Or the 95/95 rule, although 90/90 rolls off the tongue more easily.
We have all heard of the 80/20 Rule a.k.a. the Pareto Principle and which comes under a broader category of relationships called the Power Law. In essence the Principle is a rule-of-thumb that states that for many phenomena, 80% of consequences or events are the result of just 20% of the causes. Thus, 20% of scientists are responsible for 80% of all discoveries, 20% of actors are behind 80% of blockbuster movies, 20% of the members of a team do 80% of the work, or 20% of websites get 80% of the hits. 80% is actually only a rough measure. In an actual instance, it could be more like 95/5 or even 99/1 as in the case of weblogs where less than 1% of blogs get greater than 99% of all visitors to blogsites.
The Pareto Principle may be applied to computer applications such as Microsoft Word or Excel: most users employ less than 5% of the applications' features. The counter argument usually advanced is that the 5% of features employed by User A might be different from the 5% of features required by User B. Further, the same user might require a different set of 5% of the features at different times.
Nevertheless, we may find that 95% of the time User A uses the same 5% of an application's features. Extending this logic, if we look at what 95% of all users need 95% of the time, we would discover that most people can get by with a relative small set of features. This Son of the 80/20 Rule we shall hereafter call the 90/90 Rule: the features and functions (f&f) employed by 90% of users 90% of the time.
How dow apply this rule to the design of interfaces? As a general principle, the interface should reveal or provide direct, immediate access to, or control of, only 90/90 f&f; all others should be buried one or more layers below the surface -- in other words, the remaining f&f require the user to perform additional. The user, therefore, is not overwhelmed with interface cues and functions that exceed the 7 +/- 2 chunk cognitive capacity of her Short Term Memory and is able to easily focus on a few primary functions. Additional functions are just a click or two away.
Saturday, September 16, 2006
Or the 95/95 rule, although 90/90 rolls off the tongue more easily.
The remotes in question are those from Apple used with its Front Row software, and from Microsft, used with its Media Center PC. In size and complexity they occupy opposite ends of a spectrum.
The Apple Remote (AR) in keeping with that corporation's 90/90 philosophy is small and spare - it is about the length of a strip of chewing gum, and not much wider and thicker either. The Microsoft Remote (MSR) in tune with that company's All Things to All People ideology is large and feature rich. It's the size of usual remotes that come with your TV, DVD player or stereo.
MSR looks - and feels like a remote. Physically, it is well designed to fit comfortably into an adult hand, and the key controls are in the right places. Cognitively, however, MSR is just as confusing and infuriating as the average remote.
AR looks nothing like any remote one might have ever encountered. In fact, it looks almost exactly like Apple's own iPod Shuffle DAP. It has the same sort of controls plus a menu button. AR has high learnability; the controls have been carefully designed to be usable across different cultures and languages and the buttons are juxtaposed in a manner that would allow users to easily map onto their own mental models. No user is likely to feel overwhelmed by AR.
To be sure, MSR has far more functionalty than AR; an experienced and trained user can access various functions far more rapidly than with AR. The problem is, most users (other than teenage boys) are unlikely to read the manual or spend enough time to master the remote. More likely, they will learn to use the two or three things they need most and try to commit those functions to muscle memory, so that they can use the remote even in the dark, say while watching a movie.
Apple has moved most of the complexity of the interface to the device itself -- in this case, the Macintosh computer. Additional functions are accessible through a menu that pops on the screen when the menu button is pressed. While this requires more button presses than hitting buttons on the remote, they require far less cognitive effort and the process itself is perceived by the user as being less effortful and more satisfying. The Apple Remote can be learned very quickly and then operated with one hand and without requiring the user to look at the controls on the remote; any additional operations are performed by the user without taking her eyes off the screen.
MSR exposes the complexity of the entire device to the user, while AR masks it under a menu that appears on the screen. The Apple Remote is a classic example of user-centered design that respects and accommodates the cognitive limitations as well as behavior patterns of the user. The Microsoft Remote is a textbook example of traditional device or technology centered design where device functionality and control takes precedence and the user is mostly an afterthought.
Here is another example of the value of simplicity over complexity.
Posted by Murli N at 9/16/2006 01:33:00 PM
It turns out that Nicolaus Copernicus did more than just stare at the heavens; when he was not peering at heavenly bodies, the man had something to say about money, which the English financier Sir Thomas Gresham later formulated into what is now know as Gresham's Law: Bad money drives out good.
This blogpost has nothing to do with money, although I will paraphrase Gresham thusly: Bad design drives out good. In the mad rush to conquer, occupy or seize new territories, corporations seem to lose perspective. In particular, superficial Style, the aspect most immediately visible to users ends up trumping Usability, a quality that is discerible only through actual use by intended users in real contexts. I am going to use as examples Motorola's new line up of terminally cool four-letter-named cellular phones: RAZR, SLVR, PEBL and others that might be on their way. There's the RAZR (pronounced 'razor'). Then there is the SLVR (no, not 'silver' but 'sliver' as in 'thin'). And then the PEBL (yes, as in 'pebble'). Cute names, even cuter phones. In fact, the phone are smash hits, and every cool person wants to be seen in the company of one of these. I mean, who could resist them? They're infinitely cool. I myself have been salivating over these for a long while; with my frumpy little phone, I don't want to be caught in flagrante uncoolo.
I played with one of these puppies the other day in a store and came to the conclusion that my fingers were much too fat, and my nails were not long enough. Either that, or the phones are meant for squirrels, or anorexic heroin chic models.
Take a close look at the keys. They aren't really buttons. The surface is flat with grooves cut into it and numbers are etched onto the surface. In the SLVR model the number keys aren't even lined up making it look really radical and chic. Would I be able to punch in a number quickly? Not a chance because of two problems: a) I would be constantly hunting for the numbers, and b), I cannot use my thumbs directly because I end up pressing more than one key at a time: I need to use the tips of my fingers or my nail (if it is long enough). For somebody with a lot of time on their hands (and thin fingers) who also wishes to project an image of hipness, these phones are great.
