Apple’s Design Process

Came across this really interesting article in Business Week about Apple’s Design Process. It provides a wonderful insight into how Apple consistently create products that delight consumers. What strikes me though is that the process is, on the face of it, very simple in terms of it’s key element – there’s an important lesson there – perhaps their secret is their simplicity?  I just want to touch on three of the stages or activities described in the article:

Pixel Perfect Mockups

From my own experience, I know that producing High Fidelity wire frames or mockups can be extremely time consuming and very costly as an up-front design activity. Which is why many organisation’s don’t do this. Yet it’s hard to argue against the fact that they do remove all ambiguity and do lessen the need to correct mistakes later. We are beginning to realise the value of this at Talis, we have embarked on a couple of projects where we take this approach (although not as far as pixel perfect) up front and so far it has proven invaluable.

10 to 3 to 1

I thought this was really interesting, the notion that the develop ten entirely different mock ups of any new feature – and it really is ten different mockups, not "seven in order to make three look good" if they actually do that then that’s a remarkable. They take ten ideas, whittle those down to three which they then spend time refining until they end up with just one strong design.

Paired Design Meetings

I’m definitely in favour of this – every week the teams have two meetings. In the first meeting they do nothing but brainstorm ideas and disregard any constraints so they can think completely freely – and go crazy! Subsequently they hold a second meeting in which designers and engineers are required to nail everything down in order to figure out how each crazy idea would actually work.

These kinds of activities are incredibly useful. It’s important not to stifle or constrain the creative process which is why we have these kinds of brainstorming sessions – where nothing is considered a bad idea, no matter how ludicrous. Our development group at Talis has used techniques such as these to come up with new an innovative ideas that probably would not have come to fruition unless participants where given the freedom to go crazy (For the record Tom Heath’s ideas are generally the craziest ). The trick though is having the talent and ingenuity to take a crazy idea and turn it into something real .. and believe me it feels great when you do.


… if you haven’t experimented with techniques such as these then I suggest you give them a try.

Why is 37 signals so arrogant?

If your going to say things like:

“Arrogant is usually something you hurl at somebody as an insult … But when I actually looked it up — having an aggravated sense of one’s own importance or abilities’ — I thought, sure … Call it arrogance or idealism, but they would rather fail than adapt. I’m not designing software for other people, I’m designing it for me.”

– David Heinemeier Hansson, 37 Signals

… then your probably going to get upset people … like Don Norman, who lambastes 37 Signals in his latest blog post.

I have used some of 37 Signal’s products and I have to agree with Norman when he says that:

I’ve tried their products and although they have admirable qualities, they have never quite met my needs: Close is not good enough.

I’ve always struggled with BaseCamp for example, it almost there but just not quite … I always put my frustrations down to the fact the tool was designed to be simple, but after reading some of Hansson’ statements I begin to see things slightly differently.

When your designing products for a large user base you can’t ignore the users. I find myself agreeing with Norman’s final observation:

Understanding the true needs of customers is essential for business success. Making sure the product is elegant, functional and understandable is also essential. The disdain for customers shown by Hansson of 37signals is an arrogance bound to fail. As long as 37signals is a hobby, where programmers code for themselves, it may very well succeed as a small enterprise with its current size of 10 employees. I’m happy for them, and for the numerous small developers and small companies that find their products useful. But their attitude is a symbol: a symbol of eventual failure. Too bad. In fact, that attitude is not so much arrogance as it is selfishness: they are selfish. A little less arrogance and a lot more empathy would turn these brilliant programmers into a brilliant company, a brilliant success.

YouTube adds Visual Browser

Click to enlarge

YouTube have added a cool visual browser that allows you to find videos that are related to the one you are watching. In order to access the feature view a video, then go full screen. You’ll notice a new icon next to the play button ( represented by three dots) if you click on this and the Visual Browser appears. It shows you videos related the current node in the center. If you click on any related video more nodes appear representing further related videos. As an exploratory interface it’s really simple and intuitive to use and uses a similar metaphor to an interface I’ve been working on at Talis for exploring data that is structured semantically.

