Friday, January 30, 2004
Pittsburgh's Financial Crisis
This is not the kind of article you want to see about the place you live in a national newspaper. Oy.
Monday, January 26, 2004
Behind the Times (Again)
This is my last post about 2003...I swear! But how could I not give a shout out to The 100 Most Annoying Things of 2003?
Sunday, January 25, 2004
Interaction Design in the Mainstream News
I'm amazed at how much design, and specifically interaction design, is featured in articles these days. Either ones on good design, like Newsweek's recent cover story and the now-infamous iPod design article in the New York Times, or this one onbad design in AP. Is it that the general US populace is starting to recognize design, or just that I'm attuned to it now?
Saturday, January 24, 2004
Tog on Panther
Tog's dissection of OS 10.3 should be required reading for interaction designers, just as a primer on some of the issues that go into designing a full operating system.
Friday, January 23, 2004
The Failure of Bookmarks
I've complained about how lousy the management of bookmarks is before. Now more proof, via a study called Keeping Found Things Found, featured in this New York Times article. The study basically shows what most of us already know: that most of the things we bookmark, we seldom return to and that we spend a lot of time searching for the same things, over and over.
It sounds like the professors running the study are attempting to fix the problem via an even more complicated bookmarking scheme, which I'm sort of dubious about. I think there's a huge opportunity for Google or Yahoo to step in here and make some sort of "Save This Search" type feature, some sort of bookmarking service kept on their site. That way, your bookmarks are portable and the searches you do on Google anyway can be held and automatically updated. Just a thought.
Thursday, January 15, 2004
Get Your War On
Several years ago, I stumbled across a hilarious comic strip that used PowerPoint clip art for its illustrations. I laughed myself sick for a few days, then lost the url and forgot the name of the comic. Gah! Google searches for PowerPoint + Comic didn't turn it up either.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I found it again. My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable is its name, and its author has a new strip running called Get Your War On.
A sample from the strip:
Tuesday, January 13, 2004
Ring in the New Year
Mobile phone ring tones now make up 10 percent of the $32 billion global music market. Holy crap: that means that last year, over $3 billion in annoying phone rings were sold!
It's amazing to me how some products (in this case cell phones) create other products. I wonder if famous artists will start writing custom ring tones and selling them like songs now.
Wednesday, January 7, 2004
The Importance of Being Dense
"I don't get many things right the first time/
My IQ hovers somewhere around 135, which puts me in the "moderately smart, but no genius" category. Mensa won't be begging me to apply any time soon.
Now, I've worked with and go to school with some really smart people, people with either a very broad grasp of the world or else a very deep view of certain subjects. Occasionally both. People with IQs in the 150s-160s, for sure. And I really enjoy being around them; they make me stretch my mental muscles. But, doing what I do, designing products for people to use, it's often important to not be that smart. It's important to be a little dense.
Unless you are designing for a very small, very focused user group of brilliant people (a rare occurrence), you can't design products as though everyone has above-average intelligence. Which is one of the reasons that digital products designed by programmers fail: most programmers very smart, logical people. But most people (me included) are not as smart and not as logical as programmers. The abstractions they deal with all the time simply aren't appropriate for a general audience.
I don't think it is a stretch to suggest that the smarter you are, the more comfortable you are with abstraction and metaphor, be they numbers or words or images. The command-line interface is much more abstract than the desktop GUI, "the computer for the rest of us" as the old Mac ads said. Without the GUI, I probably wouldn't be writing this and you probably wouldn't be reading this either. By making the UI slightly less abstract (albeit far from perfect), the computer became usable by millions instead of thousands.
Now, don't get me wrong: it does help a designer to be smart. The GUI was a brilliant innovation, done by smart people. Designers need to understand their product (and its implications) better than most of the people who use it. (This gets really hard when you're designing for a user group with deep subject-matter knowledge, like when I worked for Datek/Ameritrade and its user group of active online traders.) Designers also need to convey their designs to the people who'll code and build them, which requires a lot of grey matter. But we should always keep in mind the average user, who is not us.
Personas help. A persona can help give a designer empathy (as opposed to sympathy) for the average user. Even at Ameritrade, we had an unofficial persona of "Toni's Grandmother," named, appropriately enough, after our project manager's grandmother. Toni's Grandmother isn't computer-savvy and doesn't grasp complex things easily. Now, Toni's grandmother didn't even make the top three personas we designed for, but I did think about her and her needs and goals while designing. It helps that, at heart, I'm not all that far from Toni's Grandmother. I find computers to be too confusing and too complex. They are still too hard to maintain and comprehend and often get in the way of the tasks I want to do. It takes me a while to figure out how to use my cell phone--and I still get it wrong half the time, hanging up on people who call me instead of answering the phone. I'm a little dense. And it makes me, I think, a better designer.
Tivo's Experience Design
Aside from a very nice jacket that my wife got for me, my other big Christmas gift this year was Tivo, the DVR and TV-Guide-esque service.
From the moment I opened the box, it was clear that a lot of people had spent a lot of time and effort getting the user experience design right on this thing. It's not quite perfect (which I'll get to in a second), but it's pretty damn good for a first- or second- generation product of its complexity. I'm sure that it's UXD has something to do with its quick adoption (they just signed up their 1,000,000th user in November).
The set-up of Tivo is kind of tricky--certainly harder than most software/hardware to install--and yet I had it up and running in under an hour. It involves the always-delicate hooking up of stuff to the TV, DVD, cable box, telephone (!), and stereo receiver. Then you have to go to the website and sign-up for the service. Then you have to fill out some on-screen forms on the TV and pick a dial-up number. It then downloads its software and your local cable TV schedule. Then it apparently initializes a bunch of stuff, because you can't record anything for eight hours. Compared to, say, setting up a printer, it's fairly complicated, but it's done in such a way that anyone (and believe me, when it comes to this stuff, I am anyone) can do it.
One thing that is impressive is the consistency of tone throughout the documentation and on-screen: light, playful, simple. Very branded, but not in an obnoxious way.
The Program Guide aspect of Tivo is very well done--it puts the ugly, hackneyed Comcast one to shame. At a glance, you can see several hours of what is on a particular channel, plus the show listing. To do that on the Comcast system, you'd have to flip through about 20 screens. Here, it is on one.
Another example of its good design came while watching Angels in America this weekend. It's six hours long, and, since I had recorded it, I stopped in the middle of it to watch the second half the next night. I had no idea how I was going to find my place in the movie again when I went back to it, but when I called it up, the first option to click on was "Continue Viewing." Nicely done.
The "Season Pass" feature, which allows you to record every first-run episode of any show is pretty damn cool too, although apparently if the network doesn't designate things as first-run, Tivo gets confused. The Daily Show airs several times a day, but only the episode at 11 pm is the new one, but Tivo doesn't seem to know this. When I went to set up a season pass for The Daily Show, it added EVERY Daily Show episode: like four a day. So I had to unsubscribe to that, unfortunately.
Tivo's main flaw, however, is that it can't record while you're watching something else (not easily anyway) and that it can't record multiple things at once. This causes all sorts of priority rules and workarounds that I'm certain some poor interaction designer had to come up with. Tivo would be twice as useful (and more usable) with this feature added in. (Easier said than done, I'm sure.)
Tivo also builds (and records for you) shows that it thinks you'll like. I'm not sure what the formulas are for choosing these, or how long it takes to get accurate recommendations, but so far, in the five days I've been using it, it's guessed wrong every time. Sometimes way wrong. But it could still be learning our viewing habits.
All in all, I think it's a pretty solid digital appliance, one of the few really well-executed ones I've played with in a while.
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