Thursday Nov 11, 2004

Wanted by the Police : A Good Interface

On the vagaries of installing a new Windows-based touchscreen interface in San Jose police cars...

Wednesday Nov 03, 2004

Tabbed browsing security

An interesting article over at The Register highlighting how tabbed browsers can increase the risk of phishing. There are a couple of concrete recommendations that I guess Epiphany should take on board (if they haven't already-- Firefox and Konqueror are already on the case):

  • Keep the user informed as to which tab is responsible for any popup dialog boxes.
  • Don't allow inactive tabs to spawn dialog boxes in the first place.

Of course, if everyone followed the HIG and didn't use tabbed MDI interfaces, we wouldn't have the problem, right? :o) (Kidding!)

Tuesday Nov 02, 2004

See What You Can't Do

It's not entirely fair to say that there's no UI design or testing on mobile phones... the company I worked for ten years ago did a lot of work with Motorola in that area, I was round the Nokia Usability labs about five years ago (they even wrote a book about their methods, "Mobile Usability: How Nokia Changed the Face of the Phone"), and here at Sun, we publish UI guidelines for mobile devices running Java (v1.0, v2.0). So people have been worrying about this sort of thing since before mobile phones became a mass-market consumer product.

One problem, other than the never-ending feature vs. miniaturisation competition between manufacturers, is that it's actually quite difficult to usability test a mobile phone in the conventional sense... you can't strap a camera to somebody's head and follow them around all day, and expect them to behave naturally. So often you end up having to test in some sort of lab-- which is artificial enough for a desktop product, but at least you would normally use a desktop product sitting at a computer in a room somewhere.

Personally I think the more difficult they are to use the better anyway-- if I wasn't so mild-mannered and likeable, most people who used one within fifty yards of me would be a good candidate for a slap :) (And apparently I'm not the only one, according to Andrew Monk's study.)

Wednesday Sep 22, 2004

Exploding threads

mozilla-accessibility list has exploded.

We posted a proposed keyboard navigation spec for Mozilla there towards the end of last week, and there have been well over 200 replies so far. Mostly from visually impaired users and assistive technology developers (i.e. people who know what they're talking about), and with disappointingly-few "me toos" among them, so we're actually having to read them all :)

Tragically the archives don't seem to be working, so you'll just have to take my word for it...

Wednesday Aug 25, 2004

My Name in Lights

Well, in print anyway... my OSS usability article was published in Issue 60 of Interfaces this week, and my copy popped through the door today. Any of you going along to HCI2004 in Leeds next month will get your own complimentary copy :)

Friday Aug 20, 2004

Mini Pops

Offensive as the brick-like monstrosities that purport to be Minis these days are, their advertising monkeys do at least have a sense of humour. Hang around on their website for long enough, and see what pops up...

Sorry Steven...

D'oh... the missing email finally turned up-- Evolution had somehow managed to sneak it into my Local Folders Inbox, which I never look at.

Apologies to Steven Garrity, who probably thinks me very rude for not replying. By way of some recompense, here's the article he wrote that he was trying to tell me about: The Rise of Interface Elegance in Open Source Software.

Saturday Jul 17, 2004

Desktop usability at Sun

Spent an hour or so chatting to Dirk Ruiz yesterday, who's recently been put in charge of usability for Sun's desktop projects. Sounds like we're putting together a really good full-time team at last to give JDS and Looking Glass the works, rather than giving the work to whoever's available that week (which was usually only me, for the GNOME stuff at least).

Tuesday Jun 29, 2004


Gah, just seen a sign for an impromptu usability BOF that happened an hour ago. What did I miss, guys?

Thursday Jun 24, 2004

Open source usability

Okay, I know this is an old article now, but I've just been reading it again and think it's still worth a mention.

Wednesday Jun 16, 2004

D.I.Y. Usability Scenarios

Vicky pointed me at an interesting post by Donna Maurer today about a novel way to choose scenarios for a usability study-- have the users do it themselves. Not something you'd want to do every time, as she says, but it would certainly be fun to try sometime.

Tuesday Jun 15, 2004

CHI 2004 trip report

Yes, I know it's been nearly two months, but I've finally been prompted by a meeting next week to do a short write-up of the sessions I attended at CHI 2004 in April.

It all started with, amongst other things, the presentation of a Lifetime Service award to our very own Robin Jeffries. Followed by...

Opening Plenary

Jun Rekimoto unfortunately isn't the most fluent of English speakers (and why would he be), so this session was harder work than I was hoping for first thing in the morning :) Amongst other things, he talked about his work on pick and drop, augmented surfaces, and other collaborative environments-- including a classroom with a shared display at the front of the class on which students were allowed to rate the quality of the lecture as it progressed. Unfortunately some of the more interesting questions from the panel and audience were somewhat lost in the translation... which is a good trick if you can get away with it :)

Games: What's my Method?

Chose this one in the hope that it would ease me in gently. Cornily-staged as a game show in its own right, this session looked at whether conventional usability techniques (ehtnography, contextual enquiry, biometric measurement etc.) could apply equally to games. The conclusion, following some entertaining video clips from gaming usability studies, was an unsurprising "mostly yes".

