Thursday, October 27, 2005

Shropshire, Tree Art.

[Note for RSS readers: This is an old post, on which the comment spam had gotten out of control. I've removed and republished disallowing comments.] This was surprisingly eye-catching and disturbing as I was tooling down the road in Shropshire last month:
To be honest, I found it pretty horrifying. I went out of my way to drive past it and take more closeups, when I came back from a couple nights in Wales.
I asked in a local pub, and it's some kind of strange art project, of which I can find nothing on Google in a quick search ("red tree art painted Wales Shropshire what the hell were they thinking I almost drove off the road it looks like a pagan devil worship site").

Why Free Software usability tends to suck

Matt Thomas, a Mozilla contributor, has some interesting observations about design on free software projects. If you're a fan of evolutionary design by accretion and multitudes, you might want to check out his concerns in Why Free Software usability tends to suck. (It was picked up by a number of people including Joel back in the day.)

One of his points will be controversial to some people, I think: Every contributor to the project tries to take part in the interface design, regardless of how little they know about the subject. And once you have more than one designer, you get inconsistency, both in vision and in detail. The quality of an interface design is inversely proportional to the number of designers.

I don't think this is necessarily true in a non-opensource environment; and, to be more concrete, in a software environment where people aren't argumentative prima donnas, communicate regularly, and reach consensus before implementation of the crucial features. But when there's frequent handoff of work, a tendency towards grandstanding or power plays in the design phase, or poor communication, it will be true.

Updated to add: He has a sequel article based on comments he got on the original, at Why Free Software usability tends to suck even more. His points continue to be good, including the inspiring last comment, which I think is also is true in any organization: As with previous critiques of Free Software, each of these weaknesses will become less of an issue proportionally to the number of contributors who read about them, and learn to recognize and combat them.

In software companies, this is known as "risk management." Doing that well in a design process requires recognizing the failure modes, worrying about them, and making yourself immune to them.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Beyond Salmon

A friend of mine, Helen Rennie, once entertained me and several work colleagues on the subject of fish for a good half hour. We were on a work trip (to Disney, but that's another story) and we were sitting beside a fake pond; she told us an awful lot about different kinds of fish with suspicious enthusiasm. I hadn't known her very long, and I thought, "Wow, this is almost weird."

Later it all came clear: she's a fish cooking expert! She's been writing a fish cookbook, which involves interviewing fishermen and fish dock storage warehouse people (or whatever they are), teaching popular fish cooking classes at Cambridge Adult Ed, eating at and reviewing excellent restaurants online, and now has a fish blog: Beyond Salmon. Go read about fish. She's smart about it.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Ohio Ghosts Like Golf

An unusual article: a detailed look at Ohio golf course ghost stories. Read about them at GolfStyles : Ohio.

Scott Berkun on Train Wrecks

A week or so ago, I went with a couple colleagues to hear Scott Berkun talk on software project train wrecks. It was entertaining, albeit rather painful, for people who have been victims or occasionally contributors to such disasters.

Like any UI guy worth his paycheck, Scott notes that the crux of the software design matter is often team management and project management. I find it not the least surprising that he and Joel Spolsky, also noted for his UI and design observations, are both so sensible on the topic of project management. Scott's new book, The Art of Project Management, is getting raves on Amazon, and I'm cheering as I read it. (I'm not sure you'll recognize the insights for what they're worth if you haven't lived through the kinds of process issues he describes, but I find him right on.)

Scott's slides are here. His diagnostics for train wreck projects are these:

  • We know we won’t meet goals
  • No one is happy / Everyone is frustrated
  • Things keep changing, but there is little progress
  • We don’t know if we’ll be able to solve them
  • We don’t agree on the existence of problems
  • We don’t know whose job it is to solve them
Sound familiar? For some people, this might describe entire companies! He has more specific criteria for design disasters, which may be even more familiar, since design is so hard to do well (depending as it does on more factors than simple project management):
  • Disconnect between the “design” and what’s being built
  • No one knows what the “design” is
  • No one knows what the goals are
  • There are competing designs being built simultaneously, and unintentionally, by different people
  • The design has no possibility of satisfying goals: Customer / Technology / Business;
  • Note: People with different goals will define disasters differently.
And finally, he hit my favorite subject, good teamwork. Good teams:
  • Avoid many problems and rat holes
  • Are good at recognizing/communicating issues
  • Are good at using each other to help solve its problems
  • Teach each other how to find and resolve problems
  • Make mistakes, but are encouraged to learn (not hide)
  • NOTE: One team’s train wreck is another team’s good day.
I was surprised not to find my favorite study of effective teamwork (Teamwork: What Must Go Right, What Can Go Wrong) in his bibliography.

