December 4, 2008

Viking Dishwasher Problems

My colleague, Ben Shneiderman, recently moved into a new apartment with a fancy dishwasher (that had been installed before he had any say) with a real interface blooper.

The Viking Design Series dishwasher has a feature to emit a short beeping signal to indicate that the washing is done. You might think it logical to have a toggle switch or button to set this signal on/off as well as indicate its current state. However, the complex steps and lack of feedback of state are described in the user manual:

Activating the End-of-Program Signal

The unit can be programmed to emit a short signal when the program is finished. To program this feature, follow the steps below:

1. Turn off the power to the machine.
2. Press and hold down the Delay Start button as you turn on the power of the machine. The Delay Start button will flash.
3. Release the button.
4. Press the Program button. The Pots/Pans button will glow to indicate the end-of-program signal is activated.
5. Press the start/stop button to store the settings.

To deactivate the signal, repeat the steps above. The Pots/Pans button will go out to indicate the signal is off.

Incredibly enough, to activate the program done signal, you have to deal with five buttons: Power, Delay Start, Program, Pots/Pans, and Start/Stop in a manner that completely overrides the buttons labeled usage. This is an expensive dishwasher so saving manufacturing costs was not a serious concern for the designers, but obviously neither was their concern for users.

The fight for usability continues...

November 25, 2008

International Children's Digital Library now available on iPhone

One of my largest research efforts at the Human-Computer Interaction Lab is the International Children's Digital Library (, which continues to grow in stature and global recognition. We have recently added several hundred books and deployed two HCIL innovations that taken together allow book text to be clearly displayed even when surrounded by deep colors and lush illustrations, which we find so often in the ICDL's children's picture books. And this is not all. This work also allows us to manipulate the text to varying degrees, which in turn allows us to offer beautiful, well placed translations, on the page. The exemplary books of the ICDL have never been more readable.

And now, we have taken the ICDL mobile.

In support of the library's vision of making as many books available to as many children as possible, the ICDL is now open on a variety of mobile devices. You can already visit the Library from the small and wondrous devices made available to children around the world by the One Laptop Per Child organization and on Intel's ClassmatePC educational laptop. And now, as of this week, you can tap your Apple iPhone or iPod Touch to get the free ICDL for iPhone app and read all about the six Mongolia brothers in search of knowledge, the gray peacemaker cat that does something most unusual to the other cat's ears, or a version of the Three Little Pigs that you surely have never heard before. The initial four books will be updated over time as we offer more books from our much larger collection.

November 20, 2008

FolderShare, Live Sync, Live Mesh???

Ok, it is has been two years since Microsoft bought ByteTaxi's FolderShare and rebranded it as Microsoft FolderShare. Aside from keeping it running, putting the Mac version on life support, and killing off the fee-based "pro" version, they haven't done much. But today I received the email below from their team.

WTF? How could MS be pushing Live Sync and Live Mesh at the same time when the products are nearly indistinguishable??? And with each not mentioning the other and without any indication of how users should decide which product to use. Does Microsoft know that they are investing in two very similar and competing products?

And to abandon their existing customers with no automatic transition path, and to warn them they will probably not even be able to get in, and that they should manually copy the names of their folders and sharers onto what, paper? Plus, I'll make a bet that the reason for this is so that they can abandon mac support without ever saying so.

FolderShare runs on the mac - but the encryption is totally broken so you have to run it without encryption, and it is an old pre-Intel binary so it runs only in the emulator and hogs a huge amount of processor time.

Live Mesh, which theoretically runs on the mac has a bug so it works great - as long as you only want to share folders on your desktop. I can't get it to share any other folders. (Yes, I have reported this, but to no avail).

And there still is no paid "pro" service - which is probably the one MS service I *would* pay for.

Oh, and it is still "beta" after two years of buying ByteTaxi and being version 2.0.


