Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Tiger, Longhorn search for desktop answers - News - ZDNet

Here it is, the killer app for next-gen operating systems: SEARCH.

looks like both Apple & Microsoft are both after the same thing - a usable, intuitive, and effective way to find that file you vaguely recall having downloaded last night but now can't find the printout.

the problem is further compounded by an increasing reliance on distributed computing - I work from home using Remote Desktop, and I often can't remember whether I've left a file on my local machine or if it's at work.

The solutions we're seeing being thrown about seem to rely on finding new ways to search the existing data structures we already have. But the current hierarchical directory & file system really is a throw-back to the days of filing cabinets and paper folders. the similarity is of course deliberate, but these days computers offer us many more varied ways of storing and manipulating our stuff. so, what I'm getting at is a deep conviction of mine that, if we hope to be able to search our massive filestores we need to radically change how we store stuff in the first place. Some answers have cropped up, in the form of Apple's Piles (not as unpleasant as it sounds), but there's still work to be done. and from my reading of Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything, it looks like groundbreaking science is less about being consistently brilliant, and more about having just a few great ideas...

IT Regatta
Some of the PhD students in Computer Science, a couple of their partners and friends, and myself, made up a team for the IT regatta - an opportunity to network with the main IT companies, discuss research, jobs, life and all.

Actually, whilst we did a little of that, the main aim was to learn to sail and to race against these guys; the chatting could wait until the BBQ and bar in the evening. Now, whilst I sail a lot, all the other guys hadn't been before, so we had a lot to learn.

Like, when Russell suggest you put on waterproofs, it's usually a good idea - after motoring across a steep Solent chop for 45 minutes to get to Cowes to register, all were soaked through, and we hadn't put any sails up yet.

Lunch was folowed by some dockside discussions on how the boat worked, then some on the water practice, which went really well, especially as the wind was force 5 gusting 6 - for the non-sailors out there, that's 'interesting' conditions - pretty strong for beginners. We even got the asymmetric spinnaker up, and down, without too many dramas. In and tied up, then off for the rum punches, bbq and chatting.....

The following day was the race itself - after a melee of baots all trying to leave the dock at once, including a Sunsail buffoon reversing when he shouldn't have, we got down to the start and did a few tacks to practice, with the small heavy weather sail up. It was just about windy enough for them, and was forecast to pick up. But it died.

First start we wer perfectly on, and at the front - but everyone else was over, so we had to do it again. Ditto for the second start - even better, actually. But again, too many others were too keen. Third start and we led a line of boats over, but with sails that were too small and being the slowest boat in the fleet, we slowly slipped back down through the order. However, all the team worked hard, we threw the boat around the course, worked out it was fun and less wet sailing than motoring, and finished a creditible 28th out of 36.

After a lunch made under way, and rolling so muchthat Dave went quite green (but still ate his sandwich), we went for the second race. Lots of chaos and carnage at the start, which we avoided, and we raced around again - some highly adrenaline-charged moments with the asymmetric spinnaker pulling us over, and some wild rides with the breeze behind us, and we improved to 21st. Overall, 22nd, which for complete beginners is a sreditable performance, and with some reasonable networking too (at least for me), it was a successful couple of days.

Spinach Solar Power
Seems Popeye had the right idea - spinach really can power you up. This work uses photosynthetic proteins from spinach to generate electricity from light. This, along with the other work on hydrogen fuel cells and other light, powerful, environmentally friendly power sources could slowly but surely revolutionise our gadgetry needs. You may enen end up nipping outside for a breath of fresh air, and to recharge your phone and laptop at the same time!

Monday, June 28, 2004

We're expanding!

We've recently acquired some new contributors to this blog, so don't be surprised to see some new names underneath postings. Let's get some comments rolling in too and really start bouncing some ideas around - the more the merrier!

Virtual Rejection

Being rejected by a computer is just as hurtful, possibly more so, than being rejected by a person. Players invited to play a game of internet catch were felt just as rejected when they thought they were being ignored by a pre-programmed computer compared to being rejected by other players.

