Simple ideas lead to useful solutions

Sometimes the simplest of solutions can be most useful. For example, if you are out looking for a house and want to calculate how much mortgage you can afford, one simple solution would be look up a mortgage calculator online. I’ve used this tool from Bankrate in the past and found it useful.

Anyway – my point is – sometimes simple tools that focus on a niche area can be very helpful. We are always looking for the next killer app, the next ‘cool’ idea that will solve problems for a lot of people. While we’re trying to build that one solution fits all, we can often get lost in complexity.

Twitter, in my opinion, is a really simple app. I remember years ago, i built a silly little VB client app to post updates on tasks I was working on for this dot com startup. My team mates could also get on the same app running on their machines and post their updates. None of the updates were lost since we stored them in a central dB. Didn’t think too much of it and it got lost in time as we all moved on with our careers. Goodness me… if only I knew.

Here’s another example of a simple app that will have its uses. Kevin Marks is a former Google employee (Read news about his departure). Brilliant guy who worked on all kinds of stuff – Orkut, OpenSocial, Microformats, what have you. You can check out his blog (Epeus’ epigone) for more gory details.

A couple of days ago he put together this application in 12 hours. Amatwit. Using Amazon’s API and the Twitter’s API users can search Amazon for items (currently defaulting to books) and from the search results you can tweet links to those books. Nice.. simple.. useful.

Do you have any simple and useful solutions? Maybe you already have something and just don’t realize it.

Citation Mapping – Tool for scientific researchers

Just when you think you have the next great idea somebody’s already beaten you to it. The Citation Mapping Tool from Thompson’s Web of Science is another one of those kick ass tools. Its apparently been out since July 2008. Shame on me for not doing better research into existing tools.

CITATION MAPS IN WEB OF SCIENCE

The citation mapping tool tracks an article’s cited and citing references through two generations, allowing researchers to visually discover an article’s wider relationships:

* Go forward and backward in time to track citing and cited references

* Color code, re-configure and organize your citation maps to discover trends in citation activity

* Completely interactive!

* Access via any Web of Science full record

via Citation Mapping.

They also have a nice little tutorial.

I also found this review from Brian D. Simboli, Science Librarian, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The review appears to be extensive. I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly read it but he does provide a good overview of

  1. how it works,
  2. how it can be used (teaching, visualization, documenting impact of submitted articles, etc) and,
  3. possible improvements (too many to list here but its worth jumping to the Comments and Suggestion and Future Directions section to read)

It will be interesting to know how this tool is really used and if it is successful.

Shake things up – find new stuff

Sometimes you spend time and resources building features into your product only to find that customers don’t notice it. It can be frustrating.

For the past 7 years i had been shopping at the local Walmart. I knew where everything was and in which aisle. I didn’t have to think too much about it. Quick zip in and zip out process… a guys dream.

So last week, they closed the local Walmart and opened a Super Walmart nearby. Oh the frustration trying to find things. I must have spent at least an extra 15 minutes trying to find what i wanted (time i could have spent lying around on my couch). I did notice one thing though… I found and bought products that i didn’t know existed or were even sold at Walmart. They’ve probably always been there but i never went to those sections or aisles. How about that?

So let me draw a parallel and deduce that every once a while, you need to shake things up with your product. Move things around so people spend just a tad bit more time on your website/product and they may notice features that were always there but hitherto did not notice.

New product strategies for publishing companies

Love this presentation from Judy Sims… Very nicely summarized at the end of her post and i’ve quoted below. There are specific themes I’ve take the liberty of highlighting below that traditional publishers need to pay attention to –

The economics of media have shifted. Scarcity and abundance have flipped. This has caused hyperdeflation in media value and the end of the blockbuster era. Hyperdeflation can be countered by creating snowballs. The old media blockbuster economy was built on exclusion. The new snowball economy will be built by being open to aggregators, micro-platforms and re-constructors and capitalizing on economies of distribution, coordination and production.

This part i really like

In media 2.0 there are 3 sources of value creation.

Revelation – what’s good. (My comment: includes anything that helps our users get what they want – links from competitors, blogs; anything relevant to users – we should provide it.)

Aggregation – bring elegant organization to the huge amount of data I’m exposed to and

Plasticity – let me get my hands on your content to see how I can add my own value to it. (My comment: i.e. via API, etc)

This new economy requires radically different product strategies: letting the outside in, curation rather than ownership, becoming a part of an ecosystem, moving from mass to vertical content and viewing the site as a service instead of a product.

via The New Economics of Media and thestar.com – SimsBlog.