To be sure, the phones, especially the RAZR, are chock full of functions, and are slim and light. And rather tasteful to look at. Unfortunately, style has trumped substance. Rather than focus on usability first, and allowing style to emerge from the process, the designers have gone all out to infuse the product with style. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the products have become a major market success, especially among the young and hip; the message this has sent out to the industry is that style matters most to customers, usability be damned. Products are now flying out from major vendors emphasizing, above all their stylish qualities. According to a study released by the business analysis firm Compete, form matters more than function.
"What we're seeing is that people are willing to pay pay a premium for style over functionality," says a senior analyst at the firm. "Shoppers consistently tell us that what's most valued to them in purchasing a phone, No. 1 is price, and No. 2 is form, shape, and design ... People tell us that how a phone looks is particularly important to them when they purchase. What it does is significant as well, but to be a cool device it has to look cool."In an ideal world, a focus on style would not be necessary: a functional product, thoughtfully designed for usability would be inherently stylish in a manner that would never go out of style. Take the humble rose, for instance; it's been around longer, probably, than mankind, and yet doesn't feel a bit dated.
Posted by Murli N at 9/16/2006 08:25:00 AM
Friday, September 15, 2006
Microsoft introduced its Zune platform yesterday. Zune is set to compete with -- and intended to transcend -- Apple's market dominating iPod. Now in hoary Microsoft tradition, Zune is more than just a product -- it is a strategy, a campaign, a music downloading service, a technology platform, and much more.
Microsoft is following the script burned into its DNA: wait to see what kind of technology succeeds in the market, and then come stomping all over it with a similar, or superior product. This has worked with just about every product that the company has introduced, most recently, the Xbox gaming platform. Market leaders Nintendo and Sony were left speechless by the speed with Microsoft came to claim a large chunk of the gaming market. Clearly, Microsoft hopes to do the same with Zune; after all, it did beat Apple's Macintosh platform with Windows -- a poorer and cheaper knockoff. But with Xbox, Microsoft showed that it could master a demanding market with a quality product too.
iPod users constitute a market much like the gaming market -- they are discerning consumers who are willing to pay more for quality (unlike DOS and Windows users who were willing to put up with abysmal technology in return for a lower initial cost). Apple has a dominant share of a market made up of hundreds of competiting products at every price level, most of which are priced well below the iPod and include additional features such FM radio, voice recording, digital camera, PDA functions, games, and no exclusive tie-in to a single music store.
How does the Zune stack up? Bear in mind that the Zune introduction yesterday was a pre-announcement something that Microsoft typically does to scare off competition and pre-empt potential customers from spending their money on competitors' products. Given Microsoft's repeatedly delayed introduction of its "forthcoming" Vista OS release, it is anybody's guess when Zune will really make it to the market. Nevertheless, Microsoft will likely push to release it in time for Christmas.
Which brings us to the current state of Zune. As you can see from the prototypes in the picture above -- those are officially released Microsoft photographs; no independent pictures of the device have been spotted in the wild -- it looks a lot like the iPod. And in grand Microsoft tradition, that was probably intentional, given Microsoft's me-too approach to things. It is physically about the same size as an iPod (albeit somewhat larger and heavier) and comes in black, white, and brown. Yes, brown. Go figure. It sports a 3" screen to iPod's 2.5" and what looks like a copy of iPod's scroll wheel is just that -- looks. In fact it is a four way navigation device with a center button. The device, in fact is built by Toshiba and is a variant of that company's Gigabeat DAP (digital audio player). Here's a picture of the Gigabeat. See the likeness? All they did was to mask the "plus" shaped navigation control of the Gigabeat by using a circular control instead. In my opinion the Gigabeat looks a lot better than the Zune. But Microsoft probably wanted it to look as much like iPod as possible without inviting the wrath of Apple's lawyers.
Zune's claim to fame is the extra features it sports over the iPod: it includes the usual fare of FM radio and voice recording, but in addition, it includes WiFi. Microsoft's plan is let Zuners share their purchased songs wirelessly with other Zuners who have 3 days or 3 trials to purchase the song themselves. Like the iPod, the Zune will be tied into an exclusive music store, and will be incompatible with Microsoft's Playsforsure DRM technology incorporated into its other DAP platform. So Microsoft will be competing with itself, in addition to Apple.
How will Zune fare? I have an instinctive disliking for Microsoft products so I am likely to write it off. But it is always unwise to "misunderestimate" (in the words of our fearless leader) the 800 lb gorilla from Redmond. While it hasn't always succeeded -- at least with versions 1, 2 and 3 of any technology -- Microsoft's deep pockets have shown themselves to be capable of prevailing in the end.
The screens do look nice with a lot of eye candy, but the product looks rather cheap, overall, and brown just sucks, man. What were they thinking? And will people ditch iPod's scroll wheel for something that looks like but doesn't work like one? And the proposed price of $299 for a 30 GB device with a few more features than the repriced $249 30 GB iPod gives one pause. Besides, Bill Gates' eye is off the ball, what with his new mission to save the world. Stay tuned.
Posted by Murli N at 9/15/2006 09:05:00 PM
Today, a question arose in my Interaction Design class about the difference, if any, between an icon and metaphor as used in an interface, particularly a GUI. Both icons and metaphors rely on visual symbols rather than words to convey the meaning. Here's an example that might help clarify the issue.
Many e-shopping sites employ a shopping cart icon in their interfaces. As you shop around at the site, you ADD items to your shopping cart, just as you would in a physical, bricks-and-mortar store. You may, at any time, review the contents of your shopping cart by clicking on. Likewise you can decide to abandon the shopping cart, or empty it of some or all of its contents, much as you might in the physical world.
