In another article, I’ve discussed the idea of the WIDE WORLD Web — the idea that people with significant connections outside the US have made disproportionately large contributions to innovation and quality on the Web. I suggest in that article that one reason for this is that Wide World people seem to have a particular appreciation for Simplicity & Elegance. In this article, I’ll discuss examples of this.

First, people and services that I’ve discussed before, with links to my articles about them:

Tor Ahlenius was a librarian at the Karolinska Institute library in Sweden. I first observed the surprising quality of Wide World web work when looking for quality link-lists in pre-Google days, and found that Ahlenius had the most elegant lists on the Web in health and medicine. Beyond Ahlenius, I found in working on Hardin MD that many others of the best link-lists were also from outside the US. Some may question the idea of characterizing link-list-keeping as “elegant” — But in pre-Google days it was an essential service, and comprehensive and well-maintained lists were difficult to find — A simple but critical skill, perfected to elegance by Ahlenius.

Moving forward and on a much larger stage, a couple of examples that are fairly well-known, but not usually thought of as having connections outside the US. But I’d suggest that they do indeed.

Steve Jobs, Jonathan Ive, and Apple – Jobs was raised in California by adoptive American parents, but his biological father was from Syria. The secretive Jobs rarely talks about this, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see a connection with his career as a tech-genius. Jonathan Ive, who made the elegant designs of  the iPhone and iPad, has solid Wide World connections, being a native of England.

Sergey Brin and Google -  How would the world be different if he hadn’t moved from the USSR to the US when he was six years old and grown up to help invent Google’s elegant search and design revolutions?

Twitter was not developed by anyone with Wide World connections, but I’m including it because it’s elegant simplicity has been so firmly embraced by the Wide World community. I especially learned to appreciate this from following the prolific tweeting of Portuguese librarian Jose Afonso Furtado. He tweets mostly on library/publishing subjects, but during the serious outbreak of Swine Flu in Mexico in 2009, he tweeted on that and I made good international contacts on Twitter through him.

Below are some Wide World examples I haven’t (yet) written about:

Tim-Berners Lee and the WWW – Lest we forget! — The Inventor of the Web was from England. As John Naughton says in his excellent profile of Berners-Lee, TBL’s great contribution was that he created a simple, elegant way to make hypertext, which had been around for several decades, usable by non-geeks — The World Wide Web.

Luis von Ahn, who grew up in Guatemala and is now on the faculty at Carnegie-Mellon – CAPTCHA inventor and MacArthur Genius Grant winner at age 27. He also was the developer of Google Image Labeler, an elegant application of crowdsourcing/gaming to tag pictures.

Yuri Selukoff – A very recent Wide World rising star – Russian developer of GoodReader, widely hailed as the best PDF reader for iPhone and iPad (and one of the two top-sellers of all iPad Apps). The simple, elegant trick of GoodReader is that it extracts pure text from PDF files and “reflows it” into wrapped text format. Selukoff’s GoodReader work reminds me of Tor Ahlenius, discussed at the top of this article, which was my first discovery of simple, elegant Web work originating from the Wide World community. As with Selukoff and GoodReader, it makes me wonder — Why does it take someone from outside the US to give the world such a simple, useful tool?

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

In its original meaning Elegance had to do with tasteful and graceful. In Sci-Tech-CompSci, it’s come to be associated with simplicity – surprisingly simple yet effective (Wikipedia) … cleverly simple (FreeDictionary) — I’ve written quite a lot on this blog about the concept of simple design, especially in the context of  library user-interface (UI) issues and design for mobile devices. Recently, I’ve also been thinking about simplicity in the context of my experience with Hardin MD, remembering the value of list-keeping in pre-Google days — A simple task, but a surprisingly difficult one to execute.

Quality list-keeping, UI design and mobile design — those fit well within the concept of “simple” — But moving beyond those, I’m seeing that there are broader topics that I’ve been writing about that extend the concept of “simple” to something more like “elegant.” I think of there being a continuum from the simple list-keeping of the early Web to simple design to the full-fledged Elegance of the giants discussed below, and I see all of these as being motivated by the same instinct, and blending together so much that they’re hard to separate. So I’m making a new category — Elegance — and putting all of the blend into it — Simple to Elegant.

Here are some highlights of my recent articles – The boldface name links (Apple, Google, etc) go to all of the articles in the category. The links within each paragraph go to articles that are more specifically on elegance:

AppleSteve Jobs and Jonathan Ive have set the standard for elegant design, as stated in a recent iPad review – “Led by British-born Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design team has created another iconically elegant piece of hardware: the iPad.” (boldface by me)

Google – Like Apple, Google has contributed much set the standard for elegant design. I suspect when Google first became popular, the Wikipedia definition of “elegance” given above — “surprisingly simple yet effective” — is just what a lot of people thought — How could this young upstart, with a homepage that was made up of mostly white space compete against the link-laden gateway pages of the era?

