Usability in the Movies — Top 10 Bloopers

This Alertbox from Jakob Nielsen arrived in my inbox just before Christmas, but there is still plenty of time over the next few days and the New Year for us to do a bingo card for the movies’ top 10 usability bloopers. I love Nielsen’s grossly understated summary: “User interfaces in film are more exciting than they are realistic, and heroes have far too easy a time using foreign systems”! Do read the full article.

My own favourite snippets from are:

“1. The Hero Can Immediately Use Any UI
Break into a company – possibly in a foreign country or on an alien planet – and step up to the computer. How long does it take you to figure out the UI and use the new applications for the first time? Less than a minute if you’re a movie star. In reality, we know all too well that even the smartest users have plenty of problems using even the best designs, let alone the degraded usability typically found in in-house MIS systems or industrial control rooms.”

Forget about another country, planet or in-house system. I quake every time I run a workshop and have to use the computer and system provided by the training suite rather than my own laptop. Do they have Firefox (answer usually ‘No’), which version of IE do they have (5, 6, 7?), what does their firewall block? (Worst experience I had was a session I did on the importance of audio/video in competitive intelligence; every search tool and relevant site that mentioned audio or video was blocked, and the organisation was a brewer but their new ISP had blocked all sites mentioning alcohol).

“2. Time travelers can use current designs
If you were transported back in time to the Napoleonic wars and made captain of a British frigate, you’d have no clue how to sail the ship: You couldn’t use a sextant and you wouldn’t know the names of the different sails, so you couldn’t order the sailors to rig the masts appropriately. However, even our sailing case would be easier than someone from the year 2207 having to operate a current computer: sailing ships are still around, and you likely know some of the basic concepts from watching pirate movies. In contrast, it’s highly unlikely that anyone from 2207 would have ever seen Windows Vista screens.”

I keep hoping that none of us will ever have to see Windows Vista screens but I fear that we are doomed in that respect. There are times when I am glad I kept my old DOS manuals. There are still situations in which being able to drop down into command line mode saves so much time and effort as well as solving some very simple problems that are made unimaginably complex by Windows.

I can particularly identify with number 4 “Integration is ease, data interoperates”:

“In movieland, users have no trouble connecting different computer systems. Macintosh users live in a world of PCs without ever noticing it. In the show 24, Jack Bauer calls his office to get plans and schematics for various buildings. Once these files have been transferred from outside sources to the agency’s mainframe, Jack asks to have them downloaded to his PDA. And – miracle of miracles – the files are readable without any workarounds. (And download is far faster than is currently possible on the U.S.’s miserable mobile networks.)”.

Forget about different systems, some colleagues and I had great fun (NOT!) trying to read a Microsoft Word document in what we all thought was a common Word format that everyone’s versions of Word could display correctly. And we weren’t talking about ancient or bleeding edge 2007 versions either :-(

And number 9 in Nielsen’s list “You’ve got mail is always good news:

“In the movies, checking your mail is a matter of picking out the one or two messages that are important to the plot. No information pollution or swamp of spam. No ever-changing client requests in the face of impending deadlines. And you never overlook information because a message’s subject line violated the email usability guidelines.”

I’m afraid Nielsen doesn’t go far enough here. In the movies the hero/heroine logs into their email and the only message that pops up on the screen is the one that reveals the key to the whole mystery. Come on – let’s see them having to do some work to get to the vital information. How about having to run Mailwasher on top of the ISP spam filters or a desktop search tool to dig around in the totally unstructured collection of read email sitting on the computer? Then we won’t feel inadequate next time we are desperate to track down that seriously important message buried in a pile of rubbish.

Blog Tag: 5 things you don’t know about Karen Blakeman

This is a blog tag game and I blame Phil Bradley for sucking me into this this, who blames Danny Sullivan, who blames …. I have no idea. The game is that having been tagged (by Phil!) I have to tell 5 things you didn’t know about me and ‘tag’ five people to do likewise!

So, the 5 things you possibly didn’t know about me are:

1. Phil claims to have run the first Internet course in the UK in 1994 but in late 1992 I ran an Internet course for people working in the commercial sector. We spent hours struggling with telnet, veronicas, archies, and gophers and got nowhere very slowly. At the end of the session I uttered the immortal words “Don’t worry, this Internet thing will never catch on” .

