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March 17, 2005

ETech day 4: Mind hacks for designers

  • Light comes from above
  • You have no visual buffer; if you can't see things side by side, you can't easily compare them
  • Subitizing and counting
  • Priming
Principles for interaction designers:-
  1. Know what's easy and what's hard to sense. 3D shapes are easy to sense, sudden changes are easy to sense.
  2. Follow the physics of attention – attention blindness lasts about 0.5s after an attenion event.
  3. Nothing is irrelevant
  4. Possibilities are just as visible as colour

ETech day 4: Life hacks

  • Plain text rules
  • Geeks have one or two apps that they feel comfortable with – Mail, RSS reader or whatever – and the rest of it is hand-rolled scripts.
  • Sharing everything is a useful strategy to help organisation – let other people help to tag and categorise and annotate your work

So what tools add most value?

  • Decent email search: GMail, LookOut, Tiger SpotLight
  • Social file sharing for everyone – share files with friends, family or even just yourself in different places or contexts – Flickr, Novell iFolder (open source?), Groove
  • Easy web scraping to convert important pages into RSS feeds
  • Keyboard macros – QuickSilver for OS X

Think of the simplest possible solution to the problem (paper?).

Alt-tab has no muscle memory because apps move around in the order, so it can't be done unconsciously. Apps like QuickSilver allow muscle memory to operate during context switching.

Top tip: Turn off the computer, the internet, the email, the IM.

Geeks like the web because they have short attention spans, and the web lets you not just find something relevant and important, but a ton of irrelevant, distracting, enticing things too.

Google Suggest is an early example of a new class of application which are helping to eliminate navigation.

Desktop search requires you to context switch to it, and it has no pagerank, so the cognitive effort of evaluating the results list is high.


Etech day 4: Observations

So, day 4 of ETech and my brain is starting to feel uncomfortably full. There's a couple more sessions stilll to come which look good – Danny and Merlin on Lifehacks, and Ben Trott from SixApart on making web services personal. In the meantime, a few random points culled from all the presentations I've seen so far:-

  • If there's an emerging theme over the whole conference that seems relevant to us, it's social software. The assertion has come up many times that social or collaborative software is the Next Big Thing on the interweb. We're already doing things in this space – blogs, forums, even SiteBuilder when it's used collaboratively – and coming here has given us ideas on how to extend and improve in this area.

  • The actual tagline for the conference is remixing. We started out thinking that seemed a bit gimmicky and not hugely relevant to us, but by yesterday evening we were in fact starting to throw around ideas for reusing existing applications and content at Warwick in new contexts – remixing, in a word – so it turned out to be more valuable than we first anticipated.

Some sound-bites:-

  • Small things loosely joined is a great description of the way to build web applications from one of the early sessions.

  • Promote your best users to positions of greater responsibility.

  • Don't hinder recombination

  • Applications are ongoing services, and users are growing more comfortable, even starting to expect, that a steady stream of new features will be part of the user experience.

  • Make the acqusition of metadata a side-effect of participation.

March 16, 2005

ETech day 3: Building Basecamp

Writing about web page http://www.basecamphq.com/

This is a talk by Jason from 37 Signals, who make subscription-based web applications. I really enjoyed the session, and I have a sneaking suspicion that that's because these guys are exactly like us; my notes from the session bear a striking resemblance to the sort of philosophy that we try to embrace at Warwick.

  • Reduce mass
  • Embrace constraints
    eg. 37Signals had prior commitments, a 7-hour time difference, a lack of proximity, they were self-funded, they were a small team. So the time difference, for example, means that they get some time when they can communicate but also some time when they can't bother each other. Lack of proximity means they can't have meetings, so they have to communicate via IM and email, and that forces them to be precise, to be specific, efficient.
  • Get real
    Start with the UI so that you can sit in front of the app for as much of the development time as possible. Functional specs achieve nothing - they're an illusion of agreement (that's a nice sound-bite about specs).
  • Manage debt – debts in terms of hacks in your system, code that needs refactoring, features that are overdue.

Especially in small teams, you need people who are positive, well rounded, a quick learner, trustworthy and a good writer. People don't talk as much as they used to; they IM, they email, they publish to the web.

I'll take someone who is happy and average over a guru who is disgruntled and frustrated.

Doing smaller, more focussed and specific software gives you:-

  • Lower cost of change
  • Less room for error
  • Less support required
  • A basis to encourage human solutions – encourage people to find their own way to use the product, to be imaginative and flexible (eg. TaDa lists, where people use their own keywords and tagging to support dates or categories or whatever – nothing built in to the software to accomplish this.)

