Saturday, March 29, 2008

Microscopic? Or Jelly?

The latter... from my new membership to the New England Aquarium, I think this is a kind of Japanese jellyfish. You can see everything it does, inside and out.

Business Week Top 50 is Out; Autodesk at TED

The "best performers of 2008" (already?) are up in a list at BusinessWeek Online. Despite what many (including BW) would call a recession, there were some healthy net incomes. Their interactive chart (sortable) is kind of fun; but in an interesting discrepancy, the sector identified for each company does not agree with their print mag's reporting, and this makes me a little suspicious of their rankings which were tied closely to sector identity. Apple (#6 this year) is called a hardware company in print, but IT online.

Handbag maker Coach is #1. Multiple good years for them. But skipping to the technology companies: Apple at 6, Cognizant Technology Solutions (an outsourcing consulting firm) at 19, Amazon at 23, Autodesk at 28, Google slipped to 34, and Microsoft is at 41. In companies not run by a white man in his mid-50's who looks distinguished and politiciany, we have just 2 women, at Avon (a company that got written up as having a "makeover" and looking "pretty") with Andrea Jung, and PepsiCo with the fantastic Indra Nooyi (Indian woman). I don't drink Pepsi because of her, but I like it better because of her.

How about that Autodesk, a company alma mater of mine! (Adobe wasn't there this year, but was last year on the strength of the CS3 release.) The writeup is especially interesting if you were there at Autodesk working on this area: "Autodesk's latest software makes architects and engineers more productive-- and injects visual oomph into their designs. Its new three-dimensional software, including Revit Architecture, lets architects model a building's face and sides in the same drawing. Even midprice PCs can run the programs, and that has expanded the [company's] market."

Autodesk had Revit (a local Boston-area acquisition) for many years, so it's hardly new. Midprice PC's are pretty peppy nowadays, so that claim may be true. For all the old-boy cronyism and management nastiness I thought it had, Autodesk does have a smashing smart CEO who cares personally about product design and usability, and now employs some of the best interface designers I've ever worked with (particularly from the Alias acquisition).

[Updated to add: Autodesk and Carl Bass were in form as sponsors at TED this year, with one of the Alias products making high-profile news too: check out how Alias's innovative Sketchbook Pro (rebranded for Autodesk of course) was used for the during-conference blogging report up at "Autodesk at TED2008". The Autodesk message is that they're about "design innovation" and sustainable design. Convincing with that great research and design team from Alias, for sure!]

Top 50 history: The BW Top 50 from 2006 (Apple at #1), and from 2007 here (Google at #1).

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Netflix Contest and Recommender Systems (short history)

I'm fascinated by the Netflix challenge: Netflix is offering one million dollars for an algorithm to improve recommendations based on movie ratings. Along with this go intermediate "progress" prizes of $50,000 per year the contest runs. The prize leaderboard is interesting reading, in that you can see who is entering teams, their results, and sometimes a bit about the team. Team Bellkor is a group of researchers from AT&T Labs, my first employer out of grad school. (I don't know these particular folks.) Netflix provides an interesting example of one company "funding" research at another company. The research lab folks are getting papers out of it, of course, probably the most important thing they need to do in a research lab (money comes second; although these days, proof that their work can impact a real business domain may beat everything else).

In another AT&T Labs connection, the Netflix prize FAQ cites an excellent overview paper on evaluation of recommender systems (pdf), co-authored by a colleague of mine, Loren Terveen, from the HCI department I was in at Bell Labs. Loren worked closely with Will Hill, one of the Bellcore researchers who (co-temporaneous with Pattie Maes at MIT and Paul Resnick) kicked off the work on recommender and ratings systems that you now find implemented all over the Internet. Recommender systems as a broad theme include all user ratings on products or comment postings (such as Amazon book ratings, or ratings implemented in almost all forum software now); they're intended to help others find good quality content by aggregates of ratings from other users, not from editorial oversight which is costly and therefore scales poorly to large amounts of content. There are important tweaks you can apply to your system or your filtering mechanism, such as "ratings of people like me" versus ratings of everyone, of course. (Netflix has some version of predicted "ratings for YOU", specifically, which I haven't investigated in any detail.)

I recommend glancing through Loren et al.'s paper, for a refreshingly meta perspective on a piece of technology that now defines a lot of assumptions behind what is called "web 2.0." As a more personal note, I wander among mostly non-research types these days, and the hot topics du jour (like "social networking") tend to get dropped into web system design discussions all the time, with a kind of naive "of course we need it" mentality. I can only sigh at how old I feel sometimes. Critical evaluation and careful implementation do matter, even for all the stuff that made it out of research projects into profit-making companies and community-platform toolkits.

