Applied Usability

Examination of specific lessons from usability as applied in the real world or our virtual ones.

2008 Technology Retrospective

This is a personal retrospective on technologies that had a significant impact on my life over the last 12 months, that is to say they are not necessarily new technologies, or even new to me, but the way that I use them has dramatically changed or had a significant impact that wasn't there before.

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Podcasts

In 2008 I've got into downloading and listening to podcasts. The main barrier to entry for me had been finding the quality content, but I found the Guardian Tech Weekly podcast interesting enough that I made the effort to download it regularly. After getting an iPod it became a great deal easier to find interesting and useful content thanks to the iTunes store and for all its flaws it offers a nice hands off way of maintaining my subscriptions. While Juice can offer the subscription management for other players, it lacks a resource to plug into as a way of finding interesting content. The whole thing is disappointingly hardware centric.

Impact:

It makes better use of my commute time, and offers an additional way to take in useful information that can be easier to multi task than keeping on top of my RSS reader. However it is still very much about finding the right content and for me that is mostly covered off by the Guardian Tech Weekly, TED talks and Channel Flip Games (sadly this website fails to acknowledge their female audience).

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Twitter

This one is another late one for me, although I registered over a year ago I didn't have enough friends using the service and I didn't know how to find the interesting conversations. Two things changed over the course of the year; my brother became very active and offered me friendly face of whom I could ask the stupid questions (Twitter is not newbie friendly). Secondly I attended the #foct08 conference that actively encouraged participation through Twitter, by simultaneously projecting a live Twitter stream, thus offering me a reason to twitter and contribute whilst also finding those much needed contacts and conversations that make Twitter so engaging.

Impact:

It has already had a rather profound influence, since some of my usual bloggersphere haunts have become Twitter contacts, enabling me to have a much more direct conversation with those individuals than blog comments normally afford. Because of the very linear and immediate nature of Twitter I often use it instead of my RSS reader, I then get a direct link to the site, rather than seeing the content in sub-par experience of a reader. It has definitely altered my surfing habits and I am still finding new ways of hunting down other interesting people to follow, hashtags, MrTweet and Twitter Grader are proving quite useful.It has to be said this also offers the ambient intimacy (kudos Leisa) that appealed about Facebook, which is now neglected in lieu of Twitter.

Gaming

I got a Wii for my birthday this year and this was really the introduction of third generation console gaming into my home. Although there is a lot written about how the Wii has attracted casual gamers, the really interesting thing for me is the new way you can interact with the console and the new sorts of games that are being developed as a result. The most interesting games in my mind take advantage of these new kinds of interactions, without this the Wii is a poor relative to the other consoles, even with Nintendo's development powerhouse behind it. The other thing I like that Nintendo did was to explore mixing play with other tasks we would don't traditionally associate with gaming, such as learning or exercise, but it is interesting since as kids we learn through play.

Impact:

There have been a couple of games that although released across platforms have created a specific Wii version that utilises the controller, for me this is essential and can be the deciding factor in buying a game I would of skipped over on another console. The types of games I play has widened too.

Mobile Internet

At last thanks to the iPod and my HTC touch the mobile internet is mostly usable. It's not ready to replace my laptop yet, but on those occasions when I want internet access and I don't have access to my PC it fills the gap and works well for most sites. It has been increasingly useful when at work with restricted internet access, I can use my phone to check my email and sites like Facebook.

Impact:

Closer to ubiquitous computing. I can feed my internet addiction almost anywhere 🙂

Seadragon on the iPhone

Microsoft has released it's first iPhone application and its a good one. Some of the more interesting things that are coming out of Microsoft labs are Photosynth and Seadragon, you can see an excellent demo of this at a TED talk from 2007:

In brief Seadragon allows you to zoom quickly and smoothly through a great deal of visual information, so much information infact that when I originally saw the demo I assumed it was a little bit of demo magic being worked on a very high end computer. The zoom interface of Seadragon would seem like a natural fit with the multi-touch interface of the iPhone, but I had always thought that the iPhone did not have the necessary computing power to run such an application, thankfully I was wrong.If you are lucky enough to have an iPhone or iPod check Seadragon out and let me know what you think.