For a while now I’ve believed that discovery is more important than search, if you think about it traditional searches that ask users to enter keywords don’t use context which is why they are so hit and miss – relevance rankings are based on external influences and nothing to do with you as an individual what’s worse is it’s never clear to the user why the results that do appear are there – we have to accept the relevance or ranking system because we are never told why.

A discovery tool like the Visual Browser pictured above helps us to see how things are related and in doing so provides us with context – it also gives us a sense of control because we choose how we explore and find things of interest … that’s empowerment.

Lecturing – Usability and Web2.0

Alan Dix I had a lot of fun yesterday, my good friend Alan invited me to come up to Lancaster to do a special guest lecture on Usability and Web2.0 – I was asked to talk about the demands Web2.0 put on real world development, and the usability issues we now face. The lecture was intended mainly for his undergraduates but he invited the MSc, MRes and PHD students to attend as well.

I must confess I was very nervous it’s been a long time since I’ve had to stand up and talk for ninety minutes – I had also spent much of the weekend trying to prepare my slides and work out how to I was going to talk, intelligently, on a subject area that encompasses so much. I have to thank Richard Wallis and Rob Styles, two of my friends at Talis who both provided me with some great advice last week when I approached them and said “arrghhhh I’m panicking!I know what I want to say I’m not sure how to structure it“, fortunately they both gave me some great advice so I spent the weekend trying to organise my thoughts.

In the end it was fine, I really enjoyed the session and Alan did his best not to embarrass me ( too much 😉 ). I started by talking a little bit about the Web1.0 and the sorts of usability mistakes  that were common back then ( and perhaps still are now ), I went on to talk about the differences between Web1.0 and Web2.0. I then focused on Web2.0 and the kinds of usability problems that we are having to consider and find solutions to at the moment and tried to cover broad range – technology, accessibility, identity, authority, privacy etc. I also talked about Search as a usability problem, and how we still can’t find what were looking for, I explained why this leads me to believe that Google is broken. This flowed nicely into the final part of my talk which focused on the semantic web and some of the work we’re doing at Talis.

The slides for my presentation are now available online here.

HCI2007 … Day One Summary

 The last couple of weeks have been extremely busy and consequently I haven’t had much of a chance to post up about the conference. I thought I’d write a summary of some of the presentations that stood out the most for me.

For anyone interested you can view all the papers that were presented during the conference which are available from the BCS website on this page.

Day One

View the schedule for the day.

The day was divided into three sessions. During each session there were three concurrent tracks. This was essentially the format for all three days of the conference. I decided to stick with the Creative and Aesthetic experiences track for most of the day.  During the first session the presentation that captured my imagination the most was Dharani Perera’s short paper on Investigating paralinguistic voice as a mode of interaction to creating visual art.1.   In the paper Dharani and her colleagues reported on their research into how it is possible for people to use the volume of their voice to control cursor movement to create drawings. The research is especially hopeful for artists with upper limb disabilities who  show remarkable endurance, patience and determination to create art with whatever means are available to them. Listening to her presentation and watching one of the video’s they had recorded of an artist using the system was quite inspirational.

Another interesting paper presented during the first session was by Jennifer Sheridan from on Encouraging Witting Participation and Performance in Digital Live Art 2. Jennifer and her colleagues worked on developing a framework for characterising people’s behaviour with Digitial Live Arts. They identified three key categories of behaviour with respect to a performance frame – these are defined as performing, participating and spectating. They used an iPoi to illustrate their framework. Imagine spinning or throwing a tiny computer round your body to create your own visual projections, music or light show. Poi is a traditional Maori art form. iPOI (pictured above) is a sensor packed upgrade of the original that can trigger visual and audio soundscapes in real time using wireless technology. The goal of this peer-to-peer, exertion interface is to draw people into the performance frame and support transitions from audience to participant onto performer. The presentation was really about describing how evaluating and measuring interaction in public performance is very differnt to the frameworks and measures currently employed to understand interaction in tradtional HCI. I think what Jennifer and her team showed was that traditional HCI, like it or not, has focused on understanding interactions in desktop computing, however as computing moves away from desktop into more ubiquitious, mobile devices we will see a shift to non task based uses of computing, and as such we need to new ways to understand this new kind of interaction.