Build half of the software:-

  • Say no by default
  • Listen to the product
  • Ignore details early on because you have scope to change
  • Improve what you have
  • Decisions are only ever temporary, especially if you are keeping the cost to change small.

ETech day 3: Why is the iPod so popular?

Brad Pitt or Ian Somerhalder?
Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock?
Apple iPod or Creative whatnot?

Figuring out what the number two product is missing versus the number one product is difficult. The #2 product may objectively be better, but still be #2. Three rules:-

  • Make people happy
    Never underestimate how happy people are when things Just Work™

  • Think about emotions
    Give people ways to be in control of their environment (eg. Amazon checkout process which lets you supply info or change settings in any order you want)

  • Obsess over aesthetics
    Aesthetics generate an emotional response and the the principle of misattribution causes people to conflate the response with other attributes of the thing in question. IPods sell more than other MP3 players because they look nicer and the emotional response this causes colours peoples' view of every aspect of the device.

In possibly the most elegant way to end a presentation I've ever seen, Joel, who had liberally peppered his presentation with jokes, sight gags and music, noted that he was obeying exactly the principle which he was enumerating; remember the jokes, get a good feeling, leave with the impression that this was a great presentation.


ETech day 3: Mobile phones

Ethnographers tell us that people across very wide populations and ethnic groups only routinely carry three things:-

  1. Money or some other unit of value
  2. A key or some other security device (keycard, etc.)
  3. Latterly, a mobile phone

So the mobile phone is the only significant addition to the list since keys were invented thousand of years ago.


ETech day 3: Folksonomies

Why let a large and uncontrollable group of users participate in categorisation?
  • [Wikipedia] How else could we possibly do it?
  • [Flickr] It's the users' own data so they should be able to tag/categorise their data as they see fit.
  • [delicious] Started with my own personal links collection, then offered it to everybody. Not all tags are relevant to the group (eg. "to read"). But some tags are explicitly for a team.
How should we resolve tensions between the individual and the group?
  • [wikipedia] The tension is really between the individual and the goal of the encyclopedia.
  • [delicious] Delicious is kind of a reaction to the wiki model where people can fight over the same space; instead everybody has their own space, and the shared space is kind of an emergent property which nobody really owns – so there's nothing to fight over.
  • [Flickr] Here's an example: a guy attending ETech went to Tijuana the day before the conference started and tagged his photos "Etech 05". Perfectly proper for him (it's all part of his trip to ETech), but unhelpful for everybody else, who're expecting to see photos of the actual conference itself. In thoise cases, we defer to the individual at the expense of the group, though we'd like to be able to do more to reconcile the difference.
How can we connect tags together between different systems?
  • [Delicious] It's tricky. We have 200,000 tags, a lot of which are compound words or foreign words, and the vast majority of them (190,000?) are single use. And tags aren't always functionally equivalent between (say) Delicious and Flickr.
  • Maybe an API for tag manipulation?
How can we help/teach/feedback to users to get tagging better?
  • [Wikipedia] Becoming a member of the editing community guarantees lots of feedback because it's a small, close-knit community,
  • [Flickr] There are no bad tags. If it works for you, the tags are sufficient. It's a happy accident that it works at the global level. It's not a problem that we can't guarantee that searching on the "Tokyo" tag gets you every single photo of Tokyo that's held within Flikr. Why would it matter? If there are 100,000 photos of Tokyo in there, nobody could possibly look at them all anyway.

ETech day 2: Bits & pieces

Chris has been doing a great job of blogging summaries of each session he's been to. It doesn't seem very efficient for two people to record real time summaries in parallel with each other, so for sessions we're both at, I haven't attempted to produce any sort of transcript.

We've also created a common category for ETech, so the combined output of both our writings at ETech can be found on this category page.

Some thoughts arising from Tuesday's sessions:-

  • I was really taken with an observation during the Flickr session: "User contributed metadata is incredibly valuable, but only a small percentage of users will actively contribute metadata. So the secret is to make metadata acquisition an automatic by-product of what the user wants to do. A good example of this is the way that Amazon orders its search results list; the default order is "Sort by best-selling". That's really useful for the customer, because it's a useful summary of what the community thinks about the topic you're searching on. But nobody has had to actually supply that data explicitly; the very act of buying a book creates the metadata.