I think is particularly relevant to the kind of agent-centred computer we're moving towards, with distributed services available over different devices. What happens if your 'find me a date' agent doesn't return any matches for a week? You might get a bit fed up and try a different one. There are easy ways to re-assure people and let them know they're 'still in the game', even if nothing is going on. Mobile service providers take note: if people feel rejected they won't like the service, and are more likely to shop around.

Ref: Zadro, L., Williams, K.D. & Richardson, R. (2004). How low can you go? Ostracism by a computer is sufficient to lower self-reported levels of belonging, control,
self-esteem, and meaningful existence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40,

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Web-based popup book
"Alice in wonderland" has become "Flash Alice in your browser" - but this is a great example of taking the best in available technologies and maximising its potential to offer a different but engaging experience. Story and visuals combine to give a short, entertaining summary of the Alice story.

Perhaps I'll have to do this for the HCI course.....

Friday, June 25, 2004

Well - Getting started with Blogger was easier than I had expected. I've been browsing through Ted Nelson's "Computer Lib/Dream Machines" today. Written in 1974 it foresees most of the developments in personal computing (and some that haven't yet been implemented such as StretchText). Still a good source of ideas for student HCI projects. Here's what he sees as the benefits of Xanadu - his pre-conceptualisation of the WWW: "to make you part of a new electronic literature and art, where you can get all your questions answered and nobody will put you down."

"Click for a chance to win 200 quid!"
I clicked to fill in a reader survey on The Register, only to be dismissed when I answered 'no' to them asking if I'm responsible for IT purchasing. they didn't tell me I had to be a purchaser before I clicked for the survey, so I thought this was out of order. so I went back and said 'yes', and got a load of questions about Vodafone's new 3G data cards. Hmm, didn't look like a ready survey for The Register at all. My disgust forced me to fill in the survey with random data. Twice.

A couple of things bother me about the strategy used here. Firstly, it looks like this ad was trading off the reputation of its host site, and if anyone's listening over at the The Register I'd suggest you look into it. If it's a genuine Register survey, then I'm even more annoyed.

It's a bit unfair to offer a 'chance' of a prize which you then later withdraw when you get more info from your respondents. Here's one thing context aware computing should not used for.

More on php
On three fronts, it's great. Firstly, my header/side nav bar/footer template system works a treat - css for layout (interesting to see the lack of compatability between browsers and the hacks around the problems) and the php mean I can change the look and feel and the navigational structure of my sites without having to re-template pages and undergo the long process of uploading new files each time there is a structural change.

On a broader front, we've used it (well, Rob Goldsmith, one of the PhD students) has used it to drive the new Advanced Interaction Group site, which uses a lot of database stuff at the back end to give fisheye views on interrelated data (as discussed earlier).

And it's the powerhouse behind tikiwiki which we've set up as the basis of the Kaleidoscope SIG on philosophy of technology enhanced learning. This offers an out of the box solution for wiki's, content management, image handling; in fact, most forums, threads, styles and approaches to putting content on the web and interacting with it are supported. It's not the simplest wiki to set up (or use) but is easily the most powerful and best looking - others such as twiki are somewhat clunky, especially in their default format - and if you have to look at it a lot cos you're using it, it should be pleasing to the eye.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Comments Welcome!

By popular demand, you can now post comments to this blog. Go ahead, give it a try!

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Music | Classical concerts go digital
This is mobile, informal learning: you can now listen to a concert whilst browsing info about the music and seeing intricate details of the performance via PDA. And for a change this project was not technology-driven, it came out of a recognition that people are increasingly finding these kind of performances less accessible. It looks like involving the stakeholders in mobile services (ie finding out what people actually want to receive, and what people want to send) is what's lacking at the moment. The marketplace is full of services and products that the providers are desperately hoping will catch on. Picture messaging and video calls are two prime examples. But the real success stories are things that people never thought would be so popular, like SMS and, more recently, ring tones.

It's not GMail...
My ISP recently colsed access to my email account: the reason was I had exceeded my mail quota.

I spoke to them and they reactivated it temporarily so I could clear it out. Before deleting anything, I checked the mailbox sizes.


They don't give you much space, clearly :-)

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Who watches the watchers

Hotmail have apparently adopted a policy of deleting email accounts that are reported to be sending spam. A good thing, you might think, and indeed it might be, so long as a) the report is verified, and b) the owner of the account is given a chance to defend themselves (the account may have been hacked, for example).

