Saturday, April 02, 2005

Thinking About Design Thinking

Probably the phrase in design circles I'm hearing the most these days is "design thinking." As in, "We need to bring some design thinking to this project." Or "What sets designers apart is their design thinking." It's even on the main image of Stanford's new d school website. Interestingly, I haven't seen much about what "design thinking" really is though.

I've heard it used in any number of ways, some of which are vague enough and/or general enough so that they are insulting to other professions. Are we saying other disciplines aren't creative or aren't problem-solvers? I didn't really become a designer until I was 30 years old: does this mean I was thinking differently before then?

Certainly, design thinking is creative, innovative, and focused on problem-solving. But so is the thinking of many different types of professions: lawyers, engineers, and contractors, to name only a few. So lets remove those as differentiators right away. No, if there is such a thing as design thinking, it's probably shorthand for these things:

  • Finding Alternatives

  • Ideation and Prototyping

  • Wicked Problems

  • A Wide Range of Influences

  • Emotion

(Via O Danny Boy)

Design Thinking - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Engineers, Surgeons Design Breakthrough Laparoscopy Tool

A new articulated grasping tool will revolutionize laparoscopic surgery, those responsible for the design at the University of Nebraska say.

The tool, trademarked under the name Intuitool, is designed by professor Susan Hallbeck and a team of undergraduate and graduate engineering students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in collaboration with physicians at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Often called laparoscopic or keyhole surgery, minimally invasive surgery is done through small incisions. Using specialized techniques and tools, miniature cameras with microscopes, tiny fiber-optic flashlights and high definition monitors, surgeons are able to perform a growing number of operations using the technique

The breakthrough in the Intuitool is in the articulation function -- the grasper end rotates up to 120 degrees side to side using a roller ball the surgeon actuates using his or her thumb.

The device won an honorable mention in the Third Annual User-Centered Product Design Award from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society in 2004. (Via Newswise)

Laproscopy - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Maybe we do need IA research

Over the past year or so there have been a number of discussions about where the IA research is and whether we need it. One of the best is summarised on Peter's blog (A research agenda for information architecture). My normal response to these types of discussions has been - we have HCI research and we have info sciences research; and given that IA is effectively a discipline about getting people in touch with information, we don't need our own set of research.

Well, I've been thinking about that, and maybe am changing my mind.

We do have HCI research and we do have info sciences research. But I've been digging through these for the past couple of years now, and I'm still not finding a lot of great stuff that really examines how people and information connect. The HCI perspective is about people and computers (human computer interaction, not human information interaction), and the info sciences is more about the information aspect than the combined aspect (OK, I know I'm generalising).

I was also thinking about some of the interesting ideas that came out of the IA Summit. There were lots of good ideas, but in order to leverage many of them, we need to go beyond ideas and make sure that we know enough about what is happening. Sure, we will make some of it up as we go and see what happens, but that won't give us the best solution.

So does this mean that, IA research is necessary? Well, maybe. I don't have the answers about where this would be done, how it could be done quickly enough to be useful or how to get it back to practitioners, but just maybe we should think about it more seriously. (Via DonnaM)

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites

Power to the Pen

If you happen to find yourself walking by Ken Hinckley's office at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington, don't be alarmed if you see him smacking mobile phones together. He's not being destructive -- he's just testing out one of his novel user interfaces.

For the past eight years, Ken Hinckley, a research scientist in human/computer interaction at Microsoft Research, has been working on improving user interfaces of common computational devices. (The above mentioned device bumping, for instance, is a way to wirelessly transfer files from one device to another by clinking them like wineglasses.)

Two of Hinckley's latest innovations, Stitching and Scriboli, have been getting a lot of attention in computer interface circles lately. They're designed to make data manipulation on pen-based portable devices a lot easier.

TheFeature: What's Scriboli, and what's the problem with pen-based mobile devices that it attempts to solve?

Hinckley: The basic idea of [a pen-based mobile device] is a digital notebook -- you can search for words in your written notes, for example. But to copy and paste, you have to stop what you're doing and go up to the top of the screen and poke at a menu and select something, and then go back and start working again. When you're using the pen that feels really awkward and inefficient. On a standard desktop application, power users learn these cut/copy/paste keyboard shortcuts and they work very efficiently. But there's nothing like that for the pen because there is no keyboard. So it becomes really onerous -- you're stuck in this beginner mode forever. (Via TheFeature)

Pen-Based XDA - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

The "beyond usability" debate

"Beyond usability" is a phrase one is starting to hear often. Google lists nearly 10,000 pages containing the phrase. What's going on? Is usability somehow inadequate?

In days past, people debated labels, such has how usability differed from user experience, or information architecture differed from interaction design. Other people drew elaborate diagrams trying to show how everything was different but still related. Two things have since happened: people got bored debating labels, and the definition of usability in particular has been definitively articulated through ISO standards. Now that we agree what usability is, can we live with it?

Usability has survived, and triumphed, over earlier criticism that it was barrier to "good" design, which usually meant the creative impulse of the designer. Now it is being challenged by more thoughtful questions about how to address innovation and the aspirational needs of users, and not just be about fixing things that are wrong. And even some usability professionals are wondering if being the critic is getting tiresome. An article last year in Interactions asked the profession: "Are you positive?", citing the need for human factors professionals to curb their critical dispositions. I've talked with others who have expressed feelings of existential tedium over the treadmill of just fixing stuff. (Via Modules and Wholes)

Google - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Inspired by Accessibility

Accessibility and usability inspires innovation. Embracing and using standards and recommendations allows for more innovation. It's time to quit thinking that embracing accessibility stifles growth or causes limitations.

Many years ago, I was inspired by accessibility and innovations. I began my work and advocacy of web standards and accessibility items well before they became a public focus. Many contemporaries and others tried to diminish the message and importance. My background is the arts and also a variety of sciences. Our first computer was the direct result of our daughter who has several challenges needing assistive technology for communication and learning. She can see and hear, but motor and some cognitive items prevented her from using a text only Web and standard ways to access a computer or information. Enter rich multimedia and assistive technologies. These items existed well before the popularity of web, and these items also drive innovation for emerging technologies. We had a specialized keyboard for the computer, the keyboard can be customized with theme overlays, images, and or keywords and universal icons instead of the standard keyboard of letters and characters (the touch board could be set up in standard ways also). We had a special 15 inch screen that could be placed over a monitor. The screen allowed the user to access links or interact with items via touch and worked with many websites or applications. And then there is word prediction and recognition in communication devices, as well as rich multimedia sound and animation which offered up audible content, examples, and clues for those that could not read. All because of innovation in technology. Several people may find or feel that rich media items are entertainment only, but rich media is very important to a wide variety of challenged users or learners. (Via The Web Standards Project)

Intellikeys - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Usability and collaborative aspects of augmented reality

Usability and collaborative aspects of augmented reality by Morten Fjeld, in Interactions Volume 11 , Issue 6 November + December 2004. Some excerpts I find relevant:

In the design process of an AR application, a series of questions related to human-computer interaction (HCI) call for attention: Who are the users and what are their needs? How can a system be designed to work effectively and efficiently for these users? How is effectiveness and efficiency measured in AR applications? Do users prefer an AR system or an alternative tool to go about their work? And finally, with what kind of tasks and what kind of alternative tools should the usability of AR applications be tested? (…)

The need for studies evaluating the effect of computerized tools on human cooperation and communication is well justified and documented in the first paper, prepared by Billinghurst, Belcher, Gupta, and Kiyokawa [that’s indeed a good paper that shows an evaluation of an AR table].

