I’ve conditioned myself to use keyboard shortcuts whenever possible. I think it’s a lot faster to keep your hands on the keys whenever possible. When I’m trying to help someone with a computer problem, though, I stay quiet about how this or that keyboard shortcut is faster than using the menu. In a best case, it just ends up distracting us both from the issue at hand. In the typical case I come off sounding impatient and obnoxious.
I had resigned myself to the idea that people are going to use the mouse to do everything…but then, something happened. I didn’t realize it for quite a while, but regular every-day people are using what amounts to a keyboard shortcut to tag people and pictures in Facebook all the time. In a Facebook post, if you type the @ symbol and start typing a name, the web page will pop up a small drop down showing all your friends with those letters in their name.
This is kind of sneaky because it’s not a traditional keyboard shortcut. You don’t use the control or alt keys and it doesn’t use “those crazy keys at the top of the keyboard” that no one knows how to use properly. Facebook just co-opted a symbol people are accustom to typing. Not only that, they used social feedback to encourage people to add valuable metadata to their postings.
The Twitter culture has a similar thing with their hashtags. If you want a tweet about a topic to be easily findable via search, you put a hashtag in with your text. (A hashtag is just a # symbol followed by a keyword.) Twitter doesn’t give you any indication you did something special when you press the # key, nor does it suggest a list of common hashtags as you are typing the way Facebook does. But when you view a tweet with a hashtag, it becomes a clickable link to a list of other tweets using the same tag.
So these two sites have conditioned users to add searchable metadata to their posts directly in the text content. This is great! You can see the same behaviour all over the place now. Of course Google+ does it, but I didn’t know until last week that Google Docs does it too. If you add a comment to a document you can @tag it to someone you are sharing with and they get a directed email with your comment.
If you are one of the exclusive group of people following my blog posts, you know I am working on a small Facebook web application for fun. One of the challenges I have in that app is parsing out human written text from a group feed to get info on how many miles a person ran that day. This is a perfect place for a special metadata indicator. If I could convince the community to put a # or & or * before their mileage my problem would be solved!
For example, this is very hard for a computer to parse:
Ran 5 on the Boardwalk at a 10 minute pace.
In the right context, another runner knows exactly what that means…but a computer parsing hundreds of posts can’t be so sure. On the other hand look at this post:
Ran *5 on the Boardwalk at a 10 minute pace.
As long as everyone agrees that adding the * before a number means miles run, then it’s an easy text processing problem.
So the next step is how to get people to use it. One of my favorite sites, StackOverflow, encourages user behavior by fading in a small colored box to the right of some forms. The contents of the box changes dynamically when they have new instructions (or warnings) based on what you are typing. I can imagine a mock up something like this:
If you want to encourage its use, you should give users immediate positive feedback when they use use a tag to provide metadata. It could be something as simple as highlighting tagged text in green to indicate they did it correctly. If the web site owner is the only one benefiting from the metadata, it’s going to be a very hard sell to train your users. On the other hand, if you build useful features on top of the tags, features that directly benefit the people doing the tagging, then I expect you will see good adoption rates.