The picture or symbol of the of the shopping cart is an icon that represents a real shopping cart. The process of purchasing goods online relies on the metaphor of a shopping cart in that you go about shopping online using a shopping cart in much they way you would in the physical world. While the shopping cart icon represents a specific object using a shopping cart metaphor in an interface would require the designer to create a process that mimics that of a shopper moving around a store pushing a shopping cart. Note that while it is probably a good idea to use a shopping cart icon as part of a shopping cart metaphor, the designer could just as well use some other icon, such as a pickup truck, a bag, or even a horse (as means of carrying goods). Further, the use of a shopping cart icon does not necessitate its use as part of a shopping cart metaphor. It could be merely one of several objects scattered about on a desktop and may possess properties that have no correspondence with real shopping cart -- e.g., a magic flying shopping cart, a shopping cart from hell that attacks people and property, or a shopping cart that grows leaves and bears fruit.
An icon, then, is a symbol, usually for an object, whereas a metaphor describes an entire world, or reality, process that the designer seeks to create as means of helping the user interact successfully with a system. Icons may or may not be employed within a metaphor, although they often are.
You can clarify these concepts for yourself by visiting an e-shopping site such as Amazon.
Posted by Murli N at 9/15/2006 04:48:00 AM
Thursday, September 14, 2006
CNET has been running a news item input devieces that are likely to show up on desktops and notebooks in the near future. Some of them have been developed by Synaptics, who developed and supplied various generations of scroll wheels for the Apple iPod. Here are some interesting devices:
Posted by Murli N at 9/14/2006 08:35:00 PM
Martin Gerard makes quite a persuasive argument -- which is likely to be considered flamebait by hordes of Linux enthusiasts -- that Linux will never become popular on the desktop. He writes,
Linux is an operating system that was designed and implemented from the ground-up by geeks and nerds—let them be "technology enthusiasts" if you think it sounds better or less offensive. My point is that the brain of these people is wired very differently from the brain of the average Joe. Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant; what matters is that they are bound to have different perceptions and values, causing a rift between them.Persusive argument, if you ask me. Then again, you have MacOSX, which, with its Unix underpinnings warms the cockles of the geek heart, and yet is no harder to use than the original Mac ("computers for the rest of us"). The question is, does the Linux community have in its midst the kind of enthusiasts who can build outstanding interfaces that pass every usability test out there? To my mind, the community is outstanding when it comes to adding features and functions and plugging holes, but it unlikely that you can herd together a bunch of geek cats under a charismatic if authoritarian leadership to build a unified interface.
In order to make the Linux desktop appealing to the average Joe, technology enthusiasts would have to betray their core values to such extends that it would be the operating system's undoing. In other words, they would have to make the phone's case opaque so that we can no longer see its insides, remove all the extra keys (yes, all the cool ones) and strip it of every prominent feature that makes it superior to but more complicated than the average phone. What geek would want to use—or develop—such a boring phone?
The truth is that most people [regular folks] cannot visually grasp the entire screen at once, let alone an interface of fifty icons or user controls. In order to be attractive to them, the interface needs to be dumbed down to the average automated bank teller's level. Yes, they find the simplicity attractive, not disconcerting or dull.
Geeks spend hundreds of hours tweaking their systems and reading documentation because they love to learn how it works, just like they enjoyed playing with Lego TECHNIC (they would love the MINDSTORMS now) or science fair kits when they were kids. Needless to say the crowd finds these things rather uncool (yes, even the Lego MINDSTORMS). Most people don't like to read the user manual or learn fifty new concepts before getting started. They like when it just works and it's intuitive—at least to them.
Get real: the Linux desktop has been designed and implemented by technology enthusiasts, for technology enthusiasts. If they were to seriously try to make it appealing to the masses, the effort would collapse halfway because they would be dismayed by the result. My take is that things are just fine the way they are, and the Linux desktop for Dummies an utopia.
Posted by Murli N at 9/14/2006 09:17:00 AM
Apple is nothing if not bold. Or radical. Or ingenious. Or fickle. Whatever. Except for the one shining current example of the iPod Nano II resurrecting the design of its grandparent iPod mini, every new model that Apple introduces is typically a radical departure from its predecessor. Well, that's not entirely true. The full-sized iPod demonstrates an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary design ethos. I guess they didn't want to mess with success too much. Every bit of change that has the iPod has been subjected to has been subtle and thoughtful. Perhaps there aren't too many things one can change in the design a small and highly successful device, as long as its fundamental functions haven't changed.
The iPod shuffle, however, while its functions have not changed at all, now sports a completely new design. Take a look at the old and new Shuffles. The controls remain identical and spare, dare we say, Scandinavian, look is retained but the rest of the device has undergone massive surgery. Apart from a significant reduction in size - size reduction for its own sake appears to be a driving design principle at Apple -- Shuffle2 now sports an anodized aluminum exterior (suggesting class, compared to the glossy plastic of Shuffle1)and a built-in clip for attaching it to one's clothing, much like a tieclip or brooch. Significantly, Shuffle2 no longer has a USB plug; instead, it syncs with a computer (and recharges its battery) via a dock, like it elder iPod siblings, equipped with what looks like an audio plug -- the same jack is used to plug in the earphones, thereby cutting down on ports and manufacturing costs (and complexity).
What might have prompted this change? One can only hazard a guess. Here are more than one. For one thing, the reduced size probably prevented the incorporation of a USB plug. But why shrink the size and change the appearance of an already tiny device? Here's what I think Steve Jobs had in mind: Shuffle1 looked a lot like a flash memory drive and indeed doubled as one. From a consumer's viewpoint, Shuffle1 was a flash drive that also worked as an MP3, thereby diluting the iPod/mp3 cachet. Further, by inviting comparison with flash drives, consumers might also compare the Shuffle's price with those of flash drives, which are signficantly less expensive. The answer was to redesign it to look (and work) nothing at all like a flash drive. This way, Shuffle2 looks and works like nothing other than itself. The consumer experiences no cognitive conflict, and freed of all fear and doubt, immerses herself in the sweet music flowing through those white earbuds.
Posted by Murli N at 9/14/2006 05:14:00 AM
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
An interesting thing happened today: Apple introduced the second generation (hereinafter, 2G) iPod Nano. Now let's talk about why this is interesting.
