Some Thoughts on Interface Design

This article was originally published in Canadian Developer Connection.

Comments on “The Device/Desktop” Opportunity

The Device/Desktop Opportunity got a number of comments, both in the “Comments” section and sent directly to me via email. First, I’d like to say “please keep those comments coming!” One of my intentions was to start some discussion.

I got a number of comments whose essence was “Why don’t the users simply use a photo editing tool and bring their photos down to the right size and DPI themselves, then copy them to the device?” To a geek, this suggestion sounds very sensible; in fact, I did just that to confirm what I thought the application that came with the device did.

The problem is that most users don’t see it that way. A commenter named Joshua summed it up nicely when he wrote:

I think we geeks, being somewhat more familiar with the tools than the problems, find it relatively easy to tweak an existing tool to do the job, than to “suffer” with Yet Another Not-Quite-Adequate Problem-X-Solving Tool.

Conversely, non-geek users don’t want to have to be bothered with all that hoo-hah. They see the task as moving the pictures from their camera or computer to the device. Do they really have to learn about some other program and fiddle with their photos to do just that? Weren’t computers supposed to make their lives easier?

This isn’t laziness or pride in ignorance on the part of non-geeks. It’s just that they have different interests and priorities than we developers do. To put yourself in their shoes, think of how most of us would make spaghetti: probably with store-bought dried pasta, canned sauce and pre-grated cheese. Now imaging how chef Gordon Ramsay would scream at you in a stream of put-downs and curse words for doing so. In his mind, he’s justified; in your mind, he’s being an elitist jerk who just doesn’t get the fact that you just want some spaghetti.

In the same comment, Joshua also talked about an interesting idea: putting the necessary desktop/device interface software right on the device. He wrote that the Flip Mino camcorder (which looks like a pretty fun device; Toronto-based photoblogger Rannie “Photojunkie” Turingan seems to be getting a lot of mileage out of it) comes with the necessary software for Windows and Mac stored within it.

Should “Cheap” Sites Look Cheap?

Last week, while having a late-night post-party snack with a couple of Toronto-based tech entrepreneurs — Facebook Cookbook author Jay Goldman and CommandN co-host Will Patewe got to talking about sites that were successful in spite of their “pretty crappy” visual design. The site that got the discussion rolling was the dating site and Canadian ASP.NET success story Plenty of Fish (for a good general intro, see this New York Times article). From there, a number of examples came up, including Craigslist and a popular IIS-based site that lets you search for and book cheap airfare and travel packages. These sites all do their jobs quite well, but if you showed them to a web designer, you’d see a conniption fit within seconds.

“Travel sites all search the same data,” said Jay, “and many of them are running on the same back-end. They just use different design templates. Maybe people think that [the cheap-looking but successful travel site] gives you cheaper deals because they look cheap.”

He may have a point. Part of Craiglist’s charm is its stripped-down, not-even-trying-to-look-good design. Does that design send users the same subtle message in the same way that the no-frills “anti-design” of “big box” discount stores sends to their customers? It may be something to think about if you’re building a customer-facing site for a business whose main selling point is low prices or saving its customers money.

The New Look for Calculator in Windows 7

In the Coding Horror article If You Don’t Change the UI, Nobody Notices, Jeff Atwood makes an interesting point: if you want users to notice changes you’ve made to the functionality or back end of an application, they should be mirrored by appropriate corresponding changes to the front end or user interface. Along the way, he points to a Raymond Chen article I’d never seen before. As much as I view Raymond with the highest esteem – he’s probably forgotten more about coding that I’ll ever learn — at a certain point in his article, I did a facepalm. Can you guess when that point was?


eWeek’s “Most Important Products of 2007”

One Laptop Per Child XO laptop
The OLPC XO Laptop. It’s one of eWeek’s “Most Important Products of 2007”.

In case you wanted a quick list of what eWeek declared as the “Most Important Products of 2007”, here they are:

  1. Amazon EC2
  2. Apple iWork ’08
  3. DiVitas Mobile Convergence
  4. Fluke Networks OptiView Series III Integrated Network Analyzer
  5. Google Apps Premier Edition
  6. Hewlett-Packard Hp c3000 blade server
  7. One Laptop Per Child XO
  8. Oracle Database 11g
  9. RIM BlackBerry 8820

My reaction: “iWork? Really?” I’d have picked the iPhone, as I think its approach to the mobile browser is worth stealing.