Hotmail are currently doing neither of these things, and are simply disabling accounts as soon as a report is received. This means that troublemakers can make life difficult for anyone whose email address they care to report. So the question becomes who watches the watchers? There's enough ways of causing e-trouble already without reactionary, Machiavellian approaches like this. What we need is a more measured approach, and a recognition that just because it looks like someone is doing a good deed by reporting malicious activity, that report in itself could be malicious...

and just to really get the controversy going, how much money do the anti-virus people make from viruses? if I made a living from selling anti-virus software, I'd make sure there were plenty of viruses out there... (hypothetically speaking - I'm not really that evil)

Domain name and web page hassles

Been writing some php and css that allows me to have simple templates for my web pages:


main stuff in here.....


so that I can change the look and feel of the site simply and easily: I use the above as a template, and then simply add the relevant stuff to the body to create each page. The sidebar also processes a text file so that it's trivial to put in menu items and links - no html needed.

All this was fine - but then I discovered my isp doesn't support php on their main server, but has a separate one - but I don't think I can access it via my domain name.

i.e. I paid for the domain and hosting, but all the stuff I wanted to do I actually can't use the domain name for.....

Pain, or what?

Annual survey of mobile phone use by Lancaster Uni for Teleconomy

This year's survey of mobile phone use amongst the youth of today suggests two broad categories of users: 'cyborgs' and 'deniers'. The 'cyborg' label has previously been reserved for individuals who choose to merge themselves with machine parts (like Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, and Kevin Warwick). find it fascinating and also a little worrying that our contemporary reliance on technology should lead to this description, but I guess in a way we are all cyborgs if we rely in any way on technology in ours lives.

Now, the 'deniers' intrigue me because they're actually the top cyborgs, they just don't know it, or if they do they won't admit it. There's a deeper question here that I don't think the survey quite answers: do we have a lack of perception about our current reliance on technology, or do we have a very clear perception of it, and think it's a bad thing?

I don't think I'm a cyborg or a denier, but my wife would say otherwise, as I sit upstairs writing this blog instead of making her a cup of tea. I must a denier who's in denial.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Call For Papers: 1st Workshop on Friend of a Friend, Social Networking and the Semantic Web

The first (as far as I know) European conference on social networking and related web-enabled phenomena - get your research studies out, your writing head on, and get writing. I'm not sure I can actually contribute anything as I'm going to be away (I think) for those couple of days, and having found myself already heavily overbooked for much of the summer I can't do too much more! (at one stage, I'm supposed to be giving a talk at UCE, a presentation in Rome, and sailing across to Ireland, all at the same time).

Monday, June 21, 2004

Wired News: Fans Forge Future IPods
If you want to learn about innovation, market desires, design concepts, wackyness, and the power that current computer graphics have given even the geekiest of designers, check out the future visions of what the iPod could become.

There are some great ideas, some bad ones, and some that really, really ought to happen. For HCI and usability people, this is a treat, to see what sort of things are thought of as innovative and cool, to imagine what may work and what may not, and to get a grasp on the depth of passion and design skills that are out there.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Everything we know about traffic-calming is wrong

Summarising, this suggests that by mixing traffic and pedestrians, motorists are more aware of their environment and so go slower, looking out for people. Separate them and try to use speedhumps, and motorists concentrate of going quickly and do not pay attention to the outside conditions. Interesting in itself, but what interests me is whether this has much wider implications for design, and in particular interaction design and HCI.

Perhaps we are actually making things worse by seperating thing out - in an effort to simplify, perhaps the users are expecting us to resolve all the issues for them and hence make more mistakes. Instead, if they had to pay more attention and understand more about what was actually going on, it may be that everything would improve.....

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Chat Nannies - claims debunked -almost
Our very own Andy Pryke helped out in this study, evaluating the claims by Jim Wightman that his ChatNannies software could, essentially, act and converse intelligently enough to monitor chatrooms. And the result?

Basically, it couldn't. Wightman is a tricky character to pin down, and had some plausible excuses, but the software bore an uncanny resemblance to Alice, the AI chat program freely available on the net.

