Saturday, February 21, 2009

When Dishwasher Displays Attack

For your consideration, I present the display on my parents’ dishwasher.

On first glance, does this make sense to you?

The first time I saw it, I thought it was broken, yet it was apparently operating as designed.

The lit words indicate the current settings. The confusing thing is, they do so like a splatter pattern from a stream of dishwasher consciousness.

Closer inspection of the images reveals the faint outlines of additional words that are not lit. With effort, I’m sure more could be activated at once, further intensifying the information attack on the user.

Having never suffered from information overload due to a dishwasher before, I question whether a tag cloud is really the right approach to communicating how the dishes are getting cleaned.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Making User Ratings Add Up

Many Web sites let users rate stuff: products, content, even people. For example, based on user ratings, you might see that Product A has three stars and Product B has four. Yet behind such ratings there is always a methodology. And as we’ve seen with election systems, depending on how you count, the same set of user preferences can lead to different outcomes.

Here is an example about rating products from blogger Evan Miller’s How Not to Sort by Average Rating:

Average rating works fine if you always have a ton of ratings, but suppose item 1 has 2 positive ratings and 0 negative ratings. Suppose item 2 has 100 positive ratings and 1 negative rating. This algorithm puts item two (tons of positive ratings) below item one (very few positive ratings).

Miller then shows a screen-capture from The first product has a single rating, which happens to be five stars. That product is ranked ahead of a product with 4.5 stars across 580 ratings. If you were evaluating the two products, and that’s all the information you had, which would you suspect is better?

As an alternative, Miller suggests using a statistical technique that factors-in the number of ratings as well as their magnitude. I’d prefer that technique, or something like it. However, it has a cost. Explaining this... users is a lot harder than explaining a basic average.

In’s case, a user can see each product’s individual user reviews and ratings. So making it obvious how those individual ratings roll-up into the overall rating has value. Indeed,’s solution is to show the overall rating in terms of stars, but next to that rating shows the number of ratings in parentheses. Thus, the user can judge the relative importance of various products’ number and magnitude of ratings. This approach puts more responsibility on the user, but it keeps the situation easily understandable.

At the end of the day,’s solution may be best for its users, because displaying the two numbers together reveals the key weakness of the system when it occurs, inviting users to compensate as they see appropriate. In contrast, there are numerous statistical methods, of which Miller proposed one, that could improve the rankings if only a single aggregate rating is desired. The problem is, different methods will lead to different rankings under some conditions, and only a small number of specialists would understand why.

The larger point is, aggregated ratings tend to imply objectivity that is not fully there. While aggregating many people’s ratings will lead to a more objective assessment than a single person’s rating, the process of aggregation has its own subjectivity. In other words, we see once again that the voice of the people is subject to which amplifier you use.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

From Newspapers to News

I get all my news electronically, mostly via my handheld devices. It’s been that way since 1996, when I discontinued my subscription to the physical newspaper. These days, I get more news from more sources than I ever did in the days when The Paper came on paper.

This past holiday season, I was visiting relatives near Chicago, browsing through their (physical) Chicago Tribunes. As with other newspapers, the Tribune’s advertisers and subscribers are increasingly migrating to the Internet, where they are less lucrative to the newspaper. The current economic climate is not helping: In December 2008, The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy (the kind where the company keeps operating while it reorganizes, as opposed to the liquidation kind).

My relatives love their Chicago Tribune, but less so now. It’s thinner, the stories sandwiched among seemingly ever-bigger ads and photos. What surprised me, however, was the amount of content The Tribune still has that is not Chicago-specific.

For example, given The Tribune’s economic woes, how long can it have its own movie critic? If there is nothing Chicago-specific about reviewing movies, and the Internet is awash with professional and amateur reviews of every movie out there, why should The Tribune pay the full freight of its own movie reviewer?

Back when newspapering was good business, there was no need to ask such questions. Papers had movie critics and a wide variety of other writers to provide a unique voice to their readers, who did not necessarily have alternate voices readily available. But in a world of abundant alternatives for a newspaper’s content, where does the traditional newspaper add value? I’d think it would be in local content, where the alternatives are fewer and weaker. This applies not just to news and sports but also to art and entertainment happenings unique to the newspaper’s area. For a major metropolitan area, that’s still a substantial swath to cover.

Maybe The Tribune is paring back in exactly this way, but it was not apparent from a cursory view. Per the movie-critic example, maybe The Tribune’s movie critic is the rare star that can be syndicated to other newspapers. Or maybe there’s an angle to this subject I’m missing. But I can say this: My relatives prefer their newspaper on paper, yet the withering of what they consider to be “their newspaper” is prompting them to ask me how they can get their news—as opposed to “their newspaper”—online.