Friday, April 29, 2005

Hotmail offers interesting definition of 'unlimited'

Signed in to my Hotmail this morning to see a link suggesting to upgrade (ie pay) to have a 2GB account, which is described as 'almost unlimited storage space'.

well, 2GB is a lot of emails I guess, but either there is a limit, or there isn't. how can something be almost unlimited?

I guess what they st mean is that for most people, 2GB will accommodate everything they ever receive.

they clearly haven't seen my inbox.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Appliance Design
The 3rd Applicance Design meeting is in Bristol on 28th and 29th June, and looks pretty interesting. Some great speakers, and an interesting format:

    "Held throughout the HP Labs building, the Bazaar is based on the model of a medieval bazaar – a babble of different and competing, contrasting and often miscellaneous experiences. The Appliance Bazaar consists of a mixture of posters, demonstrations, educational experiences, design experiments and micro-courses. For presenters, the Appliance Bazaar is an opportunity to expose new and innovative thinking to a critical and committed audience in a completely interactive way; for delegates, it provides an opportunity to get to grips with a wide range of new developments quickly, with the chance to learn more about topics of particular interest in detail. "

(And hats off to the BHCIG for supporting it!)

eBay - not so usable

I've bought and sold a couple of things on eBay, and I've always found the process to be relatively straightfoward. But as is usually the case with these things, I had to wait until things went wrong before finding the chinks in eBay's apparent user friendliness.

I sold a guitar for a family member, which went fine until the buyer actually received it, and declared that it was not in the 'excellent condition' we'd described it as. I know very little about guitars, so didn't waste any time arguing about it, and offered the guy a refund if he paid to return it. That's where things started getting a bit less than usable. Firstly, I found that I couldn't immediately offer a refund, because the funds had to come directly from my PayPal account, not from my bank account. Why? PayPayl offer direct account-account payments under other circumstances. Then I needed to go through the official procedure with eBay, so that I got my fees refunded (eBay charge a percentage of the final sale value). To do that I had to file an 'Unpaid Item report'. This doesn't make any sense. This wasn't an unpaid item, it's a returned and refunded item. Yep, you get to specify that later on, but still I think eBay should provide a streamlined 'return & refund' option. Worryingly, this mechanism didn't seem to work very well at all. I file a report, eBay email the buyer to confirm what I've said, he clicks a button and it should all wrap up. But we ended up with the eBay system getting confused about the actual state of this dispute, and I was getting worried about being able to claim back my fees. An email to eBay's help team produced first of all just a cut & paste of the help pages, and then a suggestion that the buyer try his button again. It didn't work. I persuaded eBay to step-in and over-ride this faulty mechanism, so now my account is in credit, and I can get my fees back. Or can I? the help pages say there is a link to request a refund when your account is in credit, but that link must be invisible. Another email gets a response telling me they've forwarded my request to the accounts dept, and I should get a refund, but it might take 60 days! overall, I'm not impressed with eBay right now, mainly because they are big differences between what their help pages say and what actually goes on, and also because their first response to a plea for help is usually a copy of the help page the meant you had to ask for help in the first place!

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Extending the desktop metaphor

This happens to me weekly now, and it's getting more and more irritating all the time. I keep large numbers of IE windows open at pages I'm using for research, stuff I want to look at later etc. I have a number of Word files open with the documents I'm currently working on. I have accessory applications, like Endnote, running and displaying the right libraries. Adobe Reader is usually in there somewhere as well, with a couple of downloaded PDFs open and ready to read. I work my way through it all, using my PC literally as a desktop - stuff is left lying around, and I find it as I close one window or glance at the taskbar. Then what happens? the PC crashes, or some part of it does, and my workflow is ruined. I have to start again, opening up Word files, finding web pages etc. yes I know there are ways around all this, ie bookmarks and file histories etc but that takes time and the desktop metaphor can fix it all, if only it worked like a real desktop. the current desktop metaphor is fairly meaningless for me now, since I rarely see the desktop. what I really want is a PC that remembers its state and will restart all my open applications with their previous states when it crashes. Windows will remember open Explorer windows, but not Internet Explorer. Why not? this is my usability plea for the week - bring back the desktop, and make it really work.

MS AntiSpyWare

I've had Microsoft's AntiSpyWare utility running on my machine for the past couple of months, and this morning is the first time it's had anything to report. It tells me that the program ' ' has been installed somewhere. OK, not giving the program a name is probably a trick to try and hide it, but couldn't AntiSpyWare detect that, and give me some more helpful messages? After a few more clicks I discovered that for some reason RealVNC has been installed on my machine. The info given tells me (accurately) that RealVNC is a type of a program that can be used to take complete remote control of my machine. it also tells me it's a moderate threat. I don't believe it, so I've removed it. in doing so, AntiSpyWare crashed Internet Explorer (thanks - had a lot of stuff open) and it crashed itself. hmmm, not too robust then. My over-riding thought about this is that computer security utilities still over-load the user with information that is meaningless to them. I know what a VNC program is, I know the threat it represents, I can figure out what AntiSpyWare is telling me, but then I work in IT. the average home user needs a dramatic step forward in usability for security products like this.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Windows czar calls Mac OS X Tiger 'a peripheral to the iPod'

OK, at the heart of this it's just 2 big computer companies bitching about each other, but I quite like the comment from MS that OS X is just a peripheral for the iPod because essentially that's what a good OS should be - completely transparent and supportive, not something the user has to explicitly work with to get things done. computers are complex but unintelligent, and so current operating systems are necessarily non-trival things to work with, but the way of the future lies in 'unremarkable computing'. so if what MS say about Mac OS X can be made to be true, I'll be happy.

Product Design, Desirability, and the Cult of Mac

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Cult of Mac recently, mainly because I’m considering renewing my membership. my ageing iMac has finally outlived its usefulness, and is acting as a fairly large paperweight because of its lack of FireWire ports, which I need to do some video editing.

I’m reminded me of a piece on Radio 4 about Apple and the so-called Cult of Mac. Incidentally, I've been listening to Radio 4 since my early 20s - thus demonstrating the folly of trying to categorise your users as Russell has done in his piece on Ferraris and Fiestas, but then I have often been accused of being far too 'mature' for my years :-)

Apple have successfully built up a user base of near-religious consumers who see Steve Jobs as their High Priest and any new iProduct as an object of worship. That's what Radio 4 say anyway, and I sort of agree, but I tend not to think in such extreme terms, mainly because I'm a member of the Cult.

Anyway, my point : Branding is just as important as the design of individual products.
Making appealing designs involves thinking about more than just individual products, it involves an entire brand. Ferraris and Fiestas are clear examples of this - they both represent not just individual products but also well know brand names, each of which has its own associated values and characteristics. No-one is immune to this, even when we know about it (I bought a VW because I wanted a reliable car, for example). so my point is that often individual products can inherit style and appeal from their parent brands, but obviously not without some work on the design of that product as well. Also, we buy things not just because we're looking for particular features, but because we want to make a statement to the world about who we are and what we think. Again, no-one is ever immune: I'll probably never buy a Skoda, even though they're built by essentially same company that made my VW, simply because my friends would laugh.

apparently all of this global branding malaky appeals to our primal need to seek out tribal membership and to advertise that membership so as to locate rivals and fellow tribe members. it gets everywhere - just look at Google. yes, they're good at what they do, but now they do lots of different things as well, and we're all eager to try out the next Google Desktop, or Google Handbag, or whatever. (note that I'm not knocking Google Desktop - it's fab!)

Sunday, April 24, 2005

UI Garden
Bi-lingual web publication on usability issues, which the BCS HCI group are supporting in kind, and which I've contributed to - Ferraris and Fiestas - musings on design. I was reminded of this when Dan Williams commented on it - and he's only in EECE, in the same Uni as me, yet he's not come across me. Strange world, really.

HCI Educators conference on Monday (tomorrow) and then seeing student at the other end of the country on Tuesday. So no blogging for a day or so. Peter and I also have to complete our paper for HCI shortly, and I've spent all day getting up to date with my reviewing - for mobileHCI, MLEARN, IJTHI and IJHCS. Think it's been sunny outside but I don't really know :-(

Saturday, April 23, 2005

User Testing II
Spent all day in town toady, working with an organisation on their new case management system, doing user-centered design things with the developers, users and clients. Interesting to see how some ideas that seem so good in design are not appreciated by users, and how describing a system that is incomplete seems so clear to the designer but leaves the user unsure of what is actually being evaluated and what isn't. Even got into a discussion of slanty design - reducing individual usability for the great good of the organisation.

And was quoted in today's Birmingham Post as well!

Thursday, April 21, 2005

User testing
Since I occasionally ask users to be involved in trials and testing, when someone asks me I feel I have to agree, so I've spend part of this morning having my retina photographed.

Eye drops dilate the pupil, and then the eye is photographed in rapid succession a number of times, in order to capture the sorts of images shown above. This is used as source data for a mathematical and computational model of the properties of the retina based on its light transmission and reflectance properties, which can be used in non-intrusive diagnosis.

The procedure is painless, and whilst it causes local blurring of vision in one eye, it hasn't stopped my doing my normal work and is now (a couple of hours afterwards) almost back to normal. If anyone else feels like supporting the work, send me your email and I'll pass it on.

Don't we ever learn?

Dialogue box put up by my Windows box this morning.