Update: Here's another good review of Scott's book.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Networked Governance: Network & Teams

Harvard University has a Program on Networked Governance, on whose site I found some nice links on networks and teams. I thoroughly enjoyed the literature review in their first article link, Building Effective Intra-Organizational Networks: The Role of Teams (pdf). The starting observation is that there hasn't been a lot of research cross-over between people studying social network analysis (SNA) and effective teamwork in organizations.

As a tourist in both fields, I found the literature review and the points of contrast and comparison very interesting. It's a good intro to both fields.

  • Bavelas and his colleagues at MIT conducted experimental analyses of how communication patterns among teammates influenced team effectiveness ... When the information was simple, centralized communication was optimal. When the information was complex, centralized communication was dysfunctional.[Me: For decentralized communication to work, the network must be highly functional.]
  • The paradigmatic focus of team research is on the task performance of a small group with a clear and well-defined boundary (Alderfer, 1977) “Clear and well-defined” means that team members and outsiders know who is on and who is off the team (Hackman, 1990). This is a critical element of the very definition of a team. [Me: This is also the in-group/out-group issue I found in the community studies literature in my dissertation research. Individuals who are shared across multiple teams may have a harder time identifying with any one team, and this may impact productivity or team relationships.]
  • For teams with little autonomy or with overloaded team members, communication initiated by the external environment negatively affected team performance. [I guess this includes management wrenches thrown in the game very late...]
  • Do team members know each other before the team exists? Jehn & Shah (1997) found differences in intra-team communication when they compared teams composed of friends to teams composed of acquaintances. [Not surprising. Check who has lunch with each other!]
  • We know that a team’s success or failure can influence subsequent feelings of cohesiveness among teammates (Turner, Hogg, & Smith, 1984). One possibility is that misery (lack of success) breeds company (connectedness). Another possibility is that successful collaborations result in increased communication. Lack of success may lead to a vicious cycle of failure, leading to disconnectedness, leading to more failure, and so on. [As a manager I would think hard about retaining the same team members in a context where their first product was seen as having been a failure... or where they thought it was.]
  • While knowledge networks describe who knows what, each individual in the organization also has his/her own perception of who knows what, or a “cognitive knowledge network” (Contractor, Zink, & Chan, 1998). Cognitive knowledge networks are a combination of knowing who knows who, and who knows what – i.e. who knows who knows what. Cognitive knowledge networks vary in their accuracy and completeness (Contractor et al.), where higher levels of accuracy can be expected to result in greater access to the knowledge in the network. [An environment where people don't know what other people know, or who knows what is a risky environment for the success of a teams and individuals.]
  • Another mechanism social systems have that regulates individual tendencies toward noncooperative behavior is the possibility of continued relationships, because the fruits of future collaboration are at stake (Axelrod, 1981). ... We would expect teams made up of relationships with a greater expected duration will suffer from less free riding. When one free-riding team member can “crash” the entire team, and free riding is thus a dangerous risk, a desirable network will feature high levels of embeddedness, strong ties within the team, and expectations for future interaction. [Free riding, of course, is slacking off, in a work context. So, if the team hasn't felt it has been a failure, the existence of the group over time encourages individual performance and communication.]
  • When a manager assigns people to teams, he/she is molding the social capital of the organization. .. There are two overarching points here: (1) when assigning people to teams, managers should consider the impact of a team on the organization’s long term social capital; and (2) managers should consider viewing social capital the same way they view other types of capital: it may need to be amortized over time. Under certain conditions, it may even be worth sacrificing some short-run team performance for the sake of fostering long-run organizational performance.
I really enjoyed this article, but then I'm a great tourist.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

TextArc's text displays

TextArc is a rather stunning thing -- I can't tell how useful it is, but it sure is pretty to play with. To encourage you, here's the view of "Alice in Wonderland" as it's being crunched and cruised by me.

isometricblocks, by ben fry

isometricblocks is a genome comparison visualization applet by Ben Fry, who is currently working local to me at the Broad Institute following his MIT PhD. He does wonderful, artistic visualizations. His Processingtoolkit for infovis apps, which I've blogged about before, just won an award at Ars Electronica.

Ben's dissertation is available online, which made me very excited just now when I found it: Computational Information Design.

