Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Website as a Language

Websites should be domain specific languages. The most popular sites are those which allow people to most easily communicate, so it seems like describing a website as a language is an excellent way to think about its design. Social sites like MySpace have an obvious communication slant, but even searches on Google are done to request that information be communicated to you. The whole notion of "Web 2.0" sites is predicated on communication between users. I am interested in more than "helping users communicate," however. How can designers build a website that is a "domain specific language" which lets its users express concepts and ideas that the original architects haven't even thought of yet?

No, That's Not What I Meant

I'm not talking about adding a forum to your website and calling it a night. I'm not talking about adding private messages between users. These features only extend English across the web. The very fact that they can be used across wildly different situations excludes them being domain specific. Specificity is important because it limits and simplifies communication. If you know that I'm talking about the Internet, I don't have to describe what type of "site" I'm talking about; you know I mean website. Specificity makes communication easier and more succinct. What I am talking about is making concepts in your domain easily communicated, manipulated, and related.

Can You Give Me an Example? has reviews in a specific format. Check out my helmet: it has 6 reviews, like a typical site, but at the top of the reviews it has "Customers most agreed on the following attributes". It is a very useful aggregate of opinions not easily communicated by standard review formats. If you click on " Write a Review," you can see that these agreed upon attributes are added by the reviewer in a particular format. People don't normally communicate this way; if I was talking with a friend I wouldn't say, "Strengths: light-weight, good ventilation, looks cool." But in this domain, it is useful to enforce a more specific syntax to express concepts about the helmet. If reviewers use this language, they get the benefit of getting their opinion of the product through to another person.

A counter example is craigslist: it uses natural language, and while it has some catageories to narrow down what you're looking for, it does little to help people express themselves. If you have ever searched for a specific product in your area, you know that there's not much the site helps you with. Even if I know that I want the Malm Ikea bed, there's no easy way to easily express this. There are no built in language constructs for "products," much less "beds" or styles of beds. This may be by Craig's design, but I suspect it has more to do with the trade-off involved in improving the site (needing to hire more people, needing to start charging for listings, etc.).

Why Should I Think About It This Way?

Designing a website like a language can make it truly extensible. Extensibility often happens by mistake: MySpace didn't know what it was getting itself into when it allowed users to totally customize their pages. Even though it's a big headache for them now, allowing it's users to better communicate to others was one of the main drivers of the site. Thinking about what users wanted to express, then building up a safe "language" for them to do so would have saved MySpace many headaches and avoided the CSS nightmare that has ensued.

Steve Yegge's post earlier this month also pointed to the importance of extensibility. His essential properties for great systems all point in one direction: being able to express concepts and continually build new ideas in your system. I believe many of his properties (command shell, extension language, plugin system, introspection) all derive from the same thing: a language that can express ideas in a domain, including itself. Preventing reboots is second nature to websites: you never see Amazon clearing all reviews from its website so it can start from scratch.

Secondly, developing a language that visitors can use forces you to think about what concepts they want to use. It's easy to think of features to add to a website: labels, user pictures, comments; but in order to understand what is useful to a user, you need understand what they're trying to communicate. This is similar to Joel Spolsky's activity planning except you need to go a little bit further and understand what a user is trying to say rather than what they're doing.

Amazon has added the ability to tag products, but it's barely getting any usage. Why? I think it's because customers are trying to categorize products much less frequently than they want to learn about the differences between similar products. Right now Amazon can't communicate comparisons to customers because it has no language to talk about the properties that customers care about. Which shoe is more durable? Which book is more useful for my research? There's no way for a reviewer to express these ideas in a way that can be combined with the opinions of others, compared to another item, and understood by a buyer. Instead of spending time implementing tags because other Web 2.0 companies had them, I would recommend developing something similar to PerformanceBike's reviews and letting customers compare them in ways they care about.

How Do I Develop This Language?

Domain specific languages, or DSLs, are relatively well known in the programming world. Martin Fowler has a good article on the subject. My advice on how to proceed starts like most other pieces of advice: know your audience. What are the basic ideas in your domain? For Yelp it's a business and its quality. For a poker forum its hands, bets, and cards. Now, how are customers trying to use these basic concepts to build more complex ones? What makes a restaurant appealing? What makes a a hand strong in a certain situation? Enable users to describe these ideas succinctly: a "star" rating is a good example. With a simple click, users can summarize their feelings about a place.

