I’ve asked the developers I work with to postpone no. There is one developer I work with that, upon seeing a sketch for a design I’m working on, will immediately rip off five reasons why it can’t be done that way. The database this, and performance that, etcetera, etcetera. Then, five minutes later, he would be back at my desk with a great idea for how it could be implemented. I ask them to postpone saying ”no” for long enough to mull over the possibilities. Then, if a good solution hasn’t turned up, we’ll work on Plan B.
During my second year of grad school, back in 1998, I proposed a spatial representation of websites to evolve the web. I even went so far as submitting it to CHI, but it wasn’t accepted, as it was only a concept demonstrated without research to back it up.
I am proposing the evolution of the page metaphor to a spatial metaphor. It is time to stop loading webpages, and start visiting webplaces. Harrison and Dourish describe the difference between space and place in their paper “Re-Place-ing Space: The Roles of Place and Space in Collaborative Systems”.
“Physically, a place is a space which is invested with understandings of behavioral appropriateness, cultural expectations, and so forth. We are located in ‘space’, but we act in ‘place’. Furthermore, ‘places’ are spaces that are valued.”
The web will truly prove its worth when it becomes a place; when we carry memories of events which have taken place there; when we talk about going somewhere on the web.
There were two components of the concept, the first being the addition of co-presence awareness, allowing website visitors to see, communicate, and interact with each other. I demonstrated scenarios in which companies would staff their websites with receptionists, and visitors would chat about the content of the site, be it informational or retail. The second component was the spatial metaphor, relating to issues of wayfinding. The location of a person’s avatar would indicate the information they are interested in, or the conversation in which they are participating.
One of the first applications of Web.Alive is around e-commerce. Imagine going to a website to buy something. Today, you show up at the website and you may as well be the only person on the internet when you’re at that website. It’s two dimensional. It might be very pretty. But you don’t know that you’re there with anyone else. But most of the time when you try to buy something in the real world, it’s a social experience. You want to interact with sales people. You want to interact with your friends. You want to see what other customers are actually buying, and you want to actually do it in real time with audio and with visual cues. If you have Web.Alive on a website, what happens is, instead of just going to the website, you maybe now see a little window. In the window are virtual people—avatars if you want to describe them that way. Those people are a reflection of the other people that are on the website with you. If you choose to, you can step through that window and become part of that virtual experience. But instead of just being in some random virtual world, you are in a virtual environment that is in fact the website that you just went to. The people in there with you are also trying to buy the same goods and services. The employees of the company you are interacting with know that you’re there to interact for that purpose.
Their solution involves a VR space (similar to Second Life) that is separated from the content of the webpage, rather than a direct integration, but the concept behind the design is identical.
It took me long enough. I had a feeling I’d be waiting until the last minute. The only reason I haven’t waited until the weekend is because I will be completely offline. But, now it’s done, and all I have to do is wait until October to find out if my lightning session submission has been accepted to Interaction ’09. I haven’t presented at a conference since the International Symposium on Wearable Computers (ISWC) in 2000. I’m looking forward to the opportunity.
Life Beyond Tree Widgets
The goal was to provide a tablet-based application that would allow power system engineers to move from data logging on paper to digital data entry. The unique aspects of this domain, such as the complexity of electrical systems and the sheer size of the diagrams depicting them, required equally unique user interface designs. Existing patterns (e.g. the clipboard, column view) were extended, and new interaction concepts were explored. The resulting application provides engineers with robust navigation and editing capabilities.
Not all problems can be solved by following conventions. Design patterns are extremely useful, but we must recognize when they aren’t sufficient and creatively improve upon them. Within the context of software developed for Eaton Electrical, this session will demonstrate how specific challenges were met by enhancing long-standing conventions.
Want to give me a run for my money? You can submit on the conference website until the end of the month.
Developers often ask me whether a function should be hidden when not available, or merely disabled. I gave them the following two rules in my UI Design First Aid lecture.
When a function is unavailable due to current system state, but may be enabled for the current user when the state changes, the control should be disabled.
This provides a visual indication that the function exists, and the user knows that there is an action they can take to enable it. When possible, I specify a tooltip that explains why the function is disabled.
If a function will never be made available to the current user (barring a change of the user’s access privileges), it should never be seen by the user.
There is no reason for the user to be exposed to functionality they cannot use. This only leaves them wondering why they can’t access it.
I’m old enough to remember life before VCRs. If a TV show was going to be on when you weren’t home, tough. You made a point to be home on a certain day at a certain time. The VCR fundamentally changed the way we watched television. I also remember listening to the radio and hoping my favorite song would come on. I don’t listen to the radio anymore, nor do I watch much television. I’m getting the content that I want, when I want it.
I stopped listening to the radio when I got a CD player in my car. I finally owned enough music to be satisfied listening only to what I had. Of course, the iPod and the iTunes store solidified that behavior. Finally, the availability of podcasts cemented it. I have absolutely no need for a radio. I get the audio content that I want, both music and “talk”, exactly when I want to listen to it.