Social Media for Scientists: Video Resources for Life Science Researchers

Social media phenomenon is truly taking off. You are clearly seeing this today with the Iran election protests coverage.

If you are a researcher today, you need to be connected with the rise of this form of publishing via Twitter, FriendFeed, YouTube, TED.com, Jove.com (Journal of Visualized Experiments), SciVee.tv, etc.

Now clearly information is going to be dispersed across various different websites and services catering to a niche area of research. Traditional publishers need to recognize this trend, support it and get into the business of being the curator of all this information.

Also check this out (post linked to below)

there are an increasing number of video sites and resources for scientists. They range from visualized experiments, to reviews of current research and events, to wacky and fun ‘kitchen science’

via San Diego Biotechnology Network: Biotech Events, Jobs, News, Companies, Directory, Blog, & Calendar » Blog Archive » Social Media for Scientists: Video Resources for Life Science Researchers.

Google Books and the man

Many people love to read books online. I’m not much of an online book reader. I prefer my books to be made of paper. But maybe that’s because i haven’t really tried. If and when Kindle comes out with support for color, I’ll probably jump in. Anyway, I digress.

To date i have not paid too much attention to Google Books.  That is until i got this article in my feed today.

Google Books Just Got Better: Better Search Within Books, Embedding, & More.

I feel like i’ve come late to the party but probably just in time when the fun begins. If your experience reading books online has been getting a PDF version and scrolling through the pages or perhaps downloading a chapter at a time, then prepare to be amazed.

Here’s what I found most intriguing –

First the left hand pane.

A book's left hand pane

A book's left hand pane

Three very good and important features

1. An overview page: Its not clear to me where they pulled all this from but it looks like there is a brief abstract about the book, keywords and phrases (I don’t believe these are author supplied so they must have pulled out key terms/topics), reviews (that’s ok) and a slew of other information.

2. Search in this book: Its not just a simple search feature. Search within this book. The results as stated in commentary linked above –

appear in their context in a list of short snippets from the text

Good gracious almighty… how can you not be swept off your feet by that?

3. I also love the Related books feature but i haven’t tested it enough to see if they are truly relevant.

There are other features like page turners that don’t necessarily turn me on but its these simple things that add sweetness to the user experience. The fact that they care enough about the user to add that little feature will bring me back to Google Books.

And apparently you can embed the book in your blog. I tried but haven’t been able to get it to work. I’ll work on that.

Sure Amazon does a mighty fine job as well. If you compare what Amazon and Google do for the same book you’ll probably find both search within book features are nice. I prefer the Google version though, where we get small paragraph snippets within the results page instead of the entire page. That’s just me. Related books appeared to be similar except that Amazon points out 5 instead of 3 by default (hardly a differentiation).

All said, they are both kind of similar. I feel like i prefer Google’s layout better maybe because I’m just familiar with it or maybe it feels cleaner… just can’t lay my finger on it.

Both are definitely waaaaay better than some of the interfaces i have seen with more traditional publishers.

OK… i’m hooked. When’s Kindle color coming out?

[Update June 20, 2009: For a detailed summary of the latest Google Books feature – read this post from Brandon Badger on the Google Book Search blog]

All about data

In an earlier post (Researchers need data) I referred to Cameron Neylon’s call to build infrastructure and services that could capture the output of any research, i.e the research data.

Add to that, with Google Wave coming out the playing field appears to have changed – to enhance research collaboration, the publishing process and management of research data. Again Cameron does a wonderful job of thinking through the usage scenarios. First is the process of publishing a paper, and the second scenario is the process of adding an interface to the lab record. Very nice read and in many ways it helps me understand the research workflow process at a high level.

So is this the beginning of the end for traditional publishing houses?

I don’t think so but it does mean that publishers need to adapt to this new reality. If they ignore it then they will go the way of the newspapers. The only option is to acknowledge and accept the changing workflow. The changing workflow is, people searching Google for information, people collaborating on Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook, etc. People soon relying on workflow tools like Wave for additional collaboration and publishing (and i’m sure there will be competing products that will soon arrive).

The option for publishinig houses are to either build their own competing solution OR integrate with existing online tools. My bets are on the former, especially for large publishing houses. Regardless, the question is how much are you going to open up your interface to the rest of the world. What tools are you going to provide your users to be more productive. The traditional model of offering a search engine one top of a repository of documents is not going to cut it. It is really important to understand how your users use the information you have and how they apply it to their workspace.

Recent technology trends will bode well for customers. I have a feeeling this is only the beginning for lots more exciting new things to come.