Twitter – Tim O’Reilly captures the essence of Twitter’s secret, I think — In writing about why he loves Twitter the first reason he gives is – “Twitter is simple – It does one small thing, and does it well” — Again, echoing the Wikipedia definition of Elegance – “surprisingly simple yet effective.”

And, of course … Wikipedia fits its own definition of Elegance – “surprisingly simple yet effective” — Who would have predicted the simple idea of users making the best dictionary in the world?

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

As is obvious from the screenshots here, the Google Revolution was about more than good searching — It’s also about design — It seems hard to imagine now that the busy design on the AltaVista page below was the standard for web pages before Google, but it was.

The Google Design influence went further than the home page — The home page was a sign of the whole approach of Google, a beacon for savvy designers that told them the Google search engine would be looking for sites that followed the Simple Design Way of Google. And of course, it’s worked — Simple design is the standard now, and pages like the AltaVista 2000 homepage look like … something out of the last century.

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

After hearing Daniel Pink’s keynote at the recent Medical Library Association meeting, I watched his TED talk (The surprising science of motivation) and I found it at least as inspiring as his words at MLA. Pink’s ideas on intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation are well-known — People doing creative tasks, he says, are more highly motivated by inner drives than they are by external rewards — I won’t go into detail about his thesis here — I’ll just talk about a couple of stories — One that Pink tells and a little follow-up of my own.

Pink’s story that I found especially interesting is about Wikipedia and Encarta. I’m transcribing it since I don’t find that anyone else has done it. Here’s a link to the segment of the video with the story:

In the mid-1990′s Microsoft started an encyclopedia called Encarta. They employed all the right incentives. They paid professionals to write and edit thousands of articles. Well compensated managers oversaw the whole thing to make sure it came in on budget and on time. A few years later another encyclopedia started — A different model — Do it for fun. No one gets paid a cent or a euro or a yen. Do it because you like to do it. Now 10 years ago if you had talked to an economist … anywhere … and said “Hey, I’ve got these different models for creating an encyclopedia — If they went head to head who would win? 10 years ago you could not have found a single, sober economist anywhere on planet earth who would have predicted the Wikipedia model. This is the Titanic battle between these two approaches. This is the Ali-Frazier of motivation, right, this is the Thrilla in Manila, alright — Intrinsic motivators vs extrinsic motivators — Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose versus Carrots & sticks – And who wins — Intrinsic motivation, autonomy, mastery and purpose — in a Knockout.

Great story, well told! Indeed, who would have predicted Wikipedia? Or, in the same vein, who would have predicted blogs and Twitter threatening to replace paid journalists?

My own little story — After returning from a long week at MLA, I watched the Pink video on Friday night of Memorial Day weekend. Partly inspired by Pink’s words and partly by ideas from MLA, I decided I’d spend some holiday time on Monday Twittering about the BP Gulf oil disaster — A subject out of my usual more “serious” use of Twitter but — Intrinsic Motivation ;-) –  It’s an area of personal interest, and a chance to put my Twitter skills to work to do a tiny bit to help save the world, maybe?

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

When Google first came out its ability to find thousands of links and to put the best of them at the top of the list was considered downright spooky, in the words of one doctor. We’d never had anything like that — Before Google, the choice was a human-generated list — either a relatively short list of subjective “best links” or a long, boring alphabetical/classified list — or, even worse, a search-engine list, that often seemed to be totally random.

And then there were Tor Ahlenius’ elegant lists of Diseases and Disorders at the Karolinska Institute Library in Sweden. Tor had  the uncanny ability to make relatively lengthy lists with the best  links at the top. There  was never any indication about the criteria used to choose the “best,” but it was clear that the  top links  were, in some sense, “high quality.” Often, these were links that I had come across on other peoples’ link lists, but sometimes there would be gems that I had never seen linked anywhere else.

When Google revolutionized searching with its PageRank technology, I had the uncanny feeling that I had gotten a pre-taste of Google in Tor’s lists — His simple, understated lists were just like Google’s — “Give me all the sites on the subject, and put the best ones at the top.” And, of course, it was all out of his head. Tor’s pages resonated with Google not only in the quality of their links but also in their simple design — just the links on a spare white page.

Another part of the appeal of Tor’s link lists for me was that he tended to put sites with good pictures toward the top. Although I’ve never seen this written about, I think Google has a similar tendency. And, as I’ve learned from Hardin MD stats, pictures are indeed popular.

At the recent Medical Library Association annual meeting in Washington DC, I learned from Tor’s friend Arne Jakobsson, who was attending from Norway, the sad news that Tor died in early May, after having retired a few years ago.

