Tuesday, 11 November 2008

User Experience in Web 2.0 – Make your own news Cloud

The internet has come a long way from its humble beginnings and so has my website. In this article I will be talking about some of the technologies that are emerging on the internet, how website design and user experience go hand in hand and then talk about how I went about implementing the framework used in my website; http://www.mrpfister.co.uk/ and how you can make your own News Cloud using its technology.
Originally virtually all websites are just text derived from HTML developed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1980, and then along came additions to the original HTML; images, tables, formatting and then eventually style sheets. This meant that a webpage could look good however it was still only displaying static information that would only change once the webpage was reloaded.
Eventually this all changed with AJAX (asynchronous JavaScript and XML), allowing web pages to dynamically load content and ushered in Web 2.0 where programmers and web designers were free to start pushing sites to the limits of their imaginations, rather than the technical limits that prevailed.

Moving on to more recently Microsoft unveiled Silverlight; a framework to create rich online interactive experiences that tied in using the software plus services mentality to the desktop superset; Windows Presentation Foundation. One of the most predominant features of Silverlight is Deep Zoom which allows zooming in on ultra hi-res images; up to 1 billion pixels worth! The most incredible example of this can be found at the Hard Rock Cafe’s Memorabilia website - http://memorabilia.hardrock.com/

With the increase in the graphical nature of the content found on the internet – made possible partly due to tools like Silverlight and also due to the huge increase in bandwidth available to broadband customers, user experience now plays an important role in website design. It is no longer the case to have a web presence, but now it has to entertain and interest those that use the site and maintain their interest so they don’t deviate elsewhere. This brings us to user experience, it is not just the content of the website that will interest those that view the site but the way it is presented as well.

Therefore with the release of Silverlight 2, I decided to redesign my website, I wanted it to be different to virtually anything else I had seen online; so taking inspiration from Microsoft Surface and Project Mojave I created a tactile, interactive website where it takes the analogy of digging up information one step further. There is only one page to the site, however to explore more information you fly through the site going deeper and uncovering more information and eventually reaching a game.

Technically it works by extending the canvas control by creating a new control type that inherits from the Canvas type. The new control hooks mouse inputs from the Silverlight control to track whether each of the controls is being moved, resized or rotated. Whenever the mouse wheel is scrolled the cloud is re-rendered; entailing each of the controls to scale respective of their depth.
To show other uses for the display framework my site uses I have created a sample project you can take away and tinker with. The application loads a RSS feed and renders it to the cloud, so you can fly through and read the headlines you are interested in; it’s a quirky way to read the news. The project itself is written in C#. (Download Link to follow shortly)

Windows 7... All hail the king

In January 2007 Microsoft released Windows Vista, only to be met with mixed reviews when compared to the king of operating systems at the time; Windows XP.

For the regular user, Vista added only ‘shine’ to the Windows experience at the cost of performance, start up time and memory usage –since its launch most of these problems have been fixed or their impacts reduced through a magnitude of updates yet the underlying concerns remained.

On the other hand for the technical audience Vista was a great breakthrough; the introduction of the Windows Presentation Foundation for improved desktop application composition, better 64bit support, and stronger security yet again these improvements faded as some of these functionalities were bridged across back to XP. Now for some power users such as myself; we use Server 2008 as our desktops, effectively turning it into a workstation powerhouse –clear of the clutter of unneeded applications, unparalleled performance and reliability matched with improved security and usability, this was what we and most people wanted from Vista.

-Thankfully it seems our minority have been noticed when designing the next version of Windows.

Recently at Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference over in the US Microsoft showed off early pre-beta versions of Windows 7 – the next version of Windows after Vista to much rejoice and excitement. At first glance not too much looks different but when we go under the hood do things get exciting – Microsoft won’t be rewriting Vista into Windows 7, only refining it and trimming the fat.

The desktop remains and so do the common things you would expect; the start menu, the taskbar and system tray yet each has been refined on user’s experiences of Vista.

Now these changes coming to Windows 7 are being built on everyday; not all of the functionality is present at the moment but they hopefully will be there eventually. When I say they are getting built on everyday; I mean quite literally –they compile and build a version of Windows everyday for testing and verification in one of many of their build labs...

Big changes are coming to the taskbar; the text for applications docked in it has been removed to be replaced by a better thumbnail rendering system which hopefully will remove problems when large numbers of windows are open – the usual amount of windows open averages between 6 to 9 at any one time for most people.

In terms of installed applications, Windows 7 will be light on the ground, with more services being able to be downloaded or run directly from the cloud. This means less clutter for users and less unneeded applications, but do not fear, our faithful friend – Windows Paint remains and thankfully updated at last, taking a leaf from the Office Ribbon interface.

Now Microsoft got a lot of grief about performance, and they have listened; Windows 7 is designed to be faster and more efficient with memory than Vista. Being based on Vista as well problems with device compatibility should be minimised.

If you are interested in learning more about the technical internals of Windows 7 and how it’s getting developed I think the best place to go at the moment is the Engineering Windows 7 Blog
Although this was only a developer Pre-Beta tester... or even teaser, it lays down the concepts for the things to come and I like many stand watchful over the future successor to Vista; the King is dead, long live the king!