November 9, 2009

Droid Responsiveness and Ergonomics

Much has been made about Verizon's new Droid phone on Google's Android platform, and I agree with the reviews looking at the myriad details. But it seems that not enough has been made about the Droid's responsiveness and ergonomics.

Everything about actually holding and using the Droid is just a bit uncomfortable and sluggish. There are many examples, but here are a few that popped out in my first experience (in comparison to a long time with iPhone).
  • To wake up the Droid you have to press the on/off button on the top right. There is no natural grasp that lets you do this. It requires several seconds to regrasp the phone, press the button, and then regrasp again so you can unlock it. Compare with iPhone - press the home button with your thumb with the phone in your natural grasp and then immediately swipe with the same thumb.
  • Whenever I press any of the buttons on the side of the Droid (power, volume or camera), the keyboard slides open a bit making it harder to press the buttons you were trying to press.
  • The keyboard is oriented over an inch from the right side of the device, so not only do you have to type with your thumbs off center, but you have actually reach with your right thumb - making the much lambasted keyboard even more unpleasant.
  • All the graphics are slower, the touch screen is less responsive, and everything is less smooth. Yes, the display is sharper due to the higher resolution screen, but the actual experience of using that display is worse. iPhone is almost magically responsive to a very soft touch. This detail is crucial to people's enfatuation with iPhone. Every single interaction with iPhone is sensually pleasant. Android is, well, just sort of ok.
The Droid is a fine device, and if I didn't have an iPhone, I would be happy to have one. But after my first day of playing with it, I don't think there is any chance I'd trade my iPhone for it. On the other hand, Android is catching up fast, so a year from now it might be a pretty close battle.

Oh, and Droid turn by turn Navigation really is great. Part of the reason it is so good is because it uses a beautifully rendered perspective map view which I haven't seen the equivalent of on any online map - whether it is iPhone, TomTom, Google Maps or Earth.

September 14, 2009

iPhone StoryKit app - kids write stories on phones

Children writing books on mobile phones? That certainly seems unlikely - so how did we get to the point where actually built an app to support it?

A long time ago, my colleagues and I started building the International Children's Digital Library to make a safe and high quality place where kids could go to read books and learn about cultures from around the world.

Then, last year we decided to try and support children reading on mobile devices - we made an iPhone app to let kids read picture books from the ICDL.

Now we went further and decided to build an app that lets kids write books on their iPhones (or iPod Touches). Search for "storykit" in the appstore or get it from iTunes. You can take pictures, create drawings, record sounds, and yes of course - write actual words. Then automatically post it to a website and share with your friends.

Give it a try - especially with your kids - and let me know how it works.

September 10, 2009

Microsoft disappoints - ignores Live Sync for Snow Leopard

If this weren't so predictable, it would be funny. But I have loved and raved over Microsoft Live Sync since it was bought (as FolderShare) a few years ago. Now for the second time, Apple has released an OS upgrade, and Live Sync stopped working.

I find this completely intolerable. If Microsoft cared about supporting Live Sync, they could have gotten the developer preview of Snow Leopard, and ensured that their product worked when the final version of snow leopard was released. Instead, they decided to stick their heads in the sand, wait until a major platform upgrade that they "support" was released and *then* decide to look. Now, 2 weeks after the product stopped working, they say that they are aware of the problem and have no ETA for when a solution will be available.

I just uninstalled Live Sync from all of my computers and now pay $5/mo for There are other solutions out there as well. I'm happy to pay for syncing - but I need it to work. And I need a company to stand by their products.

Looks like Microsoft just does not get customer satisfaction.

September 3, 2009

Tivo terrible customer service

This post is hard to write. I love Tivo the product. But now I hate Tivo the company. The hard disk died in my Tivo Series 3 DVR. So, I called them and all they could offer was to replace it with a Tivo HD (a lesser box) for $200. So, I'd keep my outdated small hard disk size and get a lousier box for the price that they sell refurbished Tivos for. But they also suggested that I replace the disk on my own with a third party service. Yes, my box was out of warranty, but I just wanted to replace the hard disk - a pretty standard operation.

