Monday, January 31, 2005

My house is online, and I don't like it

The UK Land Registry is now serving up details of land registrations, including plot layouts, as well as pricing information, for £2 each. This means that you can find out how much your neighbours paid for their house, and exactly where their boundaries are.

This information has always been available through more traditional means from the Land Registry, and is accessed every time a house is bought or sold. But putting it online and making it cheap to access encourages more casual use of this information, and I for one don't like it. I don't have any particularly delicate financial concerns that I need to keep private, but I just don't like the thought of anyone being able to find out how much I paid for my house and what rights I have over my driveway.

The internet can open up new ways to access important and useful information, but just because we can do this that's not to say that we should.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Functionality is dead
Computer Weekly says so: a survey of users shows that usability beats functionalitry in what they want. Hardly suprising.

But why now are users aware of this? Is it because finally the approaches taken by HCI have paid off and decent products have emerged? Is it because things like Google are simple and effective, and that many many people know about it and realise it?

Personally, I think it's down to the improvement in the awareness of users, their education about the digital realm, and its possibilities. And this has to be a good thing.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Seeking Better Web Searches
Scientific American highlights some of the new approaches to searching that are starting to make an impact on the Google-dominated world. Essentially, the thrust of a new search engine is that it will return more of what you want and less of what you don't, but in order to achieve that it has to understand a vast amount about the real world, to understand what "row" may mean, for example, and it also has to understand about the user - what their interests are, and so on.

Searching is not the only thing that requires support - browsing is an obvious battleground. Whilst the original browser wars were lst to Internet Explorer, the rebel alliance...... (sorry, drifted into a flim genre there), there are still new initiatives (Firefox and so on) which show that new ideas are still welcomed by users. My research here into supporting browsing (pdf) shows that there is still a number of things that we can do and routes that we can take. Intelligence in the interface is needed more than ever.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Academics give lessons on blogs | BBC NEWS
Goodness me, the media have caught on to the idea of us using blogs to teach! Biggest problem is the somewhat reactionary nature of one of the people - from Birmingham University. What he says is not incorrect, it is just that the benefits so far outweigh the disadvantages, and that Universities should be the foundation from which new, exciting and somewhat risky initiatives are launched from.....

Friday, January 21, 2005

Clever men less likely to kill themselves | The Register
Whilst University types may be taking some solace from this report, there's a lot about it that doesn't seem well thought through.

For example, dentists are the most suicidal of professionals - and yet they have to be intelligent to go through years of medical training and dental school. Okay, you may argue that peering into people's mouths all day is not a great sign of intelligence, but nonetheless it flies in the face of the above research.

And the reasoning given is not conclusive. It seems much more likely to me that people with lower scores in intelligence tests had an intellectually unstimulated upbringing, which is more common in deprived familes - and it would be this deprivation that would cause them to have reason to kill themselves.

Society is a complex system, people also, and understanding people is not easy - which makes for a challenge for interactive systems.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Guide to the year's best usability research
Courtesy of HFI (via usabilitynews), a review of the best usability research of the year. Or at least, HFI's take on it. Some good one-line summaries, though. Worth a peruse.

E.g. "Consumer purchase behavior is driven by perceived security, privacy, quality of content and design, in that order."

Durability of Usability Guidelines (Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox)

Jakob Nielsen dips back into history (ok, 1986) and discovers that about 90% of usability guidelines produced back then are still relevant today. The take home message for me from this piece was that although computer technology changes quite rapidly, user behaviours and abilities do not. So, looking to the future rather the past, what I take from this is that to be durable and persistent and useful, a usability guideline needs to start from a consideration of users, not technology.

Media Lab Europe shuts down | The Register
This news is certainly a blow to the creative sector of Dublin, and for innovative computingt in general, but not too much of a suprise. I should know, as I've seen more of the inside of it than most. There are some innovative people, doing some great things, but their focus has always been on trying to be as whacky and far out as possible, without really wanting to engage with real issues. If you could make a fun gadget, or more likely a video of it, then it was seen to be good - if you wanted to address some key interaction issues, they were less interested. And so, unsuprisingly, industrial funding dried up and the government didn't want to know any more. A sad day for creative interaction, even if expected.

Monday, January 17, 2005

HCI II - a course syllabus discussion
Below are the discussion points made by the HCI II group when trying to determine what shape the course should be. The aim is to allow the group to define the bredth and topics to be discussed in depth for the course, and to understand the overall perspective and scope of HCI in general.

Groups of 4 or 5 discussed an area and spoke for (or against) certain topics. I typed this in at the time, so it's a rough approximation to what was said.....

Points made

eval v important but could be boring - some good examples to look at. Lots of info out there we should know. wide applicability, good for projects.

rsrch topics important too -want to be current/trendy

design methodologies are no good (both agree)

other group - all above do as shallow stuff, detail on creativity.

eval boring unless practical,

comments - eval tedious in HCI 1. Heading towards shallow side for all.

