Saturday, December 31, 2005

Nerd A.D.D.

This post is dedicated to my brother... another nerd who thinks he has ADD. I myself recognize the symptoms all too well, especially after a week at my sister's house where it was not ok to sit with a latop all the time. (The question on my mind today is: can I go to a party tonight and take along a book, my ipod-wannabe, and a palm pilot, in case I need more than conversation and drink to make it through?)

On RandsInRepose, the description of N.A.D.D.

Here's a tip: If the building you are currently in is burning to the ground, go find the person with NADD on your floor. Not only will they know where the fire escape is, they'll probably have some helpful tips about how to avoid smoke inhalation as well likely probabilities regarding the likelihood you'll survive. How is it this Jr. Software Engineer knows all this? Who knows, maybe he read it on a weblog two years ago. Perhaps a close virtual friend of his in New York is a fire fighter. Does it matter? He may save your life or, better yet, keep you well informed with useless facts before you are burnt to a crisp.

Friday, December 30, 2005

New Scientist 2005 Roundup

Two good NS pieces:'s top 10 news stories of 2005, ranging from 13 Things That Do Not Make Sense (blogged here before) to the Pentagon's rejected sex weapon designed to make enemy soldiers fall in love.

And then there's the Year in Solar System, a look at all the amazing space mission discoveries in 2005, full of links to the articles.

In the future... Sam's comics.

In the future we will all be connected by a network. 37Signals' weblog Signalvs.Noise is hosting some great comics by artist Sam Brown. He is illustrating "in the future" sentences supplied by readers in the comments. It makes reading the comments really fun and kinda Zen.

His style reminds me a little of my friend Ken's What Cartoon site.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

form doesn't follow function-- in architecture.

In biology, the fact that form and function are closely related is proved over and over, especially with respect to protein shape and behavior. As a newbie to architecture, I wasn't surprised to hear that architects also believe in the mantra that form follows function. Building shape should reflect and reinforce what it's for, more or less.

Except, experimentally it doesn't seem to be true most of the time. This is an entertaining article reporting an experiment testing whether people can recognize the type of building from the exterior design. In short, they can't. I'll leave you to read the details of their experiment (and what it suggests about the sad state of American architecture) and just report the ending:

Other studies have shown that people already "read" buildings to judge the status of people who live or work inside, and to determine if the buildings are in a safe neighborhood, among other things, Nasar said.

"Buildings convey meaning, whether they are meant to or not," Nasar said. "So it makes sense that buildings be designed to indicate their use. But our results suggest it doesn't often happen."


Flora's paw.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

DTV's TiVo vs. Replacement DVR

Weaknees has a side by side proper comparison of the sadly no-longer-offered DirecTV-branded TiVo vs. the newer DVR they are now promoting, the R15.

The TiVo still comes out ahead, on many points. But read and decide for yourself.

Fashion Meets Processing

Clayton Cubitt shot A beautiful collaboration between fashion photographer Clayton Cubitt and and Processing generative artist Tom Carden: Metropop's denim issue.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Best of Best of 2005 Lists

Off Cluefairy, the long list of 2005 summary lists on Fimoculous.

My favorite list titles, content aside: Top 10 Most Confusing (Yet Widely Used) High Tech Buzzwords from Global Language Monitor, Bad Sex In Fiction Shortlist from The Guardian, Ten 2005 Ads America Won't See from Ad Age, 10 Most Pathetic Media Meltdowns from Ad Age, Cheap Toy Roundup from The Onion A/V Club, Top 25 Military-Friendly Companies from GI Jobs (!), 25 Britons Who Wield Influence In America from The Times of London, Weirdest Tech from, Top Reality TV Whores from Reality Blurred, Top Cryptozoology Books from Loren Coleman, 50 Photos Of People Smiling from LowCulture, Top 10 Kitchen Utensils Of This Year from Utter Wonder, Top 40 Weather Days from

Sorry, it was too much work to get the actual links for all those into this post. You know you want to see the source page, anyway!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Getting it Right (or Wrong, at Blink)

An interesting post-failure analysis of why social bookmarking site Blink failed while has succeeded. Ari blames product design, although in the comments some people blame the development decisions, the growth of the company, the loss of focus, the ad and registration burdens... in short, all the dot com era fools are to blame.

The worst decisions seem to have been using folders, leading to an insupportable number of performance and downstream design problems impacting user experience; and then the decision to make folders of links private by default instead of public. I think tagging is prone to issues similar to folder creation, but the immediate visibility of content on, instead of just the containers, makes the design work better. There's a real immediate payoff without a lot of digging when you look around on

My links are public, if you want to browse them. See sidebar.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Microsoft hires user interface guru

This just in from steve: Microsoft hires user interface guru Bill Buxton, formerly of Alias Wavefront and long HCI history. He's being hired by MS Research, of course, and will work on ubiquitous computing ("ubicomp"), as so many people do these days.

