The hype that surrounded Wolfram Alpha bore similarities to the Segway hype machine of 7 years ago: not for the first time was the media abuzz with promises of a revolution in some small part of our lives, that hackneyed ‘paradigm shift’; the ‘game changer’.
Some weeks later, the news that their traffic levels have plummeted is hardly surprising, though it dovetails nicely with a wonderfully incisive piece about WolframAlpha’s UI as an intelligent control interface.
“There is actually a useful tool inside Wolfram Alpha, which hopefully will be exposed someday. Unfortunately, this would require Stephen Wolfram to amputate what he thinks is the beautiful part of the system, and leave what he thinks is the boring part.”
This article centres on the UI problem being solved Wolfram Alpha, opting for natural language interpretation.
“WA is two things: a set of specialized, hand-built databases and data visualization apps, each of which would be cool, the set of which almost deserves the hype; and an intelligent UI, which translates an unstructured natural-language query into a call to one of these tools. The apps are useful and fine and good. The natural-language UI is a monstrous encumbrance, which needs to be taken out back and shot. It won’t be.”
My personal experience with WA is very much as a ‘false affordance’ as the article details so well:
“For serious UI geeks, one way to see an intelligent control interface is as a false affordance – like a knob that cannot be turned, or a chair that cannot be sat in. The worst kind of false affordance is anunreliable affordance – a knob that can be turned except when it can’t, a chair that’s a cozy place to sit except when it rams a hidden metal spike deep into your tender parts.
Wolfram’s natural-language query interface is an unreliable affordance because of its implicit promise of divine intelligence. The tool-guessing UI implicitly promises to read your mind and do what you want. Sometimes it even does. When it fails, however, it leaves the user angry and frustrated – a state of mind seldom productive of advertising revenue.”
The full article is a good read and though relatively long, it’s conclusion is not: Keep it Simple, Stupid.