I think the same goes for studying locative media from an usability and collaborative point of view. My only concern here is that the evaluation they propose is a bit limitated. They just take into account frequency of events and differences among different conditions. There are plenty of other methods ranging from quantitative (as proposed in the evaluations described in this paper or with different types of statistical techniques like multilevel modeling or sequential analysis) to qualitative (ethnography, cognitive anthropology à la Hutchins, french ergonomics…).
(Via pasta and vinegar)

Augmented Reality - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Advanced Handsets Need Advanced UIs

As mobile phones become more capable, people are using them to store an increasingly wider variety and greater quantity of data. This raises a new problem for designers of handset user interfaces: how do you let owners find what they're looking for in a coherent and friendly manner?

Historically, mobile phone interfaces have been menu- or icon-driven: users select from a number of choices displayed on-screen and repeat until they find what they're after. While the phone was primarily a device for person-to-person communication this worked well. An address book, message inbox and call log are clearly linked strongly to one another and happen to map to everyday, real-world artefacts.

But analogies with the real world start to break down when your handset starts storing your photos, video clips, media you've purchased, payment details, account history, WAP sites, books and notes. Some of this information is well-structured and understood (such as call histories), while it's very difficult to perceive structure within others -- for example, handsets can't currently tell you which of your contacts is pictured in any given photo. The situation will become even worse when handsets deliberately start blurring the distinction between data held locally and that accessed across the network. It'll be all too easy to confuse end-users. (Via TheFeature)

Cell Phone Display - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Friday, April 01, 2005

Self-Steering Cars A Possibility in the UK

If current trials are successful, self-steering cars will no longer belong to the world of science fiction, says Milan-based Parodia Electronica. The company has developed new and innovative software, which uses servo commands from a car's navigation system to actuate an electro-hydraulic steering mechanism, in the manner of a yacht auto-pilot. The new software has been installed in a number of test vehicles, which are currently undergoing trials in southern Italy.

The satellite navigation systems of the test cars have been upgraded to respond to location data generated by differential GPS (dGPS). dGPS uses ground-based trigonometrical ?fixes? to enhance the plotting capabilities of regular satellite tracking. Such is the accuracy of dGPS, that, on any stretch of road within the test locality, the position of the test vehicles can be determined to within plus or minus 50 centimetres.

The steering-wheels of the test vehicles have been strategically disabled, yet so well does the software meet its objectives that the vehicles are able to navigate on public roads between a number of fixed points without receiving any steering input from the driver, who controls only the brake and accelerator pedals. "The steering wheels are for show only," said Parodia?s technical director, Pesce d?Aprile, adding: "It might prove disconcerting to other road users if they were to see a car approaching in which, for example, the driver had his arms folded. Instead the driver simulates steering action in the manner of a toy car on a kiddies? merry-go-round."

It was also decided to retain the steering wheel to enable the driver to deal with unforeseen circumstances. By pressing a floor-mounted, foot-operated switch, the driver can instantly re-engage the steering mechanism. A spokesperson for the Federazione Autostradi et Via Munizipali d?Italia said of the trials: "The technology appears to work, but the acceptance of it by the police and other authorities has yet to be considered." (Via TransportTrends)

Self Steering - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics


Ford Motor Company's VIRTTEX driving simulator has won the top automotive award at the 2005 World Traffic Safety Symposium, held as part of the New York International Auto Show. Anne Stevens, Ford Motor Company group vice president, Canada, Mexico and South America, was on hand in New York City to accept the award today.

"VIRTTEX is a great tool that has enabled Ford Motor Company to create a unique laboratory to study the interaction between car and driver," Stevens said. "It's allowed us to become the industry leader in using simulation to address real world problems in automotive human factors and safety."

In recent years, Ford Motor Company has publicly released data from two major VIRTTEX studies - one on driver distraction and another on the effects of drowsy driving. Ford has shared the results with the traffic safety community and published results in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The information also was used to develop teen driving materials Ford has created and distributed to every public and private high school in the United States as part of its Driving Skills for Life educational program. (Via

 - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

 - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Typographic Glass Ceiling

Last week Microsoft announced six new typefaces which will start being bundled with Windows next year. The new faces are specially designed for screen usage; meaning an emphasis on readability at small sizes and the ability to scale up and not look like death (Verdana, I’m looking in your direction). The new collection is made up of two serifs: Cambria and Constantina, three sans-serifs: Calibri, Candara, Corbel, and one monospaced: Consolas. Sometimes I think Microsoft gets its kicks trying to confuse people, but aside from the idiocy of giving them all such similar names, these are some really attractive typefaces. What’s more, some of the new faces are nice enough to make the transition to print work as well, an option that really isn’t a desirable way to go in the current screen font pool.

While at SXSW I had the pleasure of attending the “Typography for the Screen” panel headed up by designers Shaun Inman and Mike Davidson, and typographer Joshua Darden. Most of the discussion centered around the development of type, licensing, and our options, or lack thereof, for on screen display. Since we are all limited to fonts that we can guarantee with some sense of reason reside on everyone’s computers, movements like sIFR become very appealing very quickly. But, as much as I enjoy the idea of sIFR, I would love it even more if there were a better way to tap into the wealth of fonts available. sIFR is great in small doses (like headlines), but it can’t comfortably substitute an entire page’s copy. That’s fine because no one is really asking it to. Josh brought up some good points about this as well, noting that the world has such a rich typographic history which has been virtually excluded from the online medium. Even a hundred years ago there were more typefaces from any given printer compared to the selection of usable screen fonts you can practically count on one hand now. (Via Jason Santa Maria)

ABC - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Diesel Guard

When filling up at the petrol station, Diesel Guard™ reminds you that your car runs on diesel fuel with an audible warning message so that even if you're running on auto-pilot, you're unlikely to fill up with the wrong fuel.

