Monday, November 24, 2003

Testing drivers for impairment

New Scientist article about early tests on a system to test impairment - interesting in itself (use for new technology etc.) it's more intriguing for us cos one of the research projects here is exactly the same sort of system but using paper and pen and then processing it afterwards: the accuracy and speed of the computer coupled with the familarity of a 'standard' interface. Cheaper if the drunk speeds off with it, too!

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Position Statement on the Use of RFID on Consumer Products
Ethical issues cause a problem in the takeup of radio frequency identification tags - these tags could make life much simpler for us, but they also expose us to tracking and privacy issues.....

Questionnaire summary
(Birmingham access only). Page 10 is the HCI course. Some interesting statistics - the most worrying one is the hours per week excluding lectures. SInce the course is designed so that the core information that is needed is on the web on the resource pages, the lectures are not there to provide coverage of the material you need to know - they are there to try to link together the different topics and give you an insight into the ways you need to think and hence the tools you can use to work that way. To read the relevant work and understand the material it talks about is likely to take longer on this course than on others, and yet the average hours per week is just under 1.1.

Given that this work is not being done, it's then hardly suprising that it's considered easy and that not much is being learned. I would hope that you do find much of it easy - conceptually, HCI is not difficult to understand - the hard part is in taking the mindset and issues and producing methods and solutions to the problems posed, and to get to that level of understanding you need the broad exposure to real issues, a variety of opinions and approaches that are covered in the web material.....

Friday, November 14, 2003

Power to the people

This is an interesting piece on how people rate news stories compared to the media's view: less celebrity news, more on which opinions are creating a buzz in the world. For key news items (the war, etc.) they rate pretty much the same. Weird stuff finds its way more often on user-rated stories too.

This comparison was done using blogs and some nifty software - and so shows a bias towards technical and technological stories too. But it shows blogs have a serious place :-)

And at blogdex there's a site that is tracking how information spreads across the net, and how widely and fast, according to how often it appears in weblogs. Check out the about blogdex link to find out how it works. Wired has an article about it all too.

(Why am I writing this stuff when I've got other stuff I must do?)

Tuesday, November 11, 2003


PocketPC 2003 doesn't work with this straight out of the box. It's pre-installed within IE under the favourites (shown by a little star icon at the bottom of the screen) but fails to download any channels. There is a fix at - run the program on the PocketPC (by copying it across and then using File Explorer on the iPaQ to select it, saying 'No to all' when it asks about overwriting files) and then it all works as intended. Interesting how vendors of hot and trendy devices still can't provide proper working systems direct from the factory.....

Friday, November 07, 2003

IBM Systems Journal - Vol. 42, No. 4, 2003 - Ease of Use - PDF version
The latest IBM systems journal is dedicated to ease of use - some interesting articles in here, for the more dedicated of you. Not too technical, grounded in reality, and so on.

Google is a spook?

Interesting stuff - privacy or conspiracy - useful tradeoff or devilish deceit. Read it and decide (well, read the first parts of it, I got bored avbout a third of the way down :-)

it would appear that these Virgin trains serve as a prime example of how adding new bells and whistles to an established 'product' can just lead to more usability problems rather than any gains for the consumer. design changes are ushered in under the banner of "hi-tech = more user friendly" but really the motivations for change come from another direction altogether...

I'm thinking specifically of the little screens that display seat reservation status. in "the good old days" (ie before these new Pendolino trains were released) seat reservations were indicated by a ticket being stuck in the top of the seat. with the march of modern technology comes a new solution: LCD screens above each seat that show whether a seat is reserved. so, was this change motivated by a desire to make things easier for the user or for the provider?

as far as I can see, the only advantage to having these screens is that the train staff no longer have to run the length of the train putting tickets in the tops on the seats. surely this is an advantage for the passengers too - changes to seat reservations can be made quickly and easily to keep the whole thing running smoothly. well, no. you can only reserve seats if you do it the day before you travel, so the train staff have a full list of reserved seats before they set off, so there's no need to change the reservations during the journey.

ok, so is it an advantage to be able to see the exact details of the reservation, so that you can sit in a seat until you get to the station where the reserver is getting on? well, yes. but you could do that with the old ticket system, and the tickets were a lot easier to read than the scrolling display. what happens now is that everyone has to keep stopping on their way down the aisle just to see if a seat is reserved or not. bizarrely, the most important message of "This seat is not reserved" is the one that takes the longest to scroll across the display. why not just have it say "Free" or "Available" instead? it would seem the screens have been designed to be just too small to fulfil their purpose... dare I wonder if larger screens cost more money? of course, there are other problems here as well: some people really struggle to read the screens at all, because of their positioning and size, and I've heard many people say they just didn't know they were there.

finally, I have to recount my experience of the biggest usability problem of all for this system: there's no redundancy when things go wrong with the technology. several times I have boarded a train only to be greeted by blank screens. so you take a chance and choose a seat - there's nothing more you can do. until of course they turn the screens back on once all the other seats are full and then the person who actually reserved 'your' seat makes himself known.

so as far as I can tell, the only winners here are the train staff, who no longer have to put out the tickets. next time the screens are off I might ask them if they're getting bored with the typing as well...

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Usability News - Review: Virgin Toilet poses Interesting Questions

Ah, the joys of travelling by train. Some thoughts on design that made it to a wider audience - and I'm sure there are many more features that are worthy of comment. For example, Peter says that the new doors with the whizzy led's don't actually sense that anyone is in the way, and will close regardless, unless you can reach the touchsensitive button and press it again. I gather he's got quite physical with said door, and that particular one moves no more.....

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

It's interesting to note that Neilsen's 10 usability heuristics contain one item on using plain simple language, and yet the style that his heuristics in is hardly a model of clarity. Check out the BECTA report for a rewording of these in a clearer manner.

Note that there is a difference between heuristics and guidelines - heuristics are principles and rules of thumb that govern the overall approach - guidelines are more specific rules for designing things, and are often platform or task-specific. If you review say the apple usability guidelines, you can see the Neilsen heuristics echoed in them, but they detail exactly what things should look like and how they should behave.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Google to be listed on the stock exchange; MS wants to buy Google either a private company or when listed; lastminute are making profits for three quarters in a row now - are dot com shares coming back?

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