Friday, March 24, 2006

eyePilot: Help for the colorblind

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.
weather maps
financial charts
subway maps
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.
pie charts
bar charts
weather maps
flow charts

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.
traffic maps
catalog illustrations
graphic arts

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.
colored text
complex maps
scatter charts
engineering drawings


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.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The impact of Organizational Complexity on Design

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 organizations
A 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 designs
Note 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 designs
B-2. Simple designs emerge only from simple organizations
Large, 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.

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?
  • 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.
So Apple goes for simplicity. There's more:
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?
  • 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."
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:

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.

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.

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.

He adds:
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.

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.
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.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Jeff Hawkins, creative engineering dude

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.

Hawkins' Gridpad has influenced most attempts at designing pen-based computers, including the MS Tablet PC.
This quote from Hawkins is worth pondering over (do visit the site):
"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."
Hawkins' current initiatives include:
He also has a book detailing his research:
Here's what the wikipedia entry says about him:
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."
How did he get to where he is now?
"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."
Sometimes, the path from point A to point B is via points W, G, M and Q. It's taken Hawkins 20 years to finally do what he always really wanted to do, but rather than twiddle his thumbs along the way, he invented some pretty neat devices, made a lot of money, and that's what he is now using to pursue his dreams.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Eulogizing a dead PDA

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
> reliable
> snappy
> 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?)
> expensive
> crappy
> slow

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.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Reading as driving

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).

The problem with Microsoft's Origami

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:

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.
Read and weep. The article continues:

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.

All the disadvantages and none of the benefits. And finally,

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?
The Microsoft Way!

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.