Unlike other misfuelling prevention systems, Diesel Guard™ is simple to fit, requiring no rewiring and costs just £12.50 (inc P&P) instead of hundreds of pounds. Diesel Guard™ attaches to the inside of your fuel flap with just a high strength sticky pad.

The UK's Automobile Association Motoring Trust estimates that every year something like 120,000 motorists in the UK fill their car’s tank with the wrong fuel. It can cost from £80 up to £3000 - and take days to put right.

Would a different shaped nozzle be appropriate here? ...

Diesel Guard - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Do you believe in Mental Models?

Mental models is a term used to describe the represention of a web site in a user’s mind. It is often used in a context of information architecture: that good architecture will facilitate the right mental model in users.

Scott McDaniel’s piece on mental models is definitely worth a read. In short, McDaniel claims mental models are the user’s version of what is going on, which at first glance seems to make sense. He outlines a few key characteristics:

  • Mental models include what a person thinks is true, not necessarily what is actually true.

  • Mental models are similar in structure to the thing or concept they represent.

  • Mental models allow a person to predict the results of his actions.

  • Mental models are simpler than the thing or concept they represent. They include only enough information to allow accurate predictions.

(Via Bokardo )

Think - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Thursday, March 31, 2005

The importance of seduction and curiosity

Part of creating passionate users starts with building curiosity. Inspire them to want to learn, know, and do more. A comment from John Mitchell on my motivated to learn blog reminded me about this--he mentioned the importance of being passionately curious about the topic (and I couldn't agree more).

So can you inspire curiosity? Can you seduce the user into actively wanting more, even if that user didn't start out with their own intrinsic intellectual curiosity?

Sure. It won't work for everyone and every topic... but think about things that you know have worked for you in the past:

1) Be passionately curious yourself.
2) Be seductive.
3) Make them curious by doing something unusual, without an obvious explanation.
4) Offer a puzzle or interesting question... without giving them the solution.

(Via Creating Passionate Users)

Seduction - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

The new geek speak / neo-marketing language

We mock the corporate b.s. speak, but have we listened to ourselves lately?
This latest Hugh cartoon I'm in love with reminded me how much the techies/geeks/neo-marketing folks (of which I'm a member) are doing just fine with our own brand (would that be a hijacked brand?) of buzzwords.

(And don't even get me started on the ones used in software architecture. I'll save those as a special subset.)

Not only are you supposed to know and use these terms, you're also not quite clued-in (or is it Hughed-in) if you don't also buy into their true meaning. That is, if you can figure out what that really is : )

A bigger question might be, should we use these words without defining them? Should we assume that our readers already know what (or who) we're talking about? Is this exclusionary or clique-ish? Yes, yes, and yes... if we're talking about passion. (Via Creating Passionate Users)

Buzz Words - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Sharp's camera that zooms via squinting

Not sure when they might be commercializing this, but Sharp says they’ve built a prototype of a camera that lets you zoom just by partially closing your eyelid (this is different from eye-controlled auto-focus, which has been around for ages). How does it work? By placing a small optical sensor right below the viewfinder which measures how much of the white of your eye is visible and then adjusting accordingly (sounds like you have to squint all the way to maximum zoom before the lens will zoom out again). Apparently merely using your fingers, which are presumably already holding the camera, to hit the zoom button was enough of an annoyance for Sharp to dedicate some R&D dollars to this, but we’ll take off the snarky hat for a moment (just a moment) and note that something like this could potentially be useful for the disabled and/or turn up in wearable cameras and displays. (Via engadget)

Making the user experience seamless ...

Eye - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Improving Customer Experience

I just read an interesting article from the Silicon Valley Watcher entitled "Top design guru Jakob Nielsen on blogs..." In brief, there has been no formal study of the usability of blogs because there is no one to pay for such a study. This may change as businesses begin to exploit blogging as both a marketing and productivity tool.

I got to wondering why some blog entries get read more than others. I also began to think about what I like when I read other people's blogs. I noticed a couple of trends and I'll throw in a liberal helping of my own biases just for fun as well.

1) The Headline.
2) Images.
3) Length.
4) Bold Words.
5) Write Well.
6) Post Frequently.
7) Create Site Feed.
8) Allow trackbacks
9) Allow comments.

(Via ICE)

Meaningless Image - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Top design guru Jakob Nielsen on blogs...

I’ve been trying to convince Jakob Nielsen, (Nielsen Norman Group) the uber uber usability guru to run a study on the design issues around blogs.

Mr Nielsen said that there was nobody to fund the study, especially bloggers. I said he could create a lot of public good by helping to improve blogs because they are probably the most common content publication on the web, with tens of millions of blogs, yet no usability study.

This is a way to advise millions of bloggers on best practices and help a lot of people navigate through large amounts of content. He said there were many things that were common to blogs and any other online publishing format.

There are basic questions I’d like to know, for example:

Q: Is it better to let people click down the page or click to a new page for continued stories? (Via Silicon Valley Watcher)

Blog - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Reveal Those Links Nielsen Says

How many blogs do you see that spell out the URLs of each link contained in a post? Links are one of the defining elements of blogs.

It's the links the build the communities and heighten visibility. In my Web writing workshop, I urge participants to get links out of the narrative and into a "more information" box as a means of reducing distraction and keeping readers focused on your content. But not in blogs. Links in the narrative are at the very heart of blog writing.

So how distracting would it be for someone reading a blog post to have to stop every few lines because in addition to a key word or two, the author has thrown in (perhaps in parantheses) the entire URL of the site to which the words are linked? According to Jakob Nielsen, the Web's best known usability authority, the roadblock to readability these URLs would create isn't an issue. In fact, according to the first installment of a discussion with Nielsen about blogs by Silicon Valley Watcher's Tom Foremski, links hidden behind words are one of the things he likes least about blogs: " That does not work, users want to know where the link will take them. It should be clearly labeled and not hidden." (Via WebProNews)

Blogger - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Pointsec Encryption for PDAs

MC4 will work with Insight Public Sector, a leading provider of IT products and services for federal governmental divisions and agencies, including the United States Army, to deploy over 11,000 Windows Mobile-based HP Pocket PC handheld devices with Pointsec for Pocket PC encryption technology to its highly-trained medical staff. These devices will be used by Army medical professionals all over the world, especially in the combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With mobile medical teams treating soldiers in hostile environments, patient information must be readily available, easily transferable to treatment centers and absolutely secure. After fierce competition and successful field trials, the Army is now deploying Pointsec for Pocket PC across the board, driven in part by Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) requirements.