It is early 2004, and the iPod has smashed all manner of records in sales ... but the iPod is relatively high-priced and beyond the reach of a significant section of the potential market. And so, Apple introduces the iPod mini at significantly lower price point. The mini comes in capacities of 2 and 4 GB -- much less than the 30 GB iPod -- but the price is right, and the capacity of the mini is enough to carry around a couple of days' worth of music. The mini is sheathed in brushed aluminum and therefore able to withstand some level of abuse. Given its relative ruggedness (compared to the iPod) and the lower capacity, the mini becomes quite popular with younger users on the go, including some who carry it along for a jog in the park.
The nano traded the hard drive of the mini for a flash memory drive, thereby eliminating the skipping problem of the mini. The nano could withstand all manner of shocks. Consequently, it was subjected to even greater abuse than the mini. And here's where the problem arose: the glossy, shiny exterior of the nano could not withstand bumps, scratches and similar abuse and began to look old and ragged rather quickly, angering its owners. The nano's beauty faded rapidly. Intriguingly, though the full-sized iPod is sheathed in material identical to the nano, its owners hardly complained.
It turns out that the larger iPod, being heavier and more expensive, was treated with much greater care by its owners and hence aged quite well. The less expensive mini was likely purchased by younger customers who were more likely to carry it around with them and exercise less care. The combination of a different user profile and different use scenario resulted in a similar product being perceived and treated differently, thereby delivering a different user experience. Apple seems to have learned its lesson.
Today, less than a year after its introduction, the company unveiled the second generation iPod nano which has married the dimensions of the first generation nano with the look and feel of the iPod mini. The dimensions of nano2 are almost identical to those of nano1 it is sheathed in the same sturdy, brushed aluminum skin of the mini. Apple's designers are the best in the business, but they too fall prey to seductions of looks thereby missing the importance of context. Fortunately, they learn and correct themselves. Watch Steve Jobs introducing nano2. Note how he focuses on how it is made of aluminum, and how beautiful it is, but not on its size. In its entire history, Apple has never reintroduced a design it has retired; the nano2's imitation of its mini ancestor is a first for the company. The mini was the best selling mp3 player in its time, according to Apple. Perhaps even Apple can learn not to mess with a good thing.
Although the regular iPod and the nano/mini delivered near-identical functionalities, their very physical appearances caused users to perceive -- and therefore use and experience -- them differently. The interaction designer's task goes beyond merely providing features and functions, and indeed, beyond even excellently designed features and functions. The ID's goal is to design experiences and to do this she must gain a deep appreciation of those experiences. This is why the Palm Pilot's designer Jeff Hawkins walked around for weeks with a wooden mockup of his product-to-be, pretending to use it in various relevant contexts. Only by living with his product could he fully understand what it would be.
Posted by Murli N at 9/13/2006 09:30:00 AM
Monday, May 01, 2006
The New York Times is running an article about Microsoft's new newspaper reader available with it's perennially forthcoming Windows Vista OS. The first guinea pig/collaborator is "venerable" NYT itself.
With Microsoft's new Windows Vista software, to be available in January, virtually any newspaper, magazine or book can be formatted into an electronic version and read online or off. The software would allow The Times to replicate its look — fonts, typeface and layout — more closely than its Web site now does.The "newspaper" can be downloaded to any Windows device -- desktop or tablet (or PDA, I am guessing). The technology, announced with MS' usual bluster suggesting nothing like it has ever existed before, is actually not new. Zinio has been doing it for a while. Another one, according to NYT is is eMprint, available for free from the University of Missouri.
The question is, do people want to read a newspaper (that looks like the real thing) on a computer screen, or even on a tiny PDA screen? Are we trying to pave a cowpath, automate a buggy whip, and other such metaphors?
Here's a more familiar analogy -- is watching a movie on a big screen in a theater the same as watching it on a TV? Is the difference -- assuming there is one -- only caused by the difference in the size of the screen? There are so many others: the context for instance. You cannot pause a movie in a theater, or watch it in bits and pieces over a period of time; you cannot talk; you cannot be watching it in your underpants. One is in a different state of mind, and one's goals are at least a bit different. Of course, many people do try to recreate the theater experience in the own basement using LCD projectors and biggish screens, but the result is a hybrid of the theater and TV experience.
Recreating a newspaper in its exact hardcopy form on an electronic device while being a commendable technical feat and interesting exercise for graduate students appears a little confused in its goals. Newspapers exist in a form that has remained largely unchanged over a period of at least 150 years. As long as the medium (paper) was not changed, and given the conservatism of the newspaper business, there might have been some justification for the statis. Once the medium itself is changed, however, practically every aspect of news delivery merits reconsideration. In light of this, the decision to exactly replicate the look and feel of the newspaper in electronic form ("The software would allow The Times to replicate its look — fonts, typeface and layout — more closely than its Web site now does.") seems wrong-headed in the extreme. This is not the way to pave the future path of news dissemination. The newspaper succeeded the town-crier but did not try to replicate the town-crier's look-and-feel. In a similar fashion, when electronic dissemination (nearly) fully replaces newsprint, a whole different approach is essential for its success.
I don't know what the thinking is in NYT's managerial chambers -- are they trying to build a bridge for old-time readers to cross the chasm separating newsprint and electronic news delivery? If so, this might be an interesting experiment, but I doubt it will be successful. Then again, this is very likely one of Microsoft's many failed Version 1 experiments where they try to stake their place in an emerging market with poorly thought out technology and wait until someone comes out with a better idea that they can quickly copy (e.g., Windows many lousy PDA versions and the final one they copied from the hugely successful Palm).
Posted by Murli N at 5/01/2006 03:40:00 AM
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Gee, it's been a while since I've posted anything here. Last post just preceded Spring Break. Not that I have switched off. Anyway, April 1 -- Apple's 30th Birthday -- has come and gone and still no sign of the Revolutionary Next Big Thing. Rumors are that Apple has run into technical difficulties with the fabled Video iPod. Meanwhile, here comes the Pepper Pad (why Pepper? Who knows?). Here I was getting all excited and some simple Googling reveals that it has been around since late 2004, but only now has begun making waves. Or hopes to, anyway. It's got pretty good specs, and it looks good in the picture.