-----
devices and differences key for mobile computing

interface design core

location stuff is interesting

look at social efects of mobility esp kids

group 2 - focus on non-tech - devices + differences, phone design, social, the future, some tech., less past

WE HATE JAVA
-----

internet is king, look at it cos central - so, need to know how to design and about interaction, internet applications not just web pages (eg music, etc). Less on technologies (javascript, php, xml) but knowing when and where to use. We like mobile web stuff. + social

gp 2. we agree. Web technologies useful to know about but no programming please. Oh for a good internet.

unclear what RB is on about re eval.but may be useful.

----
novel i/o: tactile, cybernetics, kevin warwick, games, vr, etc etc etc

basics for interface design - colours, position, fonts etc etc.

Good design wrt mental models

hci in the home

group 2: no idea

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Random design decisions from Apple

I think this is the first example of a product's usability (or lack of it) being used to make a statement about lifestyle. Apple's new iPod Shuffle is a wise move for the company - it's cheap, does exactly what it says on the box, and it hooks into the Cult of Mac coolness that sells them so many of their products. But wait a minute, let's just check out exactly what it says on that box... in a move that I'm sure was originally motivated by the need to keep down costs, the iPod shuffle comes without a screen. Hmm, so how do you choose your tracks? You don't. They're either random, or consecutive. You can skip, but only to the next track. Apple market this as a way to embrace a more liberating lifestyle.

Now I really don't know what I make of this, so I'm eager for comments. I think I like the idea, but where's the usability that Apple are so famous for? with over 100 songs on this player, I know I'd definitely want to be able to do more than skip through them one-by-one. Other players, such as the Creative Muvo, offer pretty much the same storage for about the same price, and they have a screen. Which one would you buy?

Monday, January 10, 2005

Chip & PIN - a missed opportunity?

OK, so chip & PIN is here, like it or not. Most places now have the equipment in place to accept new style cards, and despite some concerns over the shift of responsibility on to the consumer to protect their card details, my feeling is that this change is proceeding relatively smoothly. All my cards now have chips, and I use my PIN whenever I can. Some retailers are still a little unfamiliar with their new equipment, but obviously that will change over time. My main observation of the different bits of kit used to allow people to enter their PIN is that it is just that: different. In some stores they swipe your card at the till, and you enter your pin using a separate keypad. In other places, they use an integrated reader/keypad, which is then handed to you to enter your PIN. Sometimes you hand it back and they remove your card, sometimes they expect you to do it yourself. I got exasperated looks last week when the cashier at a petrol station had to tell me twice that I first had to check the amount and press OK and then enter my PIN - of course I wasn't listening because I was just trying to enter my PIN, and to date this is the only place that has asked me to do this. All of these minor variations in how to use a chip & PIN card lead to some fiddly frustrations trying to negotiate with people behind glass screens, and not knowing exactly what to do with a keypad is not going to help with people's wariness of the new system. I think they've missed an opportunity to streamline the payment process as well as making it more secure - all the equipment should work in the same way, making it easier for people to know what to do. I can only hope that as the equipment becomes more familiar, there will be a drift towards conventions of use. It's just as much to do with how we physically use these keypads, passing them between us and the retailer, as it is to do with the actual technology behind chip & PIN.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Parkour and the internet

Watched a fascinating documentary last night about the sport of parkour, or free running. The sport itself - a kind of urbanised cross between gymnastics, running, and climbing - is intriguing in itself, but I was also struck by the apparently central role of the internet in bringing together groups and individuals who take part in this activity. People were able to find other groups with interests similar to their own, organise training sessions, and there is an ongoing online community where people post videos of their own free running sessions. What was really striking was that the role of the internet in all of this seemed to be taken for granted by the participants - a sure sign that the internet has matured into a transparent, facilitating technology.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Happy New Year
A large quantity of tiome has flowed under the metaphorical bridge since the last lot of blogging on here - mainly because of my time in Australia and the Christmas vacation - and then the tsunami disaster which has rather focussed minds on other issues recently.

The BBC television news service was not up to its usual standard, I felt - it focussed on odd incidents and British lives lost, and initially failed to present a broader picture of the extent and locations of the event - it was involved, often moving television, but not news reporting as it should be. However, online (on the bbc site again) there was much more information - which is an interesting comment on the role of television and the internet in today's society which I suspect the BBC is working to, rather than a simple failure of journalistic abilities.

The people of the world appear to have shamed their governments into doing more to help as well, and again I think this is due to the power of the internet and other comms systems to make it easy for people to donate, and easy to make public statements showing the efforts individuals are putting in. With us having much greater access to the tools to create media output, our efforts can more easily be shown to the world.

For the next week or so I'm away again, unlikely to be able to blog either, but normal service will be resumed in the weeks that follow.....

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