Tor had the mind of a scientist – He had a PhD in Quantum Chemistry and had done computer programming earlier in his career. As someone has said, if there were enough really smart people, computers wouldn’t be necessary — People could do it all. Of course that’s not possible in the real world. But Tor was a shining example of how its not so unimaginable. In the height of his list-keeping, I’d take the lists generated by his brain over Google anytime.

Tor’s lists are still available — I suspect he continued to work on them until the end.

Thank you to Tor’s family and Ylva Gavel at the Karolinska library for the picture of Tor.

Tor was part of the inspiration for a series of articles I wrote soon after his passing, on the superior Web work of people around the world:

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

Steve-Jobs-and-Jonathan-I-001two70“Deviceful” – Wonderful word. I discovered it serendipitously in a thesaurus search for “creative” – An interesting story of the way words evolve, a Middle English word that’s out of common use now. I came across the word about the same time the iPad was launched and it seemed fitting for the occasion.

I’m interested in the human element of the iPad story, especially talk about Apple Head Steve Jobs and Designer Jonathan Ive. Jobs, of course, was the center of media attention, with dozens of articles focusing on him. But the younger Ive also got mentioned a fair amount. Since about 2006, he’s been suggested as a possible successor to Jobs as Apple CEO, and with the iPad being the first big Apple Media Hype since Jobs health-related leave-of-absence in 2009, this talk is becoming more voluble.

Invariably described as a quite, behind-the-scenes sort of personality, Ive’s award-winning designs are widely recognized as being central to Apple’s success. One little-reported episode stands out as a tantalizing “what if” story — How different our world might be if Ive hadn’t been a failure as a designer of toilets! …

One day in 1992 a then-struggling Apple hired Tangerine [the small London-based consultancy where Ive worked] to toss around a few ideas for the emerging portable computer market. Ive took on the project while he was designing a new range of bathroom appliances for Hull-based Ideal Standard. On a grey afternoon he drove to Hull to present a new toilet to Ideal Standard. … Ive’s designs were rejected. Shortly afterwards Ive went to the US to present the new laptop to Apple. The firm liked his ideas so much they offered him a job … It wasn’t until Steve Jobs returned to take charge in 1997 that Ive’s career took off. Former Tangerine colleague, Peter Phillips, recalls: ‘Jobs realised he had a jewel in Jonathan.

Another interesting tidbit on Jobs and Ive, that I haven’t seen discussed — They both have important “outside America” connections in their background — Ive, of course, is native to Britain. What’s not so well known is that Steve Jobs biological father was a native of Syria. Our debt to the World is striking.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

The slide below (from a recent webinar on the NCSU mobile library site) does a great job of conveying what I’ve been saying recently about the importance of keeping mobile sites simple. It also brings to mind the bottom sketch from a recent post. Taken together, these two graphics give me hope that, with the advent of mobile tech, libraries are catching on to simple design. Traditionally, the design of library interfaces (especially OPACs) has tended to take the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach, with way more information than users attend to (as shown in the bottom sketch). With the restrictions of small screen mobile-devices, though, I suspect the appeal of simple design will become more apparent, as shown nicely in the NCSU mobile catalog search.

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Sketch from: Why Apple & Google Win – And Libraries Don’t

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

The mobile version of MedlinePlus that was released by the National Library of Medicine last week is an elegant example of what I’ve been talking about in recents posts on libraries making their sites mobile-friendly. Mobile is a great opportunity for libraries because the overriding consideration in creating a mobile-friendly site is SIMPLE Design — Eliminate everything but the bare essentials of the information being communicated — I think NLM has done an excellent job of this with Mobile MedlinePlus. What I especially like is the efficient use of screen space, as shown in the screenshots below — In going from portrait to landscape view, the text and picture grow larger to fit the screen (and the transition between views is very smooth, which can only be appreciated using a real device). … Simple mobile-friendly design like this comes naturally, I think, to librarians. So what are we waiting for?

Malaria – Top with Picture

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Malaria – Text

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Fifth Disease – Top with Picture

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Fifth Disease – Text

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Piercing & Tattoos -  Top with Picture

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

In a discussion of how to label the just-finished decade, some people, most notably Mike Cane, have suggested that it be called “The iPod Decade.” Brian Chen echoes this sentiment, calling the iPod the Gadget of the Decade because it “opened the doors to the always-connected, always-online, all-in-one-device world that we live in today.”

Tim Spalding, on the other hand, says this: “Resolved: The Os were the ‘Lost Decade’ for library tech—libraries made incremental advances, while others flew past them.” Having gotten an iPod Touch (aka iTouch) myself recently, I get the strong sense that much of what Spalding is talking about is the explosion in mobile, especially iPhone/iTouch, use, especially by young people, in the last few years — which has made few inroads in the library world.