It's not a laptop or handheld or tablet PC or gaming machine but all of the above.
Runs on Linux and will do net browsing, email, instant messaging, music, photos, video,games, and will double as a remote. Looks cool. I wonder about its ergonomics and interface. Take the keyboard, for instanc: if you use all fingers for typing, you need to set it down on a table or your lap. If you hold it in both hands, then you use only your thumbs for "typing" as with a Blackberry or Treo -- not too comfortable for extended typing, but Blackberry users probably will disagree. Short movies might work on the small screen -- better than the iPod, anyway. Battery lasts a "few hours".
I suspect that the developers are a little clueless as to how this will be adopted -- if it takes off at all. I hope it does. More importantly, I hope I can get my hands on this to evaluate it.
Dimensions: 12.1"X 6.6" X 0.8"
Weight: 2.3 lbs
Screen 8.4" color screen, 20 GB drive, WiFi, Bluetooth, built-in keyboard, Linux OS, Intel Xscale processor. Lists for $800, on special for $650.
Posted by Murli N at 4/26/2006 02:05:00 PM
Friday, March 24, 2006
Apparently, one out of 12 men is colorblind (it's lower for women). This is a neat technology. It allows colorblind computer users to filter and modify colors to enable them to use the computer more effectively,especially when messages, buttons and other elements tend to be coded for color. Here's what the website says:
eyePilot is designed as an interactive floating window (Capture Window) that can be layered over any web or browser window on your computer screen. The eyePilot tools then can be put to work.That's a nice user interface trick -- having a floating window as a visible layer you can place over the screen. Here's how color is used:
Gray: Isolates all instances of a single color by keeping everything that is that color unchanged and graying out all other colors. This makes it very clear which content is represented by a specific color.
cell phone coverage maps
Flash: When any spot of one color is clicked on, this tool flashes as white or black all other instances of that color in the frame.
Name: When the name of a color (red, green, orange, etc.) is clicked on in a list, this tool flashes as white or black all instances of that color in the frame.
Hue: This tool interactively the rearranges all the colors in the capture frame, allowing you to find a setting where the color information is more easily differentiated.
Update (March 24, 2006; 07:54 pm): Reader Daniel has reviewed eyePilot here. He finds it to be a good product, but with a couple of bugs that need ironing out. Thanks, Daniel.
Posted by Murli N at 3/24/2006 07:25:00 AM
Thursday, March 16, 2006
A few things we can say about design and organizations in general. Simple organizations (typically) can only produce simple designs (products, services). Complex products and services are possible only from complex organizations.
While the essential Space Shuttle concept is very simple -- send it up into space like a conventional rocket and make it land like a conventional airplane -- the Shuttle project and mission is a highly complex operation. Practically every aspect of the shuttle mission requires highly specific yet advanced expertise that is a product of innate talent and years, perhaps decades of experience. The Shuttle mission is a mind-bogglingly complex project that could be accomplished only by means of an appropriately complex organization -- NASA -- made up of thousands of individuals working separately, but in a co-ordinated manner, on distinct aspects of the mission.
The complexity of NASA could have been predicted from systems theorist W. Ross Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety which in essence states that "variety absorbs variety" -- in the instance of NASA, it implies that a project as complex as the Shuttle Mission could be accomplished only by means of an organization that matches it in its complexity.
Of course, this begs the question - what is a "simple" or "complex" organization? An organization's complexity derives from several dimensions. The number of elements -- for instance, people or employees - is a major component of complexity. The more the number of people, the greater the variety of skills, experience, perspectives, and also the ability to perform several tasks, especially in parallel. Parallelism of activity is another aspect of complexity: the greater the number and variety of activities carried out in parallel, the greater the complexity. The variety and number of linkages among people and activities is another dimension. The actual number of activities carried out is yet another. And so on.
The above discussion leads us to the following assertion:
A. Complex designs emerge only from complex organizationsA corollary that follows from the above is that a simple organization cannot design and manage complexity; simple organizations are limited to generating simple designs. Thus, in contrast to a shuttle mission, a simple organization is limited to designing and building go-karts, scooters small toys, etc. We state the corollary as follows:
B. Simple organizations can produce only simple designsNote the lack of symmetry in the above assertions: the one leads from design to organization, while the other runs in the opposite direction. It gets more interesting. Two non-obvious corollaries derive from A and B:
A-2. Complex organizations can produce only complex designsLarge, complex organizations find it almost impossible to produce simple, elegant, easy-to-use products. Such products seem to emerge primarily from small organizations. New ideas and innovations tend to be relatively simple -- it takes time to build up the complexity of a new idea. New ideas in the raw are relatively transparent -- their purpose and usage is often directly and immediately evident. They address one or a few needs very well and in a manner that is clear to a user. Over time, as the organization grows in size and complexity, the new idea takes on many new features and aspects, baggage heaped on by other elements of an increasingly complex organization. More often than not, the original design begins to feel the strain and eventually collapses under the all the added weight. At that point, it is time for a new design to emerge.
B-2. Simple designs emerge only from simple organizations
Why do organizations grow in complexity? Further, as they complexify, why does the product become increasingly complex? Success brings with it affirmation and money, and a need to feed the demands of the marketplace. Such demands can be addressed only by taking on more people and activities -- more complexity. Over time, the additional people feel the need to justify their presence and leave a mark on the product or service by increasing its complexity. Over time, their emotional investment in or clarity of understanding of the original design or its purpose ebbs, and even might vanish completely.
As the design begins to break under the weight of extensions and additions, the organization desperately seeks fixes and new designs. Radical new designs, unfortunately, fail to emerge from within the organization. The organization has become far too complex to produce simple, elegant designs. Necessarily, then, the organization seeks new designs from small startups who can only produce simple, elegant designs. These are then acquired by the large corporation and incorporated into its product and service line.