MC4's mission is to eliminate unreliable paper-based systems and replace them with an automated medical digitization system for soldier care. MC4 is taking the technology of telemedicine and other existing automation systems in medical and support facilities and integrating for combat support. MC4 links healthcare providers, medical diagnostic systems, information command and control, and medical command and control systems at all echelons. (Via Medgadget)

Pointsec - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Eight foot NES controller

While Sony’s gaming systems are getting smaller, Nintendo’s are growing to unusual size. Is it the world’s largest Nintendo controller? And why on earth did they make it in the first place? So many questions, so little answers, folks. Just know that if you’ve always found those rectangular units too small for your meaty paws, for $400 and 20 hours worth of construction time, you too could have an NES controller that could easily double as a coffee table. (Via engadget)

Can it get too big for ease of use? ...

Nintendo Controller - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Techies are not Gods

The mechanics of the WWW was of course developed by people who were technically very competent (techies!). Their ability to manipulate the complex and intricate nature of digital information theory (what a mouth full) is the reason why you can read this weblog. But they are not necessary the best people to make decisions on everything to do with your website. If you give them free reign to make decisions on user interface, people stopping by your site might well have an unsatisfying experience.....

Let me expand a little. Most techies have to "get into" the tortuous depths of algorithms and coding, so that they can cajole the machine into doing useful things. When one gets into this labyrinth of loops and objects (left-brain activity), the mind can no longer empathise with the non-technical computer user (right-brain activity). To make your website useable, the design of the user interface (UI) has to be done by someone who can "get into the shoes" of your potential visitors. Be aware, also that the techie needs to be told what you want in terms of the UI - tell them to implement your desire rather than asking if it is possible. That is, challenge the techies to use their skills to give you what you want (it is too easy for a techie to say that something is not possible).

Examples of techie driven website litter cyberspace with their user hostility. Conversely, sites that have been developed with their user in mind tend to shine out like beacons. Entering such a site is like going from a foreign country to one where they understand you. Your experience change from one of confusion and frustration to that of pleasure and understanding. (Via Microsoft is Great)

Techie Driven - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Implementing a pattern library in the real world: a Yahoo! case study

Matt Leacock, Erin Malone and Chanel Wheeler have presented an interesting paper on the use of pattern libraries at Yahoo!. To quote:

A case study of the definition, design, and roll-out of an interaction design pattern library at Yahoo! Inc. The process for defining the requirements, design of the application, process for defining the lifecycle of a pattern, as well as the organizational challenges involved are all discussed. (Via Column Two)

Yahoo - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Task-Free Usability Testing: Summary of UPA Seminar

On Monday night, I attended a the local UPA chapter seminar called Task-Free Usability Testing. During the session, three panelists described their experiences with a “new” approach to conducting usability tests. All the panelists admitted to having employed these techniques to a lesser extent previously – which is why I qualified “new” – but for each this was the first time they had built a structured test around it.

The technique boiled down to keeping the test open-ended, not forcing users through pre-determined scenarios or tasks. Instead, users were invited to explore the site on their own and comment. Each panelist presented a slightly different version of this theme.

The major disadvantage to the open-ended approach is lack of “hard data.” Because there is little structure to these tests, there is no way to capture accurate numbers. To me, this is hardly a disadvantage. Numbers attached to usability testing always seem like a bit of a reach anyway. (Via )

UPA - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Interaction Design Encyclopedia

If you feel something is missing, please suggest a term or contribute to the encyclopedia!

A site about HCI, Usability, UI Design, User Experience, Information Architecture and more.

(Via - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Why I Love Folksonomies

I guess I've always known this, but it hit home today during a blue-sky planning meeting for a new project. I was subjecting the team to my usual exhausting exhaustive start-up questionnaire when we reached this question: "Do you use meta tags within the site to catalog content properties, etc.?" This is my entree to discussing thesauri, controlled vocabularies and the like.

The initial response was less than enthusiastic, citing workload, a lack of resources, the scope of the effort and so on—all from the team's perspective. So I made a fast U-turn.

"What concerns me is that your users don't have the same domain knowledge as you," I suggested. "They're coming to the site with imperfect information, modulated by transmission through media and other individuals. They're going to be searching for terms that you never imagined. I just want to be sure they can find what they're looking for."

That got the team rolling. And I said to myself, "What we need to do is let users create the tags for our content. Mix them with a good thesaurus and we're on Broadway!"

I don't know if it's practical, but here's something I'd love to try. User-centered design rightly emphasizes going to the source, to end-users. We typically do this with interviews, contextual observation, usability tests, surveys, card sorts and other user analysis tools. Can we add "folksonomy creation exercises" to the list—that is, invite representative users to assign tags/labels to our content? They wouldn't have to sort it or taxonomize it; we'd simply ask, "What would you call this? How would you label it? What words would you use to describe this?" We could then incorporate the results into the site thesaurus and metadata. (Via UXCentric)

Eight More Rules of Tablet UI Success

Developers are starting to get the message: A Tablet PC is not a standard desktop or notebook PC. It's easy to think that the Tablet PC is simply just a notebook with a bright swiveling screen, a pen, a few new UI widgets and a few extra bits crammed into the operating system.

In a previous article (Eight Essentials of Tablet User Interface Design), I presented some suggestions that applications programmers and UI designers should keep in mind while constructing tablet applications. Some of those suggestions are very specific to the tablet platform; others, in my humble opinion, are general Windows UI points that are simply more important on the tablet platform.

Thanks to feedback from readers of that first article, as well as additional notes I've taken on UI design based on watching people use the platform, it's my pleasure to present eight more user interface design suggestions.

  • Avoid cascading drop-down menus.

  • Avoid the need for scrolling documents.

  • Place tool tips above, not below.

  • Stand up for portrait mode.

  • Remember color preferences.

  • (Via Tablet PC Developer)

    Tablet Menu - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    FAA debuts online 'human factors' training

    The Federal Aviation Administration Tuesday announced the debut of an online training program on the importance of "human factors." The Web Course consists of 10 self-guided lessons about the role that sensory, mental and physical capabilities and limitations should play in the design and development of machines.

    "Improvements to aviation safety and capacity are dependent on developing a national aviation system that is not only technically sophisticated, but also human performance-based and human-centered," Joan Bauerlein, FAA's aviation research and development director, said in a statement.

    FAA requires systematic integration of human factors at every critical step in the design, testing and acquisition of new technology introduced in the U.S. aviation system. (Via GovExec)

    FAA Course - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    VoIP too tough to use

    Asia-Pacific director of Usability by Design, Gary Bunker, claims Australian residential VoIP service providers suffer consistent usability issues. These include poor support in showing users how to make calls to the Public Switched Telephony Network (PSTN) or competing VoIP providers, limited access to cost-comparison data, and the fact would-be VoIP users need strong technical skills.

