At a very general level, the main issue of my job is how to take a large amount of profiling data and present it to the user in a way that is useful, quick, intuitive and pleasant. While it may seem funny that pleasant was included in that list, look and feel is very important in the computer science world. Too many programmers design a product with great internals, but with an unsightly (but functional) UI and then wonder why their product bombed. The iPod is a classic example of this, why do so many buy iPods over less expensive but just as capable competitors? The simple answer is that the iPod’s classy looks (and advertising) made it a big hit, not anything revolutionary going on inside the little white box. Although in my eyes, Apple’s new iPod shuffle may be taking Thoreau’s mantra of “simplify, simplify, simplify” a bit too far. Anyways, that is enough digressing on iPods. The actual focus of this column is that I wanted to take a look at some laudable examples of programs and websites that display a large amount of data to users. I also want to give some negative examples of programs and websites that get it all wrong when trying to communicate data. By better understanding the connections between data and the people that use it, I can learn to do my job better and bring better profiling information to the users of Visual Studio.
The first website that I want to recognize is the social security administration’s index of popular baby names. This site is fairly clean and user friendly, as well as surfacing some very interesting information of interest to almost anyone. To better analyze the site I’m breaking up the review into several categories. I’ve provided a screen shot of the index page of the website below.
Interesting Information (Data):
If you want people to look at your data, you sure as heck better start out with some data that is of interest to the target user. The popular baby names website contains info on the names of babies born in the US from about 1880 up to the present day. This information is of interest to about anyone; the usual thing that most people would do first on this site is to input their own first name to find its popularity. Then they might move on to looking at what names are popular in different states, or what interesting names were popular in 1910. This is just the kind of meaty data that makes people want to poke around in it to find interesting factoids. The screenshot below is a picture of the results for entering my own name “Ian.”
Accessing Information (Functionality):
The front page of this website contains simple forms to access most queries that anyone would need to try. You can check on the popularity of a name over a given time period, overall top lists by years or decades, and popularity of names grouped by state. Sure it doesn’t have anything like full database access, but it covers all the major searches. Especially considering that it caters to the casual browser rather then to a researcher. The forms are all simple and self-explanatory. A good UI shouldn’t require willy-nilly labeling to explain what the function of every specific combo box is.
Look and Feel (Sex Appeal):
This site could be improved in this aspect, but it is still much better the most of the dross out there on the web. The site presents the access forms on the front page, an important feature for any data display website. An example of not placing your best access forms on the front page is the video game review site Game Rankings. The highlight of this website is the large index of averaged review scores for every modern video game (Being in the top 50 in this list is akin to being in the IMDB top 250). Yet the “The Rankings” form isn’t even on the main page, in the front and center spotlight as it so richly deserves!
If I was in change of a redesign of the baby names site, I would surface some more interesting options on the top menu bar, and put the contact info and Q&A links at the bottom where they belong. Also, the data access forms should be placed above the background info, which takes up far too much of the initial page view. The flow of the main page could use some work, as the gray boxes on the left side surface no useful information and break the reading flow of the page. If you are committed to putting non-functional graphical elements on a data display web page, at least make them something more interesting then gray boxes with useless text!
Summary (The Lowdown):
The Social Security Administration has put together a quality website on popular baby names. It overcomes some layout flaws by having a clean, easy-to-use interface to some very interesting data. Perhaps the SSA should pull some people off of website design duty and put them to work figuring out how to stop taking my paycheck to pay for a federal pyramid scheme!
Look for the next installment of my walkthrough of using the new Visual Studio Team System profiler by the end of this week.
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