Sunday, March 12, 2006

Documentation on the web

There is something very interesting about web applications that desktop applications lack. That is integrated help. When you go to amazons page for Pragmatic Programmer (good book btw) notice on the right hand side in the blue box there is a link to learn more about how A9.com users save 1.57%. Or if you go to a random product on OldNavy.com you will notice that there is a link for a size chart. Head over to Slashdot and make a comment or most every online blog and you will often find a list of html tags you are allowed to insert, hints, and tricks on how to make your blog entry 'rich'. Sites like pbwiki.com provide an easy way to learn the wiki syntax. And if you go to wikipedia you will find a whole toolbox of links to documentation about thing you might want to do with that particular page. And to use 30boxes again they provide right on the main page an example of how to add an event.

Because the interface for a page in a web application takes up the full size of a web browser and the web application is mostly text (rather then buttons, lists, and menus) it is easy to think about adding help into the page. Not only can you integrate help into the webpage, but you can have the help be determined upon where you just were and what your current task is. And to top it all off because the help is right there users will actually read it unlike most application documentation which is read by so few users. Part of the reason might be that with web applications you can review the logs and see that everyone stops using your site on page X. Adding a tiny bit of docs to that page then gets everyone past it. As a developer having the docs embedded within your application I bet you would find yourself caring about it a lot more too.

KDE actually has a built in mini-documentation features, called WhatsThis. Of course I think you all will agree that WhatsThis is used probably less then someone reading the actual documentation. As sad as it is tooltips provide the majority of documentation for users. Some widgets do provide more such as the OS X search widget actually has some text inside it telling you what it does. If you goto digg.com you will notice that same thing in their search box. Browsing around in applications I actually had a hard time finding much embedded documentation. The closest thing is toolbars that have text under them. Maybe clippy has something to do with this. There was such a backlash against clippy that no one has dared try anything similar. Today many believe that there is some magical interface that is so user friendly anyone can use it without any documentation no matter how complicated the task.

Here are just a few simply ideas on how documentation could be more integrated with the application:
- Now that we have opengl windows you could flip a window over and on the back would be the documentation for it.
- A drawer that would contains mini paragraphs about the current operation and links into the docs for more information.
- Clickable lables with links into the documentation or even just pulls up the documentation in a drawer.

Of course these are just some ideas off the top of my head. User interface testing would be a key aspect to finding out what would work best. Suffice it so say when you use online applications that has embedded documentation it makes the entire experience easier and better.

Lets have a meeting

It is amusing to watch the new internet calendaring companies as they fumble around. Yahoo has one, Google now has something called C2 and there are many other sites out there such as 30boxes which all seem to do a good job as a calendar. Honestly though, most people don't really care to have a calendar. For those people that want to write out their schedule they will use a calendar on a piece of paper in their back pocket or a PalmV (which still rocks btw). You might convince a few of these people to be your customer, but after that you are dead in the water and have no revenue.

People keep creating calendaring applications because you typically use calendar apps to schedule to meet with other people in the office. That is where the tide of people are hiding (and money). The main reason you want your calendar online is so that others can find out when it is best to meet with you. Once you get one person using your site to schedule meetings then others might use it more and soon it will be a little virus sucking more and more users into using it because it provides a valuable service of having everyone else's calendar and a easy way to schedule. If you made the front page of your "calendar" site be four lines listing your e-mail/im, the person you want to meet with, date, reason and a big schedule button you probably would do better then a lot of calendar sites out there today. Google can no doubt leverage gmail and gtalk to make an easy scheduling system (and oh yah have a calendar too). If you go to 30boxes you can tell that scheduling a meeting is much more of just another feature and not the central part of the application.

What is the most surprising thing about meetings is that it is an amazingly simple way to grow your calendaring service exponentially. And if you get a manager that uses your calendar he might just tell everyone in a company to use your stuff and bam a lot of new users all ready to schedule weekend stuff with their friends, continuing the cycle of more users. Creating a community around your application is a good thing and is something that can get you laid.

If this seems familiar remember about a year ago now when Nat announced Hula. JWZ created a often referenced blog entry called Groupware bad telling how he was going to fail. The current set of calendars are better then Hula, but they still are missing the mark.

Of course I could be wrong and most people really do just want to have a calendar they themselves fill with things they are doing to view only by themselves, but I think that a much more likely answer is that calendaring sounds like a simple web2.0 company you could make and flip (how else would you come up with a horrible company name like 30boxes? And did you notice they have a gmail theme?). If that is your goal you don't think about growing users as fast as possible, but think about making a feature set that someone else would want to buy.

Monday, March 06, 2006

How much free space do you have?

How much free space do you have is a pretty basic file manager issue that most linux file managers don't easily tell you. That is until today when I ran across Thunar today. Pretty slick.

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