So, naturally I replaced the hard disk. I could have gone with a "name brand" (Weaknees), but that would have cost about $250 for a 1TB disk (loaded with the Tivo software). Instead I went with eBay and got the same 1TB disk with Tivo software for $150. But the disk had a problem. The seller graciously sent me a new one before I even sent back the old one, and this had a similar problem - so I suspected it was my Tivo. Here's where it gets interesting.

Tivo said:
  1. They never should have suggested I use a 3rd party to update the disk.
  2. They won't give me any help of any kind to get it to work.
  3. Since I opened the box, my non-warranty was invalidated, and they wouldn't even give me a trade-in box.

After speaking to 3 managers and higher level tech support, they maintained they would do nothing, nor give me any help of any kind. So in other words, my hard disk crashed (a pretty common occurrence for a hard-disk based system), and Tivo effectively said "toss your box in the garbage and buy a new one".

As it turns out, I did a "Clear and Delete" everything on the new disk, and it fixed up the flakiness, and I now have a perfectly functioning 1TB Tivo Series 3 - which I still love, but a bit less now that I know how little Tivo is willing to support their customers.


Tech details: The problem I had with both disks was an "error #51", "hardware malfunction". It turns out that this commonly happens when replacing disks because of a mismatch between device and drive ID used for encryption. "Clear and Delete" is the standard procedure to fix this. But for the first disk, it did something bad because the box would never boot again. Thus, I was very reluctant to try it a second time. But when I had no choice, I did - and magically, it worked perfectly. I don't know if there was something wrong with the original disk or if there was a software screwup of some kind.

June 20, 2009

Hidden iPhone 3.0 OS feature - sync multiple mail folders

I know I'm not a typical user, but it seems that I often suffer from little details in interfaces that no one else seems to care about. For 2 years, I have been bothered multiple times every day that iPhone doesn't automatically sync multiple folders. Sure, your inbox can get fetched or pushed to your device. But I use filters so I have special folders where some incoming email gets immediately diverted to. The only way I could know if any new mail was waiting for me in those folders was to navigate to those folders and wait for the device to update the folder. Yuck.

Finally, iPhone 3.0 OS lets you select which folders you can manually sync.

June 7, 2009

Why GMail doesn't let you sort by size

GMail is awesome in so many ways. The model of not having to worry about deleting stuff because storage is free is exactly right from the user's perspective. So, at first glance, it seems perfectly reasonable that there is no way to see, sort or search for emails by their (or their attachments) size. After all, simple is good, right? Why expose a feature to users that they don't need?

Then consider GMail's business model: They sell storage. Sure, they give me a very generous amount of free storage (7 GB and counting), but with no way to meaningfully delete stuff, it is pretty much guaranteed that any consistent usage will eventually bump into that limit. And when they do, they are obligated to start paying Google for storage.

It isn't cheap either. They offer 10GB for $20/year, but that is a red herring. By the time my GMail account is full, I'll already have used about 8GB from GMail, plus 1GB from Picasa, and probably some more storage from other services. This storage fee covers all of Google's services - so the reality is that the minute I need more storage, I'll have to go directly to the second tier - which conveniently (for Google) is 40GB for $75/year. Keep in mind 40 GB of local personal storage is less than $10 - so you are paying a serious premium for use of the cloud (and don't forget that Google is already making money on advertisements in your GMail).

This is a real issue - people are looking for ways to reduce their GMail storage (i.e., here, here and here). However, I don't believe this is one of those features that Google just hasn't gotten around to - this is surely a very important, strategic and subtle business plan. They give away GMail for years, and then tens of millions of customers start finding themselves owing Google pretty big - forever. And since Google never changed their pricing policy, they can fairly claim that people knew what they were getting in to.

But if Google really wanted to be fair, they would let users control how much of Google's service they used. And for GMail, this means letting people meaningfully control their disk usage.

May 8, 2009

Over 20 Years of Designing the User Interface

Impressively, my colleagues Ben Shneiderman and Catherine Plaisant have published the 5th edition of the text Designing the User Interface. There aren’t many focused professional activities that one can pursue for over 20 years, but Ben – and now Catherine – have sustained, and actually increased their energy in this one. This nearly 600 page full-color book is an excellent way to learn about the field of Human-Computer Interaction, and to see the lay of the land from both researcher and practitioner perspectives.