The same think is happening with video. I subscribe to video podcasts and watch them using my Apple TV rather than turning on cable and flipping channels to find something to watch. DVRs have become extremely popular, quickly replacing VCRs. Services like iTunes and Netflix are changing the way we rent movies.
The consumer is winning. Companies that recognize this and cater to these trends are also winning. And then we have companies like Blockbuster, who’s CEO just doesn’t get it. He admitted as much in a recent interview.
…I’ve been frankly confused by this fascination that everybody has with Netflix.
I don’t care how many movies are available to me. As my personal taste as a customer, I want to watch the new stuff so whether we have 10,000 movies or 200 movies doesn’t matter if I don’t want to see any of the movies that we have … our assortment is heavily weighted toward newer releases and mainstream staple titles.
That kind of thinking isn’t going to appeal to Generation mY. I want it my way, and if you won’t give it to me my way, somebody else will.
I was involved in a discussion this afternoon about my past work experience when it occurred to me that there has been a fundamental change in my perspective. It was not that long ago that I was elated when an application I designed was actually realized in code. I spent a number of years working on visionary concepts that never made it past the prototype stage—sometimes not even a functioning prototype. At the time, it was interesting work, quite enjoyable, and I was relatively satisfied that I was performing my role as an interaction designer well.
Any more, the opposite is true. Most likely, if I spec a design, I’m going to be working with developers to see it through to running software in use by real people and a satisfied customer. I hadn’t noticed when I passed that tipping point. Now, when I think about the former type of work, it seems like a past life.
Certainly, there were positive aspects about doing conceptual types of projects. There weren’t quite as many constraints, and the deliverables make for better portfolio pieces. However, seeing my work positively affecting people and organizations is much more satisfying.
The difference between user interface designers and software engineers basically comes down to priorities. We each spend time focusing on different aspects of a solution.
Engineers think about making things work well. This includes the performance of the hardware and software, the robustness of the system, and security issues. They are more concerned with measurements of effort than designers typically are, as they must make estimates of the time needed to build and test a solution. They feel the majority of the project schedule’s weight. Software engineers must also consider the complexity of their code. It behooves them to keep it clean, making it easier to maintain and reuse.
Where engineers think about making things work well, interface designers focus on making things easy to use. Rather than system performance, they are concerned with the performance of the user. Can they complete a task in an acceptable amount of time and effort? Intuitiveness, learnability, and readability are all part of the calculation. While the engineer concentrates on maintainability, the designer is considering the experience of the user.
Often, these differing priorities lead to conflicts, but close collaboration is essential for a complete solution.
Tonight was the first class of the semester. This is my fourth year teaching at WVU. While in the past I’ve been teaching graduate-level courses, this semester finds me teaching a senior studio course. I have 17 students! I believe this is the largest class I’ve taught.
I think one of the most important teaching tools employed in our elementary classrooms is “Show & Tell”. It is unfortunate that it is not typically utilized in higher grade levels. Not only does it expose students to knowledge that might not otherwise be covered in a course, it provides experience in public speaking and promotes confidence, as the speaker is a de facto expert on her topic. When utilized correctly, it provides students with an opportunity to research and present subject matter that they are particularly interested in within the context of an overarching theme.
Every day our class meets, we will devote a small portion of time to Show & Tell. Each of the students will be responsible for presenting one information visualization to the class. This assignment has the added benefit of requiring the students to be more aware of their environment. They must be on the look-out for interesting visualizations. I’ve set up a Delicious account where we will be bookmarking links to examples found online.
Here’s an example of user-centered packaging design. Burger King’s french fry containers are specifically designed to sit within a car’s cup holders. Rather than the typical wide and thin package, this one has a much squarer bottom. It’s on a little smaller in diameter than their beverage cups. They have considered how their product will be used and designed the packaging to better support that use.
Obviously, Chuck E Cheese doesn’t sell pizza. They sell an experience for kids that includes pizza. And while their pizza is underwhelming, the experience more than makes up for it. My daughter turned eight last week (interestingly, on 8/8/08), and she had requested a party with her friends at Chuck’s. There are many components to the overall experience, but the one that really got me thinking is the ticket muncher.
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, I’ll explain. Chuck E Cheese has an arcade, in which many of the games reward you with tickets. These tickets may then be redeemed for prizes. The more tickets you win, the better the prizes you can afford. Now, when I was a kid, I went to a similar franchise run by the same parent company called Showbiz Pizza. I counted the tickets and handed them to the person running the prize counter. These days, the house of the other mouse utilizes a machine to count the tickets. Somebody recognized that this was another opportunity to enhance the experience, so rather than just having a machine, they have a muncher.