My interpretation is that Wightman is a fraud, and may have extended Alice slightly but has made wild claims for it that are not sustainable or justifiable. But we had a great time working out ways to remove human interference in the trials, ranging from wrapping the PC in aluminium foil to cut out wireless transmissions through to jamming wireless devices, coupled with some conversational tricks and tests for the software itself.

Andy's interpretation is available here, complete with transcripts and impressions.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Advanced Interaction Group
The AIG has just launched its new website, and whilst it's not quite complete in terms of content, it gives a good impression of the group. its activities and interests, and so on.

It also uses contemporary technology to good effect: it's written in php and XML, and has a database back end for cross-linking things. The main concepts in the site are People, Projects, Grants and Papers, and each can be associated with one or more of the others. So a Project has a number of People associated with it, and none or more Grants, and none or more papers. Likewise, Grants can support one or more projects, people and so on. This gives it great flexibility and provides an accurate view of the space.

The website is the more public face of the AIG - internally, different projects run different collaboration tools (BSCW, the shared document server; Twiki's and phpWiki's, blogs, and email are all used to support the communication and activities of the participants - and a few face to face meetings too!).

The projects part of the site wil develop rapidly over the next few weeks as we upload the details of our current active programmes of research, and we will also populate the grants section fully, and make papers available online.

Is PowerPoint the devil?

"What sort of world is reflected in PowerPoint? A world stripped down to briefly summarized essences, a world snipped clean of the annoying underbrush of ambiguity and complication. "

Entertaining and provocative, this essay suggests that Powerpoint has become thinking for the MTV generation: summarised, short and glitzy, lacking the depth and tonality necessary to understand the real world. It arguers that it constrains your creativity, defeats your passions for communication, and reduces life to simple truths. It may even be true.

Committees, creativity and design
On BBC Radio 4 this morning, there was a debate about the demerits of committees - they take lots of time, they abdicate responsibility, and, most interestingly, they provide strong social pressure to conform. This, it was argued, stifles creativity. Whilst disputed by the other debater, there is certainly some truth in this, and it touches on some of the bigger issues that are interesting me at the moment, realting to design, creativity and users.

Ferrari's are passionate, sexy, fast cars, crafted through a single design ethos. Fiesta's are functional, practical cars crafted by committees and focus groups. Both have their adherents; to pose in, the Ferrari wins, to go down the shops, the Fiesta. To use in general? It depends, but I know which I'd choose. But with software, we always design it by committee (user-centered design, it's called, but it has the effect of knocking off the rough edges). Should it, though? Or should we have passionate, quirky, fantastically stylish software to make our user experiences much more enjoyable (even if they are slightly less practical?).

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

BBC NEWS | Technology | 'Black box' cam for total recall
I'll be honest: when I first saw the SenseCam - a compact, wearable camera that automatically takes snaps triggered by changes in light, temperature, and movement - I thought it was just another one of those research ideas that wouldn't really go anywhere. But it's found what could be a really worthwhile use: helping people with memory problems keep track of their daily activities. So my lesson for today is to keep an open mind about new ideas, to look beyond the hype, and to remember that some of the most profound technologies started out with their inventors having a very different purpose in mind (homework: check out the histories of the gramophone, telephone, and SMS).

Monday, June 14, 2004

BBC NEWS | Magazine | The seven-year-old bloggers
Blogs really are good for something :) There's some compelling arguments here for including weblogging in classroom activities - the kids love it and it looks it helps them learn.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Let's see some really NEW games!

BBC NEWS | Technology | Lara Croft creator speaks out
Nintendo 'fears for games industry'

A couple of pieces that talk about stagnation in the games sector, with publishers unwilling to take on innovative, original products. it seems like it's been a long while since anything truly original arrived on the scene. There is some novelty out there, such as the Grand Theft Auto and Hitman series, but even they have own series of tired sequels that do little, if anything, to improve on the original gameplay. Of course the games industry at its heart is about making money, and companies will generally prefer to keep selling what they know people will buy, but when this carries on too long we run the risk of getting long term ennui with the whole business (Nintendo's Satoru Iwata agrees with me). New directions, such as mobile and collaborative online games, offer some promising attractions, but it remains to be seen whether they'll catch on big time or whether it's another passing trend. I admit I'm of the age where I still have fond memories of some truly original titles for my Commodore 64, and it bothers me that to be considered a good game these days requires more graphics than gameplay. I recently got hold of the new Bond game, Everything or Nothing, and I've been impressed by the production quality of the title. There are real actors providing the voices and the basis of the animation models, and the plot is true to a bonafide Bond movie, but sadly the gameplay is nothing new. What it does, it does well, but it doesn't do anything that hasn't been done before. I'd like to see somebody take a risk and do something different. Gone are the days of home-coded games that became cult successes. This is big business, and the big bucks should be spent on innovation, not maintaining the status quo.

