Archive for the ‘Usability’ Category

Fail Loud

January 27th, 2008 No comments

Yesterday, my wife had to print out a PDF; she went to our aging Windows box (I know, but every so often it’s useful) and double clicked on the file in question. Nothing happened. Adobe Reader didn’t open and no errors were displayed. I thought that was rather strange so I tried another PDF – as expected, it sprang to life. Huh – well, let’s take a look at versions. Sure enough, we were a rev or two behind so I downloaded the latest and greatest. We tried the original file again and there it was in all its glory.

Now, I can’t for the life of me understand what was so special about this file that it required the most up to date version of the software but it did. The lack of any notification is what sticks in my craw (and violates a couple of Nielsen‘s usability heuristics.) Apparently Adobe just expects everyone to update their products in a timely fashion but if our proverbial grandparents are any indication, this might be a mistake. Should I have updated? Sure and I did, but is a simple message box saying something about needing version X to open this file too much to ask?

Categories: Software, Usability Tags:

Enso is Free!

January 19th, 2008 No comments

In case you missed it, I just wanted to point out that Enso, a program launcher (though really, that description doesn’t do the product justice) is now free! I’ve been following Enso since Humanized announced it and I was really impressed by the things Aza was showing off at the Rich Web Experience. If you’ve ever seen Neal Ford‘s productive programmer talks, you know he’s a fan as well, and after using it for an afternoon, I already can’t imagine working on a Windows box without it. The user interface is remarkable – give it a try, you won’t regret it!

Categories: Off Topic, Usability Tags:

Content, Content, Content

September 25th, 2007 5 comments

A few weeks ago I had the *great* pleasure of seeing Edward Tufte present on Data and Information. For many years I’ve had his books on my “to buy” list but when the RUMies organized a group to see him live, I just had to be there. Based on the conversations on the list and what I’ve heard elsewhere, my expectations were high – and they were exceeded; if you ever have a chance to see ET, take it. His delivery style is quite something and I found myself scribbling down a ton of notes.

ET opened with one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen – the Music Animation Machine (see some examples here and a discussion on Tufte’s site here). Though I’m not musical and I’ve never played an instrument, I immediately knew what these images meant and represented. The movie was the epitome of design; the screen wasn’t cluttered and nothing in the display could be removed. This example led us into one the central themes of his presentation: whatever it takes to explain the content is the proper display. In other words, content is king, content should determine the display (content driven design as it were). Don’t begin with a specific display approach, start with a content problem and do whatever it takes to explain the information.

Though this was the most prominent idea that I took away, there were a number of great concepts throughout the day. This list is hardly exhaustive but should give you a sense of what ET is all about.

  • Details lead to credibility.
  • There is no such thing as information overload, just bad design.
  • Eliminate clutter.
  • Great design disappears, it gives itself up to the content.
  • Super graphics can be extremely useful.
  • Every paragraph, chart, etc. should lend credibility to your argument and give your audience a reason to believe.
  • There is no one “right way” to display data – try a few different approaches.
  • The sports and financial sections of your newspaper are filled with great examples of table design.
  • Tables are nearly always better than graphics.
  • Don’t get it original, get it right.
  • Don’t under estimate your audience – don’t pander or patronize.
  • The principles of analytical design are the same as the principles of analytical thinking.

Though ostensibly about visual design, much of what ET had to say applies directly to presentations (from both sides of the podium), a topic that he touches on near the end of his seminar. If you are a consumer, you should be very wary when the presenter won’t share his data. As soon as you hear words like “proprietary” and “confidential” you can be assured the data is cherry picked, a crime second only to outright lying. Of course when you’re presenting, be sure to shed light on the data – this will do wonders for your credibility. Speaking of presentations, you owe it to yourself to read through ET’s breakdown of the key PowerPoint slides concerning the damage to Columbia. Pretty powerful stuff.

Tufte spent a fair amount of time discussing sparklines, a “small, high resolution graphics embedded in a context of words, numbers, images.” The prototypical example would be a stock performance chart though Beautiful Evidence is full of examples. It’s quite something to see just how much data can be expressed in small areas yet be incredibly easy to grasp. And there are a number of ways you can generate these for your own data!

I could go on and on but I don’t want to bore my lone reader. To say I walked away impressed is an understatement; if you have a chance to see ET, do not hesitate. Just watching him present is worth the price of admission.

Categories: Talks, Usability Tags:

No Fluff Just Stuff Anthology 2007

March 17th, 2007 2 comments

NFJS Anthology Cover

I’m a huge fan of the No Fluff Just Stuff tour (yeah, I know – I could be seen as “biased”) and I’ve wholeheartedly recommended it to many, many people over the years. For those of you who have (inexplicably) ignored my advice, you can get a flavor of what a typical symposium is like by reading the latest and greatest No Fluff Just Stuff Anthology, Volume II. That’s right, for a low low price, you can have your very own copy of what will, I’m sure, be lauded as one of *the* great works of the 21st century (to point, the chapter on usability is top notch!) But don’t just take my word for it, see what Neal “let’s-see-how-many-books-I-can-write-in-one-year” Ford (otherwise known as the cat wrangler of the anthology) has to say here. You can order your very own copy from the Prags or Amazon (don’t forget, Anthologies make *great* gifts). Enjoy!

Upcoming Events

October 18th, 2006 No comments

I’ve been so busy the last few weeks that I’ve been remiss in mentioning my schedule. This weekend I’ll be in the Toronto area at the Greater Toronto Software Symposium talking about Ajax and usability. Mr. Ashley has been trying to get me to his neck of the woods for a while now, unfortunately I won’t be there long enough to soak in the local flavor. I haven’t been speaking much of late so I’m really looking forward to connecting with the lads (I suspect there will be some Catan going on…)

From there I head over to Boston for the Ajax Experience where I will be presenting a broad overview of some common Ajax frameworks. Jay and the Ajaxians have put together a fantastic lineup of speakers and it will be an action packed event. A few of my friends managed to wrestle some funding from their respective employers so I’m looking forward to catching up. It’s going to be a busy week for me but I’m really excited!