What questions are users asking? Can they express them on your site? Simple search is not good enough in most cases because its domain is too wide. Yelp has a separate box to express location because when searching for a business, users need to communicate what area they're interested in.

It's important to stay focused on flexibility during the design of your language. PerformanceBike reviews don't have a set number of check boxes for product attributes; they let users decide on their own. You're trying to provide the building blocks to users so they can build what work best for them, not build up a house you think they'll want to live in. Abstract upwards the types you think will important: programming languages have "integers" not the individual concepts of "1", "2", "3", "4".

Getting More Advanced

I'd like to be able to express more complex idea on websites I use. When a Yelp review has another business in it, it should be recognized as a specific object that the sites language knows about. I should be able to click on that business to learn about it, continuing the conversation. I want to easily ask a question: "What should I do for fun Saturday in San Francisco?" I is a concept that should be comparable to other people. San Francisco is a concept of a location in which to search. fun is a description of what type of businesses I am looking for.

Just like programming languages today, the website needs to be implemented. Perhaps my question will be translated into a database query that searches for businesses that have been highly reviewed by people who have rated other businesses similarly to me, constrained to San Francisco and with a tag of fun. The point is that I have a language to express my desire and the website has a way to express its response.


So what sites do you feel expressive on? Why? What are you doing to enable your users to communicate? Yegge said, "Features for non-technical end-users don't contribute to a system's lifespan. In the fullness of time, I believe programming fluency will become as ubiquitous as literacy, so it won't matter." Are your users literate in your website?

Monday, January 29, 2007

New Bike?

J is buying a new bike, so I thought I'd post some of the resources I've used this past year for bicycling.

By far the most useful resource I have found has been this website. For buying a new bike specifically, check out the sizing section. The site is useful because it summarizes a lot of researched information, and not just personal experiences and antidotes. I especially like how it cites other articles that you can go read for more in depth info.

Bicycling Magazine

Like most hobby magazines, this has a lot of hype and fawning reviews for expensive products. If you just stick to their "best" awards, like the Editor's Choice Awards, then you can extract some useful information out of it. For example, Best Entry-Level Road Bike has some useful recommendations.


I've found this site to have the best coverage in product reviews. Nice simple interface, too, compared to the Minotaur lair that is bicycling magazine.

Try Out Everything

Each bike store or chain carries different brand bikes. Since frame geometry differs between brands, I highly recommend riding as many bikes that are in your price range as possible. Ride a couple out of your price range, too, for comparison. Then ride the ones you like again to make sure you remember them correctly. Buy the bike that feels best, however you define it: comfortable, fast, pretty, etc. Buy a bike you'll want to ride.

There's three stores I recommend checking out in the South Bay area. Performance Bike: the low cost leader in the field, I bought my bike here with lifetime minor service. I've been happy with their service, prices, and online store. I've received personal (and personable) help from the mechanics, including picking out new wheels and making fitting adjustments on my bike. When I ordered a cleaning kit from their website that failed to show up after they had shipped it, they expressed me another one no-questions-asked. Mike's Bikes: I have a couple female friends that have had good experiences here because they carry a lot of women's frames. They also carry some sort of adjustments package, but you should ask them about it when you buy the bike. Palo Alto Bicycles: these are great folks, but the store is a little pricey. The store also has free clinics about cleaning and riding your bike that I recommend no matter where you end up buying.

Price Differences

Most people are surprised that a good road bike can now cost you $1,000 or more. Even the lowest end road bikes will set you back around $550. The big jumps in price are because of the frame and wheels. The incremental jumps are from the components (shifters, derailers, brakes, etc.) Higher quality components will last longer, which is important if you are riding hundreds of miles a week. The frame and wheels affect the weight and "feel" of a bike. The weight is only important if you are concerned about racing. The "feel" of the bike should be judged when you ride it, since the saddle, seat, and fork can all affect the "feel" of the bike more than the frame material. Again, pick what you enjoy riding the most.