November 7, 2008


Sometimes the most obvious ideas are the hardest ones to have. Who could imagine in our recent political climate that the executive branch of our government would open the floodgates to ask the entire world for their advise on how to set up the government? The thinking of the status quo might think that is a sign of weakness - but of course the "new" model interprets this as a sign of strength. To ask for other's opinions shows that you are sure in what you know, and that you don't know everything. Yesterday, the Obama office of the President-Elect announced, a site asking for advise and ideas on every policy issue.

That is, interestingly enough, the essence of the approach of interface designers. Designers are experts. They are confident in balancing the many conflicting requirements of what it takes to solve hard problems. They also know that they don't know everything - and thus the work with their users through particpatory design and a million other approaches for learning from the broadest set of stakeholders.

It looks like our new government is thinking the same way that us HCI'ers have for decades.

November 4, 2008

Design for Democracy

For election day, I want to point to some fantastic work exploring how to improve the design of voting ballots and other material related to elections. Marcia Lausen's book, "Design for Democracy: Ballot + Election Design", part of the related AIGA Design for Democracy project does the job. She presents case studies, showing problematic designs and very clear and simple redesigns that addresses their problems. The lead example is to look at the infamous butterfly ballot of 2000, and she makes the case very clearly that while the constraints inherent in these problems make for a hard design problem, it is still possible to have a clear solution. She then goes further to express general design principles that can be applied to a broad range of specific situations. And she goes beyond just ballots, looking at voter registration, election administration, and more general election design issues.

Unfortunately, the reality of our voting landscape makes it so that the vendors don't act like they care much about these issues, and the politicians that manage elections don't seem to have the skills or resources to implement good solutions. But hopefully, the clear direction and advice that comes with this book will help.

October 31, 2008

Why I returned my Apple TV

In my continuing quest to make my life easier, I thought I'd try Apple TV to avoid driving to the video store (which is long past being tolerable to me), and to get some actual HD content for my year-old HDTV.

Like many things Apple, it is brilliant in so many ways, while falling flat in others. In this case, the problems, interestingly, are interface and content. They nailed the core issues (which is why I bought it in the first place), which are ease of access and integration. You can browse the store on your TV (without having to use your computer), download stuff - and automatically sync with your computer and iPhone so all your stuff is wherever you want it, and all automatically backed up. But this is where the magic ends.

The interface, while glossy, lush and beautiful, is hugely harmed by that puny little remote control. After using the Tivo for a year, and enjoying the world's best remote control, Apple's was just too pathetic to use. It is so small that it was at huge risk of being lost, and we had to institute strict family rules about its placement. The buttons are so hard to press, that I actually started to get AppleTV-thumb and had to switch fingers to press it. And the interface is totally image based - there is no way to link through metadata. You can't find an interesting movie, and look for others with the same actor, etc.

As for content, well at first glance it looks good, but it just isn't very deep. I knew the numbers were low compared to other options, but I didn't realize that the HD content is almost nonexistent. And given that my tastes don't seem to run in the same direction as Apple's very mainstream content, I could only find a handful of HD movies that I actually wanted to watch.

Then, just as I began to realize that these were going to be very high priced movies for which I would also have to endure a pained thumb, Netflix announced their upcoming distribution for 12,000 shows on Tivo. I had one day left to return my Apple TV, and so I did.

Steve Jobs has been calling Apple TV his "hobby", to avoid the criticism about it's lackluster performance. I should have listened to him.

October 29, 2008

PPTPlex - Zoomable presentations not quite yet for the masses

Figuring out the clearest and most engaging way to communicate ideas is fundamentally important. The world seems to have settled on just a few key approaches: Text, video, and computer presentations along the lines of PowerPoint (or Keynote). The latter, as we all know, are valuable for their ease of creation, and ubiquity of authoring tools. However, they also tend to be boring, and in presentations of any length, the audience can get lost and not know where they are.

I created a PowerPoint plugin called CounterPoint back in 2001 with then grad student Lance Good. It offered a pretty sophisticated mechanism to create zoomable presentations consisting of PowerPoint slides. But the authoring tool was pretty clunky, and its dependency on Java made deployment pretty difficult.