    "There is a tendency among service providers," said Bunker, whose company bills itself as a usability research and consulting firm, "to jump into a purely technical sell without adequate explanation of what VoIP is and how end users can benefit, other than generic 'low rates' or 'cheap calls' statements. From a simple usability perspective, if people don't know what you're selling or why they should use it, they won't buy it," he continued.

    Bunker said his research had focussed on software-based VoIP products, because most people would first trial VoIP services that had the lowest financial risk. Software-based products, he said, could be trialled for free and and calls made to the PSTN for a small extra fee.

    Usability by Design tested offerings fromSkype, DingoTel, GloPhone, PC-Telephone, Net2Phone and Engin. The latter is the only hardware player.

    However, several local VoIP providers rejected Bunker's view. (Via ZDNet Australia)

    VoIP - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Project Builds In Weather Data To Predict Road Safety

    When sudden, intense fog on Interstate 43 in Sheboygan County reduced motorist visibility the morning of Oct. 11, 2002, some drivers slowed down, while others continued at normal freeway speeds. That disparity in speeds, coupled with the blinding fog, resulted in a massive 50-vehicle crash that killed 10 people and injured 50 more, according to a Wisconsin State Patrol investigation.

    If drivers had learned of the foggy stretch ahead of time, the crash might never have happened, says David Noyce, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

    Noyce, who co-directs the Wisconsin Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory (TOPS), hopes to help drivers predict the future - by warning them of weather-related driving conditions ahead. His project is one of several current TOPS transportation-safety research endeavors.

    Traditionally, transportation engineers go out on nice days to evaluate road sites and to predict safety issues. But Noyce's project seeks to incorporate the "not-so-nice" weather variable into the equation. "We're trying to develop a road-weather safety audit procedure which proactively incorporates this weather information - on top of engineering elements - so that we can predict where countermeasures might be needed," he says. (Via Science Daily)

    No Drive - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Usability and Accessibility Market will grow by 25% this Year, claims Research

    The combined UK usability and accessibility market will be worth more than £100m in 2005, according to research published by E-consultancy, the London-based internet marketing group.

    The forecast is taken from E-consultancy's 175-page "Usability and Accessibility Buyer’s Guide 2005". The guide includes 3 pages of best practice tips (a checklist to help buyers choose the right partner) and 21 in-depth vendor profiles as well as the result of the market research conducted at the start of this year.

    The UK market, worth £90m in 2004, will grow by a further 25% in 2005, to between £108m to £117m, driven by increased awareness of the benefits of improved website usability and accessibility. (Via Usability News)

    Forcast - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Laying the foundation for the next-generation Web

    Ontologies provide the lifeblood of the Semantic Web by defining shared and common domain theories, and allowing people and machines to communicate more effectively. They also play a crucial role in enabling content-based access, interoperability and communication across the Web.

    In the three years since the WonderWeb IST project began, it has managed to meet – and in some cases exceed – all of its key objectives. These achievements include standardisation of the OWL ontology language, the development of the KAON ontology-engineering environment, the development of the WonderWeb ontology library and the development of an ontology modularisation framework.

    Significant results above and beyond the stated objectives of the project have also been achieved, according to project coordinator Professor Ian Horrocks. These include the development of techniques for the semi-automatic annotation of dynamic websites and the investigation of alternative reasoning techniques. (Via PhysOrg)

    Semantic Web - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Joseph Konstan on Human-Computer Interaction

    UBIQUITY: How does your work fit you into the general field of human/computer interaction?

    KONSTAN: My work as a researcher spans several different parts of human/computer interaction. The biggest project I have been working on, and one that I have been working on now for nine years, is the GroupLens project which is about recommender systems-systems that do real-time personalization. It is very much like you see on when you are recommended books or movies that they think you might like. I joined that project a decade ago, and it had already been going for a couple of years. We've been exploring both the technology for how you create those recommendations and, what I think is more important, the understanding of what designs and what properties lead users to find them useful. So a chunk of this work is understanding, given what a computer can do, what is better to present to a person to be helpful to them. I will give you one concrete example of that. We have, and this is work that dates back to '99 or so, studied explaining to users what the system was doing as a way of helping them understand whether they should trust the computer systems' recommendations and we found that most of the explanations that were intuitively appealing to a computer scientist, things that got into the statistics and the processing, completely turned off ordinary people. At the same time, really simple three point charts or analogies were much more compelling to the average user. Knowing this has been helpful. In recent years that work has also moved much more into understanding the whole idea of online communities and how people participate in them, and what's most interesting in my perspective, how you can design a community to elicit a level of participation. What do you set up in the design of a website, whether it's for conversation or in our case, for getting people to rate movies or rate other content, what do you do in that design to get people to contribute? Do you tell them about what other people are doing? Do you help them measure themselves against their peers? Do you show them how much other people are benefiting from their work, or how much they've benefited from the work of others? I think these are interesting questions that hit at the overlap between computer science and psychology, sociology, economics, other social sciences. (Via Ubiquity)

    Design is: Experience

    Even setting ego aside, there's a reason that explorers routinely risk life and limb to climb peaks like Everest and Denali. It's the same reason that teenagers do things their parents can't possibly understand, or that middle aged men buy their childhood dream sports car, even if they can't drive it. We crave experiences. Humans love experiences that thrill us, let us reminisce, put us in someone else's viewpoint, or even challenge our accepted view of ourselves. In today's market where technology is a commodity, product experience means the difference between sold out and burned out.

    We've discussed before how the current market for electronics is low on experience and excitement, and high on pushing technology. But there are a few notable exceptions.

    Take the iPod Shuffle; While the iPod has a decent experience built into using it, it's original selling point is storage and simplicity. Because of Apple's unique positioning, the iPod tends to sell based on its technology. On the other hand, the Shuffle relies on a carefully crafted experience to set it apart from other players. Hands-free operation, ability to switch between shuffle, and playlist with a physical button, rather than software, and an intuitive music loading system all add up to a cohesive experience which helps keep the shuffle ahead of other flash-based competitors. (Via IDFuel)

    Ipod Shuffle - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Stottler Henke Wins NASA Contract to Help Make Software on International Space Station More "Astronaut Friendly''

    In an effort to make the software used by scientists on the International Space Station (ISS) more "astronaut friendly," NASA has awarded Stottler Henke Associates, Inc. ( a contract valued at $600,000 to create GuiGuru(TM), an AI-based software development tool that helps programmers build software that's easy and intuitive for astronauts to use to monitor and control space-based scientific experiments.

    "Astronauts' time is precious, so it's unacceptable to have them struggle with poorly designed user interfaces that waste their time and increase the chance of error," said Richard Stottler, president of Stottler Henke Associates. "There are many different scientific experiments aboard the International Space Station, and numerous software applications for controlling these experiments need to be developed quickly. GuiGuru will help the 'payload developers' building these programs create user interfaces that conform to good UI design principles and organizational UI standards and conventions."

