Friday, October 29, 2004

Oxford pair suspended for hacking

Interesting story, for numerous reasons.

  • Universities do have regulations regarding their computer systems, which they have every right to enforce
  • Universites keep a lot of sensitive material on their machines - if they do not keep it securely then they are almost certainly in breach of data protection laws - and it appears that problems were exposed. So who is most at fault?
  • This was not some fiendishly clever student creating a new hack - they used software that was "easy to obtain from Google"

Essentially, the students are claiming that this was ethical hacking, which it may well have been - but one of the approaches to ethical hacking is to let the organisation know you are about to try, and get their agreement - preferably, signed on a piece of paper.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Net extortionists in child porn threat | The Register
Summary: pay up or we distribute child porn in your name. Quite a ramping up of the denial of service attacks against the gambline site Blue Square, but it also raises some interesting side issues.

With people being dismissed for sending abusive or inappropriate emails, it's clear that this approach could be used to land a colleague in serious trouble. That much we already knew. But now, if it's common knowledge that stuff sent may not be from who it purports to be, there is a reasonable defence for anyone to use. It wasn't me, I didn't do it, I wasn't there - and proving otherwise may be difficult.

With digital photos able to be manipulated on almost any PCs, digital videos being composited on powerful desktops, images are not sacred. And this is more evidence that, in these days of digital everything, knowing anything is for real has been lost forever.

Interfaces to Fruit
A great entry by a group of students on the HCI course. Asked to blog about people interacting with objects, they've come up with a good take on how we work with fruit. It could be expanded almost infinitely.....

To add my 2p to their view that bananas are the best and oragnes are the worst: Satsumas are okay, in my view, as they are easy to get into, but they do suffer from pith now and again. Basically, designed for the intermediate user. Oranges also suffer from having a non-biodegradable outer, at least in sea water, where it can exist as a blot on the shoreline for many years.

But if you take a different interaction approach, oranges are fantastic. Slice them into quarters, and they offer juice, fruit, and a convenient holder all in one..... It all depends on whether you are prepared to appropriate the technology in a different way.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Design problems with self-checkout systems

I'm becoming quite fond of the self-checkout in my local Sainsburys. it lets me bypass the queues and get home a little bit quicker, and now that I've mastered it I even enjoy using it. But it's not perfect, and although it looks like they have spent some time thinking about how to get it right, they haven't quite got there yet. The article above is an article that explores the issues in a lot more depth than I will here.

The main problem is that you have to find the barcode, scan the item, put it in the bag, and check the price is correct all at the same time. This is a lot to think about. The system speaks the price to you as well as showing it on the screen, but I'm busy getting my shopping in the bag, so I often don't hear it. I certainly don't see the screen. You have to be quick to get things in your bag, because it doesn't let you carry on until it senses the weight. You can 'Skip Bagging', but that needs you to look at the screen, and of course what I'm doing is fishing about in the basket deciding what to scan next.

As well as dividing your attention in a cognitive fashion, your efforts are also physically distributed. The slot for your card and the little electronic pad where you sign is about 2 metres from the screen. The signature pad is pointless - you can't sign properly on it and you just end up with a scrawl. I'd be surprised if they even bothered keeping a record. Why bother? I don't sign when I use the self-checkout at the petrol station (ahh, that's another posting).

So, I like the idea, but it remains an example of several usability problems that could have been fixed with a bit more testing. If you see one, check it out (sorry) and see what you think.

Friday, October 22, 2004

OK-Cancel: What's Hiding Behind Search-Based Navigation?
Some relevant points about the problems with Google-style approaches to desktop search, especially the issues of privacy (also covered in Slashdot relating to public machines).

It's a partial solution to a partial problem - I'll wait to see Pete's comments on how wonderful it is in the near future (but was it coincidence that the day after he installed it his machine crashed and died, being virus-ridden, with hard disk failure and memory failure as well? - must have been). Search is complex, cos we often search, then browse, then search again - and different data sources require different approaches. But is it also a case of something is better than nothing?

Web design session

Quick image of the outcome of the web information architecture design session - note the empty coffee mugs, loads of post-its, and posters everywhere. What you don't see are the other ten posters on the remaining walls, and the fact that the room has been tidied up - during the session it had 3 islands of creativity with a river of chairs between them.

Lots of good results, some interesting debates, a suprising amount of accord about how things should appear; thanks to all who participated, now all I have to do is to pull together all the results.....

Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Luddites are gathering

Two devices have caught my attention this week - a key ring that turns off TVs, and a personal mobile phone blocker.

This is a real sign that technology has started to pervade our lives so heavily that we are actively looking for ways to repel its influence. how long before we see the 'PC jammer' or an 'email blocker'?

Paralysed man sends e-mail by thought
New interfaces are appearing all the time. After the suprisingly powerful and moving documentary on the BBC last night about how Christopher Reeve was not willing to accept his life would be wheelchair-bound forever, which looked at some of the possibilities offered by stem cell research, this article in Nature shows how the world of the cyborg - part human, part machine, may not be too far off - and how that might be a good thing in some circumstances. The sense of empowerment when allowing someone to control even just one aspect of their lives (thier TV) themselves is remarkable, and, for such people, a very worthwhile prize.

Demystifying Usability: Design and Emotion
Emotional responses always affect user's perceptions of design - but this article starts to address the issue from the other direction, by using trying to analyse how one can design things to play on emotional responses, and how those come about. Even Dondald Norman now recognises the value of good aesthetics (an emotional assessment):
“Up to recently, however, I could not make the connection between usability and aesthetics - they were distinct spheres of my life. Now, however, I have figured out the relationship”.

Digital Cameras Appropriated for Automobile Safety
Technologies are often being appropriated for new applications - this one is particularly interesting, because it uses a couple of digital cameras, one trained on the road ahead to look for obstructions, and one looking at the driver's eyes to see where they are looking. If it detects that you're peering out of the side window at a pretty girl walking by, it lets you know that you need to concentrate on the road. Not sure if this means I can observe the scenery until the system tells me otherwise, but it's a neat approach.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

"good question" from elegant hack
This exercise is not an uncommon one, but it's useful to revisit these things occasionally...
for now I'd like to leave you with a little exercise.

Write down your last five jobs.
Now write down your next five jobs.
Now write down how you are going to get to the next two.

You don't have to hold yourself to these, but thinking about them leads to interesting questions. For example, one participant was CEO of his own small technology company. Asked what his next job was, he shrugged and said "do you mean if my company fails?"

But another participant (who had been CEO of a couple firms before that) clearified the question by asking him if he wanted to stay CEO as his company grew, or would he step aside and become CTO, or be chair, or hire a CEO....

In our world, there is always a next step. Success or failure leads to the next success or failure. It's good to think of what that could be, and prepare for when the future arrives. The future always shows up sooner than expected.


An alternative rendition of this sort of self-anlaysis is:

Write your own obituary.


Now get on with achieving it!

Wired Bush

OK, I can resist no longer. the link to HCI might be tenuous, but it seems the erswhile Mr George W may have been using a bit of technology to boost his performance in recent debates. You can see pictures of the suspect bulge here.

I think this example shows us just how confused people can become when trying to respond to multiple strands of interaction. As discussed here, Bush seems to get confused at certain points and starts responding to his earpiece as if everyone can hear what it's telling him.

Perhaps Mr Bush could do with some training from TV presenters, who deal with this divided attention all the time. And he could do with a bigger IT budget - there's got to be a smaller receiver than that he could wear.

Distrust and the Internet

I got a flyer from Egg the other day, inviting me to take part in a prize draw to win a new car. all I had to do was sign up for their Money Manager service, and add an account to it. For anyone who doesn't know, Egg's Money Manager lets you view all of your online bank accounts in one place: the Egg place, surrounded by ads for Egg's products. I'm sure you see their motivation. Anyway, despite having previously steered clear of Money Manager for security concerns, I decided that the chance to win an Audi made it worth a second look. But as soon as I had registered, I was presented with a screen which asked me to enter the details of my bank accounts. Hmmm. Obviously, Money Manager needs this info to do its job, but I'm wary of phishers, and how could I be 100% sure I was still on Egg's site? what surprised me was that there were no reassuring messages on this page, nothing telling me that I need not worry about entering my details. with phishing scams on the increase, more needs to be done to re-assure people that they're not giving their details away to just anyone. I somehow just didn't feel comfortable giving Egg my account details in this way, and with them offering the prize draw as an incentive, I wonder how many other people are being put off.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

IAwiki: TechniquesForIA
For those with a deeper interest in the information architecture approach, this IA wiki is a good repository of information and pointers to useful materials and tools. In the workshop I ran on Monday, we took a structured approach with mind-mapping, affinity grouping and so on, but we could have used card sorting and other techniques too. I've just downloaded a card sorting tool which may help in resolving some key issues identified in the workshop - we'll see. Donna Maurer (via Silvie) has produced a list of card sorting tools, though I find the best approach is to do it with post-it notes and sheets of A0 paper - and photograph the results. The sheets are currently clustered in my office, making a takeover bid..... BoxesandArrows has the definitive card sorting description.

