Catalyze: A new community for people in the field of User Experience

26 06 2007


I’ve just started getting interested in a social/professional web resource called “Catalyze”. Basically it takes some elements of a professional networking site, like LinkedIn, and includes more collaborative blog rolling and resource gathering for people in the fields of usability, design, and business analysis.

I like it because I have been noticing articles, blogs, links, and interviews on the site that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Just the fact that it’s catered towards people like me, and it is community driven is a really attractive idea. I look forward to getting more involved and helping it to be a first-hand resource for user-centered professionals.

The site is backed by Usability Professionals Association (UPA) and International Institute of Business Analysts (IIBA).


Don’t feel stupid?

23 05 2007

Alan Cooper's BookI am currently reading Alan Cooper’s “The Inmates are Running the Asylum”. I just ordered “About Face 3” and I want to get his older book out of the way before I start the new one.

 In it, he makes the case that the number 1 goal for any user, with respect to computer applications, is to not feel stupid. most of us would probably roll right on over that and agree. Yes, our users should not feel  stupid and that should be a major concern.

 BUT, the way he has made the case really irks me. He claims it to be the user’s goal and I think that this is a harmful way to put it. Let me ask you- have you ever had the goal to “not feel stupid?”- aside from public situations where lots of people are watching you…

Goals are intentful.

The number one goal of a person using a piece of software has nothing to do with the software application or his/her fear of inadequacy. Those factors come in later. The goal of the person is to accomplish a personal feat- whether it be intrinsically motivated or extrinsically motivated.

For example, if I am using Quicken- my number one goal (meaning my ultimate goal for using the product) is to manage my finances. Aren’t satisfied? Well, picture a finance program that looks great, is usable, doesn’t make you feel stupid, yet doesn’t actually manage your finances. Let’s say that you feel empowered, but your finances are actually being managed incorrectly and your goal of organizing your spending is actually missed.

Here, we have an example of a usable program that is not useFUL. Yes, usefulness is still the number one priority of any tool we use, be it a software application or a thumbtack. If the tool is not useful, it doesn’t matter how it makes us feel or how easy it is to use.

Of course, there are execptions: like when we find ourselves desiring and owning items without funtional justification- like expensive jewelry, or stamp collections. BUT, even then one could argue that it’s satisfying the peron’s goal- even though that goal may be rediculous (I want to own a lot of sticky paper).

The point is, avoiding making someone feel stupid should be a very high priority. But, it will never be the number 1 priority. We have needs that are more important than our natural feelings of inadequacy. Those need to be satisfied first.

This is why user research and ethnographic observation methods are so important. If we are designing products (albeit usable) that are not needed or desired, then we are wasting our valuable talent and precious time!!! And this goes not only for entire products, but features as well…

New Career Alert

23 05 2007

I have just accepted the position of Interaction Designer at Mitchell International. Mitchell is a medium sized software company that caters to the automobile industry- especially in the insurance claim fields. I will be working with some really bright guys on a successful User Experience team. I am excited to get in there and start learning!

HP basketball courtI will miss my work at Hewlett Packard- and most importantly- my coworkers. But, it’s time for me to find a new direction and find a comfy home at a company that values my work as much as I feel I deserve. I start my new job on June 11th.

By the way- this is indeed the reason why I have not posted in a long time. It was exhausting trying to build my portfolio, move my blog (from blogger), hone my interviewing skills (or lack there of), keep my day job, and stay thoughtful and insightful enough to write at the same time. Hopefully, I will be able to find more time to post.

Barbecue Grills and Affirmations

23 03 2007

Went to Sears today to pick up a barbecue that Lauren bought.

The pick-up process was really painless and easy for me. I walked in and pressed a big area on the kiosk touch screen that says “Pick-Up Merchandise”. I was then instructed to scan my receipt under the scanner, and after it beeped, the screen told me that it was on it’s way out and that I could check on the progress on the screen above. That screen had a sort of first-in first-out list of people waiting. and the ETA.