Data Visualization: Best in Show

DMReview had a contest for best infovis application, and Jock Mackinlay's submission won. The scenario and data were not prescribed. The winning solution was a display of video game advertising strategies.

Jock is an alumnus of Xerox PARC, along with many of the world's best infovis HCI folks. He's now the UI Director at Tableau Software, a company I keep coming across. Jeff Heer, also formerly at PARC and main author of prefuse (which I've played with for network diagrams), was also at Tableau for a while. But I hit Tableau on the web-- knowing nothing of their distinguished staff-- when I was looking 6 months ago for companies doing interesting infovis and data mining applications. I thought their UI and featureset looked very nice.

Too bad they aren't posting more jobs for UI designers! (Although, they are located right down the road from my old Adobe digs in Seattle, and I know I can't take that climate.)

The DMreview article is especially good because it also shows some losers and why they lost, despite their slick design (like, immersive 3d virtual worlds for 2d graphics). I just wish it were longer.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Signage in Shrewsbury

Textile designers.
Lyon's Tea sign on the back wall of an old Shrewsbury building.

Funfurde: oops. revisit.

Aren't we circularly referential today! The other day I blogged about Funfurde and the "bad table," Pavel commented about a similar designer in my comments, the Funfurde author searched and hit my post and Pavel's comment, and has now blogged Pavel's reference for him/herself. Check out the blogosphere in action on this post on Funfurde.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

"Psst--wanna see Photoshop 15?"

John Nack was the product manager on Photoshop who worried the most about the encrusted menus and overload of expert features in Photoshop, as it went into it's millionth release cycle. It's a software industry problem, as he points out in more angst in this blog article.

From a design and usability perspective, it's a nightmare problem with few solutions, and the problem just gets worse. You can't remove features, you can't do major surgery (see the angry comments referenced in John's post), you can't NOT add features because that's what keeps you selling! And you want to add things that help your customers, that they've asked for.

You reduce the product usability with every new item you add after a certain point: it becomes increasingly hard for your customer to sort out what the task flow for any particular problem is (especially tasks involving multiple commands/palettes/menus), and it's harder for them to discover the new and interesting or even refind the old and true in all that built up cruft. John says: "And the sheer volume of options can be overwhelming. At one point I counted 494 top-level menu items in Photoshop CS. In CS2 we've added roughly 60 more, and that's not counting the new Adobe Bridge application. So, back to the hypothetical Photoshop 15: at our present course and speed, we'd add at least 350 more menu commands. We'll need to raise the minimum screen spec just to hold the menus!"

Splitting out a new app, like breaking it apart into different consumer market products (like Photoshop Elements vs. Photoshop for Gurus) are one way to go. I think that's not bad, actually -- your customers then have 2 things to buy, and the usability of each is a little better. Assuming there's a good place to cut them apart. Allowing customized menus is another (John's fix for CS2 release--he's not sure anyone cared); patching your workflow problem by adding "wizardy" walkthroughs aimed at common tasks is yet another way to go. You still need access points for the wizardy walkthroughs, which is yet more functionality on menus/palettes/toolbars...

This is a truly hard UI problem, which every mature software product faces eventually. I'm just pointing at the pain, I don't have deep solutions; it's at heart a business problem that in turn points to harder economics problems about why people buy things that aren't good for them.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Pix: Oak beam carving in Shropshire.

Jacobean carving, Ludlow (The Feathers).

Carving on gatehouse of Stokesay Castle, Shropshire:

Funfurde's latest: Phone Modes, Bad Tables, DNA art

Funfurde's wacky furniture/design pointers continue to amuse me.

Right now they've got a cool-looking plastic phone with a bunch of big plastic "pages" you turn to switch modes on the phone -- the "phonebook." And a peeing table, which you have to see to understand ("Bad Table"):

The Straight Line Design folks who do the bad table mainly do wonderful children's furniture. It's really worth a visit, especially to see the melting cabinets!