  • Danny Hillis showed some stunning video of work his team have been doing designing and building robots, and experimenting with new ways of presenting maps. The video clips for their maps projects were amazing; in the first clip he's demonstrating a big table with a digital display of a map on its surface. The display is also a touch screen, and he shows how gesturing on the surface of the table allows zooming, panning and other mainpulations. It's startling and impressive to watch, but what's even more impressive is that in the video he's demoing this to some cartographers, and their reactions are a sight to see - they are just stunned and rendered almost speechless with joy. As he says, cartographers love maps, but mostly they sit in front of computers like the rest of us because maps are made using computers just like everything else. But really, what they love is a big map laid out on a table that a group of people can stand around and share. This interactive display in a table exposes all the power of a map in a computer, but presents it in a way that matches what cartographers love about maps. It was an astonishing display of how the right interface can transform data.

  • His second map demo was even more impressive. It was a table with a digital display of a map on it. But a 2D map doesn't faithfully show all the attributes of the terrain, because it doesn't show height; it's flat. Except that this map wasn't.; right in front of our eyes the table deformed and reshaped itself so that the mountain ranges shown on the digital display were physically rearranged to be higher than the surrounding valleys. It looked so much like a special effect that it was very hard to believe that it wasn't faked up in post-production. But the guy standing next to the table physically ran his hand over the peaks and troughs of the deformed table so we could see that they were really there. Absolutely astonishing.

ETech day 3: Cory Doctorow

All complex eco-systems have parasites. Email, for example. We could fix this in various ways – tolls, rigorous identity checking, etc. But you would also break much of the value of email. Hollywood wants to control digital devices that use or even just touch video by requiring permission to release such a device. DVD players work like this today, but CDs don't, which is why you can convert CD data to ringtones, MP3s, remixed CDs, etc, but do nothing with DVDs except watch it in a player. Trusted Computing would extend the DVD model to all aspects of computing. But in practice, someone always leaks the keys or figures out how to crack the system, and that renders the whole system useless. It happened with DVDs and it would happen with any other rights management system.

And the trouble is that DRM doesn't stop infringement; it doesn't even reduce it. It's a 100% failure system. Parasite elimination never works, but the erroneous conclusion drawn by people like Hollywood is that they just haven't tried hard enough and if only the laws were more draconian, the encryption was more rigorous, the problem would be solved. But simplifying the eco-system never works. There will always be parasites.


ETech day 2: How sex laws drive innovation

It's a well understood idea nowadays that porn built the internet; credit card transactions, protected content, video streaming are all web features which surfaced first in the context of porn web sites. But as a separate question, does the search for porn which is locally illegal or socially unacceptable drive consumers, rather than producers, to become early adopters?

  • Lots of people want porn
  • But it's not always legal or socially acceptable
  • However people routinely use technology
  • So innovative ways to look without being seen will always be popular

And it turns out that technologies which support privacy and anonymoity can easily be repurposed (not necessarily as the inventors intended) to support porn viewing.

On the internet, porn quality started out poor – ASCII art. But it was still immensely attractive to consumers because anonymity was even better than VHS or magazines since the acquisition could be largely anonymous or at least free from personal interaction. Also, makes it unclear what "contemporary community standards" should be applied. Standards where the consumer is, or where the producer is? If the producer is outside the jurisdiction of the law where the consumer is, what then?

Anonymity is a obviously a big driver for porn consumers, so anonymous web browsing via proxies is a desirable feature, and is predicted to become a feature of future browsers or operating systems. It can be done right now (eg. Tor (tor.eff.org)) but it's not user friendly enough yet. Similarly, we now see OTR (off the record) messaging with unique key exchange and the key discarded afterwards.

  • What's good for porn is good for free speech; today's porn tools are tomorrow's human rights protections.

ETech day 2: Enhancing Radio

Radio has:-

  • 90% reach among UK adults
  • A billion hours listened to a week
  • 76,000 hours of radio per year
  • 32.5 million UK adults listen to radio every week
  • Resurgence in popularity; now more popular than any time since 1950; heading towards being more popular than TV

Why so popular?

  • Suits multi-tasking
  • Ubiquitous – DAB, TV, mobile, internet (time shifting)
  • Six million hours broadcast via the internet per week

But radio is broadcast (one-to-many) rather than network (many-to-many) – although letters, phone, fax, email, SMS are back channels, and SMS makes feedback nearly instantaneous (are there ways to support this idea of SMS for quick, simple immediate feedback at the University? Too clunky for in-lecture PRS-style voting, but what about more general services like Casey does with votes on Insite sometimes? Would such feedback be valuable? To whom?).