Jakob Nielsen loses (remote) control
Known for a passionate and personal perspective, this article discusses his difficulty with working the six remotes to operate his home cinema. Whilst the basic premise of the article is fine (complexity, inconsistency and suchlike cause problems) it is remarkable that he is getting mileage out of this about 10 years after Harold Thimbleby and others talked about it and actually did something about it too in their constructive models and manuals. It's partly a measure of the lack of commercial influence that HCI has that the problems still remain, but there are some issues that I think are partly resolved that Jakob simply hasn't got.

The prime one is that I have a similar system at home, and to turn it all on and watch somethnig I press one button. Ditto to turn it off. All my remotes are combined into one, and that has been programmed to issue ordered instructions which makes the whole thing work. So it is possible to do, and is easy to use.

Where it fails is that this single remote is still really mimicking the seperate ones, and so does not offer a complete cognitive experience ('watch t.v.' or 'listen to the radio') - instead it is programmed with a sequence of commands to achieve a similar effect, but if the mode you want is not programmed in you are forced back into operating each device in turn.

But the systems are not simple - there are numerous ways to connect up TVs, videos, TiVOs, digital boxes, terrestrial airels, DVD players, amplifiers and tuners - ordering them differently gives you different effects, and with some offering one standard and others a different one, it's not suprising that there is a lack of integration. For example, my video only offers VHS out, but my other inputs are S-VHS for better quality - should I go for easier use or better quality? Quality wins each time, but it means I have to switch the t.v. input channel and aspect ratio each time as well, and that means monitoring the video channel only happens in black and white.....

Which is not to say that we should not aim for a better experience, it's just that it is not the easy goal that is implied.

BBC NEWS | Magazine | The camera phone backlash
More evidence that we're about to see a real clampdown on the use of camera phones. at the very least I think we'll start to see guidelines on their use and where they can be carried. at the other end of the spectrum we could start seeing actual legislation about their use.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Doctor defends child murder claim
Speaking with my ethics hat on, this whole thing worries me. It is certainly strange that a consultant makes a diagnosis without the patients notes and without actually seeing the patient. However, if we assume that we are hearing the full story and that the only evidence that there was to go on was through the media (and this is a significant assumption) then, if an expert sees something that, to them, looks like a duck and talks like a duck, it probably is a duck. Only in this case, it's a defenceless child who is possibly in danger. What should they do?

I would have thought that informing the police of your concerns seems a reasonable approach. If I see people behaving suspiciously, I'd tell the police. And yet he's now up in front of the GMC accused of Gross Professional Misconduct. It's not clear what misconduct has occurred - if he had not reported his suspicions, surely that's misconduct?

He may have been completely wrong about the father being guilty. He may not - that is not really the issue here. The big problem is that there appears to be an institutional over-reaction to what seems to me to be a perfectly appropriate course of action from a person who sees no choice but to act because the consequences of not acting are potentially far, far worse, and the child in the middle of this is unable to stand up for themselves.

What it takes to have a decent lab

The interesting part of this story is not so much that MS are chasing new summarisation and source aggregation as a research topic, but the general sorts of comments near the end of the article which highlight what is needed for a successful lab. These can be summarised as
  • A shifting focus of interest over time
  • A mix of lon and short term goals
  • Good people
  • Adequate funding

This is particularly relevant for HCI groups, since the uses of technology change faster than the technologies themselves, and they in turn change faster than the fundamental underlying them. Therefore HCI labs have to be dynamic and flexible in terms of research topic, technology labs slightly less so, and natural scientists even less so.

And why do I like this so much? Well, for one it accords with my views, and secondly it gives me a comeback to those people who tell us we are "eclectic" in our research activities. And it's not meant as a compliment, believe me!

Digital pen takes on mouse

This was demo'd at CHI, and works. A pen drags an icon around on a screen and can also copy it and tranfer it through the ether to another machine - okay if you can interact with everything via the pen, but not really a solution if you have to revert back to other methods in order to use it. The "toys for the boys" quote is correct though I was referring to the whole of the presentation, not simply the pen mouse. The Sony lab does some novel and interesting stuff, but, as I mentioned, it certainly presents its stuff as whizzy interest rather than as a response or driver of particular needs..... However, watch out for some neat a.v. stuff from them in the not too distant future.....

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

BBC NEWS | Education | 'Shameful waste' on e-university

Hooray, the BBC catch up. As discussed here back in February the UK eU has been quietly dismantled. Okay, so I have some inside knoweldge - some of my colleagues worked with the UKeU - but for me the most amazing figure is the £75,000 per student that it received.

BBC NEWS | Technology | BT transforms phone network

Big news: British Telecome has unveiled plans to convert the UK public phone network from circuit switched PTSN to packet-switched IP, the data transfer protocol that underlies the internet.

What this means is that essentially the internet will suddenly be everywhere. There will be no need to 'dial-up' or connect via broadband. every phone socket will become a network access point. landlines and mobiles (which are already migrating towards packet-switched networks) will converge.

all this by 2009, and "The switchover should be undetectable to its customers".

er, OK. I thought April 1st went past a while ago. this seems like a massive switch-over to me, and maybe slightly ambitious? the promises are grand, but let's not hold our breath.

Apple - Power Mac G5 - Design

New Apple Power Mac G5 revealed today, upping the speed to 2.5GHz dual processor, and now liquid cooled for quiet power. So it's claim to be the coolest PC is bolstered by this - though it has got into trouble again for claims that it is the fastest personal computer.

But I like them. They crash less often than PCs, are quieter, at least as fast for most things, easier to edit video and photos on, and look better. OS X has a lot of very nice features, and the powerbooks are the most charming, elegant instantiations of the laptop makers art. PCs are fine too - some of the apps I've got only run on PCs, anyway, Windows XP is quite good looking, in a 12 year-old cartoon cutesy, my-little-pony kind of a way. .NET is a great platform to program to. Horses for courses, really. For home and personal use, I'm going to go back to Mac.

Update: IBM don't appear to have solved the move to the 90nm processing as effectively as they wanted - hence the liquid cooling on the new G5, and the news that a 3GHz G5 is not to be announced any time soon.

Popup satire
I find this hard to believe, so I'll relate it here. I've just been to a web page which has dome DHTML and CSS in it, so that after a brief pause it delivers a popup right across the text you're reading (not an actual window popup, because the popup blocker stops those, but a floating chunk of graphics and text that obscures what I went there for in the first place. And can you guess what it was advertising?

MSN's new toolbar and it's sepcial feature, a popup blocker so that you don't have to suffer any more from those annoying popus (their words, paraphrased). Satire, or stupidity?

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Wired 12.06: Cracking the Code to Romance

Posting your details as an encoded string on your website isn't exactly the most romantic thing you can do, but it at least helps you meet people. And this is one of the major problems facing people in our interconnected, communication-mechanism rich age. Whilst the transports are there, the social skills may not be, and we are as alone and isolated as ever. Approaches to this include the bluetooth dating service my students are building for me (well, not actually for me, you understand, it's for my friend.....) and printing your email address on your t-shirt so that interested parties can contact you.

USB Swiss Army Knife from I Want One Of Those

The Swiss army knife is an institution - a multi-purpose device that made every boy scout and girl guide green with envy. In digerati-speak, it was a convergent integrated digital device - but that was in the days when digital meant 'with your fingers'.

But now it's been moved into the new-style digital generation, combining the ever-useful knife/scissors/nailfile combo with a ball-point pen (if you happen to use paper) and a USB stick. Yes, this device can carry around all your precious documents, and protect them both physically (with the blade) and electronically, with encryption on the USB stick.

And it's got an led light.

What more could any gadget freak want - or any boy scout or girl guide, whatever their age?