The first session was followed by the first of the conference keynotes by Professor Stephen Payne on the subject of Deciding how to sped your time the keynote was an excellent presentation of Stephen’s current research area of Cognitive strategies and design heuristics for dealing with information overload on the web3. He began the keynote with the simple and yet insightful observation that …

time is natures way of preventing us doing everything at once

The talk was about the very real problem that many of us face … In a world where the internet and search engines can provide individuals with relevant texts on any given subect how can readers allocate time effectively across a set of relevant documents, and how can they be helped so to do. So when faced with more relevant texts than time to read them all what strategies do you use when you have a specific learning goal.

Stephen presented the results of an experiment where a number of test subjects were presented with four texts to read in 6 minutes, after which they would have to take a test. Whilst the four texts covered the same subject (the functioning of the human heart) the complexity of the texts varied. For example Text A was a primary school text on the topic, whilst Text D was a post graduate medical text. B and C were both somewhere in the middle.

Now, before seeing Stephen’s presentation, I would have assumed that people in this situation might have attempted to sample each of the texts, in other words review each on briefly. What Stephen’s research has begun to demonstrate is that individuals, when faced with a specific learning goal, don’t sample but rather Satisfice, in other words in their minds they set a threshold of acceptability and if it’s met by a particular text will settle on it. It’s sometimes referred to as Information Foraging, which is analagous to problems faced by animals foraging for food in nature, how long do they stay in one patch patch before moving on to another.

What I found most interesting in Stephen’s presentation was the idea that even when skimming documents we build a mental representation of the mapping between the physical structure of the text and the meaningful content of the text. Now if this is true then it would suggest that it might be possible to find ways to construct documents so that they take advantage of this structure map. It was an excellent keynote, and I must admit I wasn’t at all suprised to learn that Alan has worked with Stephen4 on this area since much of Stephen’s talk seemed to remind me of ideas and theories of the mind that Alan had related to me in the past.

After lunch the second session of talks began. Again I opted to start off in the Creative and Aesthetic Experiences track. The first paper presented was by Shaowen Bardzell, and had the intriguing title – Docile Avatars: Aesthetics, Experience, and Sexual Interaction in Second Life5. It’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of Second Life, but listening to this talk made finally accept that even though I don’t understand why people in second life seem to take it so seriously the fact remains that many do and because they do it’s important to understand their needs as users and the communities that are emerging within Second Life. I did find this talk to be somewhat surreal the whole idea of sexual interaction and in particular BDSM as something thats possible in a virtual environment felt kind of bizarre. I did laugh about it with Alan at the bar later when I recounted to him a conversation I had with someone from the second life team who couldnt understand why i wasnt willing to spend more time in it and asked me what the real world had that second life didnt and I had replied “real women” (stop laughing Alan!). What did emerge from Shaowen’s talk was that it is possible to construct powerful aesthetic experiences and that were only now beginning to try to understand through the use of virtual ethnography and HCI theories of experience design to understand how and why this complex phenomenon emerged in Second Life.

The most interesting of the talks from this session, under the Communication and Sharing Experiences track, was entitled Thanks for the Memory6. This was a join project between Manchester Met University, The BBC and Microsoft. It was based around a piece of life-logging technology developed by Microsoft called The SenseCam,which they decribe as a piece of memory prosthesis. The SenseCam is a passive device that users wear, the device is designed to take photographs, at regular intervals of around 30 seconds, without user intervention whilst it is being worn. Unlike normal camera’s it doesnt have a view finder, it’s a simple camera fitted with a special fish eye lense that ensures that the field of view is maximised so that almost everything in the wearers field of view is captured. Whilst it sounds a bit strange the effect on the six test subjects seemed to be quite profound, the authors of the paper put it in these terms …

What we have seen is that the relationship between things-as-remembered-by-thesubjects-in-ordinary-ways and things-as-presented-by-the- SenseCams is complex. For one thing, SenseCam data captured things-that-might-have-been-remembered-but-not-intentionally and things-that-were-beyond-the-possibility-of-being-recalledby-the-user-but-which, -when-presented-to-the-same-user, -somehow-provoked-a-recollection … This awkward language alludes to the difficult and complex relationship between human memory and digital traces of action. We have seen that SenseCam data makes livedexperience, in various ways and in varying degrees, strange to the persons who had the relevant experiences in question. Strangeness here is not a negative thing, as we saw. Strangeness brings values of various kinds. The crux, it seems to us, is that in creating discongruent experiences to the one’s imagined or recollected, SenseCams brought to bear ways of seeing that were not obviously the subject’s own, but which were nevertheless empirically related to those experiences, though in complex ways.