Can Google be trusted to tell you who I am?

Who we are is being defined by the traces we leave on the web. This lucky man was released by his kidnappers because a quick Google search 'proved' that he was a journalist, and not a spook or US contractor.

I'm glad this man got home safely, but just how much trust do people put in what we find online? It's very easy to set-up fake traces to make people appear to be what they're not. using Google to find out people's background is nothing new, and it has become a popular way of checking out potential dates, especially in the States.

We are all prone to a little embellishment on our CVs, and as everyone gets a bit more savvy with how to beef up our online traces, just how long will it before we all maintain tailored Google profiles? and what is it that makes one source seem more reliable than another? we might not believe everything we read on a person's homepage, but what about a news story that we find about them? as the phishers have shown us, it's very easy to make a page appear as if it comes from somewhere it doesn't, and web marketing already lets people get their pages to the top spot in Google whether they deserve to be there or not.

difficult questions, not many answers right now.

I'm off to update my online CV with details of my career in the circus.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web
Not only is this a great book (and almost the definitive reference book on IA now), it was also the inspiration for this afternoon's session (1:30pm-5:50pm) that I facilitated. In one room, all the people interested in the design of the school website argued, discussed, brainstormed, and wrote lots of post-its on audiences, goals, structure, content and so on, and spent even more time moving the post-its around to try to develop a sensible, accessible, understandable approach to the structure of the school's website.

A number of things came out of the session, not least an emerging consensus about the approach, but also an understanding how this sort of group and breakout work can put a process and structure onto a set of activities that can then be made more creative and more productive. And we had fun.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Analysing websites
Interesting study using eyetracking to determine where people look on home pages on websites (see the image below for an approximate summary).



The full survey also presents some interesting conclusions: nav at the top of the page (no suprises), short paragraphs looked at more, headlines more important than photos (I simplify).

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Quote of the day

"Visiting the website is dating; getting a daily e-mail is going steady -- but subscribing to an RSS feed, well, that is like getting married to a news source," he said. "It's really the highest commitment you can make."

Jason Calacanis

Friday, October 15, 2004

Weather Forecast Beacon
Ambient art becomes more useful - people are actually selling these things. It's only useful to me if it gives wind information too - but then it appears it can cope with that. The ambient orb is simialr but has focussed on stock market information in the main. It's all part of the great space of ambient technology. New names for old ideas, or the next big thing?

Critical Section - The Tyranny of Email
Email, that great communicator. Interestingly, this article has surfaced in the blog world after about 18 months - though it made an impression at the time too. It offers some interesting advice for dealing with email - though in my book, it's slightly too simplified and focuses on one group of users and style of working only. It's key recommendation is


Turn your email client off. Pick the moment at which you'll be interrupted.

which will make a big difference to your working day. For some activities, I agree with this, but not for others.

One could also extend this into other technologies too - turn your phone off (we do, often) and turn your sidebar off (or whatever you use to monitor and access rss feeds with) - I don't.

But now I am going to focus on other work and stop blogging for a while - too many distractions if I continue.....

Google launches desktop search for Windows PCs
The Register's article, and the BBC one, show that search approaches are expanding in both technology and domain, and show no signs of slowing down. It's an interesting area, with the most critical problems remaining predominantely unsolved (finding what you mean not what you type etc.).

But I have to wonder whether the focus on search is also missing the point - people access information in many different ways, and we seem to be producing improved technologies to support only one. I guess you could argue that newer browsers are enhancing browsing, but it seems to me that they are only tinkering with the issues - interaction may be slightly enhanced but accessing quality information through them remains pretty much as it was.

Feds approve human RFID implants | The Register
Good article questioning the use, point and implications of allowing a company to inject an RFID tag into people so that you can access their medical records regardless of whether they want to or are able to co-operate. Big business winning out over societal need for sure, and probably winning over ethics and common sense.

