The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

You're not wrong, voice-command assistant UIs are horrible

The Nielsen-Norman Group has released recent research on user interactions with intelligent assistants like Alexa and Google Home. The results are not great:

Usability testing finds that both voice-only and screen-based intelligent assistants work well only for very limited, simple queries that have fairly simple, short answers. Users have difficulty with anything else.

Our user research found that current intelligent assistants fail on all 6 questions (5 technologies plus integration), resulting in an overall usability level that’s close to useless for even slightly complex interactions. For simple interactions, the devices do meet the bare minimum usability requirements. Even though it goes against the basic premise of human-centered design, users have to train themselves to understand when an intelligent assistant will be useful and when it’s better to avoid using it.

Our ideology has always been that computers should adapt to humans, not the other way around. The promise of AI is exactly one of high adaptability, but we didn’t see that that when observing actual use. In contrast, observing users struggle with the AI interfaces felt like a return to the dark ages of the 1970s: the need to memorize cryptic commands, oppressive modes, confusing content, inflexible interactions — basically an unpleasant user experience.

Are we being unreasonable? Isn’t it true that AI-based user interfaces have made huge progress in recent years? Yes, current AI products are better than many of the AI research systems of past decades. But the requirements for everyday use by average people are dramatically higher than the requirements for a graduate student demo. The demos we saw at academic conferences 20 years ago were impressive and held great promise for AI-based interactions. The current products are better, and yet don’t fulfill the promise.

We're not up to HAL or Her yet, in other words, but we're making progress.

The whole article is worth a read.

Google's Project Zero for laypeople

Via Bruce Schneier (again), Fortune takes a look at Google's security project:

Google officially formed Project Zero in 2014, but the group’s origins stretch back another five years. It often takes an emergency to drive most companies to take security seriously. For Google, that moment was Operation Aurora.

In 2009, a cyberespionage group associated with the Chinese government hacked Google and a number of other tech titans, breaching their servers, stealing their intellectual property, and attempting to spy on their users. The pillaging outraged Google’s top executives—enough so that the company eventually exited China, the world’s biggest market, over the affair.

The event particularly bothered Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Computer-forensics firms and investigators determined that the company had been hacked not through any fault of Google’s own software, but via an unpatched flaw in Microsoft Internet Explorer 6. Why, he wondered, should Google’s security depend on other companies’ products?

Says Schneier,

I have mixed feeling about it. The project does great work, and the Internet has benefited enormously from these efforts. But as long as it is embedded inside Google, it has to deal with accusations that it targets Google competitors.

On the other hand, as Schneier's commenters point out (and as he has suggested in the past), better Google exposing the bugs than the NSA losing control of them.

A year of Google Maps

Via my company's Slack #general channel, San Francisco cartographer Justin O'Beirne has analyzed the changes Google has made to its Maps feature over the past year, while Apple Maps has stagnated:

So it seems that Apple is updating its map more frequently than Google.

But when we look closer, this doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. For instance, near the park’s southeast corner, there’s a group of three auto service-related businesses: Domport Auto Body ServiceFell Street Auto Service, and California Detailing...

Google has distinct locations for each. But Apple plots them at the same location...

...and as the months pass by, Apple cycles through all three – padding our addition/removal counts...

A number of the additions and removals we counted earlier on Apple are similar – the map is cycling though businesses plotted at the same location.

This all seems to suggest that Google’s location data is more precise than Apple’s. (Or that Apple’s geocoder is buggy.) And perhaps here we’re seeing the fruits of Google’s decade-long Street View project...

It's a long essay with tons of examples and animations. Total Daily Parker bait.

Speaking of my company, I'll have a post up on the company's blog shortly which I'll cross-post here. Keep your eyes peeled.

Gobbling up your free time

I mean, come on Google. No fair:

Starting now until April 4, you can chomp fruit, avoid ghosts, and collect PAC-Dots along city streets in Google Maps worldwide—all as Ms. PAC-Maps. Just tap on the Ms. PAC-Maps icon on iOS and Android, or click the Ms. PAC-Maps button at the bottom left on desktop, to enter the maze and start chompin’. Sign in to save your top score on the leaderboard and share with friends.

Here's Downtown Chicago:

That's the Civic Opera Building on the upper left and LaSalle and Jackson on the lower right.

Or try this possibly-recognizable board:

Any guesses where that is?

Did you know Microsoft invented Google Earth?

No, really. In 1998 Microsoft wanted to demonstrate its SQL Server database engine with a terabyte-sized database, so it built a map called Terraserver. Motherboard's Jason Koebler has the story:

Terraserver could have, should have been a product that ensured Microsoft would remain the world’s most important internet company well into the 21st century. It was the first-ever publicly available interactive satellite map of the world. The world’s first-ever terabyte-sized database. In fact, it was the world’s largest database for several years, and that Compaq was—physically speaking—the world's largest computer. Terraserver was a functional and popular Google Earth predecessor that launched and worked well before Google even thought of the concept. It let you see your house, from space.

So why aren’t we all using Terraserver on our smartphones right now?

Probably for the same reason Microsoft barely put up a fight as Google outpaced it with search, email, browser, and just about every other consumer service. Microsoft, the corporation, didn't seem to care very much about the people who actually used Terraserver, and it didn’t care about the vast amount of data about consumers it was gleaning from how they used the service.

In sum, Microsoft saw itself as a software company, not an information company. It's similar to how Borders got destroyed: it thought of itself as a bookstore, while Amazon thought of itself as a delivery service.

I remember how cool Terraserver was, and how sad I felt when it disappeared for a couple of years before it morphed into Google Earth.