But how do people in the studio handle very large amounts of data coming back to them during a broadcast? Aggregation – polls, votes, charts – or random sampling – pick someone to be on the phone-in or to win the competition. Neither is perfect, because the former discards detail, but the latter shuts out most listeners.

10-hour takeover; nothing but records requested by SMS

  • Put copies of messages into a web page so that the community can see what's being requested
  • Studio operators had an inbox which listed artist, track and dedication
  • This allows studio operators to click on, say "Artist" and see how requested they are and what kind of clustering there is
  • bbc.co.uk/radio1/djs/tenhour

Principles guiding mechanisms for listeners to participate:

  • An individual should get value from their contribution
  • Contributions should provide value to other people as well
  • The site or organisation should get value too

Phonetags – bookmark a song by texting x to 64046 – add keywords after the x if you want – add a number between 1 and 5 to rate the song – go to the web site later and see your bookmarks, plus see the aggregation of bookmarks – BBC get song metadata. Bubble-up metadata. rnd.historicalfact.com/phonetags This is really interesting; could we get metadata from students for eg. Library resources in a way which mimics this?

Group listening
  • See what your friends are listening to
  • Sahred space for listening
  • Interacting in ways that support – and don't undermine – the shared experience
  • Organise & schedule subsequent events
Larger questions
  • Why do we just push content to networked computers?
  • What's the social aspect of a networked tivo?

March 14, 2005

ETech day 0: On the plane over…

In the row of seats next to me on the plane over:-

Have you heard that new U2 album?

Yeah, How to dismantle an atomic kitten, isn't it?

ETech day 1: Passionate users

This is a cool session. Start off by thinking:-

What kinds of things do people get passionate about?

Examples suggested in the session:-

  • Cars
  • Cooking
  • Wine
  • Dancing
  • Horses
  • Sports
  • Photography & sharing photos, etc. Flickr
  • Causes, eg. Justice (EFF)
  • Operating systems (!)

Next intereting question:

What do these things have in common; what attributes do they share?

Generally, they are:-

  • Fun
  • Emotive
  • Personal
  • Related to self-expression
  • They're interesting and/or challenging; there is a lot to learn about them,
  • You can acquire expertise in them, and it's possible to recognise expertise
  • There's a community associated with it
  • There's gear you can buy to support or enhance the activity

What does this tell us about our stuff?

  • Perhaps letting people personalise stuff (their blog, their SB content) is more important than we think because it's not about whether it improves the experience for the reader, it's about whether it makes the owner feel good.
  • It's consistent with the message of this session that our "What's new in SB" session is so popular; people want to learn new stuff, they want to acquire recognisable expertise, they want to participate in a community.

(As an aside, the style of handout for this session is really interesting; instead of miniature PowerPoint slides, each A4 page is the beginnings of a mind-map – a single idea in the centre of the page and then you draw concepts and sub-concepts around the centre, and the presenter does the same thing on the big screen as the session goes along. Sounds simple, but it's surprisingly effective and enjoyable. Observation from the presenter: "Lists make your brain think there's an order to the items, even if no order is intended or appropriate."

Also, it turns out that the book that Chris and I were interested in – Head First Design Patterns - is co-authored by the presenter, and she and her co-authors have done some others: Head First EJB, Head First Java and Head First Servlets & JSP We might want to pick up one or more of these when we're back in the UK.

How do you get past the brain's crap filter?
  • Show it something surprising
  • Show it something scary
  • Show it somthing sexy
  • Show it something involving a human face, especially with a none-neutral expression (is this why smileys are so popular?) (could we use face-based icons in our interface when we especially need to alert the user to something?)
What's a great way to create passionate users?

Give them an "I rule!" moment when they use your software. Note the difference between "I rule" and "This software rules" or "IT Services rule". The latter two are nice for the software provider, and not completely horrible for the user, but they aren't as compelling. Note too that it's incredibly easy to make software which yields "I suck" moments, which have exactly the opposite, negative effects that you'd expect.

This is an interesting idea: it's intuitively right in that most of us can remember having "I rule" moments in the course of our lives. They're powerful and affecting, and the idea that we become passionate about things that allow or empower us to have such moments seems credible. Chris notes an "I rule" moment when he successfully built a Linux box, and his resulting positive response to the software that allowed him to have the moment. Do we give our users such moments at the moment? Maybe. The guy who edited all his couse notes while he was in New York, say. Or the people who know nothing at all about anything to with the web, but nonetheless publish their writing on to a blog. But there must be more we could do if we had this goal in mind.


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