29 September, 2015

Intelligent Input Processing

Hello again after quite a long time!  Quite a lot has happened over the past few years, from starting and graduating from University, finding a job in another company and travelling around the world.  I have also been involved in some small side projects, some of which have actually gained some traction.

One such project which I did some basic parts of is a a system for maintaining a list of classified vehicle listings for used (2nd hand) and new cars...or any other kind vehicle.  The interesting part is the way a new listing can be added with minimal effort.  Typically people *hate* filling long forms, and entering the details of a car is no exception.  Even if the form is actively trying to help the user by showing suggestions, it still is not as streamlined as just typing text or actually filling out a hand-written form.

So here I found the thing I hated about forms - having to switch between inputs and having to think about the value I should enter next.  I don't want to think about it, I just want my form to fill up, by itself if possible.  A little experiment lead to the development of a small but quite helpful feature which tries to offload this (minor) effort from the user.

As the data was a simple table, we could predict what the user is going to enter; some details on a car.  There aren't too many attributes when you think about it - a make and model, year, colour, engine and transmission.  You could also do away with some of them, even though it might hurt search rankings.  The result was that a form may be populated by simply parsing the semi-natural text taken from one big text box.  The user no longer had to enter different and specific values in each entry - just one descriptive sentence where order does not matter and mistakes may be easily fixed.  All we needed is some initial data to "teach" the system what to expect.

We now have a very clean solution for entering listing details where a short description relieves us from having to think about each individual attribute of a car (what an epic case of 1st world problemism).

By some luck, this little experiment has made it through to a website and is now available for many users to enjoy.  Let's hope these kinds of little experiments from professionals and enthusiasts keep getting better and more popular so one day we may have a more user-oriented internet, rather than a machine-oriented one.  Oh by the way, the website making use of this little tech is http://www.pickacarmalta.com!

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