So, I was delighted to see that Microsoft Labs recently put out PPTPlex, which is remarkably similar in spirit to CounterPoint. They created a plugin for PowerPoint which makes a reasonable trade-off of much, much more accessible and simpler authoring tools - and much less creative flexibilty. Still, this is probably the right move to consider commercializing this kind of approach. I was delighted to try it out, and sure enough, the authoring was simple enough that I was able to create a 70 slide "vision" talk on the future of HCI (with Allison Druin) using it quite readily.

Sadly, I wasn't able to use PPTPlex for my presentation because the technology was just not up to it. It seems to rasterize every slide - which not only takes a long time, but uses a *huge* amount of memory. My presentation actually used over a Gigabyte of RAM! And then PowerPoint (with PPTPlex) crashed. So, instead, I tried something else.

I was able to duplicate most of the visual feel that PPTPlex offered entirely with plain vanilla PowerPoint animations. I suffered by performing unnatural acts with PowerPoint to build the animations I wanted - but my PowerPoint ninja buddy John SanGiovanni had taught me the art, so I created the following presentation which I presented with Allison Druin at CMU last month. Take a look - and be sure to look at the PowerPoint presentation (15 MB) in Show mode to see the full transitions.

What do you think?

October 27, 2008

The wonder of single tasking

The NY Times has yet another article on the inherent human limitations of multitasking (some previous ones here, here, and here). While we all love to do several things at once, the reality is that we can't do so effectively, and there is more and more research that supports this.

This is one of those issues where we all know this essential truth, but just don't follow it. And the nature of innovation means that we will have more and more communication and information technologies (think historically: phone, email, web, IM, texting, social networks, etc.) And there are plenty of researchers trying to figure how the best way to interrupt you to deliver more information.

So, at the moment, this means people actually have to take responsibility for themselves while we interface designers figure out how to bring these disparate information sources together in a way that increases, not decreases focus. I've discussed this before and just wrote a new essay relating these issues to how children read online.

October 1, 2008

AT&T still nasty about service plans

So, you thought you remembered reading about how the cell phone carriers were going to be getting friendlier to their customers about their service contract cancellation policies? Ha!

I am as loyal an AT&T customer as you are likely to find. I have a $200 monthly bill with three lines. My 3rd line is for software development, and I brought my own phone to the plan - that is, I did not use a carrier subsidy to discount the price of the phone. So, imagine my suprise (ok, not really) when I called to cancel this third line. I was told that not only would they charge me a cancellation fee of $175, but that despite the news recently of them prorating these cancellation fees, they would not prorate my cancellation fee. Why? Because I had a pre-existing contract, and they were only pro-rating new contracts. (And how can they justify a two-year contract when they didn't provide a subsidy? Because they can.)

To make matters worse, when I asked to speak with a manager, they said that "no manager was available", and that they had a policy of not calling customers back - but I was free to try to call again later.

Boy is AT&T lucky they have an exclusive deal with Apple. I sure hope that Google's efforts to make a more competitive marketplace for communications services gets some traction.

For the record, here are the details of my call:
  • "no manager available" - Wed at 9:30am EST. Wouldn't call back when one was available.
  • My service is for 3 lines, $200/month, 3rd line for 1 yr 4 mo
  • The line I was trying to cancel was with my own phone and had no carrier subsidy
  • They still would charge a $175 cancellation charge that wasn't pro-rated - this policy started in last three months and isn't applied retroactively.
  • I spoke with "Hela"

September 27, 2008

A Tale of 2 Dead Disks - Why Macs Make People Happy

I got back last night from a week in Seattle to see that my MacPro was dead - wouldn't boot, and I could hear the disk doing a repetitive not-happy-kind-of noise. I had another disk in the computer I had used for random backups, and a remote Time Capsule disk that theoretically had been making continuous backups - so this is what I did:
  • Rebooted off Leopard DVD
  • Selected restore from Time Capsule to restore to that second disk
  • Went to bed
Total time: 10 minutes
This morning I have a Happy Mac.

