On the Guardian and UpMyStreet Conversations…

01/09/2003

There’s at least one clear analogue for the process of (1) getting exciting by a work project, (2) getting completely involved in said work project, (3) going at it like a mad badger and (4) collapsing exhausted afterwards. And the afterglow is at least equally pleasant. Today UpMyStreet Conversations finally comes out of beta and has been launched to the world at large by an article in the Guardian: The Square Mile. We’ve worked on a few small-scale UI tweaks over the last few weeks and we think that we’re getting closer to making the apparently simple concept easy to use and communicate. There area couple of tiny ones to come – but they’re really enhancements and should emerge over the next week or so. I doubt anyone will notice them but me.

The process of developing the UI and functionality of the site has presented some particularly interesting challenges which I’ve been mostly responsible for working through – along with Dan Burzynski (back-end programmer), Dorian McFarland (front-end programmer) and Stefan Magdalinski (who thought up the idea in the first place). Throughout the process my particular aspiration was to make it almost so obvious to use that people completely ceased to notice how novel it was. This involved paring down the message board functionality to its simplest core and concentrating on fully understanding the very distinct issues that a geographically-organised board might engender.

For example – most discussion boards operate with time as a major axis. This is so common that it almost doesn’t occur to people that it could be done any other way – new ‘topics/threads/conversations’ sit at the top of the page, and either (1) gradually deteriorate in importance through time (Metafilter, Slashdot.org, Plastic – where the content to be discussed is timely and has a limited shelf-life) or (2) move to the top each time they are updated. Time has been the main way that all message-boards have come to be directed – and so removing it as the core organising principle of a board presents profound challenges to users. Core concepts evolved – the ‘here/now’ bar reflects the co-dependency of the two axes of geography and time – as you increase the time-scale you are investigating the more threads become visible across the country. This means that your ten nearest threads are likely to be very close to you. As you decrease the time-scale to short periods, the conversations become fresher, but (since they are selecting from a diluted stock) more geographically distributed. Our concepts of tracked threads as well also hopefully balance this desire to keep it simple and comprehensible while essentially building in a completely different view of the site on offer…

So that’s it – that’s Conversations Version 1.0 – and I think we’re all quite proud of how it’s turned out. And I’ll be more proud still if it continues to be useful and interesting to people…