So what about the next decade in libraries? How can we catch up to Spalding’s world that’s flying past us? My suggestion is that we get on the mobile wagon as quickly as we can. And the most practical way to do that right now is the iPod Touch (most of the capabilities of an iPhone without the phone and its high monthly AT&T costs).

Mobile Friendly Design: A Great Opportunity for Libraries

The premium in designing information for mobile displays is Simplicity — Dotcom sites are feeling very pinched because small mobile device screens don’t leave much room for ads and Bells&Whistles –  Popular mobile news sites, for example, have mostly the text of news stories on their pages. Likewise, blogs that are well-optimized for mobile (WordPress Rocks!) have just the essential text and accompanying pictures.

A simple, streamlined screen-environment fits us in libraries very well — We don’t have to worry about squeezing ads on our pages, and we’ve never tried to compete with dotcom Bells&Whistles. So mobile seems like a natural for us.

So why haven’t more libraries adopted mobile tools? There certainly are libraries that have developed mobile interfaces for some of their services. But a big barrier to more general of embracing of mobile in libraries is that the information that we have in the “library silo” — most notably the online catalog — is generally not in mobile format (**see below). I suspect that many users, when they see that our “mobile sites” don’t include the catalog, are going to lose interest quickly.

The cost of an iTouch is in the $150-$200 range, making it practical for most libraries to consider providing each staff member with one. The real investment, I think, is going to be learning how to integrate library services with them. It’s going to take an adventurous, visionary administration to accomodate staff time to “play around on the new toy” to learn how to use it.

In many ways, I’m finding the mobile interface on the iTouch to be “uncharted waters.” The standards for what makes a good mobile site are yet-to-be-written — Bloggers, journalists, publishers, web developers — are all hard at work looking for the best approach, competing for the users’ attention. Whoever gets it first will be the winner in the next decade — Hopefully libraries will do better than in the last one.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the inspiration for the cute title of this article –  One Laptop per Child (OLPC) of course — And just in case anybody’s paying attention, I’ll the first to apply the new acronym — OITPL ;-)

**Library Catalogs in mobile format – The only ones I’ve been able to find that have what I would call a truly optimized interface, to make them readable on an iTouch, are North Carolina State Univ, Iowa City Public Library, and Univ North Carolina — Please tell me if you know of others!

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

Tim O’Reilly’s article Why I Love Twitter, which was published one year ago today, had a lot to do with my getting on Twitter. I’d been a long-time regular reader of Tim’s blog, so his strong endorsement of Twitter convinced me to give it a try. A year later, I’m glad I did. It’s been a great ride … So, as my way of saying Thanks, I’m excerpting his article below.

  1. Twitter is simple
    Twitter does one small thing, and does it well.
    See also comment by @mgco – “i couldn’t agree more, twitter = simplicity
  2. Twitter works like people do
    If I’m interested in someone, I don’t have to ask their permission to follow them. I don’t have to ask if they will be my friend: that is something that evolves naturally over time. … Twitter’s brilliant social architecture means that anyone can follow me, and I can follow anyone else … Gradually, through repeated contact, we become friends. …
  3. Twitter cooperates well with others
    Rather than loading itself down with features, it lets others extend its reach. There are dozens of powerful third-party interface programs; there are hundreds of add-on sites and tools. Twitter even lets competitors (like FriendFeed or Facebook) slurp its content into their services. But instead of strengthening them, it seems to strengthen Twitter. …
  4. Twitter transcends the web
    Like all of the key internet services today, Twitter is equally at home on the mobile phone. …
  5. Twitter is user-extensible
    The @syntax for referring to users, hashtags, …  were user-generated innovations that, because of Twitter’s simplicity, allowed for third party services to be layered not just on the API, but on the content.
  6. Twitter evolves quickly
    Perhaps because its features are so minimal, new user behaviors seem to propagate across Twitter really quickly. …The most fascinating evolution happening on Twitter isn’t an evolution of the software, but an evolution in user behavior and in the types of data that are being shared. … I saw this myself with retweeting … I became one of the most prolific retweeters … it’s fascinating to see the growth of retweeting …

[From Tim's concluding words]: In many ways, Twitter is a re-incarnation of the old Unix philosophy of simple, cooperating tools. The essence of Twitter is its constraints, the things it doesn’t do, and the way that its core services aren’t bound to a particular interface. … It strikes me that many of the programs that become enduring platforms have these same characteristics. … What’s different, of course, is that Twitter isn’t just a protocol. It’s also a database. … That means that they can let go of controlling the interface. The more other people build on Twitter, the better their position becomes.

Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey