Wednesday, March 28, 2007


That is a Human Usability Interaction Experience User Information Interface Factors Designer Engineer Architect Researcher. If it's not the same jobs having different names, it's a job that is eating up other jobs. Information Architecture a culprit? (Explained in Joshua Porter's Thoughts on the Impending Death of Information Architecture and Part 2.)

The field of study/work I'm interested in has some seemingly unsettled terminology. Is it Human Computer Interaction (HCI) or Computer Human Interaction (CHI)? HCI more accurately reflects the goal of being human-centric but saying "H.C.I." is sort of a mouthful while saying "CHI" (like "kai") is easy. Then there's the hyphenation issue Human Computer Interaction or Human-Computer Interaction?

Also, I am becoming confused lately as to whether I'm working on the "usability" of something or the "user experience" of it. For sure, the two can't be cleanly delineated (if I understand them correctly). Usability of something can be enhanced by improving the user experience, as noted by Don Norman in his book Emotional Design. Likewise, the user experience can be enhanced by improving usability. However, if I had to choose, I'd say that it might make more sense that user experience could be improved by usability enhancements than the other way around.

I recently read two blog posts describing what the authors think the difference is between user experience and usability. Jared Spool, mentions in his article The Difference Between Usability and User Experience:

Usability answers the question, “Can the user accomplish their goal?”

User experience answers the question, “Did the user have as delightful an experience as possible?”

which seems quite in line with the more humorous explanation in Marc Hassenzahl on User Experience:

Usability [with its focus on effectiveness and efficiency] wants us to die rich; user experience wants us to die happy.

Hrm, shouldn't we die rich and happy? Anyway, I think those two articles are helping me to understand the difference.

Remote Usability Studies

I like to call it usability study instead of test. I worry that "user test" makes the participants/users (not "subjects") think that they're being tested when actually the product is being tested. Conducting a "study" sounds more like no value judgments are being made. Strictly business, my friends.

Recently, I've been looking into remote usability solutions and I'm still looking around but here's what I discovered so far: my colleagues and I are using Macs without IE and that is not helping our search. There were two appealing products specifically designed for remote user studies. However, TechSmith's UserVue is Microsoft Windows-only and Bolt | Peter's Ethnio requires Microsoft Internet Explorer. Boo!

I found some interesting presentation slides from Paul Hibbitts on "Usability at a Distance" and at the same time discovered there is a YouTube for slides, SlideShare. Of course when anything serious about presentations is involved, Guy Kawasaki's name should be dropped somewhere along the way.

What my colleague and I ended up using for a 1-hour remote user study session were the following:

  • Video
    • Yugma for viewing the user's screen broadcast over internet.
    • iShowU for recording my screen (including the screen broadcast).
  • Audio
    • Skype with SkypeOut for calling in to the phone conference line provided free by Yugma.
  • Editing
    • Quicktime Pro for cropping audio and video and then manually synchronizing the two.

The overall result was pretty smooth and not too troublesome. I'd prefer less troublesome but we still managed to glean a solid stack of data from the session.

There's also this neat site Remote Online Usability Testing Wiki hosted by Bolt | Peters User Experience. Thank goodness the URL is only -- phew. There's a nice list of remote usability-specific tools but most of them aren't products as much as they are services with products. I've got my eyes on ClickTale. I hope they let me try the Beta soon.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Good Luck On Finals

I guess it's probably too late to wish most people good luck on their finals, but if you're in UCSD area, Domino's is still having a discount on pizza until March 28th, 2007.

I wish I had my camera to take a picture of these fliers strewn across the sidewalk at a UCSD City Shuttle bus stop. I think it's pretty clever advertising for pizza discounts on finals week and making the phone number end with UCSD. Nice.

One presentation and one final to go today! Going on a Panda Express study break yielded a sad fortune:

Monday, March 19, 2007

Frames of Reference

Overheard in the school bookstore:
Girl: What's the difference between these two iPod cases?
Sales guy: Well, this one's like an Aston Martin and this one's like a Mercedes Benz.
Girl: I… I don't know what that means.
Sales guy: Well, which one would you rather drive?
Girl: I don't care… I drive a Honda.

Seen on Discovery channel documentary:
"…it weighs seventy-five times as much as The Statue of Liberty."