Also, funfurde points at DNA art for your wall -- your own DNA, sequenced and visualized. I wonder if you can ask for indicators showing off your tendency towards alcoholism and your wonky knee on it?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Winners of the Ig Nobel Prize

The 2005 winners were presented at Harvard last Thursday. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Some of my favorite awards:

  • LITERATURE: The Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for creating and then using e-mail to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters -- General Sani Abacha, Mrs. Mariam Sanni Abacha, Barrister Jon A Mbeki Esq., and others -- each of whom requires just a small amount of expense money so as to obtain access to the great wealth to which they are entitled and which they would like to share with the kind person who assists them.
  • PEACE: Claire Rind and Peter Simmons of Newcastle University, in the U.K., for electrically monitoring the activity of a brain cell in a locust while that locust was watching selected highlights from the movie "Star Wars." The locust responded mostly strongly to scenes of Darth Vader in his tie fighter. Don't we all?
  • FLUID DYNAMICS: Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow of International University Bremen, Germany and the University of Oulu , Finland; and Jozsef Gal of Loránd Eötvös University, Hungary, for using basic principles of physics to calculate the pressure that builds up inside a penguin, as detailed in their report "Pressures Produced When Penguins Pooh -- Calculations on Avian Defaecation." The winner wore a t-shirt of the penguin poop diagram.

Other good moments included the news that the physicist who swept the paper airplanes off stage for the past 5+ years was unable to attend because he was being awarded a Nobel Prize at the moment (Roy Glauber); and the 24/7 lectures in which scientists explained complex concepts in 24 seconds and then summarized concisely in 7 words or less. "Purring is melodious snoring" got a most excellent round of applause.


Another one that made me think, sometimes surprising things. The principle of the experiment is "can a bunch of random people, by changing one pixel at a time on a canvas, create something?" Pixels can be overwritten. Is it art, garbage, or just an online experience?

You decide by watching the animation, from the blank canvas to the current piece: Watch that first, then go read and try it: Add your pixel here. (Don't go there before watching the animation, though.) Here's some text and discussion.

Here's some of my thought process as I watched it:

  • Blank canvases are more conducive to text than pixel art. Watch the words appear and get hijacked. Someone should create a "change one letter at a time" game now, if it hasn't been done already. Would Scrabble just evolve? I think it would.
  • Is that a tree? Is this one person under many anonymous entries, or multiple people?
  • Can good design really happen without a guiding principle or vision? Don't we need organized vision here, if we want a "good" (coherent? attractive? interesting?) end result? There's a reason websites need information architects and wikis are so disorganized and become hard to travel as they evolve....
  • Can people who aren't communicating make something anyone really likes at the end of the day? They need a spec and some discussion. If none of them are good at thinking in pixels and planning out the layout and process, it will still be bad "art" although it might look more organized.
  • A pixel is too small a unit of design and communication. What if they had vector art, objects on the page.
  • What are those black things that keep appearing? Is there an attempt at meaning here, or just chaos (modern art)?
  • Why did the text stop appearing? Is it easier to imagine it on a blank canvas, and the filled colors make people lean towards visual art instead?
  • Wow, is this thing ugly at the end of the day. But I'm glad the sun came back.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Negative Network Ties

This is an unusual article (a pdf): an examination of negative relationships in social networks, particularly in organizations. The bulk of social networks studies and community studies are about the positive -- benefits acrued, capital, positive reciprocity, sharing of resources, emotional feeling and trust -- but humans do have negative feelings and interactions and groups exhibit negative behaviors both by individuals and collectively.

Labianca and Brass point out that negative work relationships may be non-reciprocal, and may be a result of loss of trust, friendship, or just dislike; significant social liabilities may result from more extreme negativity, as one or both participants in the relationship avoid one another or change work habits to prevent interactions that would be unpleasant. Although they don't associate relationship "conflict" with negative ties directly, they do point out that there may be negative repercussions to the individuals regardless of the existence of conflict "episodes," because of avoidance behaviors impacting work.

This, incidentally, may be related to the "Lovable Fools" article that was summarized on a bunch of sooial network studies sites: it stated that people are more likely to seek out people they like, who may not be competent, in a workplace; which might, of course, also impact work performance at some point. But quoting Negative Ties:

While a great deal of research has been conducted on friendship formation, interpersonal attraction, and the evolution of friendships (see Berscheid & Walster, 1978, and Hays, 1988, for reviews), little has been conducted on the formation and development of negative relationships (Wiseman & Duck, 1995). The evolution of negative relationships may be very different from positive relationships. Friendship development is viewed as a gradual process. According to social penetration theory (Altman & Taylor, 1973), friendship development proceeds from superficial interaction in narrow areas of exchange to increasingly deeper interaction in broader areas. Perceptions of the rewards and costs of interacting with a potential friend drive this progression – if you feel that the rewards from a relationship outweigh the costs, you will continue to progress toward closer friendship.