Then, as I was waiting for my grill to come rolling out from behind the double doors, an elderly man came up to the kiosk and attempted to pick-up his stuff as well. Only, he had more difficulty. I’m not sure what went wrong, but when I started paying attention to it, it was telling him that there was nothing waiting for him on that receipt at this time. He was confused and starting to panic because he thought his merchandise was gone just like that.

What had happened was he had already scanned the receipt and his name was already on the “waiting” screen above. He was done, but didn’t catch on. So, when he tried again, there was nothing left of his on that receipt that he could pick-up.

It got me wondering about the differences in people regarding the usability of systems. No matter how easy a system appears to me, it may be completely beguiling to somebody else- due to cultural or generational differences.

As I was thinking that, he approached me and began complaining about computers these days and all the shit he’s seen in his life- a classic romanticist of analog and directly manipulative objects like rotor phones. When I told him that I work for the cause to improve the ease-of-use of technology, he smiled and looked at me like I was some kind of hero. I was kinda funny- cute, in a way. But it was also flattering to step back and affirm to yourself that people really do feel passionate about their feelings of inadequacy- their sense of not being welcome- to computers. I felt important for a couple minutes as I explained what I do, and then my barbecue burst through the doors and I was on my way.

I drove away thinking that old people aren’t so bad after all. But then, as I got back on the freeway to head home, I got stuck behind an old woman driving 25 on the on-ramp. That’s no lie.

The Traffic Guy: Perspective

20 03 2007

If I had to define a cognitive system in the most broad sense, I would say that it is any system that receives information (input), transposes it into one or more representations, manipulates them in a meaningful way (computation- if you will), and outputs that information in a meaningful way. I don’t really want to get into the specifics and the caveats, because I just want to discuss one aspect of these cognitive systems: perspective.

In a cognitive system, each player has a field of operation that concerns them.

  • In a soccer team, each player has a position, and a role.
  • In an emergency task force division, each member has a duty, a specialty, or a role in each situation.
  • In a brain, each nucleus of neurons and even each neuron has a receptive field and a specialization of sorts.

Further, every member or cell of these system also has a specific position in time and space. That seems obvious- and it is- but it is important with respect to perspective.The information that one member has about the system as a whole is usually quite different from the information atained by the other members, and also quite different from the shared information as a whole. This is, of course, a good thing because it allows for rich distributed computation to be done about different types and different ranges of inputs.

However, is the difference of perspective sometimes a bad thing? And if so, can it sometimes be minimized?

In a soccer team, one player may have open sights to the goal, but if the player who has the ball doesn’t know that because his view is obstructed, he won’t know to pass the ball to him. Opportunity lost.

This morning, I was listening to the Mikey Show, a morning show on FM 105.3. The traffic guy was talking about the traffic conditions and started off saying that traffic was looking great today. It went something like this:

Good morning everyone, traffic is looking fantastic today. There’s really not too much going on to worry about. There was an accident on the 78 eastbound this morning, but it looks like that is clearning up quite nicely. South I5 is slow from Encinitas to Solana Beach as usual, but starting to pick up. The 8 is surprisingly smooth this morning. The only freeway with traffic issues is the southbound 15. It’s packed from Valley Parkway to Via Rancho Parkway.

Now, I happen to take the 15 south to work, and I get on right near Valley Pkwy and exit about 2 exits after Via Rancho Pkwy. Obviously, for me, traffic is definitely not fantastic this morning. I could care less about the 8, or the 5, or the 78 for that matter. But the traffic guy said “traffic is looking fantastic”. I beg to differ.

The problem lies in perspective. For him, he sees the overall picture. In fact, if he’s not flying in a helicopter, he probably has a nice little animated graphic of a map of san diego freeways with symbols, and colored flow arrows representing blockage or lack there of. For him, if he sees only one red slow arrow on his screen, traffic is otherwise pretty damn good. “One red arrow? Not bad at all”

But his perspective is much larger than mine- both cognitively and visually. He cares about the 8 and the 5 freeways. I don’t. He sees activity in the entire county. I don’t. What this leads to is a contrast in system status. He feels that the status is good. I don’t.

