Predicting Human Intent

Readability is one of my favorite web services. Readability is well designed, carefully made, unobtrusive and they’re not trying to wring me of personal information to datamine and sell at every turn (at least I don’t think they are). Their web service gives you browser plugins that strip out everything but the content of a page and present it in a clean, crisp format. If you sign up for an account you can make use of their “Reading List” to store pages for later reading. Recently they released beautiful iOS and Android apps that sync with your reading list allowing you to stock up on things to read at your computer and read them on the move.

Though Readability is a great service and they have great supporting apps they have one flaw. However, it’s not entirely their fault: I think it’s a side-effect of the difficulty of predicting human intent. The problem has to do with Readability’s reading list. When you install the browser plugins you get three buttons: a “Read Now” button, a “Read Later” button and a “Send to Kindle” button. The “Send to Kindle” button formats and sends the web page you’re on to your Kindle (assuming you’ve set up and connected your Kindle properly). The “Read Later” button saves the page you’re on to your Reading List which can be synced to your iOS or Android devices. The “Read Now” button will do the Readability formatting on your current page and show you the cleaned up version right then for you to continue reading.

That’s all great. However, the “Read Now” button also drops the page you just converted into your Reading List. This is great if you start reading a long article and then have to leave your machine. You can come back to it later, on another browser or another device entirely. But what happens if you finish reading the article right there and then? The article still ends up in your reading list. That would be fine if the list was simply a history of things you’ve read. However the Reading List is also a list of things you’re going to read. So the Reading List now contains things I’m going to read, things I’ve read and things I might want to read again. I think this problem stems from the fact that Readability started as a formatter and added read-later functionality unlike services like Instapaper which are designed for savings articles for later.

How can we differentiate between all these types of articles? Readability provides the ability to “Archive” and “Favorite” articles. Once I’m done with reading an article I Favorite it if I’m going to read it again and Archive it otherwise. But could Readability do this for me? Could Readability somehow figure out what I want to happen to the article? The simplest solution would be to archive whatever I Read Now and only add to the Reading List ones that I mark to Read Later. However that means that if I start reading something and then have to leave it ends up in the Archive where I might never look at it again. Could Readability be a little smarter? One heuristic would be to check where I am in the article. By default an article is always added to the Reading List as it is now. But when I scroll to the bottom Readability takes that to mean that I’m done reading and moves it into the Archive. If I liked it and wanted to come back to it I manually mark it as a Favorite. (I don’t expect Readability to be that clever. Yet.)

Without having actually tested the solutions, I can’t say how well they would work. There are certainly edge cases: what if I scroll down to read a footnote and then scroll back up to read the rest of the article? What if I get to the end and then go back to re-read a particular section? What if I quickly skim through an article to get to the end and want to come back later to read it in more depth? I think there’s no clear answer because fundamentally we’re trying to have Readability “guess” what we’re trying to do without giving an unambiguous signal. Sure, all of them could be solved with a few manual interactions. But the whole point of having advanced software is so that I don’t have to tell my computer what to do in excruciating detail.

Like I said at the beginning I don’t think that Readability is necessarily at fault for how their service works. Any attempt to automatically manage the Reading List would require making some assumptions as to what it is the user wants to do. Even if those assumptions are right most of the time, there will almost certainly be times when they’re wrong. We are, after all, dealing with people here, and people aren’t perfectly predictable agents. If they were, human computer interaction and economics would both be very different fields.

Predicting human intent is a hard problem. Ultimately, some amount of direct intervention might be inevitable. While Readability is meant to be a product it would be interesting to see researchers using it (or similar services) for doing research with real users about how our software can make choices for us in a way that closely reflects what we would have done ourselves. Unlike some people I don’t want my software to do less and have fewer features. I want it to do more so that I can concentrate on more important things. Like saving the world.

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