    An early version of GuiGuru has undergone usability testing on-site at Johnson Space Center in Houston. The response to this preliminary version has been positive. "We're excited, and we're getting a favorable reception from the display developers, too," said Mihriban Whitmore, manager of NASA's Human Engineering Integration Team, the NASA point of contact for GuiGuru. "This software will not only be an in-house tool, it will also be put to good use in the ISS payloads domain by remote payload developers."

    GuiGuru is an "intelligent" application development tool, one of the highly specialized areas of artificial intelligence (AI) software in which Stottler Henke has developed its reputation over the past 15 years. Stottler Henke envisions commercializing GuiGuru as a development aid for software that automates procedural tasks in which users follow required or stereotypical sequences of steps, such as the operation and maintenance of computer-controlled equipment. (Via Business Wire)

    Astronaut - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Tuesday, March 29, 2005

    Designing Hierarchical IAs

    A few days ago I asked a simple question of information architects. The question was this: “When designing, do you create hierarchical information architectures?”. I promised to summarize the results, and since they were very interesting that’s what I’ve done here.

    Fortunately, the comments had a lot of intriguing ideas. I only wish the authors had written more! So, here are they are, in no particular order:

    * browsing allows for serendipity
    * direct search allows for accuracy and speed
    * site maps tend to appear hierarchical
    * some hierarchies lose users, no matter what tools are offered
    * problems comes when you try to force a hierarchy where one shouldn’t exist
    * site maps help designers understand how the site will work
    * tree structures limit possible combinations that are useful to explore during the design
    * the home page is visually different than other pages of a site
    * humans perceive the world hierarchically

    My goal, as I stated, was to figure out why so many sites are built hierarchically. This question was borne out of my recent inquiry into folksonomies, and the idea that navigation systems can emerge from artifacts of behavior, rather than being created beforehand. (Via Bokardo)

    Hierarchy - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    On Mobile Handset Usability and Design

    One of the hardest parts of designing for mobile phones, compared to, say, websites, is that your target market is huge - pretty much everyone. Segmentation is possible, but when people get in the phone store, they’ll change their mind on a whim, often influenced by a special offer, or simply which looks to be the smallsilvershiniest.

    With Nokia, the problem is intensified - even those handsets that are ‘niche’ will still sell more than all of some other manufacturers’ handsets. Which means I’m really glad that Nokia releases phones like the 7280 or the 3650. Nokia is trying to push phone design forward, and whilst the mass market may not see the point of these models, to a certain percentage, these phones are perfect.

    I am in Hong Kong at the moment, and sure, the phones on sale are the latest and the greatest, but I’m really disappointed. Where are the new form factors? The uniquely styled? Those with different input and output mechanisms? The most future thing I’ve found so far was in one of the markets - a little dialer keypad that goes between your phone’s accessory port and your headset (why take the phone out of your pocket to make a call?). (Via OK/Cancel)

    Nokia 7260 - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Monday, March 28, 2005

    Recent Innovations in search / information finding

    An upcoming BayCHI event promises to be just awesome.

    This month, a star-studded panel will look at recent developments in search and information finding. Panelists include:
    Jacob Neilson: Usability rock star
    Peter Norvig: Director of Search Quality, Google
    Ken Norton: Director of Product Management, Yahoo! search
    Udi Manber: CEO of A9
    Rahul Lahiri: VP of Search Product Management at Ask Jeeves

    Moderated by Uzanto's own Rashmi Sinha.

    Anyone who's interested in search in general, or the intersection of search and user experience in particular, should attend. April 12th, at PARC in Palo Alto. (Via

    BayCHI - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Evangelizing Usability: Changing Strategies at the Halfway Point

    The evangelism strategies that help a usability group get established in a company are different from the ones needed to create a full-fledged usability culture.

    Paradoxically, the more successful you are at evangelizing usability in your organization, the higher the likelihood that you'll have to change your strategy. The approach that takes your company from miserable usability to decent design is not the one you'll need to get from good to great.

    A company progresses through a series of maturity levels as usability becomes more widely accepted in the organization and more tightly integrated with the development process. If you are the company's leading user advocate or usability manager, one of your main jobs is to prod the company to the next level. (Via Alertbox)

    What's that number? Come on, think!

    Hey, cellphone user, when was the last time you memorized a phone number?

    If you're like some of the 176 million mobile-phone subscribers nationwide, it may have been before you got your cellphone, because — perhaps unintentionally — you've become reliant on the gadget as both a communication device and a phone book.

    Dr. Edward Tenner, author of technology books like "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences" and a senior research associate at the National Museum of American History, traced part of the problem to the rise of 10-digit dialing, which is almost a necessity now, even for local calls.

    The human memory is best suited for recording information up to nine digits long, he said, but a phone number and its area code are 10 digits, which exceeds people's levels of comfortable memorization. "And that has all kinds of consequences," Tenner said. (Via Globetechnology)

    Phone Number - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Toyota's new Scion T2B sports multimedia ticker dashboard

    Someone at Toyota’s Scion division has been watching too much Buck Rogers. The inside of the new T2B concept car unveiled at last week’s New York Auto Show is half slick, half sci-fi nightmare, featuring a multimedia dashboard that presents information in ticker tape format. It also provides access to movies and games that can be projected onto the rear glass, plus music downloads via the internet (EV-DO?). We’re glad to see that they’ve clearly labeled the Exit in this vehicle, because we’re getting so space age these days, you never can tell. The joystick dealie in the center of the dash — eject lever? (Via Engadget)

    Toyota Scion - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Controlled and suggested vocabularies: Are tags making us dumb?

    Companies like Boeing spend years developing controlled vocabularies to drive ambiguity out of their technical documentation. For example, tech writers might be told to use the word "turn" but not "twist" when describing any circular motion involving a tool. And, at Corbis, the home of millions of digital images, the in-house cataloguers might be told to use the word "shore" and not "beach" when describing coastal photos.

    But no one is in a position to write a controlled vocabulary for the Internet, And if they were, you can be sure that many of us would be twisting the night away on the beach, just to break the rules.

    This is the promise and the risk of folksonomies. Folksonomies arise when people are tagging objects (Web pages, photos, etc.) in public. If you want something to be found by others, you'll choose the most popular tag. That adds yet more momentum to that tag. And before you know it, most people tag posts about PC Forum as "pcforum05," not "pcf", "pcf05" or "Esther's thang." Folksonomies are bottom-up controlled vocabularies. (Via Joho the Blog)

    Twist and Turn - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Writing, Briefly

    A lot of people ask for advice about writing. How important is it to write well, and how can one write better? In the process of answering one, I accidentally wrote a tiny essay on the subject.