You slide your string of tickets into a slot, and the muncher eats them, emitting loud munching sounds as it tallies. Once you have fed all of your tickets into the slot, you punch a button, and it prints out a receipt with your total that you then take to the prize counter. Kids have as much fun counting the tickets as they have playing the games to win the tickets.
You can see the ticket muncher in action on YouTube.
I don’t typically have any use for spray paint. However, last week’s vacation bible school decorating found me emptying several cans. Let me tell you, there is an opportunity there for an industrial designer. My finger was irritated for several days. The nozzle is very small and rough, and you have to press it relatively firmly. It doesn’t take long for your finger to get sore—both the muscles and the skin surface. Furthermore, your finger invariably ends up overhanging the nozzle just enough to get a coating.
Is there an ID senior out there that would like to take this on? I think it would make a fine senior studio project.
To those of us in the design community, Adobe is well known as the producer of software such as Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Premiere, and the list goes on. We are well aware of the distinction between the company and its products. I have found, however, that to most people, Adobe is an application that opens PDF files. I’ve listened to our customers refer to Adobe Reader simply as Adobe. Even some of my co-workers have made this mistake. “Do you have Adobe installed?” “There’s an update for Adobe.” “Adobe brings my machine to a crawl.”
It used to be called Acrobat Reader. Did Adobe make a marketing blunder in the name change? I can’t imagine they want to be known as a single, free piece of software.
It is very satisfying to bring my professional skills into other important aspects of my life. In the past week, I’ve been helping prepare for Vacation Bible School at my church. Thinking back to my childhood, the one really solid memory of VBS I have is of a ship that was built in the church basement. I remember it as a large, wooden boat with a mast and nets. It may have actually been cardboard and much smaller, but there is no denying that it was impressive to me as a child. So, one of the approaches I took was to think big, and try to create an immersive experience.
The program this year uses a tropical rainforest theme. Using the Rainforest Cafe as inspiration, I decided to turn the social hall into a jungle. Our planning committee further decided to supplement the main theme with one of conservation and recycling. We decided to buy as few decorations as possible—to make them out of recycled materials instead. We collected newspapers, paper bags, gallon milk jugs, two-liter bottles, old clothing and linens, cardboard boxes, and packing materials. The newspapers became leaves that were strung across the high-ceilinged room. The paper bags became vines. A box from a kitchen stove was turned into a tree trunk on the stage. Milk jugs were cut in half and stacked to form very realistic palm trees. With the addition of borrowed, plush animals, house plants, and sound effects, we were able to create an immersive environment that will provide kids with lasting memories. And due to a lot of creativity and ingenuity, we were able to do it in an environmentally friendly and cost-effective fashion.
That’s good design.
We are adding a search feature to one of our newer products, and I was consulted today on its design. Someone had said, “It should work like Outlook.” Being a Mac user, I’ve never used Outlook, but assumed the search would be fairly straight forward and quite similar in functionality to Apple’s Mail, and began rattling off a few basic functions I would expect it to have. Upon actually examining Outlook, however, it’s obviously not a very good model. (Disclaimer: I believe the version of Outlook that I was shown is not the most recent version. Based on screenshots I found on the web, I was looking at Outlook 2003. The UI has been revised in the 2007 version.)
In Outlook, there are two fields above the list of messages. The first is the Look for field, in which you type the word or phrase you want to find. The second is Search in, which defaults to the Inbox. So, by default, Outlook will search entire messages in your inbox for the words you type. If you want a more specific search, you must open the Options menu or the Advanced Search dialog. In this way, you may search for the sender, recipient, or text in the subject field, for example.
Apple Mail presents the robust capabilities that are squirreled away in Outlook’s advanced dialog in a much more accessible fashion. Initially, the UI only presents a single Search field. Upon entering text, Mail searches entire messages within the currently selected mailbox. This is similar to Outlook’s defaults, but Mail also adds a bar above the list of messages (now displaying the results) containing single-click options to search all mailboxes and to limit the search to the From, To, or Subject field. Furthermore, Mail provides a button to save the search parameters as a Smart Mailbox that will dynamically update its contents each time it is viewed.
I recently purchased a new utility knife to replace the previous one, which I had lost some months back. After perusing the selection at my local hardware store, I settled on Stanely’s InstantChange™ Retractable Knife. There are three features that improve upon the standard utility knife.
- Rather than having to, in effect, disassemble the knife to access the extra blades, this knife’s handle opens at the touch of a button.
- Rather than having to, in effect, disassemble the knife to flip or replace a dull blade, the blade releases at the touch of a button (but only when the blade is fully extended).
- The third feature is the one I’m most impressed with. It not only enhances the usability of the knife, but increases its utility as well. There is a narrow slot in the knife’s body. Even when the blade is retracted, you can slide a piece of string into the slot and cut it. I found this extremely useful while standing on top of an 18 foot step ladder. I could easily cut a length of twine without any chance of accidentally cutting myself or of dropping the knife while fumbling to extend or retract the blade.