Wired Magazine is my favorite monthly read. I get a lot of magazines delivered to the house for our family to browse through and these include Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Science Illustrated and then additionally Chemistry World, C&E News, Drug Discovery News and a lot of the other trade magazines. Nevertheless, after the books I am reading (and I am presently reading Dr Mary’s Monkey as a follow on regarding the SV-40 cancer causing monkey virus in polio vaccines) Wired magazine is always the next thing I pick up.  It’s an easy read, some great short snippets for when I’m sitting on a stationary bike flipping pages or some long interesting articles, always well written. I recently read an old Wired magazine that had been on my stack for a few weeks and wish I’d read it earlier. We’ve been discussing the importance of user interface on ChemSpider and it’s impact and influence on the users of the website. This connected to the article on Craigslist that was covered in Wired Magazine.

Now, if you don’t know what Craigslist is then how about eBay? I’ll assume you know, and use, eBay. I use eBay…I like it. I’ve used Craigsist and like it, but for a different reason than I like eBay. Here is an interesting statement about Craigslist from the article: “With more than 47 million unique users every month in the US alone—nearly a fifth of the nation’s adult population—it is the most important community site going and yet the most underdeveloped.” The article goes on to tell the story about how confusing the site is, how poor the aesthetics are and how non-Web 2.0 it is in terms of integration access etc. I recommend it as a fun read, if nothing else to get a handle on Craig Newmark, the interesting (and VERY rich man) behind the initial concept. As a historical article regarding how early technology can morph over time into something more flashy but not necessarily more successful it’s a great read.Wired was convinced that people would want to give some input on how Craigslist should be improved and set up their Extreme MakeOver: Craigslist Edition for user comments. I doubt that Newmark and colleagues will pay much attention and, based on stats available to date, they don’t need to.

Another interesting read is a separate article regarding eBay vs Craigslist and the fact that Google and Microsoft actually tried to get into the same sector and both failed. What’s the magic, the secret sauce, the USP (unique selling points) for Craiglist? I’m read a number of suggestions but am not sure of the conclusions. I think its a combination of: 1) old and less complicated technology for novice users (searching means scrolling in a lot of cases) 2) traction …it’s been around a long time and 3) price for people to post ads. The bottom line though, of relevance to our discussions, is that “it ain’t the user interface!”.

Let’s be honest, technology is fun, especially when you work in our domain of building an internet for chemistry. Over the past few years I have upgraded from computer to computer, operating system to operating system (with Vista the worst transition but now loving Windows 7), from browser to browser (i have three installed: IE8, FireFox and Google Chrome with FF my preferred). I would say that while I am not at the bleeding edge of technologies I have access to more advanced systems than the majority of users in schools, homes and the rest of the world especially when taking into account that I have good, solid high speed access, both wireless-N and cabled in our house. If you truly want to see how a site works in the “hands of the masses” it is necessary to look at it on another computer where the latest and greatest browser isn’t installed and they are still running on 512Mb of RAM. In my new “personal adventure” of running 1000 miles in a year I am using the NikePlus website to track my performance but it uses so much Flash, so much animation and “looks” so modern and beautiful that I am struggling to use it even on my most recent laptop. It needs a “dumb down” button (maybe its there but I’m dumb enough to not see it).

We know we need to change some of the ChemSpider website for ease of navigation, for ease of use and to cater with all of the browser dependencies that we see with just things such as copy and paste of long strings, word wrapped strings etc. They can all be fixed. We know that there is an abundance of functionality on the site that only a fraction of the user base will care about. Our focus since starting the ChemSpider project was to establish a high-quality dataset (much progress but a long way to go), provide useful functionality to our diverse user base (lots in place, more to add, some to remove), provide a “successful” experience that meant that users could get answers to questions/queries they asked and that the experience wouldn’t so challenging or mundane as to provide no value. Feedback to date suggests we’re doing okay but we’d like your feedback. Ultimately I’ll likely assemble this into a SurveyMonkey questionnaire but for brevity and early feedback I am interested in your comments to some of the following questions

1) What is your favorite piece of functionality on ChemSpider?

2) What is your LEAST favorite piece of functionality on ChemSpider?

3) If there was one new function you would like to see added/improved what would it be?

4) Assuming a scoring system of 1 to 10, 10 being the best, how well does the ChemSpider interface support your usage of the system?

5) Which public dataset would you most like to see integrated to ChemSpider?

Any other comments are of course welcomed. We will be working on usability over the next few months and it’s hard to please everybody but we’ll do what we can with the resources we have. A Survey Monkey questionnaire will show up in the future with more questions. Watch this space and check out the Craigslist article…I think you’ll enjoy it.

Stumble it!

2 Responses to “How Important is User Interface. Craigslist versus eBay versus ChemSpider”

  1. David Sharpe says:

    I don’t know if you happened to also pick up on this article on Craigslist, perhaps a little less relevant (at least in the short term) but nonetheless interesting.

    http://www.wired.com/entertainment/theweb/magazine/17-09/ff_craigslist?currentPage=1

    The questions that you pose are interesting, I would posit that this might not be the right forum for getting the best data, as I imagine the readership of your blog are quite techie and have possibly different expectations/agendas from your average bench chemist/researcher.

    Having said that I always like to have may say, so I’ll add my 2 pen’th to the mix and hopefully kick-start some debate.

    1. I’d say it is the pop-up that comes up when you click on the structure search interface – it’s the multitude of different ways you can enter a representation of a molecule and get a structure out – I find it really useful and impressive.

    2. I’d say the actual structure search itself, substructure searching is often slow and the search options only allow you to widen the scope very slightly (tautomers, same skeleton), or very generally (All isomers) there is no middle-ground.

    3. Better integration of tools. Eg structure editor embedded in page rather than in popups
    Also make curation faster and easier.

    4. 7/10 – I’d say that ChemSpider allows me to do many of the useful things I want to do. I think that the basic features are fine (searching could do with some refinement as mentioned before).
    I think that there is a need to think about the way data is presented from an ease of view perspective and also thinking about the future growth of the database.

  2. Chris Singleton says:

    1) The ability to open only what data and sources you need. for example, the pages load quicker than they used to, since the properties, spectra, etc. are only loaded when you click on the relevant header.

    3) The ability to search for stereoisomers of a molecule

    4) 8. It fits most of my needs, and I know if there is a need it doesn’t address, I can request and it usually gets done (or I may get a request to accomplish it myself :)

    5) NIST spectral data. Not possible since they have make money and don’t want to give it up, but one can still dream….

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