Holy crap - when my wife's disk died on her laptop last month, I had the worst possible combination of all eventualities, and it took me about 10 hours to fix!

If only Macs had good office software, they would so rule.

September 6, 2008

Google owns your name with Picasa name tagging

The new Picasa Web Albums have initial support for a fantastic name-tagging feature. The idea is to ease the process of identifying who is in each picture by combining human and computer efforts. It is very well done, and makes tagging fun and accurate in a way never done before commercially (but see SAPHARI for a surprisingly similar earlier research effort by my grad student).

BUT - it is a crime that this feature not does not offer a way to sync the tags you create online with the full resolution photos you own on your own computer. That's right. The only way to use this feature is to upload your photos to Google's servers, tag them via their website, and then lose that data forever. You can search your photos on Google's servers, but you can't export that tagged information. And the Picasa 3 "syncing" feature doesn't sync the name tags back down to the original photo. And the face-based annotation feature doesn't exist on the desktop version.

And even if the data does eventually come back down to your source photos (which I pray it eventually does), it still is not very friendly of Google to force you to upload your thousands of photos to the web for this extremely important feature. Of course, this is very likely Picasa's business model. Give away the free desktop version, offer a teaser bit of free storage on the web, and then charge a huge amount ($75 a year for the 40 GB of storage I would need to store all my photos online). I would much rather just pay a reasonable price for the desktop version to unlock crucial features - such as face-based annotation.

Web apps are fine - but people should own their data - not Google. And people should get to choose when they want to do something on the computers and disks they own, and when they choose to use someone elses on the web. Anything less is no better than the desktop-based lock-in that Google and others have complained about for so long.

September 3, 2008

Missing Chrome keyboard shortcuts

Chrome (Google's browser that was released yesterday) is all the rage, and as I've said for years (i.e., flow [pdf], notelens), user interface speed and responsiveness is crucial and a fundamental part of not getting in the way of tasks users are trying to do.

So, I hope it is an oversight and not design that led Google to leave out two crucial keyboard.
  • Their "omnibar" works fine - except for a one thing.  When you start typing and the list of suggestions pops up underneath, you have to move your fingers off the home position of the keyboard to the arrow keys in order to select them.  This may be the "standard" way of doing things, but Firefox already showed it isn't the best.  In this special case, override the tab key to move focus to the popup list.  Fingers stay in the home position, and a touch typist can do a search and execute it in a fraction of a second.
  • It is great that chrome supports incremental search - but considering that they learned from Firefox, I wish they had gotten it right.  Instead of a single key to start search ('/' in Firefox), you need two (Ctrl-F).  And if you search to a link and want to follow that link, there is no way to do so with the keyboard.  Pressing the 'Enter' key in Firefox while search has highlighted a link follows that link.  Chrome should do the same thing.
These issues may seem minor, but they are activities that people, literally, do hundreds of times per day.  Multiple a hundred million people by a hundred annoyances a day, and that is a lot of distraction, and slowing people down.  Considering that there is also no cost for doing so (i.e., it doesn't hurt the user experience in any way), let's hope Google continues to polish their chrome, and adds these shortcuts.

While they're at it, they should be thinking about the next (lower priority) feature which is to add a rich mechanism for people to customize chrome to speed up their own idiosyncratic tasks. How many times do I do repetitive tasks on websites that I can't automate or shortcut for various reasons?  A lot.  Example: one website requires three clicks to get where I'm going *after* I log in - meaning I can't shortcut to that page.  I could use third party software such as Quickkeys to automate this, but the browser should have a built-in mechanism to do so.

Anyway, Chrome looks promising - let's just hope they go from great to perfect.

August 17, 2008

Good customer service

My 3 year old was happy to be in the car the other day with her older sister's MacBook watching a DVD. Then, unbeknownst to us, she decided to watch another one and inserted a DVD by herself. The only problem is that she didn't take the first one out first. I immediately knew where this was heading.