For the final session of the afternoon I decided to stay with the Communication & sharing experiences track. There was a very interesting paper presented The Devil You Know Knows Best How Online Recommendations Can Benefit From Social Networking7 which I thought was quite relevant to some of the stuff were looking at here at Talis. The content of the paper seemed to be me be fairly obvious but nevertheless it was interesting to see some empiricial research done to prove some of the points. In short there thesis was that the defining characteristic of the internet is an abundance of information and this is problematic, how do we know which information to pay attention to and which we can just ignore? Recommender Systems were envisaged to try to solve this problem but have for the most part been unsuccessful. Research would suggest that this is due to lack of social context and inter-personal trust. What the researchers presenting this paper discovered was that participants overwhelmingly favoured recommendations made by people familiar to them, and if they recommender was not someone familiar then recommendations were favoured if the recommender could be identified as having the same interests. Consequently the conclusion offered, and this all felt terribly obvious t me, was that Recommender Systems should be integrated with Social Networking Systems.

The next paper from Day One that I want to mention was the presentation by my HCI tutor and aQtive Colleague Russell Beale Blogs, reflective practice and student-centered learning8. Russell argued that Blogging can be used to enhance education by encouraging reflective practise. Russell defines reflective practise as

an approach to learning that encourages thought about what has been experienced and seen, which can then drive new theories and investigations to test those theories, leading to new experiences that may, or may not, validate the original ideas. This leads to them being modified, extended, and refined, and the cycle continues.

Whilst the notion of reflective practise should be familiar to everyone, this is the first time I’ve come across any real research into using Blogging as a medium to encourage and enhance reflective practise in education. Russell was keen to point out that from a social and pedagogical perspective blogging can support a sense of community amongst students – they can interact with each other, post comments on each others blogs. But because of the semi-public nature of the content they are generating students can see the work done by other students and as such gain an insight into how much work they themselves need to do – since others can see the level of their activity. This creates a kind of peer-pressure that exerts influence over students to at least maintain some kind of acceptable level of activity. Russell has always been a good presenter, and I enjoyed his presentation – even though I do think I have some misgivings about the kind of peer-pressure this creates – but that doesnt mean its a bad idea.

The last paper of the day was also very interesting, the researchers sought to compare traditional and novel user interfaces for exploring a blog. The paper is entitled Contextualizing the Blogosphere: A Comparison of Traditional and Novel User Interfaces for the Web9. They investigate how contextual user interfaces affected blog reading experience and also how novel contexstual user interfaces can increase user performance and statisfaction. They compared a standard Blog Interface (WordPress), with StarTree, and the Focus Metaphor Interface. Star Tree uses a dynamic navigation tree that presents all nodes in the navigation concurrently. Each node correlated to a category on the blog. When a user selects a node it displays the associated article in a content pane. The presenters argued that by providing the entire structure of the information space concurrently this could result in superior orientation in the information space, making it much easier to find what your looking for. As such Star Tree out scored both the standard blog and the FMI interface in terms of task performance.

What this demonstrated to me was that when you have a large data set that you need to navigate or traverse in order to discover key bits of information tradition interface metaphors like facetted browsing, key word search etc. don’t provide enough context especially when the information space is large or complicated. What you need is a way to intuitively navigate to the bit that your interested in. It’s an idea some of us here at Talis have been playing around with and we think we have come up with some interesting results. 😉

At the end of the day most of the delegates attended the reception where we had some nice food, tonnes of drinks and I managed to have a lot of conversations with some very interesting people. After the reception many of us ended up in the bar where I camped out with Alan and Russell and spent the evening being introduced to tonnes of people spoke to them about their research and interests as well as what we do at Talis. The evening was a lot of fun and a great way to round off a very intense first day. All in all the first day seemed pretty fast paced, there was a lot to absorb ( some of which im still absorbing … ).

I’m going to start writing up the summary of day two ….

