Saturday, May 31, 2008

Mandatory Post on Twitter: A new form of MUDding?

Everyone else is doing it, so I'm posting about Twitter too. I admit I've been enjoying it, probably more so since I have less time than I used to for blogging, Bloglines, and keeping up with friends on LiveJournal.

Everyone who writes about Twitter has to compare it to other things. For me, it's most like what we did in MUDs when I used to hang out there (a kind of chat world, see MUDs and MOOs on wikipedia, and my book about one). We used to connect while working, and "idle" much of the day, but "wake up" to post links to things we thought were interesting, or to say what we were doing "in real life." We even watched TV together in a MUD group. In a MOO, you had to do something special to direct comments to someone, just like you do in Twitter (where you prepend "@name"). Voila, c'est Twitter; except that in a MUD you had to go somewhere to be in the space by connecting specially, it was less public, and a lot more synchronous. Plus not searchable from "outside" the MUD client. So, okay, it had some differences.

Other things it's like: How people change their "status" message in a chat client, and sometimes riff off other people's status messages. That's not archived in the way Twitter history is, though. And it's like SMS, in that's it's terse, but for a party. And it's like a very slow chat room, where no one really knows who's listening in or who might look at what you said later. (Watch out.)

Brief geeky research aside: There's an old paper by Clark and Brennan (1991) that's a goodie among people who study CMC (computer-mediated communication) that describes potential aspects of communication media, including whether they offer co-presence, visibility, co-temporality, and sequentiality of messages. To really consider how Twitter stacks up, you would also want to consider system features that characterize rich Internet communication tools, such as the potential for users to have private one-to-one and multi-party conversations that aren't recorded, what kind of message size is possible, availability of threading/sorting/filtering tools, ability to archive exchanges and/or prevent it, possibility of editing posts after they are made, ability to block messages from certain people.

Twitter is less synchronous so less co-temporaneous than internet chat or face-to-face or phone talk, the reviewability is possible but only fair in practice (in that you have to do some work to go back in a history to check what you missed), and interruptions between two-person exchanges are common. Threads are possibly even impolite. Private messaging is possible depending on the client used. Editing isn't possible after posting, but deletion is. The message length constraint strongly restricts the type of exchange that can happen, by design. Blocking of a kind is possible. You can filter your list of followed people to a "favorites" list if you want.

Which reminds me - all communication media allow for genres or registers of speech/writing, in which the style and topics can differ tremendously across groups of users and occasions of use. Generalizations about how people use Twitter will only be applicable to local groups of followers and their following. So I won't try. Give a look in and see what you think.

Because of the very public nature of Twitter, we get the possibility of search tools like Summize. Which means you can look up keywords or people and find out what's up with them. You can even subscribe to these searches by RSS, so thatt you can follow public chat that mentions your favorite product or TV show. (When I mentioned FIOS once, someone who works at Verizon started "following" my comments on Twitter.)

Summize also allows for interesting meta-search applications like Twitter Spectrum, allowing you to contrast word environments for two terms. Just for fun, here's a few charts of contrasts I find interesting. You can see who's talking more about what here.

Anywho, I'm enjoying Tweeting, although I still miss ElseMOO after all these years.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

CHI 2008 Conf: Usability Considered Harmful

The premier human-computer interaction conference, aka CHI 2008 (pronounced "kai" not "chee") was in Florence, Italy this year. After missing last year's in Silicon Valley, I went despite the ruinous exchange rate. (Other local colleagues went to Italy for the conference, but blew it off to go skiing instead!) One of the more interesting and crowd-drawing sessions was the paper by Saul Greenberg and Bill Buxton, "Usability Evaluation Considered Harmful... Some of the Time." Following it was commentary by Bonnie John, Tom Rodden, Dan Olsen and the ever-sharp CHI attending audience. Here's Saul and Bill listening to the commentary: Buxton and Greenberg

An initial note: CHI as a conference has a huge percentage of academic and research attendees. How to make it "relevant" to the "practitioner" audience is a regular concern of the conference committee. Why research isn't necessarily relevant is one of the reasons for their paper, I think. (And for things I've spoken and written about in the past, too.)

The main argument was...

