As BatchBlue’s User Experience Designer, a big part of my job is to hide BatchBook’s technologies from users that don’t want to deal with them. My main goal is to make sure users can do what they need to do as efficiently and painlessly as possible.
For this reason, it takes a pretty compelling bit of technology for me to bring it into BatchBook and expose it to our users. Today, I wanted to share one of those technologies with you. Consider this a warning that this post can get a bit techy, but if you follow me you’ll see that it’s really not that bad and can actually be quite useful.
But microformats are different. They’re simple. And while the potential usefulness for them is just being uncovered, there is already an immediate benefit. One of the key microformats, hCard, is all about contact information. So, of course, that one is huge for BatchBook.
You may be familiar with vCard, the standard format that many address programs like Outlook and Address Book uses to import, store, and export contact information. hCard is an HTML version of vCard. Many sites offer links to vCards so users can download contact information and add it to Outlook or another address application. But offering a vCard in addition to your site’s content means you not only have to maintain your web site’s content but also the information stored in all those vCards. With hCard, you can have the same information available in both formats.
Microformats and BatchBook
It may be best to simply show you how this can directly help you when using BatchBook. One of the best tools for reaping the rewards of microformats is a Firefox extension called Operator, written by Michael Kaply of IBM.
Let’s pretend you’re scoping out a hot new small business. In their press section, you find contact information for their executives. Since you’d like to speak with this company, you start the tedious process of copying and pasting the information to your address book.
But there’s a better way.
This company marked up their contact information using the hCard format. If you’re using the Operator toolbar, it will tell you that you can download the contact information for any or all of the executives with just one click. I think each one of them is super cool, so let’s grab all three.
Operator sent them right to my Address Book application. Of course, you can also add them to Outlook, Thunderbird, or any other application that supports the vCard format.
Let’s take the next step and import them into BatchBook:
Like magic, you just went from a plain old HTML page to BatchBook with a couple clicks. Here’s how the information looks in BatchBook.
And, of course, to keep the contact-sharing-goodness flowing full-circle, our Browse Contacts page is marked up in hCard. So, you can export yourself from BatchBook and send your sister your vCard so she never has to ask for your cell phone number or zip code again.
Though the example above shows only name, title, company, and email address, hCard can also be used for mailing and web addresses as well as phone, fax, and cell numbers.
Behind the Curtain
What kind of technology goes into making this possible? It is literally the difference between this:
<h2 class="fn">Sean Ransom</h2>
Simply adding class names around each type of data (zip-code, street-address, org, etc.) allows software (like Operator) to detect the information. The code is invisible to the user, but the benefits are not.
Our Own Use Case
Microformats came in ridiculously handy for BatchBlue recently. When we launched BatchBook at the DEMOfall07 conference, we provided a service for conference attendees that pre-populated their new BatchBook accounts with demonstrators from the past five DEMO conferences, their company’s executives, conference staff, and press. The DEMO site has a page for each presenter that contains all of this contact information.
It would have been a dream come true if these pages were marked up with hCard, but they weren’t. So, using another Firefox extension (called Greasemonkey) and Riley’s scripting skills, we were able to make our local versions of Firefox add microformats where needed on each page. We were then able to reap the rewards, exporting the information and uploading it into BatchBook. There’s nothing quite like NOT having to copy and paste hundreds of mailing addresses into the appropriate fields. We then offered the code changes to the DEMO team so everyone can benefit from this.
hCard isn’t the only microformat. There are others that are heavily used, such as hCalendar (the HTML version of the ICAL calendaring format). There are other “elemental” microformats that may not seem very powerful on their own, but when combined with other microformats and applications can do amazing things. Some of these, like XFN (eXtended Friend Network), play a big part in Brian Oberkirch’s writings about portable social networks.
But for small business owners, it is all about addressing pain points. Repetitive tasks such as copying and pasting contact information are obvious pain points that can be addressed with simple technologies such as microformats. Sometimes it seems as though you hear about new technology every day. Here’s one that can actually provide an immediate benefit.