Monday, September 24, 2007

Amusing user interfaces

So PhilG's coffee table book has joined Alan Cooper's About Face 2.0 in the pile of books that make up my bedside table (you read that right, why get a table when the you can make one by arranging the books correctly?). They disagree on a few things, or at least Philip does; Alan seems to be oblivious of his work, but they do point out why and Google are successes, and the Baconizer wasn't -- the secret is when you present a search form to the public, give them one field they can pour their words or questions into, and have your computers do the rest.

Bugzilla is a well-known exception, but it's designed for programmers who have the time to figure out what to do at a page like when they want to check to see if a problem they've run into in Thunderbird or Mozilla has been reported.

I wanted to see if the local library system has any books by a particular author. The local online catalog works very well. The search field contains two items -- one into which you put in some text, the other a dropdown where you select the kind of search, like Books, CDs, DVDs, etc. If you want to use the kind of boolean logic you'd learn in an MLS program you're welcome to, and the software will recognize it, but I've always found my simple-minded searches always get me to my goal.

Unfortunately the VPL catalog is closed due to the civic strike, which is now into its 11th week. I tried the Richmond library, but they didn't carry anything by that author. Rather than try each of the other 18 local municipalities, many of which were affected by the same labor issues Vancouver was this past July, and all of which were able to find a settlement with their local political resources (but I digress), I decided to try the Seattle catalog.

Seattle has a good library system, I guess. They managed to put up a new building designed by a brand-name architect with features like Plexiglas dividers that start half-way up the escalator, so if you're not paying attention to where the escalator is taking you and marveling at innovations like the passageway that looks like the inside of an esophageal passageway, you'll get your own esophagus chopped in two.

Also, Nancy Pearl is famous, at least for librarians. I forget how I heard of her, but when I saw her book at a book store I somehow knew she was the chief librarian of the Seattle library.

So I googled my way to, and while I was impressed to see that there was a keyword search field to the catalog on the home page (most library web site designers apparently read Siegel instead of Greenspun or Cooper (or better still, Tufte) and so you have to click once or twice past a list of current events and remarks by members of the board of directors to get to the catalog. On the Seattle page you just ask for "More Catalog Search Options".

Which takes you to this 22-field search page. And when I finally figured out that the white arrow on the red circle was the "Search button", I got a friendly message "Unable to navigate!, Expected close parentheses. Got end of query instead.". Twice. Thanks, Nancy.

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