Have you recently purchased a bike? Any suggestions? Are you buying a bike? Any questions?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Why do all these comic book characters want a "normal" life? When I look at their powers I think to myself, "Man, if I had *any* power, I would specialize the hell out of it." If all I could do was make purple dots appear on walls, I would practice till I could play purple movies on a big screen. Forget that boring "normal" life! Never mind what I would do with really interesting powers like Spider-Man's. But then I see stories like Team Hoyt and realize that everyone has superpowers, but they also choose a "normal" life. So what am I doing to take advantage of my powers?

One of my biggest achievements is last year's AIDS/Lifecycle ride. When I tell people that I biked from San Francisco to LA they look at me in surprise, wondering if such a thing is possible. The thing that made it super for me, though, was the amount of money raised for the SF AIDS foundation. I've talked to people that this foundation has literally saved from death. The question "If you had the power to save people's lives, would you do it?" isn't hypothetical for most people, including me. That's why I'm starting to practice and improve my bicycling skills: I want to do more this year.

Just having extra money would probably be considered a superpower by over 1.1 billion people living on a couple dollars a day. Many people don't have money to just give away, but there are places such as Kiva that you let your spare money do a lot of good. (I'm not a financial adviser, or even know what the word financial means, so as always be careful where you put your money). Kiva lets you give out loans to folks in or bordering on poverty. Unlike giving money to one of your buddies, you can be sure that your loan will be going to something useful ;) Like your buddies, you can bet that it'll be returned so you can use that money on yourself afterwards.

The fact is, just like superheroes, most people don't really want to use their powers; they just want a normal life. Unlike the worlds in comic books and TV, though, everyone has powers here. You don't need super-strength if there are no super-monsters. We do need normal compassion when people are dying from "normal" hunger. That means everyone can live a normal life while achieving the same things as your favorite super-team. Even Wolverine likes his beer at a local bar, so using your powers doesn't require giving up everything you love. So let's make "normal" super, and have fun with the powers we've got.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Just Do It (for 5 minutes)

A cliche phrase now, but no less important. There are so many things people put off because they can't do it "right:" they don't have the newest equipment, haven't finished all of their preconceived requirements, or there's not enough time. Why do we have this notion that accomplishing something perfectly is the only justification for trying? It's helpful to take a more evolutionary mindset: start with something then improve during your next iteration.

I'm trying to start my cycling training early this year. When I get home, though, I mostly just want to sit on the couch and make up excuses as to why it's not a good idea to get on the trainer. (The rest of me wants a delicious beer.) "It's too cold outside," "I'm too tired," "Riding without hills doesn't help much anyway," I rationalize. In these cases it's helpful to use a "5 minute rule." Just do it for 5 minutes; if I'm still tired, quit. At the end of 5 minutes on the bike I realize it's not too cold, I'm feeling pretty invigorated, and am getting a great workout without hills.

You can't apply the exact 5 minute rule to everything, but the concept extends beyond exercise. Slate wrote an article about toothpaste and one sentence really jumped out at me: "How regularly and how attentively you brush matters far more than what you brush with." What he's saying is "Just do it!" Spend that 10 minutes at Safeway trying to decide what brand of toothpaste to buy and just brush your teeth everyday this week.

My buddy's personal finance site, "I Will Teach You To Be Rich," has a lot of advice about where to invest, the difference between stocks and mutual funds, and all kinds of everyday savings tips. But do you know his most important tip? "Just do it." Start saving something automatically. Do you realize later that your checking account is not earning enough interest? Evolve your saving strategy and invest in a mutual fund. But that second step is a lot easier once you got the first 5 minutes of saving out of the way.

So sit down and spend 5 minutes on your startup even if you don't think it's the "perfect idea." Put on some tennis shoes and go for a 5 minutes jog and see how you feel. Spend 5 minutes writing the first post on that blog you've been meaning to start for 3 years (hmm, or is that just me?). Once you've started you can look back and tweak your process, but get rid of those nonsense rationalizations and just start. What are you spending 5 minutes on?

Friday, January 12, 2007


One of the things I like about biking home from work is the variety of smells along the way. Mostly it's families cooking dinner. Lots of Indian food smells, some generic savory smells, and BBQ when it was warmer. There's also the smell of wood fires which remind me of the few my family built back in Sacramento. During the spring, there's a corner you turn near a park, and you reliably get a wonderful blast of flowers.

What are the little things you enjoy while biking or jogging?