    I usually spend weeks on an essay. This one took 67 minutes-- 23 of writing, and 44 of rewriting. But as an experiment I'll put it online. It is at least extremely dense.

    I think it's far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn't just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you're bad at writing and don't like to do it, you'll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated. (Via Paul Graham)

    Writing Cartoon - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Uncanny Valley

    The Uncanny Valley is a principle of robotics concerning the emotional response of humans to robots and other non-human entities. It was theorized by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in the late 1970s through psychological experiments in which he measured human response to robots of varying degrees of anthropomorphism. This principle states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion the emotional response from a human being to robot will become increasingly positive and empathetic, until a point is reached at which the response suddenly becomes strongly repulsive.

    Thenceforth, as the appearance and motion are made to be indistinguishable to that of human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-human empathy levels.

    This gap of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a "barely-human" and "fully human" entity is called the Uncanny Valley. The name harkens to the notion that a robot which is "almost human" will seem overly "strange" to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the requisite empathetic response required for productive human-robot interaction. Mori separately tested responses to variations in the movement and appearance of the robot from completely machinely to almost human. For both variables, the chart displayed a similar curve as depicted in the illustration. (Via Wikipedia)

    Uncanny Valley - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Opinions: By definition, there are no divas

    I've been reading my dictionary again, mostly because I noticed the other day that we seem to be fascinated with big words, mysterious phrases and acronyms. Actually, it's the words themselves that seem to interest us most, because we hear so many people using them without knowing exactly what they mean.
    For example, let's take one that's cropping up more and more these days: "ergonomic," which is usually found in phrases like "ergonomically designed."

    This little beauty can be found in ad after ad, and it's applied to everything from chairs to telephones, from tools to remote controls. And it's never defined, just stuck in there because it's such an attractive word, one that sounds as though the person using it is highly educated, or has special knowledge on the subject. It sounds so exotic, yet almost familiar, that we let it slide by because we feel that even if we don't really know its meaning, we should, but we're a little embarrassed to ask.

    But what does "ergonomic" really mean?

    Well, mysterious as it sounds, it turns out that we've been doing it all along. My dictionary says that "ergonomic" merely means "to suit the specific purpose." (Via

    Ergonomic Cartoon - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Got Crabs?

    The International Home & Housewares Show hit Chicago’s McCormick Place last week (admittedly not as cool as Carol's trip to the gaming convention in San Francisco, but I digress). After trekking miles through the three buildings (without a Sherpa, I might add) filled with things for your kitchen, bathroom, garden, backyard, pets and more, I found a handful or so great gadgets that really made me take a step back and say wow (hidden among a bunch of things that, frankly, were pretty ordinary and common).

    One of the first booths that caught my eye was Chef’n, but it was more because I felt like I was at Bed, Bath and Beyond looking for kitchen utensils. But at closer inspection, I was really impressed not only with the design of many of their products, but also the innovation.

    One tool, the Wisecracker is something that you would say you never need, but when it comes time to getting crab meat from the tight shells, you know why you bought it -- the Wisecracker slips inside the shell and when you squeeze the handle, the shell pops open. Genius. (Via Cool Hunting)

    Always room for new innovation in ergonomic design ...

    Wisecracker - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Simplicity is More Critical than Complexity on Mobile Phone

    "The killer application in mobile service is decided by response time,” Professor Nicholas Negroponte at MIT said during an interview in the middle of the LG Technology Forum.

    In his keynote speech, "The Future of Wireless," Prof. Negroponte emphasized the right direction of change for mobile handsets. He insisted that any new function of handsets should be downloadable, but phone makers are just adding new functions in the device like inserting new tools into Swiss Army knife.

    About the power efficiency, he said, future mobile handsets should be designed to be inserted in shoes so that people can use their phone while they are running or the battery system should be simple so that users have only to shake their phones to recharge them.

    He emphasized simplicity, saying the industry always talks about easy-to-use interface, but nothing has been done; the smaller the handset gets, the thicker the manual becomes. He cited Swatch as an instance of the way the future wireless devices should take. According to him, although Swatch is widely known as a famous watch brand, it is the concept of "second watch" that the company has pursued. Likewise, he recommended, the handset industry should try for the "second handset." Selling more handsets at lower price will lead to large profit, the renowned professor added. (Via

    Simple Cell Phone - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Design significance of the iPod

    The iPod is one of the few examples of good usability being a motivator, instead of simply being means to avoid user dissatisfaction. Martin Maguire at Loughborough University once did a study on what factors contributed to users' satisfaction or dissatisfaction with electronic gadgets. He found that users are most turned off by poor usability, and limited functionality (compared with other products.) Bad styling, he found, is not a major turn-off. Martin found that users were most keen about a product having good styling and good functionality. He found good usability is not so strong a factor in creating a positive user connection with a product.

    Martin's analysis makes a good deal of sense to me. Users rarely notice good usability, though they do recognize it when it is bad. Since most products look similar anyway, they tend to notice style when it stands out favorably, rather than when it is mundane. But the iPod seems to challenge this hierarchy of motives. If you are looking for a basic MP3-type player, the functionality is roughly the same among models from different vendors. Styling is variable: some vendors make clunky models, though some like Creative Labs make models arguably more hip looking than Apple's. (I find the white rubber iPod looks like it belongs in my bathroom, dispensing soap.) What does differ is the interface and usability. No one else has successfully emulated the iPod's ease of use, the lack of buttons and the smooth navigation via the click wheel. It is "delightful" because it exceeds are conventional expectations. What is amazing is that it continues to delight long after first encountering it, instead of being a momentary pleasure. The iPod shows good usability does have the ability to motivate us, and get us attached to a product. The concept was inspired, though the interface needed a bit of tweaking to become the hit it is today. Our professional challenge is to develop inspired usable interfaces: to generate delightful concepts that have staying power. (Via Modules and Wholes)

    Ipod - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    The Dawn of Intelligent Machines

    Jeff Hawkins, the inventor of the Palm and the Treo, is finally doing something interesting with his life. He is figuring out how to build machines that he believes will truly work like the human brain. To put his theories into practice, he's once again teaming up with his longtime business partner from his Palm and Handspring days, Donna Dubinsky, to start a new company called Numenta. What will Numenta do? It will translate the way the brain works into an algorithm that can run on a new type of computer.

    The problem with attempts to create artificial intelligence so far is that they equate intelligence with processing power. But the brain does not work like a computer. To create an intelligent machine, you first have to understand how the brain works. If you do that, you'll be able to create a machine with real, not artificial, intelligence -- a machine that thinks the same way you or I do.