This is an entertaining paragraph close: Buxton in the past has been critical of software companies' failure to integrate appropriate design processes into products. However, he said that Microsoft is hiring more designers, which is encouraging. "My sense is that Microsoft is in transition from an engineering-led company to as much a design-led company," he said. "There are more designers at Microsoft on any single team as there were, not too long ago, in the entire company. It's a wonderful change."

I followed up his criticism, and found this right-on abstract for a talk he gave at Graphics Interface 2005 on exactly this topic:

...We are now seeing articles appearing that are warning about the danger of a schism in user-centred design (UCD) between the ethnography and usability camps. (See for example the spring issue of Interactions.) The apparent voice of reason points out that both have distinct roles: ethnography can feed design, while usability can evaluate it. All very nice as far as it goes. But what is missing is any detailed consideration of who actually does the design. There is something missing.

In this talk I want to speak to both the role and nature of design in the overall process. Along the way, I will argue a few points, including the claim that usability and ethnography are distinct from design. Relevant to design? Yes. Design? Decidedly not. I will also speak to the whole nature of iterative design, and argue why iterative and incremental software engineering practices such as extreme programming and agile software techniques are not the same as design. Again, relevant? Yes. Design? Absolutely not.

As I will show, the software industry has an abysmal record at creating new products. I will argue that the absence of anything vaguely resembling a design process is a key reason. My talk is directed at altering this situation.

I can't wait to see what he thinks about working at Microsoft after a couple of years! Now if only more companies understood the distinction between usability and design and how to operationally overcome the issue in a way that led to product success.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

FAQ on Usability Testing in Progress

I am writing an FAQ on usability testing for my new team. I want to do a real one, not a marketing-style intro level one that establishes that testing your software is like eating Mom's apple pie. (Wait, that's a weird metaphor.) What I am after is the common objections, the issues people really have about topics like potentially poor recruiting, validity of testing with small numbers, the value of qualitative data at all, the variability and difficulty of analysis of the results, the biases that may go into defining tasks for the test, etc.

If anyone reading has any concerns, however un-PC(!), about doing usability testing on software (or has heard anyone else express doubts about the value), I will try to put them in. Whether I have a great answer or not (some concerns are entirely valid). If I get anything from you, I'll post the results here as a web essay too.

Go on, be tough.

Ching's Visual Dictionary of Architecture

Ching cover This is a wonderful book. I mean, wonderful like Tufte and Bringhurst and Christopher Alexander and Scott McCloud... a book you open and can't put down because you get drawn into the beauty and details.

Even architects think it's a thing of amazement, and will tell stories about the original edition with Francis Ching's handwritten annotations, before later editions switched to the cursive font.

I spent about half an hour incapable of picking examples to display, but here are a few that I liked in that time. The discussion of rooms and room arrangements is enchanting. I've cut off the little people ascending to the adject level, alas.

Here's another example showing stress diagrams for trusses. (Trusses have been a big deal in my office recently. I had to look them up.)

There are sections on the tiniest details of joints to the widest of concepts, drawing, and what it's used for and how. Architects love it. Buy this book for someone for the holidays and then get it for yourself!

Good Experience Games online

A nice list of online, well-designed Good Experience Games pointed to by steve on tingilinde. I am deliberately not going there till I am on my holiday break, and even then I have a long list of stuff to do.... eeee. Tempting examples include a great-looking online Set puzzle (surely I can make one stab at this without losing the day), Samorost 2 (gorgeous!), a Scott Kim game or two, a bird feeding game called Pyoro (I think I will have to go see this, despite their warning it's "hypnotic"...)

Like I said, "Eeeeeee, I have stuff to do right now! Get them away!!"

Sanibel Island Beach Regurgitation

Bird vomit? Anyone have any explanations? (It may not be pretty, but it was a "lucky shot" so I'm making you admire it too.)

Bird scratching in Sanibel Island, Florida (November)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Bumblebees Recognize People

This article explains that bumblebees trained with photos can remember faces. Does that mean bees could be used to assassinate people who are allergic? I go to the positive immediately...

From bees to wasps, spiders and even sheep, other animals have proven they can not only recognize our faces, but they navigate mazes, match objects and shapes and even associate smells with previous experiences. "Sometimes I wonder what we are doing with two-kilogram brains," mused Srinivasan.

Uh, making mazes and training insects to recognize photos?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Motif #1, a red shack in Rockport.

This is "Motif #1" in Rockport MA. I was here a few weeks ago with my brother and sister-in-law. We recognized it immediately from a description in the guidebook, and then we said it as often as possible: "That's nothing like Motif #1." "Here's a house that could be Motif #2." "Maybe they have postcards of Motif #1."

Here's a webpage explaining how it go its name. It had something to do with the French!

Your Breakfast Toast is Talking...

I assumed this was a joke project when I read the very serious BBC Online article about it, but it's not -- your toast might tell you the weather report, if you let this kid at Brunel University toast the bread for you.

"He decided on the toaster to make his work stand out from the worthy and helpful devices many of his fellow students were creating. "I couldn't compete, so I went for fun and cool," he said. Mr Southgate's ambition is to follow in the footsteps of influential British designers such as Jonathan Ive, the man behind Apple's sleek iMac computer."