  1. D. Perera, J.Eales, K.Blashki [Voice Art: Investigating Paralinguistic Voice as a Mode of Interaction to Create Visual Art] [back]
  2. J.Sheridan, N. Bryan-Kinns, A.Bayliss, [Encrouaging Witting Participation and Performance in Digital Live Art] [back]
  3. Stephen Payne, IGR Report[back]
  4. A. Dix, A. Howes, S. Payne [Post-web cognition: evolving knowledge strategies for global information environments] [back]
  5. S.Bardzell, J.Bardzell [Docile Avatars: Aesthetics, Experience, and Sexual Interaction in Second Life] [back]
  6. R.Harper, D.Randall [Thanks for the Memory] [back]
  7. P. Bonhard, M. A. Sasse & C. Harries, [ The Devil You Know Knows Best: How Online Recommendations can Benefit from Social Networking ] [back]
  8. R.Beale [Blogs, reflective practice and student-centered learning] [back]
  9. S.Laqua, N.Ogbechie, A.Sasse [Contextualizing the Blogosphere: A Comparison of Traditional and Novel User Interfaces for the Web] [back]

Arriving at HCI2007

I arrived safe and sound at Lancaster University this afternoon all geared up to attend HCI2007.  Didn’t have too much problem finding where I had to go, there were a number of Student Volunteers on hand to direct wayward delegates, like me, to the registration office. After I got the keys to my room and dumped all my things in there,  I decided to explore the campus a little and try to get familiar with my surroundings (as well as find some food!). It’s a quite a charming campus and at the moment eerily silent because most of the students are off on the summer holidays.

After grabbing a bite to eat I went to sort out my WIFI access, grmbl grmbl, whilst I have access I can’t use it in my room, only in certain parts of the campus which is a little frustrating. Alan told me there were some problems with getting enough DHCP addresses … which sounded reminiscent of the problems delegates had at XTECH earlier this year.

So after wandering around trying to find one of the designated hotspots and checking my mail, I headed back to my room. On the way I ran into an old friend, Russell Beale,  who I haven’t seen or spoken to in almost eight years. Russell, along with Alan, were effectively the guys I worked for at aQtive all those years ago. Needless to say it was great to see him again and to catch up. We both commented on how time flies and how much has happened since we last spoke to each other. Russell is also one of the Co-Chairs for the conference and will be giving some interesting talks over the next couple of days which I’m looking forward to.

Russell reminded me that there was a pre-conference reception this evening for all the delegates and we agreed to meet up and head on down at around seven. The reception was really nice, got to meet lots of very interesting people. Alan and Russell were on hand to introduce me to many of the other delegates … it’s nice to have friends!- except Alan’s been telling some of them stories about me (Fiona if your read this can you sort him out for me?  ). 

Had some very interesting conversations with researchers like, Fredrik Gundelsweiler who is presenting an interesting paper on “Agile Human-Centered Software Engineering” on Thursday, in which he will attempt to present a cross-discipline UI Design lifecycle  that integrates Software Engineering with HCI under the umbrella of Agile Development. I’m particularly interested to see him describe this new methodology since one of the key concerns with Agile that some of us at Talis have are centered around the fact that usability is something we have struggled to factor into our agile process coherently, were still learning how to do it, I’m hoping Fredrik’s talk will give me some ideas.

It’s been a really wonderful evening what strikes me the most is the vibe at this conference. There’s definitely a buzz, you can sense everyone’s excitement, and almost everyone wants to go out of their way to talk about their work or research and share ideas. I was slightly taken aback by how much many of the delegates understood about semantic-web and some of the areas were exploring at Talis, and also how readily they were willing to listen to me try to describe what we do. I’m really excited about some of the talks around interesting ways to visualise and interact with large data sets, I have a feeling I’m going to be learning a lot over the next few days.

Microsoft launches Tafiti

If you haven’t tried it yet check out Microsoft’s experimental new search front end Tafiti –

It’s based on Microsoft’s new SilverLight technology, their competitor to Flash. It uses a cool desktop metaphor where you can spin through different kinds of results, drag and drop them into piles which you can label and share with your friends.

Although it might seem gimmicky and not particularly useful at first glance, it is actually quite innovative and and a lot of fun to use. It’s a great showcase for SilverLight but it’s interesting to contrast how Apple are doing a lot of work in bringing metaphors such as stacks to the desktop UI, and Microsoft seem to be focussing on Search and the Web.

