Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Wrong mental model, and no warnings... a surprise attack from Windows XP
[no link available - if there was one, it would point to a picture of me jumping up and down and shouting]

It's been a while since I discovered a major interface problem in a desktop interface, but the design flaw that caused me to lose a few hours programming work this afternoon certainly counts as major to me. It's interesting because it's an example of how problems with 2 aspects of interface design - mental models and insufficient warning messages - can combine to cause real problems...

I'd been having problems with some code in a particular folder, and one solution I decided to try to was re-creating the project elsewhere, albeit with the same source files. I selected the source files I wanted to keep, and chose 'Cut' from the contextual menu. This was the first problem - my mental model of cut & paste operations tells me that when I choose cut or copy then the thing being cut or copied is actually cut or copied somewhere, ie the clipboard. this is pretty much how it works in word processors etc, isn't it? OK, so with my source files safely placed on the clipboard, I selected the parent folder I was having problems with and clicked 'delete'... imagine my surprise when I tried to paste my source files into a new folder: 'directory cannot be found'. hmm, where have my files gone? surely the interface didn't let me delete a folder that contained files marked as 'cut'? surely, if those files weren't on a clipboard, I should have been told? "yes, surely I should have been", I shouted, or words to that effect, only louder and with more asterisks.

now, I admit that there was a 3rd contributing factor to this loss of data: I don't like the recycle bin, and so when I delete things they really are deleted. but look at the root cause: mismatched mental models and no warnings about what is about to happen because of it. I'd kind of hoped we were past this kind of thing by now, but it looks like there's work to be done yet.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Jeremy Clarkson on Computers

Like him or loath him, he is direct and opinionated. I would like to bet that much of what he'll talk about will not be a failure of computers but a failure of interaction, of poor design and worse HCI. BBC2 8-9pm.

Friday, January 16, 2004

The Washington Post's Style Invitational once again asked readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Here are the 2003 winners:
1. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.
2. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.
3. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.
4. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.
5. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period.
6. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.
7. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.
8. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.
9. Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.
10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)
11. Karmageddon: It's like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like a serious bummer.
12. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.
13. Glibido: All talk and no action.
14. Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.
15. Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you've accidentally walked through a spider web.
16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.
17. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a grub in the fruit you're eating.
18. Ignoranus: A person who's both stupid and an ass hole.

Relationship to HCI? not much, though it got me thinking of a number that could be modified to incorporate modern technologies, and not many would be complementary...

Wandows: as if by magic, you can't access your files anymore
competer: machine that tries to show it's smarter than you
Macrosoft: approach to complete world domination based on making things crash
Unux: collective term for the emasculation felt when a group of people are faced with an incomphrehensibe ">" system prompt
nobile: the banning of cellula phone calls
nublie: sexy new mobile phone

Oh, the list is endless.....

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Broadband by the minute?
In a move that seems a backwards-step from the new-fangled, always on, flat rate internet connections, at least one company in Europe is now offering surfers the option of paying by the minute for ADSL services. I've wondered before just how much research went into the flat-rate billing model, and I've seen comments that providers are finding that this is not as profitable as they were hoping... in fact, this kind of flat-rate billing showed itself to be open to 'abuse' by a small number of customers who were using more than their fair 'share' of the available bandwidth, and providers (one high profile example was NTL) imposed caps on how much you could download using their 'unlimited' services.

The real reason I wonder if a move back to time-based billing is a backwards step is because of recent research that has suggested that the benefits from having always-on connections go beyond simple economics (for the consumer). A report by the Work Foundation indicates that the internet experience via broadband is qualitatively different to 'per minute' use, with the former being more ongoing, relaxed, and exploratory, rather than task-focused and time-limited. ISPs obviously need to make a profit, so we might well see more of these 'backward steps', but we need to remember that a good internet experience is about more than just how fast and how cheaply you can download a file. Feeling that you can take your time and have a look around is just as important.

Monday, January 12, 2004

BBC NEWS | Technology | Phones get to know their place
Ah, all that research into context-awareness is starting to pay off! I knew we were doing the right things.....

And for those that don't know what we're doing, Peter and I are working on context-aware architectures and systems, that will be initially applied to mobile learning. My other research work is on inferring context from users actions. The approaches described in this article are about explicit context - devices that are specifically told about certain contexts, usually based on limited range and hence location-specific tagging. I'm working on using implicit context as well, which uses AI techniques to work out what you're doing. Apple iPod with HP tie-up
In an unusual move for Apple, they have tied up with HP to market their iPod: HP will get a version of the hardware for themselves (though nothing will reach the hights of cools that the iPod represents) and will bundle iTunes on it's PCs. This is good for HP - it shows it to be a mover and shaker in digital music, and to be not all Microsoft, and good for Apple: they get distribution and marketing.

But, as the paper version of the FT points out today, they are still vunerable to attack from a late-entry Microsoft. As I know only too well, being first into a marketplace is not necessarily the best thing - being second means you can learn from the expensive mistakes of the pioneers.

Lost in all this marketing and dealmaking and speculation is the realisation that techies and general consumers alike do respond to great design, that design can win over functionality, and that getting the two together is the greatest challenge. Online music is hear to stay; making money from it is a new frontier, and one in which design is starting to play the major role.

Friday, January 09, 2004

Humans going to Mars?
This story is gaining momentum - earlier mentions in the Guardian appear to hold water. Looking for a 'visionary' act, Bush may decide to spend money on another major project to gain the support of his people - it appears to be a political decision.

Is it good science, good socially, generally good? Yes. As argued before, exploration allows our quest for undertanding to expand, allows us to reach out and find out the good things about ourselves. And no - there are a lot of other things that you could do with the hundreds of billions of dollars it would cost.