The book explains the core issues in designing usable, useful, efficient and appealing user interfaces. It illustrates the issues with numerous current screenshots of websites, applications, devices, and broad contexts of use. It offers guidelines backed by research, and it explains the theory in lay terms so the guidelines make sense.

Covering just about every major HCI topic, from basic usability and design processes to design for mobile and social environments, this book offers a very broad summary of the field. It also introduces more advanced topics such as search interfaces and information visualization among others – giving readers entry points into important trends.

With deep references, and access to sample quizzes and PowerPoint slides online, I strongly recommend this book to HCI instructors, students, and professionals new to the field. Congratulations to Ben and Catherine for continuing to support this field and educate the next generation of software designers and developers.

March 4, 2009

Missing content: Kindle for iPhone doesn't have picture books, or support newspapers or magazines

Ok, the word is out, and the Kindle for iPhone app is out. And it is good. The promised "whispersync" now makes complete sense, knowing where you were on one device and continuing on another - so you can read in line on your phone, and then continue on your Kindle at home. And with a smooth reading interface and control over font size, they did a commendable job on the iPhone.

But, there doesn't appear to be any children's picture books (only chapter books). For that, you'll have to go to the International Children's Digital Library (, or ICDL for iPhone for them (yes, this is my project).

And magazines and newspapers which are such a big selling point on Kindle don't appear to be available on iPhone. The Kindlestore doesn't recognize my registered iPhone device when I look at magazines or newspapers (although it does know about it when I look at books).


In related news, the New York Times app for iPhone today released v2.0. The most important user-facing features are control over font size (finally!), the ability to email articles, along with it being faster and less crashy. All features badly needed and a long time coming.

January 24, 2009

Why is Apple Finder file management so broken?

I am now pretty ambiOStrous - that is, I go back and forth between OS X (Leopard), Win XP, and Windows 7 fluently between machines and VMs. While a little disorienting sometimes, I am finally over liking one OS over another because of familiarity. I can pretty much choose at any moment which OS to use for a particular task - especially since my files are all shared between OS's (using VMWare to share files across OS's on one computer, and Live Sync to sync files an other computers.)

It turns out that one of the most important and frequent tasks is to access files, and the interfaces for doing so differ dramatically between operating systems - and in this case, OS X is the clear loser - at least for my use. These two screenshots show the best configurations of the same folder on OS X and Win7 (XP is similar to Win7 in the essential issues, so I won't discuss that).

The biggest differences are that:
  • Win7 shows many more files at once (within a directory) - which means you can do more scanning with your eye, and less with your hands. This is a huge performance win for most searching tasks. There is no view on OS X as dense as this.
  • Win7 groups folders separately from files (OS X combines folders and files, ordering them alphabetically). Both seem like reasonable approaches theoretically. But once you actually start using it, you quickly realize that navigating among folders and selecting among files are cognitively fairly different tasks - and you typically are doing one or the other. When I am navigating folders, I want to do that. Then, when I am in the right folder, I want to find the file. This decision coupled with the first issue above means that when I navigate folders on OS X, I spend much, much, much longer scrolling through long lists of files in order to get to where I want.
  • OS X makes common tasks slow and uncommon tasks fast. The most common thing you do with a file is to open it, so there ought to be a single finger, single click way of doing this. On Windows, pressing Enter does the job. But on OS X, it requires two fingers and two clicks to press Command-O. A much less frequent task is to rename a file. Windows, very reasonable, assigns this to the out-of-the-way F2 key. OS X, bizarrely, uses Enter, the single easiest key to press for this uncommon task. WTF?!?
  • OS X forces you to move your hands between alpha and arrow keys. On Windows, you can navigate the folder hierarchy entirely with your fingers on the alpha keys (i.e., "home row" for touch typists). You press enter on a folder to open the folder and see it's contents and backspace to go up a level. On OS X, you are obligated to move your fingers from the alpha keys to (to type a folder name) to the arrow keys to enter the folder, then back to the alpha keys to type the next folder name, etc. Of course, you could avoid this on OS X by only using the arrow keys - but because of the decision to combine folders and files, that means you must press the down arrow many, many, many times to get to the folder you want before pressing the right arrow to open it. Sigh...
  • OS X has no concept of focus - only selection. This means you can not use the keyboard to easily control which files are selected. This one is so weird, it took me a while to convince myself it was real. If you have OS X, follow along at home. In Finder with a file or folder selected, hold down the shift key and press the down arrow key two times. You will now have 3 items selected. If you overshot and don't want the bottom item selected, you naturally will press Shift-Up to unselect the 3rd item you just selected. But incredibly, what happens is that the 4th item above the other 3 gets selected. This is because there is no concept in the Finder of the currently focused object. This crucial bit of state isn't kept, and so Finder can't support the most basic interaction techniques.
  • OS X doesn't remember column widths. HCI 101 teaches "remember what the user does". If it is important enough for a user to do something, then the user interface ought to remember that and use that preference reasonably in the future. But on OS X, if you resize one of the columns, that information is lost as soon as you navigate to a different folder. So if you are moving around a bunch of folders with long filenames, you have to resize the column every single one. This gets pretty darn tiring after about the fifth time.
So, I'm finding that for this, among other reasons, I am spending more and more time on the Windows side of my computer.