The problem gets complicated in that the purpose of the whole cognitive system of traffic reporting is to aid the audience (radio listeners). It’s not so important to give the overall status of the entire system of transportation, because nobody in the audience cares about the entire system! They only care about what applies to them and their morning commute.

If I were in a hurry, trying to figure out which route to take to work, I might just listen to the first five seconds of his report and conclude that my ride should be fine. After all, traffic conditions are fantastic, right?

I don’t have a great solution. After all, it is radio. It’s just something that I’ve been thinking about this morning- how perspective in a system can sometimes lead to inaccuracies and misleading interpretations.

Split-Personality Disorder: The problem with your TV…

16 03 2007

Televisions are traditionally pretty straightforward. They serve as a medium between streaming information from a cable provider, and you- the person that would like to absorb some of it. Usually, you do this by two easy interactions: manipulating some control that tunes into a particular channel so that the information you want is displayed on the screen, and by manipulating some control that puts the auditory volume at some level that is preferred.

Well of course, our interactions these days are slightly more complex, allowing for much more features and preferences to be accounted for. However, for the most part- our most common usage of our television is really those same basic features that it all started with; channel and volume. Therefore, these basic interactions should be protected and maintained in their usability.

One common feature you might find in your television interface, your cable provider, your DVR/Tivo (or all three!) is a channel guide. What this usually consists of is some navigational or scrolling table that lists the channels and the programs on them for some window of time, in a descending direction. It is a great feature, but one I feel confuses the consistent navigation of your television UI.

The channel button on your remote control is mapped so that it matches up with our conventional number system. Up = channel up, Down = channel down. Makes sense, right? Well, remote controls often make the channel buttons left and right, so that they can make use of a cross-shape where the volume is up and down- but remote controls in general are a whole different story!

The problem is that when you enter the channel guide, suddenly the up and down buttons switch! Now, when you press up, the channels available to you decrease in their number. When you press down, the channels increase. I noticed this because whenever I entered the channel guide, I began to realize that I always felt a little bit of uncertainty about what to press.

My suggestion: List the channels in an ascending direction. The only reason that the channel button is reversed is because the channels are listed downwards, thereby requiring your to navigate downwards to access the next set of channels. There is nothing inherently useful for descending the numbers on a television. We don’t expect to read a television screen like a paper or computer screen- reading top-to-bottom. Channel guides aren’t documents. I can see how this notion came to form the way channel guides are implemented today- but it is not worth destroying the consistent navigation. Besides, these guides usually lie at the bottom of the screen anyway! If the numbers are listed upwards, the channel button maintains its mapping. Your mental model for using your remote is not constantly being switched on you like a TV with split-personality disorder…


2 03 2007

Microsoft has been working on a gem of a project for the last few years. It’s called MyLifeBits, and it is featured in the March issue of Scientific American.

What is it?

Basically, it’s an attempt to record and digitize information from all modalities in your life. These include books, photos, videos, emails, text, phone calls, locations and travels, websites you encounter, and also internal things like heart rate, breath rate and/or cessation, and essentially, the sky is the limit. It aims to take advantage of ubiquitous sensors and computation devices so that there is no cognitive burden on the user. The attempt goes further to organize this enormous collection of sets of continuous data into a software interface that serves as a UI for both looking back on people’s lives and for recognizing low-level patterns and suggesting possible changes (like in work productivity or possible health alerts). All in all, it attempts to evangelize Vannevar Bush’s Memex machine from 1945- back when the technology for his idea wasn’t yet prudent. Although the idea is intriguing and quite possibly the most revolutionary technological interaction in human history, I have my concerns- some of which I can imagine difficult, albeit possible, solutions for, and some of which I can’t…
First and foremost, is the issue of privacy and security. If you think security is important now, with your bank account data and social security number tucked away inside your PC, imagine what the security threat would be like for ALL of your personal data! Your health records, legal matters, financial information, interpersonal transactions, confidential job matters, private activities, and all the like will be fair game if someone has access to your PC. It’s decently safe to say that this could be a potential show stopper for MyLifeBits ever becoming fully embraced by the public. But there may be security breakthroughs in the future that I just can’t account for, so for now we can pretend that a solution exists for this problem.