Monday, June 07, 2004

University of York HCI Group

Last Friday I went to the 20-year birthday of the York HCI group, and we were treated to a day of talks and reminiscences, followed by an evening of food and wine. Primarily to send off Michael Harrison in a fitting manner (not a wake, but cos he's moving to Newcastle), I was suprised to see that I had actually been there during the first age of HCI, as it was so memorably described, and to be still around in the third age is quite astonishing.

The cross-section of the HCI community that has had the York influence on them is remarkable, from practitioners to theorists, from the funny to the incomprehensible, from the giants to the gnomes, and all in between. (Gnomes, did he say gnomes? Yup. Harold Thimbleby - amongst others - won a gnome, but strangest of all, a Google search for 'harold thimbleby gnome' actually brings up 2 papers.....).

Held in King's Manor, having a day of talks was an excellent way to lay out the history and accomplishments of York HCI, and many of the presentations were much better than those of a number of conferences I've gone to of late.

Things to take away?

  • HCI researchers should be more supportive, more open to ideas, and more communicative than they are currently
  • There is need for more accessible theory in HCI
  • HCI has been great at being descriptive - now it needs to become constructive as well
  • We're a diverse lot: psychologists, computer scientists, formalists, experimenters, ethnogrophers, cognitive scientists, designers, artists; you name it, we all have a part to play
  • We're a fun lot to be with

In search of the no frills Ryanair Communicator

Writing in the Sunday Times 2 weeks ago (I'm behind, I've been on holiday), Jeremy Clarkson tells of his search for a no frills, "does exactly hat it says on the tin" mobile phone. He moans at length about the problems he experiences with his mobile and the mobiles of others, and complains about the plethora of new features that find there way into new phones without (in his opinion) any real advancement of the underlying functionality: talking to other people without poor audio, network drop-outs etc.

A couple of things struck me about this piece. Firstly, it's an eloquent demand for stable devices that do a small number of things really well, rather than offering us a range of features we will hardly (if ever) use, at the expense of this reliable basic functionality. Predictably enough, Clarkson compares the development of mobile technology to automotive trends, pointing out that only once the basic workings have been to honed to perfection do we start adding extras such as TV screens and satnav. there's an old rule, the "90:10 rule", that tells us that people will use 10% of the available functions 90% of the time. of course this is a fairly loose rule, but real usage of complex devices is probably subject to something like this.

The other thing about the piece is that Clarkson moans about his phones and his network problems as if they were one and the same. So in demanding a phone that doesn't cut out when he "goes behind a tree", he is asking for an improved device. well, that's the implication anyway, which got me thinking about people's perceptions of services and devices as one. as we move towards distributed, ubiquitous computing, there are some important questions to be asking about how people attribute blame when things go wrong. We know that people tend to treat complex devices as if they are entities in their own right, so bad network coverage could be attributed to a bad phone, so might poor web services might be attributed to poor client software and hardware?

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Yahoo! Anti-Spam Resource Center - DomainKeys
Slowly, the technogiants are taking on spam with some effective technologies. Signing the messages on the server allows you to verify that they've come from where they say they have. Not that this is radical in many ways - similar systems have been described here and elsewhere - but it needs uptake from most of the main players before it becomes successful. And here's the issue - people hate spam, but are not really willing to do that much about it, especialy if it's technical - so I personaly doubt the cost claims made about it. Sure, it's a big issue, and yes, it's getting worse, and yes, something will soon have to be done. But commercially, that time is not yet here.....

Bringing design and evaluation to life
The user of personas (characters) to bring character and life to things is well-known - it's been documented in design before and is used extensively in advertising and marketing, where we tend to identify with certain personas and hence the products they use and consume. This paper describes an extension of this approach used in developing ome Microsoft products, which goes some way towards explaining how they work and gives details of how they are used. Interesting stuff, and worth a read as a case study if nothing else.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

GUUUI - The Interaction Designer's Coffee Break

A site I've come across recently, this has some good stuff on interaction design and so on - worth dipping into each week for some interesting titbits. The use case work discussed in the current issue relates directly to a current project we are involved in with the Department of Work and Pensions, helping them get the best designed system for their needs - use cases are one tool in the user-centere design process that they are going to be using.

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