January 21, 2009

How Fog Creek Copilot Saved My Marriage

Imagine this scenario: The night before your wife leaves for an early morning trip to Japan, you fiddle with her laptop, completely destroying her Windows installation. (WinXP was running in VMWare Fusion on a MacBook). No problem, that is why you love VMs, so you spend a few hours and restore her VM, re-setting up Outlook, and send her on her way.

You then get a frantic email from Japan a day or so later saying that Outlook doesn't work, and for 10 days, she has to resort to web email which is exceedingly painful. The hazards of providing tech support to your spouse become abundently clear, and you hope for something simple. But after a day of (slow) emailing back and forth, and eventually some Skype calls, you are stuck, and your wife is starting to get unhappy.

Then, you remember Copilot, and cross your fingers. Copilot is Fog Creek's product that lets you remotely control a computer ($5 for 24 hours, and free on weekends). The concept is old, but Copilot packages up this feature to work well across a wide variety of computer and network scenarios with super simple setup. And this, of course, was the key since I couldn't install any software or set this up in advance.

Long story short, I got to my wife's laptop's screen, could control her VM, and figured out that somehow a network setting on her VM was screwed up. I changed the setting, and everything started working.

Now, the remote control was unreasonably slow, but Fog Creek just announced a major speedup (which I haven't tested yet). But still, there are times when there is no other solution but remote control, and Copilot is the best solution of this kind I've seen.

Anyway, thank you Fog Creek. You saved my marriage - or at least gave me some points back.

January 19, 2009

Windows 7 Taskbar - so close ...

As I said in this Technology Review article, I like the Windows 7 UI. Microsoft really polished the Vista UI and removed most of the gravel. They paid attention to so much detail, even improving the behavior of basic keyboard navigation in Windows Explorer to make it work well again (like it used to XP). So, I was surprised that they flubbed something so basic in the Taskbar, which they generally put so much love into.

Look at this picture (running without Aero, which still isn't supported on VMWare Fusion). One of the key tasks in a toolbar is to be able to determine which applications are running just by looking. It is possible to do so with the above visual representation, but it is really hard.

If you look carefully, you will notice that the 1st, 3rd, and 5th applications are currently active (Firefox, Word, and Snip). But it is so hard to tell because the visual representation of running applications is a simple rectangle around the edge of the icon. In this situation, this just doesn't work for a few reasons:
  1. The top and bottom edges of the rectangle are lost because they run up against the edges of the toolbar
  2. The left and right edges of the rectangle are exactly midway between the icon they intend to indicate, and the neighboring icon. Thus, you can't tell which icon is being highlighted.
  3. In general, rectangular outlines are a poor way to highlight objects because when a person's eye is focused on an icon, it is a "global" cognitive task to integrate lines around the edge and determine that they surround an object. Alternatively, a much simpler "local" cognitive task is to determine the background color, or if a simple visual indicator is present. (Umm, see a competing operating system to see how well a little glowing triangle under the active application works for this task).
Overall, this is actually good news. I have to look pretty closely to find stuff to criticize, and admittedly, knowing which applications are currently running is not the most important task, so this is definitely not a dealbreaker, and overall, Windows 7 looks pretty good.

But this is pretty straightforward stuff, and it should really be perfect.