    On Monday, in the single most fascinating presentation at the PC Forum tech conference, Hawkins explained his theory of the brain. "I brought my brain," he told the audience, holding up a plastic model of a human brain. The part of the brain he is actually interested in is the neocortex, the convoluted, pink, spongelike part that's wrapped around the "reptilian" parts of the brain like the hypothalamus, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. It's the part of the brain where intelligence resides (as opposed to the parts that, for instance, control body functions). "If I were to take your neocortex out of your head and iron it flat, it would look like this," said Hawkins, holding up a dinner napkin representing the 30 trillion cells that make up the neocortex. "In those cells and connections, you store everything you know." (Via Business 2.0)

    Brain - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Sunday, March 27, 2005

    Genres Hamper Mobile Internet

    A Reuters article made the rounds 10 days ago -- "Web pioneer: Design hampers mobile internet." In it, Tim Berners-Lee decries, "Everyone was supposed to be browsing the Web with their mobile phone, but the problem is that it has not happened."

    Document genres are about how form and content come together to address a purpose. In doing so, the rely on our expectations for how that genres is designed in order to facilitate its use. When I open the envelope with my credit card bill, I don't expect a comma-delimited list of purchases in alphabetical order. I expect a tabular list of purchases, in date order. I expect that the first page will summarize my purchases for the period, and provide a space for me to write in how much I plan to pay.

    As credit card bills move to the Web, it's important to recognize that, while serving a similar purpose, and having similar content, the fact that it is on the Web means it's a materially different (though related) genre. I bring different expectations to how I utilize a credit card bill on the web, such as: you don't flip through pages finding certain information, you utilize links which allow access to information chunks; the ability to call up payment history from before the period in question; etc.

    In the same way that paper-based document genres evolve when they're brought to the web, digital document genres rely on the various devices within which they're viewed. And you can't just take any web page, and expect it to work within any device (remember WAP?).

    So, I've started thinking about understanding what genres work best in what devices, and why. It begins by thinking about content-related attributes of different devices.(via

    Mobile Phone Chart - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Designing a better cell phone user interface

    Given that the cell phones on the market seem to be so often badly designed - at least in terms of usability - it seems that the industry could use some sort of design reference. Cell phones have been on the mass-market for rather a while. Surely by now someone would have taken a stab at writing up some sort of guidelines, or offered some sort of reference design?

    Went searching and - oddly enough - did not come up with much.

    * Tiresias - Guidelines (Mobile Phones)
    * MIDP GUI Programming: Programming the Phone Interface
    * Trace and phones
    * Excerpt from “Everyone Interfaces”
    * Trace Center Cell Phone Reference Design 1

    Seems that most of the guidelines are focused on folks with disabilities. To be brutally honest, free-market companies care very little about the disabled as they represent only a very small portion of the market. On the other hand, there does not seem to be focus on usability for mainstream consumers. Maybe I did not look in the right places. On the other hand, since the end result - the devices on the market - is so poor, we have to assume that effectively no one else is able to find relevant information. (via Preston L. Bannister)

    Cell Phone Labeling - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Hallmark and URL Length

    My wife sent a Hallmark eCard to someone today. She picked a format then typed a paragraph or so of text. The length of her prose was nothing out of the ordinary.

    Hallmark then generated an email to the recipient and CC'd my wife. In this email was a link to the card. However, it appears to me that Hallmark embeds everything relevant to the card in that URL. The URL that arrived in the email was 622 characters long. It had five querystring arguments, one of which was 422 characters long. (Which, in light of this post, put me into instant convulsions.)

    Jakob Nielsen says URLs shouldn't be any longer than 75 characters. He labeled this as a top mistake of Web design in 2002:

    "Long URLs break the Web's social navigation because they make it virtually impossible to email a friend a recommendation to visit a Web page. If the URL is too long to show in the browser's address field, many users won't know how to select it. If the URL breaks across multiple lines in the email, most recipients won't know how to glue the pieces back together."

    I can't help but wonder why Hallmark wouldn't implement something like TinyURL: store the eCard settings in a database, then just tack a GUID onto the back of the URL. Yes, people could try random GUIDs (that post still makes me laugh), but even a 20-digit key would provide enough randomness to stave people off. (via Gadgetopia)

     - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Yahoo360 and the Great Interaction Design Yardstick

    Jeremy Zawodney talks about a Yahoo preview of Yahoo360 to which they invited "influencers" to provide honest feedback (Danah Boyd provides her wonderful view too).

    What I really like about Jeremy's post is the repeated reference to Flickr when explaining things. The key thing is that Flickr (yes it is now owned by Yahoo) knocks the snot of of other's interaction design. Flickr set the standard and it is what many other web-based products are truly lacking. Getting the interface and interaction right is not half the battle, it is the battle. So few do it well and very few execs around the industry get that. What is lacking in so many products is design that creates, not just an ease of use, but a fun successful experience.

    Simply it is make things easy to accomplish tasks, focussing on what the person wants and need from the product. Accomplish this feat at the same time make it fun. There is no harm in making life enjoyable. (via

    Flickr - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Controlled and suggested vocabularies: Are tags making us dumb?

    Companies like Boeing spend years developing controlled vocabularies to drive ambiguity out of their technical documentation. For example, tech writers might be told to use the word "turn" but not "twist" when describing any circular motion involving a tool. And, at Corbis, the home of millions of digital images, the in-house cataloguers might be told to use the word "shore" and not "beach" when describing coastal photos.

    But no one is in a position to write a controlled vocabulary for the Internet, And if they were, you can be sure that many of us would be twisting the night away on the beach, just to break the rules.

    This is the promise and the risk of folksonomies. Folksonomies arise when people are tagging objects (Web pages, photos, etc.) in public. If you want something to be found by others, you'll choose the most popular tag. That adds yet more momentum to that tag. And before you know it, most people tag posts about PC Forum as "pcforum05," not "pcf", "pcf05" or "Esther's thang." Folksonomies are bottom-up controlled vocabularies. (via Joho the Blog )

    Tags - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

    Wearable Eyetracking and Visual Perception Research

    How do we use our eyes in our daily lives? What are we watching when we drive a car, walk in the woods or wash our hands? Until recently, visual perception research took place only in laboratories and was concentrated on the mechanics of visual perception, and not at the actual process. But now, Jeff Pelz, a researcher at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), has developed several new portable eye-tracking devices. RIT says "he's taking eye-tracking research to next level." Today, Pelz is working on how deaf students process information in the classroom or how the human eye perceives high-speed motion on large-scale LCD monitors. I've assembled a photo gallery for you about this research. (via Roland Piquepaille's )

    Eye Tracker - User Interface Design, Human Computer Interaction (HCI), Ergonomics

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