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Andy Hertzfeld on Google's News Timeline

Posted by: Helen Walters on April 22, 2009

Earlier this week, Google announced its News Timeline, a way to organize information by date. Users put in their search parameters (sources of information such as Time Magazine and Popular Science; dates to be searched, from day to decade) and the results are posted in columns of links and text snippets along with embedded images and videos. (See my colleague Rob Hof’s insightful analysis of the goings-on at Google’s press conference, held in San Francisco.)

I wanted to take a closer look at the usability and design of Timeline. And it quickly became apparent that while it’s shiny and seductive, it’s still very much a work in progress.

In fact, once I dug in and started to try to use it in a serious manner, I got lost, quickly. Some of the search string options seemed bizarre (you can search for “buildings,” but not, say, “people”) while results weren’t particularly comprehensive. (A search for Frank Gehry buildings only went back to 1989 and missed several of the 80 year old architect’s most iconic structures.) Adding blogs made the presentation of data visually overwhelming, while having to turn off content from Time and Wikipedia Events, which turns up whether relevant or not, was unintuitive and confusing. Most bizarre given Google’s reputation for engineering, but some of the functionality just plain didn’t work. (Switching from decade to day spat me into the 1980s, while for some reason the Timeline overwrote short cut keys functionality when I used it in Safari.)

Yes, yes. I know this is a product from Google Labs and thus adheres to the company’s policy of launching an imperfect beta product and then improving it. Andy Hertzfeld, the former Apple software engineer who’s spent the past year working on the project said on the phone that he both welcomed critical feedback and was eager to get to work implementing fixes. In particular, he said he'd be looking to solve the usability issues and the confusion around having Time and Wikipedia as persistent queries.

More interestingly, Hertzfeld also said that he’d be looking at introducing a more granular timeline that would allow users to track stories in terms of hours or, perhaps, minutes. "I didn’t really have any data that changed rapidly enough to make it that useful to go into the hours," he said of this initial design. "But I certainly can imagine adding that as we add more real time sources." That sounds bewitching in theory – imagine the news story of the moment playing out in this format. It could arguably be a more elegant and nuanced version of a Twitter stream, on a broader scale. But the data display issues clearly need work before this can really be a useful tool.

Hertzfeld also hinted at another idea: that users will eventually be able to customize their timelines with their own personal information and that of those in their social network. “I’d like it if users could add their own data to the timeline,” he said. “Historical information is one thing, but how about putting your kids’ birthdays on there? That wouldn’t necessarily be visible to every user but visible to you and your social network.” It sounds intriguing to me. What do you think?

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What comes next? The BusinessWeek Innovation and Design team of Michael Arndt and Helen Walters chronicle new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.

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