Task-oriented usage

Image representing iPhone 3G as depicted in Cr...
Image via CrunchBase

I’m constantly surprised by the frequency with which something that I have long thought/assumed/believed, but rarely considered, is articulately and cogently explained to me. This happened not long ago when a friend described how many people online are task-oriented. That is to say, people go online with a specific objective in mind and the way they engage with the Internet is tied to that objective.

More recently, I read a line that said (I’m paraphrasing), data and services, and not pages, are what’s central to the Web.

When you put those two thoughts together — task-oriented usage and the centrality of data and services — it instantly explains why some sites work so well and some are so terrible. Those that use data and services (enabled by high-quality design) to enable people to execute the task at hand are successful. Those that don’t, aren’t.

Think of some of the tasks that might drive people online:

  • I want a sports score
  • I want to know what’s happening right now
  • I want to see my fantasy league stats
  • I want to see how my money is doing
  • I want to see what the reaction to Obama’s speech was
  • I want to learn more about this “cellulosic ethanol” stuff
  • I want to see what Kanye did
  • I want to see what my friends are up to
  • I want to know what people are talking about
  • I want to find out what Apple just released
  • I want to find out what movie to see tonight and where it’s playing and buy tickets for it

Data and services do that. Pages do not. Extend that another layer into the mobile space. I’ve long been critical of the term “mobile” because for so long it didn’t serve these purposes (connecting objectives with successful outcomes). Rather, they served mobile carrier’s interests via terrible interfaces. But now, thanks to devices like the iPhone, people are now easily able to do the above kind of stuff whenever they think of it, no matter where they are at. That’s the killer app of mobile. Location awareness is a great feature, but the “now-ness” of mobile is key.

The challenge for news organizations is to a) have ideas in this space and b) orient ourselves so that we can bring them to life. Most news organizations are specifically not oriented to think and act this way. They are oriented to write stories (a.k.a, pages). See the problem?

I very much like the idea that data and services, rather than pages, are central to the Web.
That gets at one of the points I’ve heard you make, Amy, about how task-based people are… not just with the Web, but with anything.
– I want a sports score
– I want to know what’s happening right now
– I want to see my fantasy league stats
– I want to see how my money is doing
– I want to see what the reaction to Obama’s speech was
– I want to learn more about this “cellulosic ethanol” stuff
– I want to see what Kanye did
– I want to see what my friends are up to
– I want to know what people are talking about
– I want to find out what Apple just released
– I want to find out what movie to see tonight and where it’s playing and buy tickets for it
Data and services do that. Pages do not.
The thing about mobile is that it enables people to do this stuff when they think of it, no matter where they are at. That’s the success of the iPhone, in a nutshell.
The challenge for us (and others) is how to have these ideas and then bring them to life. In our case, we are not oriented to think and act this way. We are oriented to write stories (a.k.a, pages). That’s it.

Recent projects…

Every once in a while I add some of my recent projects to this blog. I probably need to do it more frequently, but hey, whatcha gonna do?

Anyway, here’s a few things to come out recently. This first piece is from a story on a GM plant closing in Ontario, Ohio. USA TODAY reporter Marisol Bello wrote the story and I worked with her on editing her audio and building this template-based interactive that shows the chain of events/connections that propagate through a town.


This presidential approval poll tracker package was a much bigger endeavor. For more than a year, I’ve wanted to create an approval poll tracker going back in time to Truman (that’s the first president for which we have complete data) to current times. Thanks to Bill Couch and Kristen Novak, we finally made it happen. I’m really pleased with the results, which overlay news events and allow for different ways of comparing the polls. We’ll keep the tracker updated and I’m looking forward to adding more information, like economic indicators and more. If you have any suggestions, please add them in the comments.


Some tools I use…

This might or might not be of interest to folks, but I’ll share anyway. There are a number of third-party apps I use that many people might not know about. Some of you might already use them, others might not. Here are a few of them with links and a brief description. I suggest you check them out.

1Password: This manages (and creates) passwords and auto fills them from any browser. Syncs across computers and devices. Extremely handy way to auto-enter information and maintain security. http://agilewebsolutions.com/products/1Password

A Better Finder Series: This makes it super easy to batch rename files in complex ways. For example, you can easily change a bunch of files that are named “FirstName LastName.jpg” to lastname-firstname.jpg” and more. http://www.publicspace.net/ABetterFinderSeries/

Adium: This is a multi-client instant messenger program. http://adium.im/

AppFresh: This will automatically alert you to updated software. http://metaquark.de/appfresh/

AppZapper: This will delete applications and all of their associated files. http://www.appzapper.com/

Audio Hijack Pro: Super easy way to capture and record audio from any source, such as a video stream or iTunes. http://rogueamoeba.com/audiohijackpro/

Automator: A super-easy way to create automated workflows. http://www.apple.com/downloads/macosx/automator/

Default Folder X: This utility allows you to set default open/save dialog box folders and simplify the navigation of open/save dialog boxes. http://www.stclairsoft.com/DefaultFolderX/

Dropbox: This is a Web-based tool for synchronizing folders across the Web and devices. You can create a drop box on your machine and create a Web interface so that others can easily upload files to it. Sort of like FTP but easier. http://getdropbox.com/