However, Wiseman and Duck’s (1995) qualitative work indicates that negative relationship development is a much faster process that tends to lead to the other person being included in coarse-grained categories such as “rival” or “enemy.” By contrast, fine-grained ranking distinctions are created for friends as they move through a relationship progression from casual acquaintances to close friends. Thus, the formation of negative relationships is not the mere opposite of the way that positive relationships form. Not only is there evidence that negative relationships form differently, but there is also evidence that they may have greater power in explaining some socioemotional and task outcomes in organizations than positive relationships.

Some of the factors they associate with negative relationships are absenteeism and turnover (lack of organizational attachment), disproportionate impact on job satisfaction (i.e., a negative far outweighs any positives), disproportionate impact on promotion and salary (negative outweighs positives by far at review time).

So what do you have to do to find happiness?

There's some coverage of the increasing study of what makes people happy in the Sunday Times Online. Some sample quotes in an excellent article:

Public surveys measure what makes us happy. Marriage does, pets do, but children don't seem to (despite what we think). Youth and old age are the happiest times. Money does not add much to happiness; in Britain, incomes have trebled since 1950, but happiness has not increased at all. The happiness of lottery winners returns to former levels within a year. People disabled in an accident are likely to become almost as happy again.

...Showing how easy it is to give people an intellectual boost, Isen divided doctors making a tricky diagnosis into three groups: one received candy, one read humanistic statements about medicine, one was a control group. The doctors who had candy displayed the most creative thinking and worked more efficiently.

..."The things that you desire are not the things that you end up liking. The mechanisms of desire are insatiable. There are things that we really like and tire of less quickly — having good friends, the beauty of the natural world, spirituality. But our economic system plays into the psychology of wanting, and the psychology of liking gets drowned out."

...In essence, what the biology lesson tells us is that negative emotions are fundamental to the human condition, and it's no wonder they are difficult to eradicate. At the same time, by a trick of nature, our brains are designed to crave but never really achieve lasting happiness.

Regardless of the pessimistic finding, there's hope at website, if you pay $10 a month. An interesting footnote in the article states that women and men do have different emotional makeup, with women more extreme in their highs and lows. Not surprising to me.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Killer Dolphins, a History

The Independent has jumped on the killer dolphins bandwagon, and some of you will have noticed that the original Observer story even got coverage on the Daily Show this week! This Independent article has some (I think) unintentionally hilarious sections towards the end:

One dolphin known as Tuf Guy was trained to carry tools and messages to an undersea base called Sealab II, and could undertake tasks that were physically impossible for a human diver. Dolphins were on active service before the first Gulf War, where they were mainly used for mine detection. More sinister was the use of dolphins in a "swimmer nullification program", where a long hypodermic needle was fastened to a dolphin's beak for the purposes of firing a bullet of carbonic acid into an enemy frogman.

The US Navy has even reportedly used dolphins to patrol and guard Trident submarines in harbour - though once they had had their fill of fish they were apt to wander off duty. With both the Russians and Americans using dolphins there was, for a while, the science-fiction prospect of "dolphin wars", in which one lot carried electronic counter-measures to jam the sonar of the other. Fortunately with the ending of the Cold War, the prospect of rival dolphins attacking one another has receded.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Preschoolers Drive Flu Epidemics

Surveillance Data Suggest That Preschoolers Drive Flu Epidemics. I found this linked off a social network analysis blog, bemoaning the lack of SNA in the study. I would have thought epidemiology was all up on social networks as a mechanism of disease spread. At least on TV the CDC are -- even if it's just a masked doctor asking who the carrier had contact with in the last 2 days, and then sweating and hissing, "It's getting out of control, shut down O'Hare and then LAX!!"

Quote:"The data suggest that when kids are sneezing, the elderly begin to die. Three- and 4-year-olds are sentinels that allow us to focus our surveillance systems." I wish they better explained what the "biosurveillance" system is.

The Ig Nobel Awards

The IgNobel Awards are this Thursday at Harvard. Based on Steve Crandall's recommendation, I impulse-purchased a ticket today. If anyone else local is going, it would be fun to meet up for a drink before or after.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Pull and Post pix.

Pull. Croft Castle bell.

Postbox outside cottage in Shropshire:

Physical Models of Virtual Spaces

Tom Vollaro has an interesting item on his website: A visualization of the virtual contents of a MUD, which is a virtual chatspace with a user-expandable geography. He did a site map of the rooms of BayMOO, and then built a model showing what it looks like. I like the concept of turning compass directions in a text engine into a plastic model you can walk around. His site is here.