2. Chris (my husband) and I have walked the Thames Path twice during the last four years. 184 miles from its source in the Cotswolds to the Thames Barrier in Greenwich. Brilliant! Our greatest challenge was identifying public transport that could get us to and from various points along the walk.

3. I am a fervent vegetable gardener specialising in growing tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, peppers, garlic, and chillies that blow your head off. If you are interested in growing really tasty vegetables, especially tomatoes and peppers, try Simpsons Seeds.

4. We have a tartan tortie cat called Jessie. She is a rescue cat adopted from Thames Valley Animal Welfare and has us well trained. Remind me – why are we getting up at 5 am in order to feed this animal?

5. I am a Thunderbirds fan. F.A.B . Need I say more?

I now tag:

Tom Roper. Great blog that as well as information related topics has racing tips!

Brian Kelly. Well I have to tag him don’t !? We all teased him mercilessly at Internet Librarian International this year about being the only web 2.0 speaker without a blog. So he immediately set one up. And very good it is.

Chris Armstrong. This is the fellow to contact about managing e-books. He is also very active in CILIP council and has been involved in the Review of Groups and the Governance Review. Anyone who recommends axing the incomprehensible, hierarchical panel, board, standing committee structure of CILIP gets my vote every time!

Chris Rhodes. My husband who is involved in environmental remediation and energy issues. His blog has interesting but sometimes seriously scary stuff concerning climate change and ‘peak energy’.

Christine Baker. Christine does not have a blog but I want to tag her anyway, and she gets out of having to tell and tag. She is the UKeiG (UK eInformation Group) admin person who keeps the whole group running and on its toes, and we all love her. More importantly, she is and has been a great friend to me for many years.

Google launches Patents Search

Oooops, sorry, it hasn’t. Google’s service only searches the 7 million patents granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). I am sorry if this sounds tedious and boring to a lot of you, but those of us outside of the US are fed up with Google announcing services that imply they are world-wide when they are not. There is also the issue that the database Google uses for this does NOT, as Gary Price has pointed out (see below), include pre-grant published applications that are published before a US patent is or is not awarded.

Searching patents databases requires a knowledge of the legislation in each country, the terminology used in patents and the best databases and sources of information to use (most of them priced, I’m afraid). What is very worrying about Google’s patent search is that many budding inventors and entrepreneurs around the world may think that Google is searching and finding everything that is relevant when it isn’t.

If you just want to track down a copy of a known US patent, then this is fine – well, actually, I would go direct to the USPTO rather than use Google. If your search is business-critical and you have to know if anyone, anywhere in the world has already invented an energy generating machine based on cat-purr power then hire a patent search specialist!

More detailed reviews of Google’s patent search are available at the following:

Greg Notess – Google Launches Patents Database

Gary Price’s Resource Shelf

Search Engine Land –

Yet more Google oddities

If Google is driving you mad with its erratic behaviour, take heart in that you are not the only one to suffer at the hands of this temperamental search engine. Greg Notess reports on yet more Google oddities in his blog (Super Clustering Google).

Greg ran a search on powells books with his display preferences set to 100 per page. Google only displayed the first four of about 962,000. He then changed the number to be displayed to ten, and Google gave ten results. When he switched back to display 100, the number went up to 18. He then clicked on the message at the bottom of the results screen: “In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 18 already displayed. If you like, you can repeat the search with the omitted results included.” That gave an estimate of about 2,810,000 total hits and displayed a full 100 on his screen.

I tried the same search on Google UK and got a total number of hits of 2,290,000 but it would only display 319. Clicking on the display omitted entries option reduced the number of total hits to 1,340,000. I should point out that the total number of hits that Google says it has found is generally a work of fiction. I have never found it to be reliable unless you have refined your search extensively and are getting numbers in the region of 50 or less. Even then, results can disappear or reappear at random.

I repeated the search in Google Canada, Germany and France and got totally different but equally bizarre results. Needless to say the results totally changed when I repeated the experiment 24 hours later!

Accoona ‘loses’ news

Accoona is a search engine that I regularly include in my workshops and training sessions, not so much for the web search but for the news section and the SuperTarget options. Yesterday, I was horrified to discover that News is no longer there. Instead of Web, Business and News there is just a single search box. Going through my feeds this morning, I see that Phil Bradley has picked up on this as well but has explored a little further than I had. News is still there but you first have to do a search in the box on the home page. When the results page comes up, the three options reappear and you can then limit your search to web, business or news. Why they have decided to increase the number of clicks I need to make to find the information I want beats me. They won’t gain any fans by doing it and will no doubt lose those who already use it for news. One look at the home page and they will assume, as I did, that the news service is no more.