Friday, March 16, 2007

Unfinished Reading

I am reading a bunch of books that are at various stages of being finished.

Starting to read a book usually has one of, or a combination of the following reasons:

  1. It's damned interesting
  2. It could be useful for schoolwork
  3. It could be useful or is necessary for work
  4. Someone gave me the impression that I should read it

Usually, the problem with finishing them before starting the next one is some combination of the following reasons:
  1. Periodicals get in the way. They're interesting and bite-sized and damn do I have a lot of them!
  2. One of the four above reasons become heavily weighted due to prioritizing needs and requires a change in reading material
  3. Material isn't suitable for short reading sessions - it's too dense or not as meaningful in little pieces
  4. Book is a PDF or e-book tucked away on my computer somewhere and outta sight, outta mind
  5. Not using bookmarks and/or reading late at night mean re-reading sections again and again
  6. I'm pretty sure I read more slowly than most people :-(
Anyway, here's the in-progress list of books that haunts me with guilt when I'm goofing off or vegetating in front of the TV (in order of priority):
  1. Book of JavaScript
  2. Information Dashboard Design
  3. Information Architecture for the World Wide Web
  4. The Art of Innovation
  5. Emotional Design
  6. Understanding Comics
  7. Designing Interactions
  8. The Inmates are Running the Asylum
  9. Philosophy Gym
  10. Conversations on Consciousness
I can't wait 'till spring break…

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Data to Information: Hans Rosling's TEDTalk

When Professor Rosling spoke about the disparity between his expectations of his students' understanding their actual understanding:

The problem for me was not ignorance, it was preconceived ideas.

I thought, "Wow, what a deeply analytical thinker." There's a fine distinction between ignorance and preconceived ideas - a distinction most people probably fail to make.

Rosling's simple statement appears to be a personal reflection about his students but it is really the point he is trying to make in his presentation: we don't necessarily need more data to battle a lack of knowledge (ignorance) when instead, we could make sense of existing data and pit those findings against what we think we already know (preconceived ideas).

Anyone can still watch Hans Rosling's TEDTalk about the availability and use of publicly funded data. Hans Rosling founded and has a personal blog. Anyone interested in the way our world is developing socially and economically should definitely watch the talk. Of course, the information visualization techniques are spectacular and really illustrate the points he makes about global quality-of-life trends.

Regarding the more technical details of the talk, I had three main thoughts. Firstly, I found myself continuously amazed by the communicative efficiency of each of his animated diagrams. Just when I thought I had seen all the info vis tricks, he'd pull out a few more! No doubt, his narration added to the effectiveness but I couldn't help wondering what kind of and how many people were behind the design of the visualizations and how difficult it was to code it all up.

Secondly, the strive towards improving accessibility, organization, and retrieval of the world's publicly-funded and supposedly publicly-available data is paramount. The true value of achieving that would be to inform the policies which aid those in need. It appears that the whole range of aid, from planning to implementation, could benefit from a clearer understanding of the state of affairs today. Want to talk about a plan for AIDS in Africa? If you recognize the vastly differing situations within Africa, perhaps you'll realize more specific plans would be more effective and even regional plans may seem too generalized and ludicrous.

Third and lastly, to maximize on the existing mountain of data, it should be available and easily searchable. Why? Besides the obvious benefits of accessibility, open data would allow so many more minds and hours poring over it, increasing the possibility for more good stuff to float to the top. I doubt that needs any explanation or justification.

Not that its possible life-changing benefit is anywhere near decreasing infant mortality or halting AIDS epidemics, but the whole discussion reminded me of APIs and the Web 2.0 liberation of data. Oh man, the thought of vast uncharted potential gets me pumped up!

A side note about TEDTalks I've seen so far: The presenters are brilliant for sure, but they also seem to be quite humorous. I wonder if brilliant and humorous people tend to get invited to talk or if brilliant people also tend to be humorous. If humor and brilliance travel in the company of each other, I guess that would mean people pick up on it and would assume funny individuals are brilliant individuals. Better brush up on my jokes :-o

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Ethnography at Thornton Hospital

On Monday night, I went to the gorgeous Thornton Hospital and did two hours of ethnographic observation with my classmate Laura. I know plenty of purists might say what we did doesn't qualify as true ethnography, but whatever.

