Wednesday Mar 26, 2014


For those of you, like me, who can never remember the difference between responsive and adaptive web layouts, you might want to bookmark No wonder I still prefer designing desktop apps :)

Monday Jul 05, 2010

Whatever happened to fluid design?

I was intrigued by this Firefox heat map (which I came across via @smashingmag), showing which parts of the Firefox chrome users interact with most.

In particular, I was surprised by how much the horizontal scrollbar is used, with almost half of all users (and more than half of the Linux users) using it at some point during the study. I was also intrigued by why OS X users use the scrollbar so much less than Linux and Windows users. Darren suggested it might be because Mac laptops have had multi-touch gestures for horizontal scrolling for a few years now, which seems plausible—could also explain why Linux users made the most use of the scrollbars, as Linux touchpad drivers aren't always as full-featured as their proprietary counterparts.

Anyway, it prompted this little rant about fluid design (aka liquid layout). This always used to be one of the number one considerations for good web page design. Horizontal scrolling in particular was meant to be avoided wherever possible, as it's both physically more demanding (at least with a mouse or keyboard—less so with touchpad or touchscreen gesture) and more disruptive to task flow than vertical scrolling.

With web pages more likely to be viewed in a wider range of window sizes and screen resolutions than ever before, this tenet seems like it should be more important now than ever. Of course, the sorts of things we do on the web today are somewhat different from what we did ten years ago, and fluid design isn't always possible or desirable for all of them. Nonetheless, many of the fixed width designs you see these days are just annoyingly unnecessary.

Sometimes it's because designers or their clients are unwilling to have their pixel-perfect vision compromised by users deigning to view it into a smaller window than they've designed it for. Sometimes it's down to inflexible or poorly-customized web content management systems, sometimes it's inexperience, sometimes just laziness.

Anyway, next time you're designing a website, please just think about how and where people might actually want to use it. And bear in mind that grumpy old men like me won't visit it very often if you make us scroll horizontally even just to see to all the navigation links across the top of your homepage, merely because we choose not to fill our entire screen with your website :)

Tuesday Mar 02, 2010

GNOME Usability Hackfest

Back in the Dublin office today after last week's GNOME Usability Hackfest in London, during which I didn't blog nearly enough.

My main goal for the week was to help figure out a plan to revise the GNOME Human Interface Guidelines, which I originally helped to write almost a decade ago, but which really haven't kept pace with the changes in either hardware or software technology over the past 5 years.

The notes from all the discussions we had aren't all that impressive to look at, but I think the key thing is the general agreement to have less monolithic text, and switch to more of a pattern library approach. This should allow us to react much more quickly to changing trends in GNOME UI design, maintain related patterns for different types of devices such as desktop, touchscreen and stylus devices, and even allow individual distros to customize the library with their own unique, in-house patterns if they so desire. (Which hopefully won't be too much, but it's clear that, for example, the GNOME-based Moblin UI is a different beast from the vanilla GNOME desktop, so the Moblin team will likely want to maintain some patterns of their own.)

I've already started to draft up a template for what a GNOME UI pattern might look like, and hope to flesh things out a bit more over the next couple of weeks.

Of course, many other things were discussed at the hackfest as well. Nautilus and gnome-shell were hot topics, as was the old chestnut of a GNOME control centre redesign--on that front, I ended up moderating a couple of card sorting sessions during the week where we had users categorize 100 settings into groups of their choice. Charlene from Canonical presented an Empathy usability report, partly to discuss the findings, but mostly to discuss how best to present such reports to GNOME developers. And of course, Seth's vision of a future GNOME desktop hit the headlines, making it to Ars Technica almost immediately!

On the community front, some ideas for improving the tools we use to analyse and report usability data were also discussed. And there was a strong presence from the accessibility community, to keep us all honest when coming up with anything new.

Many thanks, of course, to Google and Canonical for sponsoring the event, and particularly to the latter for hosting us in a 27th floor office so we didn't need to waste money on the London Eye :)

Thursday Jan 21, 2010

"The Future of UI Will Be Boring"

In the midst of all the hype, speculation and (in many cases) nonsense being talked about whatever it is Apple are going to be unveiling next week, it was refreshing to read Scott Berkun's reminder of why keyboards and mice definitely won't be going away anytime soon.

(His follow-up post, about the Limits of Innovation, is worth a read too.)

Tuesday Feb 03, 2009

Twitter Bowl

Some nice Twitter visualisation from the NY Times. (Although the score doesn't seem to update as it ought to, in Firefox at least.)

Monday Jan 12, 2009

Different day, same Places

A couple of years ago, I bemoaned the inconsistency of our presentation of bookmarks and places.

Last week I had cause to revisit the issue (for much the same reason as before—updating the OpenSolaris UI spec), hoping that things would have improved and I wouldn't have to suggest too many tweaks to the OpenSolaris layout to keep things nice and consistent.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like much has changed though, really, which is kind of disappointing. (Especially as seeing this bug marked as resolved had built up my hopes a little...)

Caveat: as in my original post, the latest release of Ubuntu (8.10, GNOME 2.24.1) was the closest I had to a community build when I was doing the comparison. So things may really be a little better or worse than they appear here, or may have been fixed in 2.25/2.26.

So I hacked up a quick diagram showing all the menus and sidebars where bookmarks and places appear, and aligned them on the "Home Folder" entry since that was about the only one that was consistently placed. Here's what I came up with:

Side-by-side comparison of bookmarks/places in Ubuntu 8.10

The plusses:

  • The two Places menus on the panel (one in the menubar applet, one in the main menu applet) are now identical, at least in Ubuntu. This is good to see, although most users won't see both at the same time anyway.
  • The Go and Places menus in Nautilus (browser mode and spatial mode respectively) are pretty consistent with each other too.