Advanced Search Strategies – Top 10 Tips

Another advanced search strategies course successfully completed at Manchester Business School with the usual eclectic mix of participants, and a new top 10 tips and tricks at the end of the day. It is interesting that RSS feeds get a mention this time around, and it does seem that more people are starting to use them for news and alerts.

  1. Trovando – Enables you to type in your search strategy just once and run it across dozens of search tools one by one. Tools are grouped by type, for example web, blogs, audio/video.
  2. Remember that each search engine is different. Each has unique search features, has different coverage and sorts yoru results in a different way.
  3. Seek out evaluated subject listings and specialist tools for subjects or industries that are new to you. For example Intute (, TechXtra (, Alacrawiki (
  4. AlltheWeb Livesearch – Starts displaying results as you type in your search so that you can quickly see when you start to go wrong. It also displays related and alternative search strategies that can help you if you are new to the subject area.
  5. Wayback Machine – For tracking down copies of pages or documents that have disappeared from the original web site. Type in the address of the web site or the full URL of the document, if you know it. (Note: this is not guaranteed but worth a try for older documents that are unlikely to be in the search engine caches.
  6. RSS feeds. More efficient than email for monitoring topics and managing search alerts. IE 7 and Outlook 2007 can both read RSS. If you would prefer to try a web based reader try Bloglines (, Newsgator ( or Google Reader (
  7. Keep up to date with who is best at which type of search. For example image search, blogs and feeds. Obviously, this can quickly change so use RSS feeds to monitor announcements and blogs that assess and evaluate what the search engines are doing.
  8. Make the most of the Advanced Search options to narrow down your search, for example filetype or format, site search (can be used to search individual sites or types of site such as academic or government sites).
  9. Search Engine Showdown – Excellent site from Greg Notess with summaries of the major search engines, unique features and news on what they are up to.
  10. You are not going mad! Pages do disappear without trace and Google does do strange things. Try another search engine or a totally different approach. Above all, trust in your abilities.

UC&R – New Ways to Communicate workshop

I am at this moment at the University College & Research Group’s workshop on using RSS, blogs and wikis to communicate with your users, being held at Birmingham University in the UK. There are about 50 of us here and we are all having great fun playing with ePop. Poor ‘Trevor’ who is at the end of a video link is being bombarded with questions from us in the training suite. He can show us presentations, answer questions and take over our computers to help us find things (scary!). And he is on a completely different part of the campus – now we are sharing whiteboards. Brilliant session from Debbie Carter of the Univeristy of Birmingham.

The earlier part of the day was taken up with RSS, blogs and wikis. I kicked off with a general introduction to the subject and Alan Cooper from CILIP’s web team talked about how Web 2.0 is being used at CILIP. Rupert Mann from Oxford University Press looked at the technology from the publisher’s, and user’s, point of view and had some pretty scathing things to say about other publishers’s approach and attitude to RSS and blogs in particular. A memorable comment on one US university’s attempt at RSS was “No fun at Harvard any more”.

Jane Somerwell, University of Worcester, talked about blogging in her organisation and then we had the first of the practical sessions. I am pleased to report that we have significantly increased the membership of the blogosphere with at least a dozen having been set up in the last hour, and the number of RSSaholics in this room is beginning to reach alarming levels. “Stop reading your feeds and pay attention!!”

A fantastic day, great fun, and every one of us learned a lot.

Must stop… time to comment to some of the new blogs :-)

Online 2006 free search seminars

I am now back from a very busy week at the annual Online Information exhibition and conference in London. As well as chairing a conference session and being ‘on duty’ on the UKeiG stand, I gave two free exhibition seminars on search: ‘Top tips and tricks for better web search’ and ‘What’s new in search’. These are now available as Powerpoint files.

Please note that they are just Powerpoint slides and are not annotated. So unless you were present at the seminars, the significance of some of the screen shots may not be immediately obvious – in fact they may be downright obscure. Also, she compiled these using the latest Microsoft Office 2007 suite and in the conversion to the more commonly used versions of Office some of the slides may have lost something in the translation.