As another personal note, I'm generally pleased by the level of researchy savvy I detect in the Netflix prize FAQ. Hey, if you're hiring at a software company, consider investing in some serious research-minded folks for competitive advantage!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Singles Ad Humor

Trying to ignore a sucky day, here are three coincidentally discovered items on dating that had me snickering this weekend. The first is the oldie but goodie by the very funny Joel Friesen, "WHY YOU SHOULD CONTINUE TO DATE ME; A SERIES OF CHARTS AND GRAPHS." For wacky uses of charts, it does not get much better. (Apparently she just concluded he was weird.)

Also from Joel, his second item of snigger-worthiness is his study of an online singles site's weirdest ads and criteria. This is in Fun with Lavalife. One of the finds:

Old White Ladies who Love Rap. If you refine a search down to its most basic elements you can find some pretty unique people. I looked for anyone over the age of 70 who lists rap music as their main source of inspiration. Oddly enough there is a bunch. But most seem to have accidentally filled in their age wrong, or they have incredible skin for a 103 year old gangsta.
Shortly after this, I looked over an art project on dating, called I Want You to Want Me, by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar. I can't make out most of the screenshots, but the "Highlights" quotes rock. Here are a few:
  • I'm interested in meeting a lusty male who dreams deconstruction and dismantles stale ideologies
  • I'm looking for a virgin supermodel nymphomaniac with huge breasts that owns a liquor store.
  • I'm looking for someone who can make my heart beat fast (not to be confused with giving me a heart attack).
  • Looking for an entry level or junior administrative assistant who is willing to have some naughty fun with her older boss once a week, or maybe more if she’s willing.
That last one might be an actual job ad, not a singles ad. Who can tell? Now that I see these, I feel I missed a real data mining opportunity when I used one of these sites in California. It could have been so much more fun!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

2007 Usability Salary Study

The results from the 2007 Usability Professionals Assoc. salary survey are now available to UPA members. I am one, so I'm posting some highlights plus some new charts I made from their numeric data. Sadly, I can't get the raw data to try anything very interesting. A caveat first: The "usability" profession is only a sample of the jobs that relate to interface design, customer experience, interaction design, and other related titles. The survey reflects this (as you'll see) but does not necessarily reach all related disciplines. I'm particularly suspicious of the low numbers who responded from the US west coast, and suspect this is to do with general organizational regional politics (who belongs to what, who reads what, who cares). California in particular might bring up some of the numbers, from what I know of their salaries and consulting rates.

In general, salaries have gone up since 2005 by about $5000, most markedly outside the US (UK and Canada) and for women (who are, however, still paid less than men). Consider me irate that women aren't as valuable as men in most organizations, for most jobs, except secretarial.

Some charts: there are linear relationships between salary and experience and salary and education level. Usability Salary by Education 2007 Usability Salary by Experience 2007

I don't know if there is any additive effect; for example, if you're me and have a Ph.D. and 12+ years experience, do you get even more? (That is, if you're not a hand-to-mouth consultant like me.)

There are interesting relationships between job title and salary. "Directorial" are the highest job bin reported, which is disappointing (in that I keep hoping there will be C-level design folks soon). "User Research" titles are the highest paid individual contributors. This makes sense to me if UR jobs are being filled by advanced degrees. I feel they should be -- statistics, experimental design, ethnography, strategic input -- these are not activities to hire a junior usability testing person to perform. And I think the software industry understands this more and more, based on the job ads I see. Usability Salary by Title 2007 Note that "usability" as a title component is now outpaid by "user experience." There were more respondents with the title "user experience practitioner" than for any other job title. This is good news, and appropriate; if a company understands that there is more to a good user experience than making it usable, then there is more involved in the job description and hiring criteria and it's also worth more. We're moving forward! (Even if women still lag behind.) Related to this, I'm personally interested in the chart of job "activities" practiced by the survey respondents. Usability testing is still way up there in frequency of mention in this surveyed pool, despite the shift in job titles. Design prototyping is close, but not at a par yet. I'm sorry to see this, since I don't think design should be done by non-designers and I don't think UX folks should be evaluating design produced by non-designers. I'm disappointed by how low quantitative activities and market research fall, but I assume this will pick up some steam as more senior quantitative user research folks are employed by UX departments. I'm especially disappointed by how low "requirements gathering" falls -- this being the number 1 cause of poor quality downstream, as found by many studies of root causes of software defects.

For a change of topic: In a sobering news story for those of us still trying to get design taken seriously as a strategic role, IT development salaries are projected to soar in the next year, well above what the data in the UPA survey shows. Read about it here.