Yes, the No box is greyed out.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Mac love
The lack of postings recently are partly cos of my absences abroad, partly cos life is hectic, and partly cos I've recently got a new machine and am slowly getting everything installed on it and transferring all my documents and so on across. And it's a Mac, and it's wonderful. Just nice, basically. Most things work. It's stable (except for EndNote, the bibliographic tool for Word, which crashes too often). It does things fast, easily, and looks great. It's quiet, the screen's good (23"), and for digital stuff its magnificent. To be fair, it's replace a 233MHz PC at home, which could never cope with any images at all, but I now have a decent repository for photos, video and music.

Disappointments are few: Powerpoint isn't so good (e.g. there's no keyboard shortcut for new slide - new presentation, yes - but not a new slide). EndNote I've mentioned. Wireless network is dodgy for my PowerBook and my router doesn't support WDS so extending it is tricky.

ssh tunneling for web proxies can't be set up for certain sites only (as far as I know at the moment).

But it's a sea-change - I like working from home to get research done, but for the last few years the Uni has been in front in terms of processing power and more importantly access to electronic resources - but now all that's changed. Broadband at home has had a major part to play and we only got enabled in March - it's revolutionised my life. Now home is much more amenable to research - unless it's user testing or whatever. But for thinking and reading and writing.....

Upcoming HCI Educators Conference
This coming Monday sees the HCI Educators conference, at the BCS HQ in London, where I'll be talking about our experiences of using blogs as reflective practice support for 2nd and 3rd year and masters students. Should be a good event - morning is about course structure and content, afternoon about the national skills frameworks and HCI's role. A must for all HCI educators.

Friday, April 15, 2005

New job

following Russell's prompt below, I'll take this opportunity to announce my move to a new post based at the school of Computer Science at Birmingham Uni. I've spent the last 2 years on a European Project, MOBIlearn, at the School of Engineering at Birmingham, working on context awareness for mobile learning, and now I'm on a project reviewing the use of context aware mobile technologies for learning in informal settings.

my change of job is happening quite gradually as I try and sort out what resources I need to move and which ones I need to keep in the same place. I live quite a distance from Birmingham so I work at home when I can, so remote access to my computer(s) is important. I'm all set-up for this at home but of course I need some set-up at the uni as well, which turns out to be difficult if you move to a department that has some sensible security provisions. I'm used to have Remote Desktop, which gives me fairly comprehensive access to Uni resources, but this kind of access is inherently insecure, and I can't use it with my new machine unless I tunnel through SSH. now that's possible, but I can't be bothered to set it up, just the same as I can't be bothered to move my files (physical and electronic) over to my new office. yes, call me lazy if you want, but I have better things to do with my time (such as write blog posts). my lesson from all of this is that it is very easy to end up with large information store and, more significantly, a set of ways of working with that information, and it's hard to make all of this portable.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Sorry for the hiatus in blogging; I've been off at a friend's bush wedding in South Africa and having a holiday (which, I found out when I got there, I needed). Normal service will be resumed next week. Peter has been keeping things going, though I notice he's not talked about his change of job yet :-)

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Broadband under a tenner at UK Online | The Register
Broadband is getting cheaper as local loop unbundling is finally happening in a big enough way to warrant talking about it. Unbundling means that providers other than BT are allowed to install their own equipment in BT's exchanges which then hooks into the local loop cabling that runs to subscriber's homes. The theory is that giving providers access to this local cabling means that there will be increased competition, hence lower prices, which is all meant to be good for us, the consumer. But the problem is that for a provider to offer lower prices, they must be assured of a high volume take-up, so the new cheap providers will only tend to offer their services in high density areas such as big cities and towns. Thanks to BT's remit to provide broadband to a high percentage of homes across the UK, broadband is now an option for most people, but at a price. I've spent some time this week looking around for a cheaper option only to find that no-one is offering any cheap packages in my area, because my local loop has not been unbundled. Competition is great for the marketplace, but it will lead to differential broadband provision across the UK, and it's not just the people in the big cities who want 8Mbps.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Lots of online tools, now I just need some integration

I use a range of different online tools to find papers, organise my life, arrange my thoughts, keep in contact with people etc, and it's got to the point now where I'm really craving some kind of integrated portal that will give me a window of all the different sites and tools I use. For example, I'm currently using the excellent CiteULike to collate articles that I'm finding online. CiteULike integrates very nicely with Endnote, which means I have an up-to-date library of the papers I'm reading. But I also keep a personal blog, just for jotting down ideas and things I should follow up. At the same time, I keep losing track of papers that I'm trying to read, because my IE windows get closed. I gave up on bookmarks years ago, they're just too inflexible. What I want is a web page that I can open up each morning that will keep track of which sites I have been visiting, show me my recent entries in my blog, give me access to CiteULike etc, without me having to go around these different tools separately. It's not too much of a chore to open up the tools, but things easily get forgotten about, and I'm looking for something to give me a more integrated way of working. Maybe there's something out there that I just haven't seen, maybe I'll have to build something myself. I'm off to see if I can hack any personal portal sites to give me what I want. I'll keep you posted.

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