Categories: Ajax, Software, Talks, Usability Tags:

Screen Resolution

July 31st, 2006 No comments

A while back, I commented on Kyle Neath‘s piece regarding screen resolution. Of course both of our posts went a bit beyond that, but it appears that we now have an answer from none less than Jakob Nielsen. In his latest Alertbox, Screen Resolution and Page Layout, Jakob tells us we are free to bump it up to 1024×768. So there you go – don’t say you never learned anything here!

Categories: Software, Usability Tags:

Playing by the Rules

July 10th, 2006 No comments

One of the hard and fast rules of web design has long been “thou shall develop for a screen resolution of 800×600.” Of course with monitors getting larger and larger (heck, this aging PowerBook runs at 1280×854) this maxim might be past it’s prime. So what’s a designer to do? Kyle Neath of Warpspire takes a look at this question in his post Jumping Ship. Basically, Kyle channels Kathy Sierra (check out her Safe is risky, risky is safe) and, well, Nathaniel Talbott‘s keynote from RailsConf (check ScribeMedia for a link to his talk). While designing for the lowest common denominator can attract a large pool of customers, taking some risks opens you up to a batch of new ones.

I think Kyle hit’s it on the head when he says

“Making your users feel special is worth more than any advertisement could possibly cost.”

Sure, you can play it safe, follow the well beaten path, but will that inspire The Nod? Of course it takes courage – it’s not easy to try something different; while no one brags about their Camry, Toyota sells a ton of them.

So what is a designer to do? I’m with Kyle, give it a go! If no one pushes the boundaries, we don’t advance the field…

Categories: Development, Off Topic, Software, Usability Tags:

The More Things Change…

April 30th, 2006 No comments

Like any industry, ours likes to pretend that today’s problems are new and unique – it’s part of how we justify our salaries! And while the demands on what we are expected to do with technology continues to exceed the gains made with improved languages and hardware, the more things change, the more they stay the same. For example, take collaborative work environments. With today’s focus on outsourcing, far flung offices, and distributed supply chains, using technology to help distributed teams work together is a must. While some people might think this is a relatively new phenomena, in truth, Douglas Engelbart was working on this issue back in the early 60′s. A while back, I stumbled upon these two videos (part 1 and part 2 from here) of a presentation from Alan Kay circa 1987. About a third of the way through the first part, Kay shows a video of Engelbart demonstrating some really amazing stuff. In the presentation, Engelbart works with a colleague located about 30 miles away – along with sharing the desktop, they’ve got full audio and video connectivity. Needless to say, I was pretty wowed.

Further along, you see some amazing applications developed by school children! While some of this may seem trivial today, you have to consider when this was filmed. I’ve long been fascinated by novel ways technology is applied in the classroom – something beyond using a word processor or doing some research on the web. I have to wonder what has become of programs like those discussed in this talk…

These days you can’t swing a short iron without running into some discussion of patent law and how it applies to software (or more often doesn’t apply) but I was really surprised to hear it come up in the Q&A! To paraphrase Alan, while he feels that protecting inventions is good, he’s dead on when he says: “there is enormous confusion between what’s an idea and what’s an invention”. He argues that there should be some protection but that it can be (and is) abused.

A little later, he argues for a more than just a technical education and as a graduate of a small liberal arts college, I was very pleased to hear him urge computer scientists to get a liberal arts background. He argues that the challenge is to find the aesthetic. Frankly, I think my BA in computer science makes me a far more well rounded individual and has allowed me to perform a wider variety of duties. For instance, these days I spend a lot of my time moderating meetings and giving presentations – with a strictly technical background, I might not be quite as adept playing that role.

Anyway, a very fascinating presentation by a giant of computing. I highly recommend you take the time to watch these; despite their age, they are still quite timely.

Categories: Off Topic, Software, Talks, Usability Tags:

Or Use Taconite

March 25th, 2006 2 comments

I’m not sure about you, but on more than one occasion, I’ve been asked to write a confirmation dialog. As a UI guy, I usually push back since most people get into the habit of clicking through them so the one time the mean to hit “No” it’s too late, muscle memory has already sent their work to oblivion. Anyway, the other day Joe Athman sent me a link to Joe Vasquez‘s article AJAX Delete Confirmation pointing out that the author mentions Taconite! Thanks Joe for writing about our little framework (and thanks to Joe for forwarding the link on to me).

Categories: Ajax, Software, Usability Tags:

Office 12 UI

March 7th, 2006 No comments

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time getting excited about Office – sure, I use Word, Excel and PowerPoint daily but for the last, well, decade, there really hasn’t been anything to get too worked up about. That said, today I watched something that really got my attention. While I realize this isn’t the freshest of news items, the video from Channel 9 (gotta love Robert Scoble) on Office 12 has been kicking around our offices lately and to tell you the truth – it really is quite something (maybe not quite as exciting as the multi touch interface, but c’mon, this is a business application). The live preview idea is fantastic; (feels rather Ajaxy if I do say so myself!) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done something only to hit Undo… I also really like the clean UI – it sure looks like it’s a much better approach. Bravo!

For more information, check out this overview from Microsoft as well as Jensen Harris‘ posts: The Long Road to Contextual Tabs and It’s All About Context. Say what you will about MS but they’ve got some really bright people and some of the best usability folks around – and for the first time in, well, forever, I’m actually excited about upgrading!

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