A trip to the Apple store showed how clever I was to predict that we very likely lost both DVDs and the drive. At least they were very friendly and apologetic that it wasn't covered under warranty - which I could hardly complain about. So I agreed to the $300 estimated repair cost, and was told it would be ready in about 2 days. And here is where it gets interesting.

After 7 days, I called the store to find that they still hadn't fixed it. They were super friendly, and promised to call right back when they could tell me more. I figured it would be another week before I even got through to them. But 10 minutes later, they called me back, apologized again, and promised it would be ready later that afternoon. Again, I figured that meant I might see it in a week. But an hour later, they called me back saying it was done and I could pick it up. I was already pretty happy that they recognized the mistake in their delayed repair and bumped it to the top of the queue so easily.

So, imagine my surprise when they called me back a *third* time, not 10 minutes later. They said they hadn't realized this wasn't under warranty and that I was paying for it. Given the extent of their delay, they said they wouldn't charge me, and have a nice day.

I was flabbergasted. I am a completely regular customer. I didn't pull rank (as if I had any), or promise to expose them. In fact, I wasn't even that concerned by the delay in the first place. And completely on their own, they not only took complete responsibility and gave an actual apology (rather than the all-too-common non-apology), and gave me a $361.56 credit without my asking for it.

I am already about 60% switched from Windows, but if using Apple means I can get customer service like that instead of Dell's or Lenovo's, I'm up to 70%.

July 27, 2008

on Randy Pausch

Allison Druin wrote her thoughts about Randy Pausch's death better than I ever could, so here they are:


Last night I tried to write this email, but the words never came. All I could do was spend time with YouTube and Google, watching, reading, and thinking about Randy Pausch who died that day. As most of the world now knows, Randy was much more than a computer science/HCI/VR professor at CMU. He gave a talk last Fall, something most of us academics do day-in-and-day-out. But instead of enjoying the moment with a few students and perhaps some interested colleagues, the moment ultimately was shared with the world.

The video

Randy did something few of us could do-- he shared his thoughts, energies, and talents even as he was dying of cancer.

Ben B. and I were blessed with knowing Randy as a colleague and early mentor. Our first year at the HCIL, Randy attended the Annual Symposium

-- and it was then we first spent time with him, giving us advice that was a wonderful mix of dry wit, bold honesty, and endless energy. This may be the only way I can describe Randy last Fall in Pittsburgh, as we sat in the audience listening to Randy's last lecture. We cried, we laughed, we learned, and we felt honored to be there. After the lecture we were able to give Randy a big hug and tell him that he was our hero.

So after a long week at the HCIL filled with police, frustration, and sadness-- two bits of advice from Randy seem good to remember:

"Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted."

"We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand."

For more words about Randy and his passing:
Oh yes, and my favorite Randy-isms: "... remember, the brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They're there to stop the other people...Don't bail. The best of the gold's at the bottom of barrels..."

" prepared. Luck is truly where preparation meets opportunity."



Dr. Allison Druin
Director, Human-Computer Interaction Lab
Associate Professor University of Maryland College of Information Studies and
Institute for Advanced Computer Studies

January 22, 2008

Cell phones: Technology User Frustrations

We all know that computers and technology can be frustrating. But we also know that it can be exciting, and not only enhance our productivity, but significantly increase what we are capable of doing. Just as with other good tools, when technology works well, it can expand human capabilities. That is why I spend my life dealing with the reality of what sometimes seems like endless frustration – in an effort to make our lives with technology better. So, this is a time to look at what works and what doesn’t with technology. Let’s understand where your frustrations lie, and let’s also be sure to talk about what works well. Together, we can send a message to technology creators about the importance of addressing the “user experience”. This isn’t a helpdesk to solve particular problems, nor an advocacy center to get that vendor to deal with your lost data. But by bringing together our heads on where the problems lie, we can bring our voices together and push the industry forward.

Today's Topic: Cell Phones
What simple tasks on cell phones are harder than they should be?

Comment here, and I'll also post the concerns raised on today's Tech Tuesday radio show on WAMU.