Qixing’s Big Move

Good Luck, Qixing!

QIxing Zheng in her TechDays 2009 orange speaker shirt

We may be losing a User Experience Evangelist, but I think we’ll get a great Windows 8 in return. Qixing Zheng, who’s been with Microsoft Canada’s Developer and Platform Evangelism team for the past three years, is leaving to join the Windows UX Team as a Program Manager. While I saw firsthand that she enjoyed her work as a UX Evangelist, talking to developers and designers about building usable, comprehensible and beautiful applications, joining the Windows UX Team is the opportunity of a lifetime. After all, how often are you given the chance to design something that will get used all the time by millions of people, all over the world, at work, play and in their day-to-day lives?

Qixing’s been the sole writer for the Canadian UX Connection blog during her tenure. She posted her farewell article, A New Year and a New Beginning, on January 1st, but don’t think that’s the last you’ve seen of her online. She promises that she’ll be blogging soon – she’ll let us know where, and I’ll let you know in turn. In the meantime, you can follow her on Twitter, where her handle is @hundredflavour.

What About User Experience?

Windows 3.1, as seen using the garish yellow and red "Hot Dog Stand" colour scheme

While I’m glad that Qixing is going to be applying her skills and knowledge to Windows’ user interfaces, there remains the need for someone to help developers, designers and people who play both roles build useful, usable and beautiful interfaces, applications and experiences. This is becoming even more important as mainstream software development extends beyond the desktop OS to the web, mobile phones, tablets and even big-ass tables.

I’m planning to pick up some of the slack in the tech blogs where I write, Canadian Developer Connection and Global Nerdy. In addition to articles on programming, industry trends and reports from the field, I’ll also be posting articles about usability, user interface and user experience, as seen from the developer’s point of view. I’ve had some experience in this area, and where my skills and knowledge fall short, I can always call on my “friends in UI places” and bring their opinions and know-how to you.

Once again, congratulations Qixing, you’ve been a great teammate — and yes, we’ll keep evangelizing user experience!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


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?


The Device/Desktop Opportunity

This article originally appeared in Canadian Developer Connection.


Why isn’t Brookstone in Canada yet?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Brookstone, a good way to describe it is “lifestyle gadget store”. A good portion of their catalog is devoted to “lifestyle electronics”: things like

and an assortment of digital photo albums like the “My Life” digital photo album pictured here. It holds up to 4000 photos and sports a 3.5 inch screen with 320 by 240 pixel resolution and will fit into a purse or jacket pocket. Sure, you can show off photos using your mobile phone, PDA, netbook or laptop, but there’s a considerable market for simple, single-use devices like this.

Brookstone is a great store, and whenever I’m in the U.S. and in a mall or Logan Airport, I can’t resist taking a peek inside.

My mom is also a big fan of Brookstone stuff, so when I was down in the U.S. for American Thanksgiving, I made it a point to get her something from them for Christmas. She loves carrying printouts of photos of the grandkids, so I got her a “My Life” digital photo album. I figured I’d pre-load it with family photos before wrapping it up.

I told my mother-in-law about my purchase and she said “I have one of those. They’re really nice, but I can’t figure out how to use the software.”

So, being the good son-in-law that I am, I decided to take a look at the software, which is called Photo Resizer. It worked just fine; the problem is that its interface could use some tweaking.

Here’s the first thing you see when you run the program:

Screenshot of Brookstone "My Life" photo frame software 

I’m no psychic, but I can say with near-100% certainty that you probably don’t store photos in your Windows/system32 directory. So I used the rather old-school directory navigator to get to my Pictures directory and then to where I’d stored my photos from PDC 2008:

Screenshot of Brookstone "My Life" photo frame software

From there, you check the boxes corresponding the photos you want to transfer.

Once you’ve done that, it’s time to select which album you want to move the photos to. The digital album contains 4 internal albums, so you can group your photos by criteria – perhaps album 1 will hold your vacation photos, album 2 will have family photos, and so on. There’s a physical button for each album, so switching between albums is pretty quick.

You select the album you want to move the photos to by clicking the Browse button (it’s in the Save Photos panel), which makes a modal directory selector window appear:

Screenshot of Brookstone "My Life" photo frame software

…at which point you’d select the directory corresponding to album you want to move your photos to. Fortunately for the user, the default directory in this directory selector is ALBUM1 in the volume named PHOTOALBUM rather than Windows/system32. I suppose if I really wanted to, I could use the app for more than just transferring photos to the album, but as a quick utility for downsizing photos to 320 by 240 and saving them in the directory of my choice.

Once that’s done, one step remains: clicking the Resize button, which is the one button in the entire interface that doesn’t look like a button.

If you’re a reader of this blog, you probably could take a look at the interface and immediately understand what the program does and know what to do to get the photos on your your drives and camera cards into your photo album. But I’m willing to bet that many people in the target market for the photo album would find Photo Resizer’s user interface confounding. My mother-in-law did, and she’s probably not the only one.

Now don’t get me wrong – I actually like the Brookstone “My Life” digital photo album. The device itself is easy to use, and I know a lot of people who’d love one of these, and I’m sure you do too. I just think that there’s an opportunity for developers of Windows desktop apps here, and probably with a lot of consumer goods that hook up to people’s PCs.

What would it take to build a user-friendlier version of Photo Resizer?

Fortunately, we’re in the USB age, which means that as far as your computer is concerned, many USB devices “look” just like hard drives. Such is the case with the “My Life” photo album, which looks like a drive with the volume name PHOTOALBUM containing four directories, ALBUM1 through ALBUM4. Reduced to its essence, Photo Resizer simply does the following:

  • It asks the user to specify a set of photos
  • For each photo in the set, it creates a version reduced to 320 by 240 pixels at 96 dpi
  • It saves each of those reduced photos in a specified directory

On one level, it’s a reasonable hobby project. User interface and user experience gurus could have a field day dreaming up a revised user interface, and developers could use this as an opportunity to try developing an app using WPF.

On another level, it’s an opportunity. How many times have you used a very nice device that came with software for your computer that seemed like an afterthought? I can think of a number of devices that I own or have owned that fall into that category. Perhaps there’s a market for improved applications with beautiful, intuitive user interfaces for devices like the “My Life” photo album. Maybe they could be sold online for some small fee – I’m think 5 or 10 dollars. It could be a nice side business for a developer; at the very least, it’s another “feather in your cap” for your resume.

I told my mother-in-law that I’d write an easier-to-use app that she could use to transfer photos to her album. While I’m at it, I’ll post some articles covering what I did and maybe solicit your input. Once it’s done, I’ll post both the app and its code online for you to peruse.

Here’s the challenge for you: can you think of any opportunities to write improved applications for devices that hook up to computers? Can you write a better app for the “My Life” digital photo frame?


Most Google Users Ignore Everything After the First Three Results

I would’ve thought that they ignore everything after the first page, but ReputationDefender says that according to a Cornell University Study [PDF], most Google users ignore everything after the first three results.


All HTML Form Control Elements Require Labels

UX Rule #1 – All HTML Form Control Elements Require Labels, and this rule is illustrated by showing the differences between Facebook’s and GMail’s login forms.