Video Visions of the Future: a Critical Review

A panel chaired by our very own Eric Bergman, looking at 'vision videos' from the past (such as Sun's Starfire and Apple's Knowledge Navigator), and asking why many of the features predicted for the present day never quite happened the way we thought they would. I don't recall many concrete answers (caveat: this was two months ago and I wasn't taking notes), but it was certainly fun seeing all those videos again...

Mark my Memories

A short paper session, the most memorable of which was probably Stu Card's 3Book: A Scalable 3D Virtual Book. Essentially a 3D represenation of any scanned-in book, one of its more interesting features is its ability to create degree-of-interest indices based on its contents. I left unconvinced that the 3D aspect (accurately rendered down to the animation of turning pages) was little more than a gimmick, though.

Also presented was Photo Annotation on a Camera Phone. Making use of a phone's camera and internet connection to do something useful seemed to be a common theme this year, but speaking as somebody who wishes that the only thing you could do with cellphones is dial 911 or a breakdown service, I'm afraid it didn't really grab me.

Designing the Humane Interface

Amidst glossy tales of redesigns and Carlson Marketing corporate reward scheme templates, the paper that stood out for me here was from the Universities of Dundee and St. Andrews: a carer-driven system for "reminiscence therapy" with dementia patients, with which they can stimulate conversation by accessing multimedia clips, typically of sights or sounds from the patients' childhood (rather than of friends and family, which apparently tend to have a negative effect). This seemingly simple approach-- reported here by the BBC-- seems to be remarkably successful.

Can You See me Now?

Three papers presented here: one on mouse and touchscreen selection in the upper and lower visual fields, and one on how varying icon spacing changes users' visual search strategy, about which I was mostly none the wiser afterwards.

The paper I was most interested in was a comparison of the effects of quantisation vs. frame rate for streamed video (of soccer match highlights, in this case). Its unexpected conclusion was that contrary to most service providers' Quality of Service policies, users actually prefer high quality to high frame rate (for fast moving sports, at least). And also that, perhaps because of the comparative novelty, people seem willing to pay up to $10 a month for surprisingly-poor quality video.

Finding your Way

From these papers, I was most interested in IBM's reMail talk, given our involvement with Evolution and Glow. Was disappointed, though... pretty much everything of any use is already available in Evolution. And slightly bafflingly, one of the features most popular with its users was apparently its Thread Arcs visualisation, which allow you to see a selected email in the context of its response hierarchy. Er... tree view, anyone?

Another camera-phone paper here too: the idea of this one is that you could retrieve information about a particular building or other tourist attraction by taking a picture of it. The picture is sent back to a server that compares it with other textually-annotated pictures that people have taken from the same location. If the photo is determined to be of something that somebody else has already photographed, a web search is carried out on the annotation, thus returning to your phone within a few seconds all sorts of information about whatever you've just photographed.


My personal highlight of the conference: a presentation by the guys who invented the ESP Game. Inspired by the huge fascination with sites like Hot or Not, the team from Carnegie Mellon hit upon the ingenious idea of labelling every image on the web-- a massive, non-automatable problem-- by having you and I do it for them, in the form of a game.

It's easier just to visit the site and play it (it doesn't seem to work behind Sun's firewall, though), rather than read an explanation. But basically it's a kind of web-based Pictionary-style affair in which two randomly-selected human opponents, unknown to each other and unable to communicate, have to agree on a single word that describes a randomly-selected image. Words that have been agreed on for that image by previous players are also "taboo". Consequently, the agreed-upon words are almost guaranteed to be descriptive of the image (and there are some built-in safeguards to filter out those that aren't), as there's no way to influence what your partner will type.

At the time of the presentation, about 6-10 descriptive words had been recorded for around 4 million images from (although the labels are not yet, as far as I know, used by google or any other search engine). Right now there's only an English version of the ESP Game, but the concept is of course pretty much applicable to any language. (And apparently, even the English version is very popular with Japanese students trying to learn English...)

HCI Overviews

A turnout of about 80 people for our talk on open source usability, which wasn't bad for first thing in the morning after the CHI Reception. And no tricky questions either :)


A few photos from Vienna here...

Closing Plenary

By Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, on designing "technology experiences" and "experiences enabled by technology". Examples included a design study for Prada, a huge interactive display for Vodafone headquarters that can be controlled via your mobile phone, and an art exhibit featuring chairs that projected an image of your clothing onto the back of the chair when you sat in them-- the electronic equivalent of hanging your jacket on the back. Tim also discussed the differences between "top down" design, which typically results in a scripted, controlled experience (e.g. Disneyworld), and the rarer "bottom up" design, which gives a more organic, continually-evolving experience (his examples included eBay and NTT DoCoMo).

Everything wrapped up with a cringeworthy musical number to publicise next year's conference, and a video about Portland, Oregon that I'm guessing still hasn't quite finished yet.

Monday Jun 14, 2004


Gah... somebody at Sun sent me a link to an article that he thought might be useful background reading for my possible OSS Usability article for Interfaces, and now I can't find the email. If you're reading this, can you send it again please?!

GIMP usability

Alan Horkan (link still b0rked at time of posting) pointed us at a sneak preview of the results of a GIMP usability study by Relevantive today. How far open source usability has come that such a thing was even contemplated... and how far we've still got to go :)

Friday Jun 11, 2004

Fame at last

Was invited this morning to write an article about open source usability for the British Computer Society's quarterly HCI journal, Interfaces. Hopefully I'll have time to do something more than just a re-hash of our recent CHI paper...


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.


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