The minuses:

  • Inconsistent appearance/placement of mounted media, Computer, Desktop, Templates, File System, and CD/DVD Creator between sidebars and menus.

Of course, it would be wrong to complain without offering any proposals, and I'll get to that—just haven't got time today. The current draft of the OpenSolaris 2009.04 UI spec does include my first quick attempt, but that's currently based more on "least amount of work to fix" rather than "what might be most useful"... and we all know that's not really the way to do it, right kids? :)

Friday Apr 04, 2008

Seven new pennies

Not liking the new British coins all that much, I have to say.

Apart from the fact they look a lot like the cardboard money that I used to have in my toy cash register many years ago, they don't look very friendly to tourists who might have little or no English, and/or just bad eyesight. I'd have thought the first rule of currency design would be to use biggish numbers, not just (in some cases, tiny) words?

Sunday Aug 19, 2007

Free as in usability

The folks at have just released their e-book and DVD as free downloads, and there are a bunch of video podcasts too.

Tuesday Jun 05, 2007

FLOSS Usability Wiki

I wasn't at CHI this year so I don't know how this is likely to pan out, but one of the follow-up actions from the Usability and free/libre/open source software SIG: HCI expertise and design rationale was apparently to create this wiki. Will be keeping an eye on it to see what occurs...

Thursday Nov 30, 2006

Coding horror

What happens when you let developers design user interfaces :)

Tuesday Aug 15, 2006

OpenUsability: student sought for GIMP work

This just in:

"OpenUsability is looking for a student who works on the user interface for the next generation of the GNU Image Manipulation Program ( During a three-month cooperation, you will closely work together with Peter Sikking, principal interaction architect at M+MI Works ( Activities include methodically performing a full expert evaluation and analysis of the software, being fully involved in every decision, and performing the bulk of the project work. You will have a great opportunity to learn the ropes in interaction architecture in a project that matters."

For details and information how to apply, see

Friday Jul 28, 2006

Model Behaviour

I do wish mobile phone companies (well, Nokia in particular) would print model numbers somewhere on all their handsets. I've had three different ones now, and every time I go to buy an accessory, I can never remember which one I've got. (I think I currently have a 3100, and Julie has a 3220... but it could quite conceivably be the other way around. Or neither.)

Thursday Jul 20, 2006

"Don't you just love being in control?"

I don't know who designed the heating system in our house, but they could do with attending a usability course or two.

We have a gas combi boiler, which has three controls. One is a master on/off switch, with two settings-- "off" and "radiators" (according to the icons). The second is a thermostat, with no numerical legend, just another "radiator" icon. The third is a 24-hour timer with those annoying tiny pins you have to pop in and out, which also has its own three-setting on/off switch (on, off and timed).

On top of that, there's a thermostat in the hall with temperature markings on it, and a lever beside the hot tank to switch between "radiators and water" and "water only". Add to that the variable controls on the radiators themselves, and it certainly becomes quite a challenge to decide what to adjust when you're feeling a bit chilly.

Anyway, right now we have it set to "water only", and all the radiators are off, as it's 25C+ outside most days at the moment. This morning, I went for a shower (which takes the water from the hot tank), and there was no hot water.... the combi boiler hadn't come on in the early hours like it was supposed to. Went downstairs, checked the gas supply on the cooker... fine. Switched the timer switch from 'timed' to 'on', which should light the gas immediately... nothing. Tried switching the boiler off and back on again... nothing. Pressed the Reset button... nothing. The boiler doesn't have a pilot light, so I knew that wasn't the problem. And the front is screwed on, which suggested I shouldn't really try poking around in it.

Was on the verge of calling a heating engineer when I decided that the only control I hadn't played with was the thermostat in the hall, which was set to a reasonable enough 24C (well, "reasonable" if you disregard the fact that the radiators aren't turned on anyway). Turned it down... nothing. Turned it up, and... click, the boiler lit up. That's right, in our house you can't have hot water unless the radiator-controlling thermostat is set to something above room temperature, even when the radiators have been turned off for months. Marvellous.

Update: As somebody pointed out, the fact that I have a hot tank means the boiler isn't actually a combi, it just looks like one :) Doesn't really affect the gist of the tale though, so I won't bother editing it out...

Tuesday May 09, 2006

That was close...

Kudos to the Thunderbird team for adding a neck-saving feature (maybe it's been there forever, but I've only just encountered it tonight)... an alert that pops up when you try to send a mail using the keyboard shortcut rather than clicking Send. How I've laughed in the past whenever I've sent incomplete/embarrassing/borderline-litigious emails by mistake (usually when trying to use some other keyboard shortcut, followed by Enter) before I'd counted to ten and rewritten them :)

Now, you could well argue that it's a poor shortcut (Cmd-Enter on Mac, presumably Ctrl-Enter on others) that's easy to hit by mistake. But it's kind of a standard one these days, so the warning is appreciated in the meantime until they pick a better one.

Tuesday Dec 13, 2005

Web flashback

Heh... those of you who remember Jakob Nielsen's infamous Why Frames Suck article might find this Ajax spoof amusing...


I am a Principal UX Engineer in the Systems Experience Design team, working at Oracle (via Sun Microsystems) since the turn of the century. I currently work on sysadmin user experience projects for Solaris. Formerly I worked on open source Solaris desktop projects such as GNOME, NWAM and IPS.


« June 2016