and you'll discover not one, but TWO awards-bait Eastwood-helmers playing at theaters near you.

Clicking on the links to their respective websites show that both are nominated for awards this year.

Looking for "that Cate Blanchett movie?" Depending on your zip code, she's in anywhere from one to three of 'em, all bucking for awards: Babel and The Good German in wide release, Notes on a Scandal in select cities. Is your city one of them? AskCity can find  out for you.

And let's not forget the children. Still haven't taken your kids to Happy Feet? How they let you get away with that is beyond us, but a quick go-round on AskCity Movie Search gives you times, theaters, directions, reviews (of both the movies AND the theaters) and ticket purchase options--on the same page--for this Golden Globe nominee.

Or maybe while you're trying to find the closest showing of The Queen, you've decided that, hey, it'll show up on DVD eventually and you'd really rather see a distinctly non-nominated comedy instead. Hit the Search by Genre "Comedy" link and Night at the Museum is just a click away.

We'll leave the Oscar parties and office pools up to you. But if you want to see those watercooler-worthy movies--and find somewhere to eat or drink after the show--AskCity is here for you.

--The AskCity Team

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