One of the things I like about Google's Chrome browser is the simplicity of the user interface. It has only a few icons and some of the standard interaction have been combined. As the web grows in complexity there will be a need to continue to develop elegant ways to combine functionality in a way that is intuitive and does not require a lot of learning and remembering.
One of the interesting new ways to access web functionality is the Ubiquity add-on for Firefox. This add-on lets a person navigate and mashup content through an auto suggestion text box interface. For example when a person selects content on a page and presses Ctrl + Spacebar they get a pop-up with some basic suggestions and access to functions that allow them to perform a number of actions like emailing, translating, twittering, searching, or mapping the selected text. Ubiquity also lets you perform unrelated functions like looking up an email address in your list of contacts.
The fundamental basis of Ubiquity is that you can use language to perform actions. So to twitter something on a page you can select the appropriate text on the page, press the Ubiquity short cut key, and start to type "twitter". Entering "tw" is all it takes.
This sounds great, but one of the possible problems with this design is the "out of sight - out of mind" cognitive barrier. While I installed Ubiquity several months ago I have not used it until I started writing this article. I even had to look up the short cut key to launch it. It just does not occur to me to use it.
Ubiquity can do a lots of things and the functionality will continue to expand, but how will I know what it is I can do? To find a list of my currently installed functions, I can either enter keywords like Twitter, but that's a lot of exploration. The alternative is to type help and then navigate to the list of the functions that I have installed. A user interface that depends on recall rather than recognition tends not be as usable or learnable. Using Ubiquity is like going to a site with only a search box vs a site with links, tabs, and buttons. The search field can work well for finding specific content, but I can't even see what the content might be.
One way to increase Ubiquity's visibility would be to use some of the concepts presented in the previous posts on improving search suggestions. Rather than using a separate pop-up, Ubiquity could be combined with what I call the Search/Command Portal field that combines the use of function key for quick choice selection with a layered menu for enabling people to perform a wide variety of searches and actions.
If a person selects text on a page, the Search/Command Portal field could have some type of animation or state change to indicate it's ability to do something with the selected text. Clicking the field would display a searchable and scrollable list of all the available actions for the selected text. The key difference here is a list of all actions vs a list that just shows a few default actions or only the actions starting with a particular letter. The use of the web is based on a combination of navigating and searching where some actions are based on selecting visible options and others are based on searching for terms that may not be visible. It seems that providing a visible and scrollable list provides user with the opportunity to either search or browse the list to learn the options.