Cases in point
Many corporations -- including Apple and Microsoft -- tried producing handheld devices, but tiny Palm was the first to succeed in the marketplace. Because of its limited resources it was capable of producing only a simple and elegant solution which, for that very reason, was wildly successful. Microsoft and Apple, despite -- and indeed, because -- of their large size and complexity, could think and design only in complex terms thereby generating unsuccessful designs.
Palm succeeded, but in the end, that success caused the founder, Jeff Hawkins, to leave and establish a new startup called Handspring which returned the PDA to its basics. Eventually, Handspring designed the very successful Treo, which was acquired later by Palm and is now its most successful product. So successful has Treo been, in fact, that practically every PDA phone that has come into the market rips-off ... er ... is inspired by ... its design.
Another successful design from a tiny, simple organization is the RIM Blackberry - it has a fanatical, cult-like following.
Windows will never, ever become an elegant design -- MS is far too complex an organization for that ever to happen. In fact, MS can never again produce a simple design -- it goes against their DNA.
How does one explain Apple's iPod, then? No one can doubt that it is indeed a very simple and elegant product -- too simple, too lacking in bells and whistles, by some accounts. While Apple is a large, complex organization, the iPod itself came from a small group under the direct supervision of iCeo Steve Jobs. The original idea for the iPod in fact is believed to have come from a small startup that Apple swallowed. Apple under Steve Jobs has stuck to its fanatical refusal to complexify its product line, and as long as that situation prevails, one can expect more simple and elegant designs from them. Here's some insight into the contrasting styles of Steve Jobs' Apple and Bill Gates' Microsoft with respect to design, from a Macobserver article:
Mr. Ligameri's experience at Microsoft was decidedly different, beginning with the contrasting management styles of the two companies. No Microsoft executive plays such an active role in the development of design like Mr. Jobs does at Apple; executives prefer to delegate design to the experts and stay out of it. Whereas Apple developed Mac OS X in complete secrecy and released it without any user testing whatsoever (a point Mr. Ratzlaff acknowledged surely led to some of the more glaring shortcomings that were corrected with Mac OS X 10.1), Microsoft has a penchant for demonstrating software long before its release, a poor and often frustrating decision in Mr. Ligameri's opinion. [Ratlaff worked on MacOSX at Apple and Ligameri on Windows XP/Vista at Microsoft. Both now work for Frogdesign. - ed.]One person's dictatorial control over a design actually led to simpler designs, even though it might result in, possibly, an incomplete feature set. Delegating a design to a "team of experts" results in a "more complete design" which is typically more complex. Those who go for usability prefer the simple design; those who prefer functionality prefer the complex design.
There is a more detailed report on the Ratliff/Ligameri panel discussion at Functioning Form. Note especially:
What were you trying to accomplish with these release of your operating system?So Apple goes for simplicity. There's more:
- Apple: we were targeting newer users (never used before; coming from other platforms). It was about simplifying the UI. A lot of junk had accumulated over the years: 7-8 ways to manage windows, etc. The team came up with the column browser and moved things into the dock, which got a lot of criticism when first released.
Different Design Principles
Apple has been criticized for hiding too many features and actions from users. Microsoft has been called out for making things too complicated: too many options at once. What drives these differences?The last point made by MS is funny yet true. Here's a post from leading Web 2.0 outfit 37signals' Signal vs. Noise blog:
- Apple: We focus on key things that people want to do. What’s used most frequently or is most important? Do not let edge cases get in way of major tasks. This makes it harder to do some less important things. We had a good sense of our audience and what they are trying to do so we were able to prioritize.
- Microsoft: Windows is definitely “wordier”. It spells things out a bit more. The Mac is beautiful if you want to do one or two things. Windows pulls all the drawers out at once and asks: "what do you want"?
- Apple: The login screen shakes if you enter an incorrect name but has no error message or text.
- Microsoft: "They're Mac users they'll blame themselves."
And finally, read this one: Why features don't matter anymore: The new rules of digital technology. Key points: Less is more; user experience is paramount. Wow, this is getting more and more interesting: This post says, Complexity is the reason for 50% of customer returns. If you have the bandwidth watch this really well-done and amusing YouTube video on how Microsoft would complexify iPod's packaging.
Innovation more often than not comes from constraints. From not being able to blow billions without immediate needs for returns.
One of the first things Jobs did when he returned to the helm at Apple was to slaughter the unprofitable product lines and focus the ship. Not launch a ton of initiatives on top of what was already there.
Given the contrasting benefits of Usable Simplicity and Complex Functionality (note the asymmetric adjective-noun pairing) it is impossible to pick a single winner; opinion will be divided based on individual preference for usability or functionality. Indeed, the cultlike animus that exists between Mac and DOS/Windows users is typically founded on this preferential contrast.
Interestingly, there are critics of Usable Simplicity even among the pantheon of Usability Experts. User Interface God Don Norman is none too impressed with Google. He says:
Look, I like Google. It's a great search engine. But I am sick and tired of hearing people praise its clean, elegant look. Hell, all search engines have that clean elegant part to them: type your search terms into the box and hit "Enter."
"Oh," people rush to object, "the Google search page is so spare, clean, elegant, not crowded with other stuff."
True, but that's because you can only do one thing from their home page: search. Anybody can make a simple-looking interface if the system only does one thing. If you want to do one of the many other things Google is able to do, oops, first you have to figure out how to find it, then you have to figure out which of the many offerings to use, then you have to figure out how to use it. And because all those other things are not on the home page but, instead, are hidden away in various mysterious places, extra clicks and operations are required for even simple tasks — if you can remember how to get to them.
Why are Yahoo! and MSN such complex-looking places? Because their systems are easier to use. Not because they are complex, but because they simplify the life of their users by letting them see their choices on the home page: news, alternative searches, other items of interest. Yahoo! even has an excellent personalization page, so you can choose what you wish to see on that first page.