Our “Space” Shoot

Last week, my friend Mark Askwith, a producer at Space — the Canadian sci-fi channel — dropped me a line asking if I’d like to talk about a couple of cool gadgets in a segment for HypaSpace, Space’s “geek news” program. It sounded like a fun idea, so I said I’d do it.

Mark and Space camera guy Darcy came over to the TSOT offices last Wednesday to do the shoot, which some of my co-workers starred in. The segment will air during the year-end installment of HypaSpace; I’ll post the broadcast date as soon as I found out when it is.

I took some photos during the shoot — they appear below.

Darcy the camera guy from Space
Darcy, the camera guy from Space. In this shot, he’s setting up his camera prior to the shoot.

Darcy films as Adam and Mariko play Wii Bowling
Strike! Darcy films a segment where my co-workers Mariko and Adam play a round of Wii Bowling.

Mark and Darcy watch as Adam and Mariko play Wii Bowling
Wii action. Mark and Darcy watch and Mariko and Adam bowl on the office Wii. Gotta love the perks in the place.

Darcy shoots as Alex demos his iPod Touch
“Music is where I’d like you to touch…” My co-worker Alex demos his iPod Touch as Darcy films.

Alex demos the iPod Touch as Darcy shoots and Mark watches
Alex is a hand model now! Mark watches as Darcy shoots an iPod Touch segment — I’ll do the voice-over.

Darcy the camera guy from Space
The “beauty shot”. Darcy gets a shot of the featured gadgets, using the office video game screen as the background.


The REAL “Accordion Hero”

Although it’s relatively old news, it’s all the buzz on the tech blogs today: Accordion Hero, the accordion version of the Guitar Hero videogame:

Accordion Hero

Alas, Accordion Hero is just a parody — it’s just a clever idea that’s been given it’s own website.

However, that doesn’t mean that someone hasn’t built an accordion-style for Guitar Hero-type games. Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d like you to meet Oded “SoundGuy” Sharon and the game controller that he created by hacking a toy accordion. Here’s a photo of Oded playing Frets on Fire (a Free Software version of Guitar Hero) with his “Accordion Hero” controller:

Oded Sharon using his accordion controller to play “Freetar Hero”

You can find out more about the controller in this entry on his blog.

Oded, you’re a true Accordion Hero — I salute you with a filet mignon on a flaming sword!




Happy Hallowe’en! If you’re feeling that your jack o’ lantern just doesn’t enough nerd oomph, Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories’ Cylon-O-Lantern might be what you need. Here’s a video of the Cylon-O-Lantern in action…

Can’t see the video? Click here.


The Official Segway of the Midlife Crisis

Ferrari-branded Segway

According to the Sybarites site, there’s a Ferrari-branded Segway:

Segway have teamed up with Ferrari to release a special limited edition version of their i2 Personal Transporter. Ferrari have used Segway’s as a transportation method around their Maranello factory for sometime now, the Segway PT i2 Ferrari Limited Edition comes in Ferrari’s signature color, red and features the Scuderia Ferrari logo at the base. It has a range of almost forty kilometers off one battery charge and can be easily stowed in the trunk of a car for longer journeys. It comes with a handlebar bag made of leather.


“This is How You Treat Your Customers”

Sign for “Hell” with icicles hanging from it.

A refrain we use quite often here at Global Nerdy is that Microsoft’s consumer offerings make you feel as though you’re dining from the table scraps from the dumpsters of the customers they really love: corporate drones running Office, Exchange and SQL Server. However, there are a couple of bright spots in their more recent consumer items:

This move isn’t just uncharacteristic of Microsoft, but in light of the recent Appledickery — that is, Apple’s war against its own fans — it’s downright inspired:

Twenty years ago, the portable music player of the time — the Walkman — could only be a Walkman since it was a single-purpose hardware whose sole task was to play cassette tapes. That era’s video players, cellular phones and handheld electronic games also faced the same mechanical limitation — each device could only perform its intended task. Under the hood, each of these device types was quite different.

These days, there isn’t much that separates music players, video players, phones and handheld electronic games. While the user interfaces are different, they’re all just general-purpose computers that vary in processing power and memory. This fact is not lost on the vendors, but many are hoping that consumers are still stuck on the mechanical-era “upgrade treadmill” mindset. Apple seems to be thinking this way, but Microsoft apparently isn’t. Kudos to Microsoft for treating their early adopters properly.