Try it out for yourselves! I think it’s awesome.

Ambient Findability – Peter Morville

Ok it’s definitely that time of the week when I catch up on blogs. I have a feed that shows me all the latest Google Tech Talks some of which I ignore but some are genuinely interesting – such as this one entitled Ambient Findability and the Future of Search:

It’s easy to be dismissive due to the sheer pretentiousness of the title until you realise who’s giving the talk. Peter Morville is co-author of …

Many people consider Peter to be the founding father of Information Architecture, and certainly the above text was and still is considered to be a seminal piece.

In this talk Peter discussed what he refers to as Ambient Findability the subject of his new book:

Morville talks about the Internet, GIS, and other network technologies that are converging to make unlimited findability possible. He discusses how the convergence of these innovations impacts society, since Web access is now a standard requirement for successful people and businesses. His central belief seems to be that information literacy, information architecture, and usability are all critical components of what he see’s is the future of search.

It’s a fascinating talk that anyone in the new Web 2.0/Web 3.0 bandwagons should take a moment to listen to. I’m still left grinning at one of the observations he makes right at the beginning:

A few years ago I started to get really sick of the word usability. It’s a good word and folks like Jakob Nielsen did a good job of blasting that word into everybody’s heads. And when I talk with executives about their goals for the redesign of their websites, without fail when I say what’s your goal? they say “we want it to be more usable” so I’ll say great what does that mean?. The problem is that the word usability has sort of grown and grown until it’s almost synonymous with quality.

If you don’t understand why that’s a bad thing, then you really need to listen to this talk.

Equally if your a librarian or a Library System vendor then you need to listen to this talk, many of his examples are from this domain and they are fascinating.

Turning the pages of an e-book. The book metaphor

This is a fascinating talk about whether the use of the book metaphor is appropriate for electronic documents. There’s two schools of thought on this. On the one hand we have those who believe that the book metaphor is useful because humans are already experienced in handling physical books, its ingrained into our psyche. On the other hand many others argue that the metaphor is not useful, and by clinging on to it we are limiting the potential of electronic books – these people also argue that whatever new metaphor are presented they will gain traction and people will get used to them over time, but one could argue that about any technology that becomes pervasive over time. .

I dont want to sound critical of Veronica’s work or even her findings I think it is fascinating, and well worth watching the talk. I just cant help but feel that we are going to be stuck with the book metaphor for a long time to come. All I have to do is look at myself – I work with computers all the time, I download e-books, PDF’s, manual’s ranging from a few pages in length to hundreds of pages. I know that it’s less wasteful and possibly more efficient, and even faster to find the bits i’m interested in by searching the electronic document … I rarely ever bother doing that. I tend to print them out, and if you a funky printer like the one we have at work it’ll print out 4 sides per sheet of A4 then hey presto you have a small A5 size copy of the document/book.

I think there’s several reason’s for this, firstly screens are terrible for reading documents on, they strain the eyes, it’s hard to find the right level of contrast, most screens flicker and the more intently you stare at them the more your eyes hurt over time, if your reading on a desktop machine or a laptop then it’s also easy to be distracted. In contrast, I can happily spend a whole day reading a book cover to cover without ever feeling fatigued or distracted. I can also scribble in them (ok I use those funky peelable sticky labels these days:p as colored bookmarks), I can carry the book with me, read it on the train or the bus, or in bed.

I don’t believe that the book metaphor actually works when interacting with a computer using a keyboard or a mouse. Any time I’ve ever tried to read a book on computer where I had to drag one corner of the book in a pseudo page turning movement, I’ve been left wondering how it would be so much easier with a next page button – the page turning animation looks nice but after a while they become irritating. The metaphor might work on more tactile interface, like the multi-touch interfaces that are slowly being rolled out.

Now I know I’m not a luddite and I’m certainly not anti technology it’s just that I haven’t come across a way to read an electronic book that I’d prefer over having a real book … yet! We’re seeing advancements now in paper technologies where electronic books can be downloaded onto special types of paper that will display the content. Perhaps that’s the real way forward? Have a real book but you can change the contents of to whatever your currently reading … best of both worlds?