...We too often perceive … an unquestioning adoption of the doctrine of usability evaluation by interface researchers and practitioners. Usability evaluation is not a universal panacea. It does not guarantee user-centered design. It will not always validate a research interface. It does not always lead to a scientific outcome.
Their supporting arguments were these:
  • CHI reviewers require evaluation, and usually quantitative (lab study) testing results, as a part of a submitted paper (reflected in the submissions guidelines)
  • Quantitative usability studies are often the wrong type of study for certain kinds of design: such as inventions in prototype stage; other types of user study may be more correct for these.
  • In an argument familiar from Buxton's book Sketching User Experiences, a focus on usability evaluation too early in a development cycle produces poorer final results than will experimenting with more design concepts (or "sketches")
  • Early-stage technical innovations that are disruptive or paradigm changing may produce poor or ambiguous user testing results, which may prematurely kill them off as research topics -- when long-term these ideas might find audiences and produce large-scale social or practice change after adoption.

Greenberg and Buxton argue that CHI has too great a focus on scientific results (and poor ones at that), rather than on supporting good design and invention.

“Science has one methodology, art and design have another. Are we surprised that art and design are remarkable for their creativity and innovation? While we pride our rigorous stance, we also bemoan the lack of design and innovation. Could there be a correlation between methodology and results?”
Tom Rodden at CHI

Comments ran the gamut from polite disagreement about the counts of types of papers accepted at the conference, to observations that publication-treadmills don't allow time for disruptive risky innovation that can be studied longitudinally, especially for students in grad school. Saul asked the CHI audience to review papers differently -- after all, the audience there constitutes what gets in, and what's considered good work. What constitutes good work worthy of acceptance is in the hands of the reviewers in the room! Finally, it was noted that different, "riskier" work of a design or featuring ethnographic evaluation instead of user testing is regularly accepted at other conferences in the same ACM family: DIS, DUX, CSCW, even Ubicomp and UIST.

Most difficult, for me, is the idea that the CHI reviewing audience has the credibility and experience to review riskier design work that doesn't come along with (the right kind of) user study. With mostly academics and researchers on the reviewer list, I question whether this audience has the depth of practical design experience and credentials required to recognize and talk about "good design" with credibility. What do I require for credibility: having done a lot of real-world design, and having evaluated a lot of products from a customer-centric perspective. When I say "real world" I don't mean academic design - where it's notoriously easy to go wild and crazy. In the context of a business or large organization, the kinds of compromises that designers face are what separate the real good from the mediocre.

I would like to repeat that human computer interaction is not fully represented at CHI. The conference is just one forum. While it's true that CHI publication counts more than most others to researchers in this field, it doesn't necessarily represent the full range of activities and professional expertise in the broader field of interaction design.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Mini-UPA conference in Boston

Boston's mini-Usability conference is coming up on May 28 at Bentley. This is a reasonably priced one-day event that attracts quite a local crowd, and not a few non-locals. I had a good time at this last year, when I was a speaker on online community design. This year I am speaking about life as a consultant, and mistakes I made in my first year. Here's my abstract:
One year ago, I quit my job and started consulting full-time, after 10 years of industrial wage slavery. I was financially successful in this year, but made a lot of mistakes. I managed to fall into bad headhunter relationships, make mistakes in my accounting that required a 101 class to fix, became thoroughly confused about whether to be incorporated or not, and generally made a lot of newbie mistakes with a handful of clients ranging from garage startups to established software firms. Other local consultants gave me advice and I learned from my mistakes. I can tell you how I did it and what I could have done better; and how it compares to what other local consultants say. I will cover:
  • Your use of the internet to advertise yourself (search engine optimization, job sites, Linked In, blogs, etc.)
  • Portfolio work
  • Branding (logo, name, etc.)
  • Proposals
  • What to charge (the many factors and equations; plus: "they're charging WHAT and someone is really paying it??")
  • Headhunters and job offer pressures
  • Basic accounting and expenses to track
  • ... And other things I learned the very, very hard way, like the portable office equipment it might be nice to own because the client site is a cave with rocks to sit on.
You'll get a handout with the Top 10 Most Important Consulting Considerations in case you too want to do this!

BIO:Lynn Cherny has a Ph.D. from Stanford that she hasn't used in years, except for some statistical skills. She has 12 years of experience working at and/or managing interface design at companies including TiVo, Excite, Adobe, The MathWorks, and AT&T Labs. Her current consulting identity is Ghostweather Research & Design, LLC. She can be reached at

There are interesting names on the list of speakers, including Jared Spool and Chauncey Wilson, Beth Loring and Joe Dumas, plus a host of other local employers. The talks range from research methods to design case studies, with a bit of business thrown in (thankfully, for some of us!). It's even multi-track, reflecting how many submissions they get. And their cocktail hour is fun and well-stocked.