He sounds serious, so here's a serious concern. The palette of bread isn't a very high resolution for information display; if you ask what people want from weather forecasts you'll probably find this: "What's the forecast for the weekend? What's the precipitation plan for the night vs. the day? Is there a winter storm warning? Temperature matters, sure, but I want to know the other conditions too."

Is that burnt crumb an indicator of a low pressure system, or a piece of bread that was caught on the rack when I pulled it out? Will cinnamon bread (my favorite) obscure the messaging?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Tabs Gone to Hell

Everyone knows by now that multiple rows of tabs aren't such a good idea -- or do they? Here's an egregious example from my new Thinkpad. This has more than a few tab-related problems: there's some kind of duplication between resources and allocation (2 tabs for each overlapping concept); many of them seem to be empty anyway; there are so many that's it's actually hard to go through them all, even with the counting option, because there's so much shifting around as you click on them (making it hard to tell what you've seen already).

This UI is a small part of a worse UI issue: the Thinkpadders duplicated a bunch of OS-level stuff, often by overriding it completely, in their own custom UI. This is particularly awful in the area of networking. There's no way to scan for Wireless networks from the Microsoft dialog-- you have to figure out it's been overriden and is controlled from somewhere "new" and how to work that instead.

Why do companies so often make the mistake of trying to "brand" the hardware experience with their own custom (often poor) software experience where it's not needed? (Ok, it's still a sore spot from my TiVo era.)

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Beauty of Simplicity

Fast Company has a nice article on the tension between simple design and sufficient design. (That's characterization of the problem, not the author's). The Beauty of Simplicity gets into some useful case studies after the lead-in on Google's home page.

Some highlights: Less isn't more, just enough is more. What constitutes "just enough" is harder than it looks. ... "It's easier," says Charles Golvin, principal analyst with Forrester Research, "to market technology than ease of use." "Every new feature makes things more complicated , even if you never use them." But.... "The market for simplicity is complex," says Dan Ariely, a business-school professor who is spending a year off from MIT figuring out how to quantify the value of simplicity at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. "If I offer you a VCR with only one button, it's not all that exciting, even if when you use it, it's likely to be easier."

There's the Philips corporate retooling story:

How do you make your products simpler? You start by simplifying your company. ...Philips deployed researchers in seven countries, asking nearly 2,000 consumers to identify the biggest societal issue that the company should address. The response was loud and urgent. "Almost immediately, we hit on the notion of complexity and its relationship to human beings," says Andrea Ragnetti, Philips's chief marketing officer. Rather than merely retooling products, Philips would also transform itself into a simpler, more market-driven organization. That initiative has been felt from the highest rungs of the organization to the lowest. Instead of 500 different businesses, Philips is now in 70; instead of 30 divisions, there are 5... While many of the new products have yet to hit the market, early results of the business reorganization, particularly in North America, have been dramatic. Sales growth for the first half of 2005 was up 35%, and the company was named Supplier of the Year by Best Buy and Sam's Club.

Then there's the Intuit story, which rings loudly to me.

... So Hicks's team first tried a knockoff of Intuit's QuickBooks Basic, with a bunch of features turned off. Then they confidently took the product out for a test-drive with 100 potential customers. And it bombed. It was still too hard to use, still riddled with accounting jargon, still too expensive. They realized they had to start from scratch. "We had to free ourselves and say, 'Okay, from an engineering point of view, we're going to use this code base, but we need to design it from a customer's point of view,' " says Lisa Holzhauser, who was in charge of the product's user interface. ...They pared back 125 setup screens to three, and 20 major tasks to six essentials. They spent days worrying about the packaging, knowing that to this audience, something labeled "Simple Accounting" was an oxymoron.

Above all, they subjected their work to the demanding standards of Intuit's usability lab, run by Kaaren Hanson. To get a product by her, users must be able, 90% of the time, to accomplish the tasks deemed most critical. It's a draconian standard. But "if our goal was to make it 'as easy as we can,' " Hanson says, "we wouldn't be as successful as if we had set a concrete number."

The Simple Start team thought they had nailed the user-interface problem after their third iteration of the product got rave reviews for its look and feel. But task completion results from the lab were dismal. The launch was delayed for months while the team reengineered the tools until they measured up. [Lynn's bold, not theirs.]

The additional time was worth it. Simple Start--a product with 15 years of sophisticated QuickBooks code lurking behind an interface even a Luddite could love--sold 100,000 units in its first year on the market. Even better, reviews from target customers indicate that Intuit hit the mark. Ken Maples, owner of a tiny flight-instruction school in Cupertino, California, summed it up: "It's easy to use. It's got everything I need and nothing more."

Friday, December 02, 2005

Jelly at the NE Aquarium.

Thursday, December 01, 2005 // strangers helping strangers

This is cool -- you have to answer a question from a stranger, which could be about anything at all, before posting your own. I posted my own question, the first thing that occurred to me after a hard week of conference partying, and now I can track the answers here.