As Thomas Greene puts it so eloquently in the final paragraph:


Unique RF identity chips and concealed RF readers everywhere: madmen have been complaining about this since the earliest days of radio. That's how we knew they were madmen. Only an IT industry divorced from any sense of good taste and human dignity, in which technology becomes an end in itself, could strive to make the nightmares of the insane a common reality. And yet, here we are.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Google Desktop Search Download
You can now get Google for your desktop. A quick download gets you a Google app that runs very nicely as a local web service, so you get to it just the same way as you get to Google main - through your web browser. It claims to index files, emails, web history, and chat sessions. At the moment, it's indexing my hard drive - I'll let you how I get on...

UPDATE: this really is a fantastically useful addition to my PC. the integration with Google's web search is great, and I can now search my emails and view threaded conversations much more easily than I ever could in Outlook. And the web history search has already helped with me that "what was that thing I looked at the other day?" problem. My only concern is just how reliant on Google I might become - I already have it as my homepage, I have the IE toolbar, and the deskbar, and now I have the desktop search. one day Google might want money for these things... well OK maybe not since they're already rolling in it but what happens when they decide they want to start using my personal data for marketing? if I'm dependent on their products already, I'm more likely to agree...

Monday, October 11, 2004

Search and Social Networking
The concept behind this is that you have a network of people who are good at stuff and known to you - but you may not know who to contact about what. This approach combines the social networknig approach with search results to make them more prominent.

I'm not convinced. Not only do I think there is a flawed business model here, I also think that there is a flawed model of what users want when they search. But then, the great thing about internet businesses is, we can simply wait and see to know whether this is a good idea, or not.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Wired 12.10: Point. Shoot. Kiss It Good-Bye.

I've been away a while, welcoming our new family member into the world, but now I'm back. Here's an interesting piece about how we might be better organise our digital pics. While I've been at home doing the parenting thing, my digital camera has had quite a workout, as we do our utmost to record baby's first few weeks. I've found myself wanting more ways to organise my digital pics, and I've tried out Adobe Photo Album and Google's Picasa. Both have their own plus and minus points. Photo Album lets you add metadata tags to catalogue your snaps, but this process is manual and time consuming. Picasa does some automated filtering based on what you've done with the pics (emailed them, printed them etc). But I still struggle sometimes to find the exact pic I want, especially when I'm moving between Photo Album and the application that sends my pics off to be printed. The idea of automated processing, as described in the article, sounds promising, but just how reliable will it be?

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Atom 0.3 to RSS 1.0
A useful site that offers a web service to transform your Atom XML feed into an RSS one. Since Blogger only offers Atom, this provides a way of getting RSS onto your blog without hosting code yourself. If you have the bandwidth you can also instal the code and run it on your own server - now there's a public service. This means that the RSS site feed for this blog has altered - please use the new link to get the live version of the blog from now onwards.

University - aerial photo and map
Just how cool is this? An overlay of the map on top of an aerial picture of the University. Move the mouse over the image to see the map move. A neat bit of integration, and could be really useful. I love it as an example of data fusion working well on the web - all I need is this for my phone.....

Vivisimo Clustering - automatic categorization and meta-search softwareYet another search engine - this one clusters results so that you can go to the category you wish in order to find the answer you want. Clusty.com appears to be their internet offering, but what the difference between the two is I'm not yet sure. I guess one thing we should do is an analysis of these different engines to see which one really is best - or is it horses for courses? If you have opinions, do let me know.....

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

New search tool
Snap is a new entry into the search market, trying to do something different. It's okay (though a little slow) and whilst I like the related searches stuff at the top right I'm less convinced by the columns. Having feedthrough from user visitis and soon is okay (if others are after the same things as you) but it looks a little clunky and ugly. But it's clear that Google hasn't got the search world to itself any more.

UpdateSnap appears to have a bizzare linking policy which may prove to be its undoing. I appear to not be following it. Oh dear.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Semantic blogging
Well, sort of. More like tagging and viewing a blog in different ways, really - most people would kind of recognise this as semantics of a sort but it's so user-created that it is hard to see it catching on. Do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages? It's not my concept of the semantic web, but then mine presupposes a lot of AI that will automatically provide metadata tags for meaning and we aint even close to that yet!

Blogger Toolbar
thisis old news for regular readers, but for the new students this may be relevant - if you use Blogger, then the Google toolbar contains a Blogger button - when you are browsing a site that you want to add to your blog, just hit the Blogger button and it gives you a popup window with the URL of the current page already in it, allowing you to comment on the page and then publish it to your blog easily.

It also gives you direct access to Google searching - and is a popup blocker - but as it's a download and install, you'll only get this if you set it up on a machine you own.

From a usability, HCI, and efficiency perspective, I wouldn't be without it.

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