Is Google simple? No. Google is deceptive. It hides all the complexity by simply showing one search box on the main page. The main difference, is that if you want to do anything else, the other search engines let you do it from their home pages, whereas Google makes you search through other, much more complex pages.Don Norman might be God, but mere mortals -- countless millions of them -- still appear to count on Google. Here is a sample of comments on Norman's essay:
Perhaps the people who praise Google (myself being one of them) are simply using the search engine to do just that—search. When landing on the Yahoo! page, the numerous options are distracting, almost to the point that I forget why I came there in the frist place.Don Norman may have become a victim of his own expertise: he knows so much about the subject that he has forgotten what it is like to be a regular user. Google is a very large organization today, and that itself would make it rather complex. It is to Google's credit that it has defied that odds and manage to retain the simplicity of the idea and design that launched the company. This requires effort and focus -- and perhaps a certain dictatorial oversight -- much as in the case of Apple under Steve Jobs.
Google’s design is conducive to focused work. It may require more clicks to find the tool you want, but when you get there you can be more productive.
You can’t be all things to all people, so Google have decided to build a great search engine and make it blindingly obvious on the homepage that that is the core of what they want you to do.
Personally I prefer this approach to the information overload of Yahoo or MSN. I don’t have to think about whether I’m looking for X, Y or Z; I just search.
In the case of Google, I suspect the overwhelming use is for general web search, so other features perhaps do belong a page deeper. Of course, by sticking other features deeper in the hierarchy, the high frequency of using Google for general search only tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but maybe that’s a business decision that Google took consciously. Or maybe they figured that if a user really uses something like Google Scholar, they’ll have a direct favorite to it, pushing the decision to yet another level higher in the hierarchy.
Posted by Murli N at 3/16/2006 12:15:00 PM
Monday, March 13, 2006
Jeff Hawkins is among the most influential engineers of the past decade that most people don't know. He designed the original Palm Pilot and later the Handspring (and then Palm) Treo. He was also the designer of the first commercial pen-based computer, the Gridpad, back in the 1980's. For all this, Hawkins does not have a Ph.D. -- he is a BS in engineering from Cornell. Hawkins' designs for the Palm Pilot and Treo has influenced the design of practically all PDAs and PDA/phones on the market. Microsoft, after three major failed attempts at building a handheld device, finally copied Palm's design wholesale before it met with success.
"If you look at the history of big obstacles in understanding our world, there's usually an intuitive assumption underlying them that's wrong. In the case of the Solar System it was intuitively obvious that the Earth was at the center of the Solar System and things moved around us, but that just turned out to be wrong. ... And it intuitively seems correct that the brain is just some sort of computer -- it just seems natural. ... But it has undermined almost all of our work to build intelligent machines and understand thinking. It's just wrong ... the brain isn't like a computer at all."
Jeff Hawkins (born June 1, 1957 in Long Island, New York) is the founder of Palm ComputingPalmPilot) and Handspring (where he invented the Treo). He has since turned to work on neuroscience full-time and has founded the Redwood Neuroscience Institute and published On Intelligence describing his memory-prediction framework theory of the brain. He holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Cornell University. In 2003 he was elected as a member of the National Academy of Engineering "for the creation of the hand-held computing paradigm and the creation of the first commercially successful example of a hand-held computing device."
"Since he read a special issue of Scientific American on the brain, Hawkins has always been interested in studying how brains work. Initially, he attempted to start a new department on the subject at his then-employer Intel, who refused. He also attempted to join the MIT AI Lab, but they rejected him. He eventually decided he would try to find success in the computer industry and then try to use it to support his serious work on brains."
Posted by Murli N at 3/13/2006 08:47:00 AM
Friday, March 10, 2006
One week ago, my Handspring Visor Deluxe Grapite (products just don't have simple names anymore), my beloved and trusted companion of four years, almost to the day, died. Like in the Monty Python skit, it gave up the ghost, kicked the bucket, met its maker, popped it, croaked. Well, it started dying and is as good as dead, having become uncommunicative and rapidly losing its memory. Let's just say it is dead.
I couldn't believe the day would come. Especially since I hadn't backed up the thing in five months. Luckily, my social calendar has been rather slim in recent times, and not much has been lost (I think).
I bought my first PDA - another Handspring Visor Deluxe - but Ice, a translucent white - in March 2001, for @ 249 plus tax from the local CompUSA. I had been eyeing PalmOS PDAs for a while, but could not justify the high price. But then, Jeff Hawkins [also here, here and here], the founder of Palm, left to found Handspring and the price became low enough that I couldn't hold myself anymore. I was the proud and loyal owner of this device for 10 months until some evil troll stole it from my office. By then I had become addicted and couldn't wait to get another one -- and couldn't justify paying another two and a half large clams. I found a deal at the Handspring website for a refurbished Graphite (i.e. Black -- you gotta have a fancy name) Visor Deluxe for just $99 and free shipping. I wondered if it was worth buying a refurbished device. Now I wonder no more -- it has lasted longer than many new ones.
Since 2002, Palm's fortunes have waned. Microsoft's PocketPC is now ruling the roost. MS offers you the benefit of buying an inferior PDA -- except in color and with all kinds of unnecessary features -- for many hundred dollars. I ain't interested. The Palm's merits were manifold -- it was:
> very simple to use
> relative inexpensive
> runs on easily available AAA batteries
What more could a person want? In contrast, PocketPC is:
> complicated -- and in fact, mimics Windows (why, pray, on a handheld?)
What more could a person hate?
But MS is able to get away with it. I am desperate for a replacement, but cannot accept PocketPC. But Handspring has been swallowed by Palm and now has slimmed down its product range. The new products are much less reliable, much slower, much more expensive, run only on hard-to-remove, proprietary, rechargeable batteries ... you get the picture. And the only low end Palm -- the Zire 22 is also reported on Amazon as being rather unreliable. What's a body to do? I found a used Handspring Visor Graphite on Amazon for $49. I hope it works, for I have already ordered it. Maybe it has already arrived in my mailbox at work. I await, anxiously.
By the way, Hawkins is a genius. He's just about as old as I am and has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering.