The experience was fantastic. We showed up at around 7:30 PM and were feeling a bit unsure of what to expect but we left at around 9:15 PM and we were smiling all the way to the car. It was so much fun and there is so much data out there in the wide-open world! The nurses we observed in the Med Room were super nice and I'm very fortunate for that. I can only imagine how stressful and unpleasant the experience would have been if the nurses were unwelcoming.

I took a lot of photos (123 total) and it seemed to make people more nervous than if they were just being observed and notes are being written. Laura did a fantastic job of taking notes and that really helped to ground my photos to the storyline and give them deeper meaning.

On occasion, we'd feel like we wished there was a video camera rolling. Those moments included: fleeting activity too quick to take photos of, too much simultaneous activity to accurately record, significant sequence chunks of actions or interactions, and delayed or lengthy interesting activities. Possibly, the pronounced clicking noise of the mechanical shutter in my hunking mass of Nikon D70 was more disruptive than a quietly whirring camcorder would have been.

The overall goal of the study is to consider some improved designs. More specifically, the project is interested in examining information flow on this particular floor. Although I think we've got some exciting observations, I'm going to hold off on making them public at this point. Tomorrow (a.k.a. later today) I'll get to see the data collected by the other groups in this project - it should be interesting. I'm stoked!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Unlikely Cognitive Enhancers

According to neurological and psychological research referenced in Don Norman's Emotional Design, objects that make us happier are, in practice, easier to use (all other things equal). The explanation is that when we are happy, we are more creative and patient. Being creative and patient leads to reduced terminal errors and improved perception of usability. Fascinating, considering the usable aspect of the object need not be the only design variable contributing toward overall usability.

Thus, one is led to consider this: if we are happier, we're more creative and patient and things around us are easier to use and understand. Besides being motivation for living happily, I wonder if this also implies that mood enhancers are also forms of cognitive enhancers. I've seen recent news reporting that some very fascinating ability enhancing drugs which include reducing the needed amount of sleep and increasing cognitive abilities. A "smart pill," if you will.

I wonder how direct or indirectly these smart pills enhance cognitive abilities. Do they directly act on physiological, chemical, and electrical needs for cognition or do they do it more indirectly, for example, through mood enhancement? I love that no matter how you cut it, the human is a complex animal with a very "messy" cognitive system.

Throw UI to the Dogs

Assistance dogs are using ATMs! According to the article, the dogs can retrieve the card, cash, and receipt. Besides it being a neat trick, this reminds me that good designs can have surprising effects and benefits.

Although the design might not be especially good or intended for use by dogs, it's nice to know that at least the design doesn't make it impossible for dogs to use them. Of course, now that we know some dogs are retrieving things from ATMs for their owners, it would be a fun project to study the usage and find ways to make the ATMs more dog-friendly.

Now I just have to make sure the assistance dogs don't embarrass me by using the ATM next to me more accurately or faster than I do.

From the article: I thought this was Bark-lays bank

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Disaster by Committee

I already know Information Dashboard Design by Stephen Few is going to be a decent read because by page five, I'm greeted with this remark:

Customers are expert in knowing what they need to accomplish, but not in knowing how software ought to be designed to support their needs. Allowing customers to design software through feature requests is the worst form of disaster by committee (Few, 2006).

It's been a while since I first unsuccessfully tried articulating why plain old customer feedback and feature requests don't guarantee great products. What makes a human factors specialist's interpretation of user needs more useful than the user's own voice?

I've seen more specific (but less elegant) arguments than Few's. One of my favorite answers relies on the fact that most users you'd encounter have no idea about what your company can and can't produce - they're not qualified to define product specifications.

I think what we learn from users is more useful for defining product requirements. What are the goals of the users? What do they need to accomplish these goals? What kinds of tasks do they perform to achieve their goals? Human factors specialists should elicit and then organize the answers to these questions, helping to define the actual product specifications.

A common area of contention is, "Why do we need so much interaction with the users?" This is a valid question considering we might have: "obvious" design needs, feature requests, and clear customer feedback.

In response, I would say that a keen observer watching users can not only get user information with much higher fidelity but also with much greater validity. I suppose it's worth mentioning that users report incomplete and/or misleading information - watching users actually using the product gives you the whole picture and that picture is more contextually situated.