Make it easy for your users

2016-04-03

There is a lot of wonderful software out there. We can do things online that even 6 or 12 months ago would have seemed far-fetched and fanciful.

One downside however, is that complex software often assumes certain behaviourial habits of a user. And often, what a software maker thinks should be intuitive, is actually more complex for a user to fully dive into.

TimelineJS

There is a great tool available called TimelineJS. Put out by Knightlab, it is an easy way for users to visualize content on an interactive timeline. Have a google spreadsheet with your data, give it to TimelineJS and voila! A nice timeline for you.





Making it better

Still, however, it is a little cumbersome. If you look at the spreadsheet, there are a lot of fields to even get started. And yes, a dedicated user will make it work, but how can we sweep in casual users, get them engaged, and hopefully make them power users*? Remember that power users are often the ones most willing to pay, and are most willing to be sticky with your product.

Connecting with Wikipedia

We did a quick mash-up to prove this concept. How much more would you use TimelineJS if you could easily add events to it? After all, often you have questions that you'd like answered quickly. How do we help a user's desire for faster gratification?

Thinking with the user

We like software that helps the user out. Google is a company famous for doing this -- from something as simple as "Did you mean X" if you have a typo, to providing their "instant-search results" as you start typing.

For our mashup, we built a single page app that has an empty timeline, and a text box for the user to type their queries into. The search box is connected to the Wikidata API. 

So if you type "World War I", and click "Add to Timeline", you get the event listed quickly without needing to worry about the data entry yourself. For a user looking to quickly compare and understand people and events, this new interface let's you ask yourself questions, and have them answered without being bogged down by data entry or a cumbersome interface. 

Some Gotchas

It wasn't as easy to just connect Wikidata -- we had to account for variations in "starting time" and "ending time" (Imagine: Birth Date, Start Time, Start Date, Date of Inception all mean the same thing to a Timeline, but your software has to account for this), and also what if:

 - A user wanted to change the details in a specific event?
 - The date information wasn't available in Wikipedia?

Accounting for these variations and making it into a more seamless experience makes it easier for your userbase to engage with your application or service.

Next steps

There are a lot of other things we could add, such as saving data, privacy settings, the ability to share created Timelines, and so on. However, we've started the process of building an intuitive interface for learning with a Timeline. It's exicitng to see what comes next!

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