But consider it like this: we first went to the moon with less computing power than is in my iPaq. So the computational and technical obstacles are probably less than they were then. Whereas working out how to spend billions of dollars on other projects like tackling world hunger is fraught with political and social problems (US imperialism, the pride of nations, the inequity of distribution) - it's got to be easier to go to Mars.....

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Microsoft's software targets TVs
This isn't the first time we've heard about it, but this time it looks like it's maybe not too far off. Microsoft are pushing (again) their idea of a centralised entertainment centre (running MS software of course) that can pull together feeds from your PC, DVD player, games console, online content etc etc etc and display them on your TV.

There are a few reasons why this might not be the best way to go. Firstly, it's another example of how a big company like Microsoft can use its muscle to get into other domains, in this case making the jump from computer entertainment to audio-visual entertainment. This is bad for the small fry out there who tend to get overshadowed by the big fish.

Second reason: people generally don't like everything to be all mixed together. There are good reasons why convergent devices aren't that popular, beyond the fact that at the moment we just can't make a device that does *everything* well. The danger is that entertainment devices and platforms will fall foul of the multimedia fallacy that plagued early attempts to make existing content (encylopaedias, textbooks etc) exciting by re-deploying them on multimedia PCs. The problem is that there is only really one media: the PC itself. And the 'multimedia' content can suffer from being squeezed through this single delivery medium. True multimedia is about offering multiple sources, multiple displays, and multiple perspectives. Can a centralised Microsoft hub in every home deliver these things? Well, I don't want to say it can't, but knowing that people continue to like separate devices for different media, it seems like a bit of a mis-step to try and give them everything through a single channel.

Last but by no means least, the proposal from MS is very much of a hub architecture - is there scope for distributed, decentralised communication between different media devices? Anyone who has ever put together a decent hi-fi from separate components will know that the best set-up comes from a mix & match approach, rather than buying everything from one manufacturer. I don't want to have to buy an MS-compatible amplifier just so that I can plug it into my Media Centre. - Patch Backlash

Interesting - see What are you waiting for? - I think going after the retailers is easier, as the Sale of Goods Act in the UK is on our side. And it's them that are to blame for not applying the patches - Microsoft are making them available, but the retailers are not putting them in place.

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Big Ben rings in the new year - or maybe not
This story is causing great consernation within the BBC, so my sources tell me, not because it's true (it's not) but because they can't prove it easily. The microphones that are used were placed there a while ago and no-one can say what sort they are, despite everyone being asked.

Why is it relevant - it's all down to credibility. Does it really matter? Not that much, in one way - but hugely in another. We need to trust our information sources, so that if they tell us something we need to know we can believe it. It is this credibility that is starting to become evident in the internet space - if Amazon do something, it must be okay; if you've not heard of an internet company, then it's probably not a great idea to buy from them - and so the marketplace is settling, and it's becoming harder for people to break into it. Well, not harder, just more expensive. Those companies that survived the early landgrab (and not many did as they ran out of funds) are now poised to benefit from their brand awareness. But they can't afford to mess up their credibility, else all will be lost.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Mars Rover sends back postcards
Well done NASA. But having supported the Beagle project, one now has to question the wisdom of spending £50m on something that is close to replicating the Mars Rover science.

From the Beagle website:

How is Beagle 2 different from NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers?

Beagle 2 carries a "mass spectrometer" capable of measuring
quantities of carbon in all its forms. It also has a "mole" with
which to bury under the surface of Mars to retrieve samples
for in-situ analysis rather than just scraping the surface of
visible rocks.

Sub-surface sampling is novel and no similar activity has ever
been attempted on Mars

So it is different - a little. Enough?

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Look to the future now...
New year, new opportunities. Here are some of my future-looking predictions for 2004.

  • An internet retailer will kill off a major high street retailer (and presently, that looks like WHSmith, but I think they'll make a comeback)
  • Wi-fi hype will die down but wi-fi hotspots will continue to develop and wi-fi in the workplace and home will become much more common
  • Media Centre PCs won't take off too well and will be superceeded by streaming media servers sending wireless stuff all around the house, including the t.v. (sort of here with the Linksys system but will become simpler and easier
  • Broadband and wireless or cat5 wired networks will become increasingly important in estate agent blurbs
  • The current focus on 'Grand Challenges' in science will continue, will gain political interest, and will be dropped politically
  • HCI will make some significant strides in modelling temporal issues, in agent-based interaction, and in generic usability
  • Electronic art/accessible digital photography will become widespread
  • There will be some consolidation in the mobile phone space
  • Non-conected PDAs will almost die out
  • PCs will retail for sub-£100 (without monitor)
  • A university will go bust (and may be bailed out by the government)

So, it's a mobile, wireless and internet-dominated world, is it? No - it's simply that most mobile, wireless or internet technologies (when they work properly) offer something that people need, want, and find easy to use. It's simplicity for all that is going to drive change, not technology for its own sake.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Happy New Year!
I'm not going to let you in on all my new year's resolutions, but there's one that merits a mention. It's part of my role to work towards better user experiences, to wards better technology that helps us in everyday life. One of the issues that currently vexes me is the terrible situation new PC owners find themselves in - they have machines with a Microsoft operating system on that is, according to Microsoft, in need of critical software updates. Their machines are insecure, vunerable to attack and misuse by others. And yet to update them (sorry, I mean bring them up to an acceptable standard), they have to connect to that very same internet and stay online for ages. This seems to me to be fundamentally wrong, and I'm wondering if the Sale of Goods Act in the UK covers it. Goods should be 'fit for their intended purpose' and these machines are patently not. So I'm planning to write a few letters to stores and distributors to bring this to their attention and ask what they intend to do about it - and if that fails, it may be fun to push it further. We have to stand up for our rights as consumers and users, after all. Could be an interesting year...

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