Komodo Edit: This is a cross-platform text editor, like TextMate, TextWrangler and BBEdit. This is particularly useful for PC users. http://www.activestate.com/komodo_edit/

LittleSnapper: This is a great screenshot utility and manager. That is, it will take and manage your screenshots, including full Web pages with Flash on them: http://www.realmacsoftware.com/littlesnapper/

MacFuse: This is an add on that allows you to use Mac OS X file handling on non-native volumes (i.e., Windows, etc.): http://code.google.com/p/macfuse/

NeoOffice: This is an open source version of Microsoft Office, including a database that can link to SQL, like Access. http://www.neooffice.org/neojava/en/index.php

OmniGraffle Professional: This is an awesome flow chart and wire framing tool. I can’t speak highly enough about it: http://www.omnigroup.com/applications/OmniGraffle/ Be sure to also check out their other offerings.

OpenOffice.org: Like NeoOffice: http://www.openoffice.org/

Path Finder: This tool replaces your standard Finder. One great attribute (and there are many) is that when you copy a file, it copies the entire path: http://www.cocoatech.com/

Perian: This is an awesome QuickTime components utility to make all kinds of video files work on the Mac: http://perian.org/

RipIt: Great DVD ripper: http://ripitapp.com/ (Also check out MacTheRipper (http://www.macupdate.com/info.php/id/14414), VisualHub (no longer downloadable) and Handbrake (http://handbrake.fr/) for ripping and encoding video.)

Saft: This is a Safari add on that remembers your open Tabs and lots, lots more: http://haoli.dnsalias.com/Saft/index.html

SuperDuper! This is a data backup and copying utility. Has saved my butt many times: http://www.shirt-pocket.com/SuperDuper/SuperDuperDescription.html

SWF and FLV Player: This will play SWFs and FLVs directly, and will also tell you their dimensions: http://mac.eltima.com/freeflashplayer.html

Switch: This is audio encoding software. Takes your audio and makes them MP3s. http://www.nch.com.au/switch/ (Max is another: http://sbooth.org/Max/)

TextSoap: This is a multi-step text cleaner. In other words, you can link multiple find/replaces in one step and clean up text automagically: http://www.nch.com.au/software/index.html

Transmit: The best FTP client out there with drag-drop interface, droplets and more: http://www.panic.com/transmit/

TweetDeck: A great Twitter client with multiple panes for direct messages, searches, etc.: http://tweetdeck.com/beta/

WireTap Studio: Very similar to Audio Hijack Pro: http://www.ambrosiasw.com/utilities/wiretap/

Xmarks: This will synchronize your bookmarks (and passwords) across platforms and computers. So, your FireFox and Safari bookmarks will always be in sync.: http://www.xmarks.com/

YouSendIt: This is a way to e-mail somebody giant files.: http://www.yousendit.com/

OpenID: This isn’t an application, but a service that will unify different profiles under one ID. For example, you can link several Basecamp accounts under one OpenID. http://www.myopenid.com/

Regular expressions: This isn’t an application either, but rather a way of doing complex pattern-matching search and replace. Let’s say you want to search “Josh is a buffoon” and change it to “What a buffoon Josh is!” You could do that by searching “(Josh).*(buffoon)” and replacing it with “What a /2 /1 is!” It’s easier to demonstrate.

Concatenation in spreadsheets: Also not an app, but a way to take columns of data and turn it into XML. More here: http://www.hatchomatic.com/2009/02/18/simple-xml-template/

Batchgeocode: Need to get lat/long for a place, or a bunch of places?: http://www.batchgeocode.com/

There are more, but this is a pretty good list. I hope it’s helpful to folks.

On the farm

A couple weeks ago, a colleague and I visited a farm in central Virginia called Polyface for a story and video package. The farm’s owner, Joel Salatin, is a wonderful character. Anyway, the package was posted today for Earth Day.

You can read my story here:

And here’s the video posted to YouTube. (Click “HD” to watch it in full high-definition beauty!):


Simple XML template

Quite often, I need to turn a tab-delimited text file or Excel spreadsheet into an XML document. The easiest way to do that is with a spreadsheet that uses a formulas to build the XML into one column.

Here is such a file (actually, this is a collection of .xls, .xlsx, and Numbers ’08 and Numbers ’09 files).

What you’ll see is a seven-column spreadsheet with a header row. The seventh colum is simply a formula concatenating the other columns. That formula reads as follows:

=”<a “&$A$1&”=”””&A2&””” “&$B$1&”=”””&B2&””” “&$C$1&”=”””&C2&””” “&$D$1&”=”””&D2&””” “&$E$1&”=”””&E2&””” “&$F$1&”=”””&F2&”””/>”

What that’s saying is, the cell is equal to the literal text <a , followed by the absolute reference to cell A1, followed by the literal text =” followed by the relative reference to cell A2, and so on.

The nice thing about this is that you can quickly and easily change the headers in the spreadsheet, and the XML will change accordingly. Likewise, you can change the values. And, it’s relatively simple to add and delete attributes (columns) to grow or shrink the file as needed.