Privacy, on the other hand, is a much more fuzzy problem. Even if you were able to protect files from hackers, there is still the issue of assigning semantic interpretations to content and handling content that is available to people and not available to people (if there is indeed a function that allows you to share some of your life bits info with others). Who has access? How do you control negotiated access to parts of your life? We are already having difficult solving this problem with simple cell phones and socially-collaborative websites. This problem will only be exacerbated 100-fold with the amounts and types of information from this project.

Then there’s the issue of controlling which content you even want AT ALL! A person may not want some parts of his/her life recorded at times, for reasons personal only to them.

For instance, to use a bold example- let’s say you wanted to engage in a plot to commit some crime. You probably don’t want information related to this activity to be recorded for fear of it being confiscated if you are suspected of committing it. You would not want investigators to see that indeed you were at this GPS location at the time of the crime, where you came from and where you went afterwards, what activities you engaged in before it was committed, and all the other possible damning evidence. This activity is an extreme one and, hopefully and unlikely scenario, but it paints the picture I am trying to show. There are many sides to our lives, some large and most small, that we prefer not to share with people- for whatever reason.

This is the same reason why people are so weary about possible technologies emerging that promise to one day be able to read people’s conscious thoughts. People aren’t comfortable with their thoughts being observed and broadcasted to the world. I fear that they also won’t be comfortable with every internal and external facet of their lives being available for dissection and possible judgments by others…People have a lot of ugly thoughts and behaviors. It’s just the reality of things. It’s what makes our ability to inhibit our primal urges and bad habits that makes us who we are today. How degrading is it to think that our ability to behave in a socially inhibitive manner is completely moot when the data is analyzed from our thoughts and behaviors. There should be some way to start and stop incoming information at certain times…but then that negates the purpose of ubiquitous and continuous technology! And some of the sensors may not allow for easy start and stop functionality…

Complicating the problem even further, if we add in social sharing functionality and negotiated access, we will encounter awkward situations is our friends and loved ones wonder why parts of our data stream are not complete. A spouse may inquire why you weren’t logging your life bits yesterday from the time of 3:00 to 6:00 in the afternoon. Basically, the system would be broadcasting what times you are comfortable with people knowing everything about your life and what times you are not. Very awkward.

How about memories that you don’t necessarily want to remember? In the description of MyLifeBits in Microsoft’s PowerPoint presentation, they make note of a slideshow/screensaver functionality that will at time reflect upon one’s life memories. This sounds nice. But what if it displays an image or video of a horrific automobile accident? Will I want to see that? Or what if it shows me memory content of my grandmother when she was on her death bed. I may not want to review this life bits. There may be lots of other more serious life bits that we wouldn’t want to encounter in our lives. Doesn’t this sound like an aggravation of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Would a rape victim want to review the horrible act? Would a retired soldier want to review horrible scenes from their memories of war?

You might think, “Well, we could just assign trauma tags to these memories that we don’t want to review so that it doesn’t pop up in screensavers.” That’s a good idea, but the sad truth is that we may not be able to find the data that we know to be negative affecting. Even at the time of an act, such as seeing that horrific car accident, I might not know that this scene will be emotionally disruptive when it pops up no my radar again,. The neuroscience of emotional signaling is still very rudimentary and is not all that conscious to us…

If Microsoft can figure out ingenious ways to solve the above issues and concerns, then that would probably be the hard part. The easier yet just as important parts will be issues such as usage and usability of the interface, organization methods that easily allow for associative combinations and changes to organization structure, and intelligent software algorithms that can learn and autonomously discover meaningful patterns from low-level data. The latter sounds like a job for Jeff Hawkins and his theory of applying Hierarchical Temporal Memory (HTM) systems.