Posted by Murli N at 3/10/2006 10:46:00 PM
Thursday, March 09, 2006
MIT researchers have developed an intersting new experimental reading interface called Speeder Reader where the reader uses a steering wheel to "steer" to various textual material and a gas pedal to scroll the text to the point where the reader's eyes are focused. The gas pedal can be used to speed up or slow down reading.
Blog update: March 16, 2006
Microsoft isn't far behind with this "incorporate foot into interface" trend. They are working on what they call a StepUI as reported by PhysOrg. Here is MS's justification:
"When you drive a car, play a piano or operate a sewing machine, you deftly use both your hands and your feet. Why don't we do that with a computer?" reads a StepUI project description. The project, which currently includes prototype e-mail and photo navigation software, has put forward the idea that while foot-based motions are certainly not more efficient than using a keyboard and mouse, they can supplement the motions and increase efficiency. "Here's an application:
During a demonstration of the technology, an employee maneuvered through several programs via a floor-based dance pad controller similar to the one used for Konami's best-selling Dance Revolution movement game. From then on, he began to navigate through an e-mail program, stamping out unwanted spam mail before moving over to a customized photo program and beginning to organize a photo catalog via the dance pad. Nice idea, though we can expect Microsoft to mess the whole thing up. Eventually, a teeny three person startup will produce a really good application which MS will buy up and market as its own. MS really doesn't have a choice -- it has too many smart people with too much of of time and money to produce really simple, elegant designs (see my March 16 post on complexity and organizations).
Posted by Murli N at 3/09/2006 11:00:00 PM
Microsoft introduces samples of its new "Origami" handheld solution today. Another in a long line of full-hearted, but ultimately, misdirected forays by Microsoft into handheld computing. We remember Microsoft's Windows CE which morphed into Palm-sized PC and the PocketPC over four versions before becoming accepted in the marketplace -- and that too only because of MS's corporate presence. Then there have been various versions of Microsoft's Tablet PC which have met with some success in limited niche markets (retail, field sales, insurance).
Any doubts I had about this were dispersed when I read this on The Register:
Read and weep. The article continues:
Microsoft's 'Origami' is no more than a new user interface for a tablet PC - Intel's mini-tablet form factor Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC), to be precise. Intel showed several machines it described as prototypes and reference platforms at its developer forum this week, and we have pictures.
Wintel has been trying to make this kind of computer a success for 15 years, dating back to the WinPad, and Bill Gates hinted at a reborn Tablet almost a year ago. But small PCs have proved to be a graveyard for manufacturers.'Origami' component is not a new OS, merely a layer on top of Windows. But it seems all you have to do is put up an empty teaser website to send pajama pundits into paroxysms of anticipation.
All the disadvantages and none of the benefits. And finally,
The drawbacks to a UMPC are immediately apparent. This year's UMPCs have a battery life of just two hours, and will cost up to $1,000. That's twice as much as today's laptops, which are faster, have a more readable screen, and the convenience of a full keyboard.
And twice as much as PDA-style devices, which turn on in a second or two.
UMPCs were trailed as having the form factor of "a paperback book". But few paperbacks weigh as much as 2lbs, and are too large for the pocket.
The Microsoft Way!
But for now it looks like a heck of a clunker. Great things should be expected next year, we were told.Ain't that always the case?
Unfortunately, Microsoft looks at all markets only as possible extensions to its Windows frachise and builds machines that mimic Windows' look and feel even if such a thing is entirely inappropriate for the purpose. Palm took off because it had an interface that was just right for handheld mobile needs even though it had no resemblance to desktop interfaces. Absurdly enough, MS builds the PocketPC with a Windows-like interface, complete with task bar and Start menu. And now, Origami has the same Windows-like interface.
The desktop interface is long past its prime -- its heyday was back in the 1980's before the advent of multi-media and the WWW. Today, we need an entire different interface -- and I have no idea what it will look like, but the desktop interface is not it. Let's recall that the desktop metaphor was developed at Xerox in the 1970's to support the activities of Xerox - "the document company'. Computing has gone far, far beyond "documents". A typical home computer has tens, if not hundreds of thousands of files -- a far cry from the dozen or so desktop documents one saw on a typical Xerox Alto machine in the 1970's.
We need leadership and creativity to generate new interface paradigms for 21st century interfaces -- but we are unlikely to get that from Microsoft. Despite being the best-endowed It corporation in the world both financially and also in terms of intellectual talent, Microsoft has become another General Motors -- a cynical purveyor of mediocre products. Perhaps we need to await for the IT equivalent of the 1970's oil crisis to shake up the marketplace.
Posted by Murli N at 3/09/2006 10:03:00 PM
Monday, January 23, 2006
Being an Apple hound for the past 20 years and all, and with the fulsome praise lavished on Apple's iLife suite, you might expect me to do likewise. Perish the thought. Over the past weekend, I was forced to learn how to create a slide presentation with audio track for a presentation at my son's school. I had to fight iMovie tooth and nail to figure out how to perform what should be a very simple task: adding a title frame. Yes, I read the help files too, the one that comes with the program and several online. There is no easy way to understand how this is done. I spent a lot of time trying to drag all kinds of elements onto my film strip. No dice. I finally figured it out, after many frustrating hours. Windows Movie Maker does this the right way. A novice would have absolutely no problem at all editing a movie or a slide show. A novice to iMovie, however, would leave frustrated. All this assumes that the user does not spend hours at a manual before embarking on this voyage -- which is how it should be. Sure, iMovie includes bling like the "famous Ken Burns" effect which makes stills move and generate the appearance of a movie. But that's just icing on the cake. The cake itself, is hard to eat.
I never thought the day would come when I would actually praise a Windows application and diss the equivalent Apple app; but it has, and how sorry I feel about it all.
I don't want to get started with iDVD yet, but there is steam to be let off on that application too.
I do agree that iPhoto is an excellent application, although Google's free-to-download Picasa does beat it in some areas.
Posted by Murli N at 1/23/2006 11:03:00 PM