The Magic of Interface Design

While reading Derren Brown’s book 'Tricks of the Mind' (thanks Simon) I began to see some overlap between performing close-up magic and designing user interfaces; it comes down to understanding and predicting your audience’s attention.

The approach however is from opposite sides of the problem; while the interface designer tries to focus the attention of the user to enable them to achieve a task, the magician relies on our inability to focus on everything to perform their trick. Especially when we are concentrating on something we can easily miss even the most obvious things, so while we are looking to see how the trick is done it distracts us from how it is actually done.

Try this awareness test:

It makes it clear that if there is a lot going on then not only is it harder to find the information you want, but you can miss important information you didn’t know you needed. In the context of interface design it can be frustrating for a user and ultimately may prevent them from being able to achieve their goal.

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Learnt Blindness

We also learn not to see things through experience and expectation. An example of this I saw recently was putting a quick link to an F.A.Q. page in an area of a page normally reserved for advertising, as a result few users saw the the new link; we have become conditioned to expect advertising and therefore don't look at that area of the page. See Nielsen's research on this banner blindness.

As interface designers we need to consider that to break with expectation can mean we create something that can stand out, because it breaks from the it's surroundings conventions, however it might never get seen, such as when we put important navigation elements where we expect to see advertising. So we need to understand when it's appropriate to use the audience's own expectations to help them find the information they need.

Keep it simple

When dealing with an audience's attention it helps to remove distractions. Keeping an interface as simple as possible and removing unnecessary distractions, can help make it clearer and easier for the user to focus. But it's important to not throw out the baby with the bathwater, if you remove too much information then there aren't enough cues to know what to do next.

One time performance

This is important if it is an application that is used rarely or as a single experience. The reason you will rarely see a magician repeat the same trick is because it gives the audience the opportunity to see it in a different way, we know what is coming and we've already studied the trick once, if we see it again it makes it easier with each consecutive performance to see how the trick is achieved. This is the same for interface design if we know what to expect, through repeat use, it is easier for us to know what to do over time as we can handle more information and learn the interface. In which case we can adopt more complex interfaces, that offer more functionality, but take longer to learn.

TaDa…

In conclusion we need to understand that our awareness and attention are often compromised and easily distracted, and take this into consideration when designing user interfaces. A good experience is like a magic trick, we might not be aware of exactly how we got there, it seems easy, but we are delighted we did.

Role of Social Media in the Credit Crunch

The one good thing about this recession is that I can actually walk around and get my Christmas shopping done in relative peace. But it is a little alarming to see most shops offering 20% off and yet still find shopping centres quiet.

As a strange form of torture at work, Sky News is broadcast all over the place and offer repeated and constant coverage of the financial crisis (NB: Why CNN find it hard to cover – can also be applied to Sky News). In fact the press has been doom and gloom about the economy for some time now, with some making comments about the Web 2.0 bubble bursting. We all know that between the rising fuel and food costs and the house prices sinking things are pretty gloomy right now.

Financial Tracking charts from Wesabe

Wesabe charts personal finances.

However I am interested in what role the web will have in helping us deal with this. We’ve had recessions before, but like American elections I don’t think we’ve had one where the web will play such a significant role, especially in how we cope with it. Firstly there is our connection to the internet both emotively and economically; while fuel bills sore the cost of broadband costs continue to fall, also we feel the internet is essential and not a luxury we can cut to save costs. So we aren’t going to us the web less now.

We already know that the internet has made us more informed consumers, thanks to price comparison sites and communities offering advice. But now most of us are feeling the pressure to have more control over our finances, so what tools can the web offer us to help us manage our financial affairs? There are some good free tools that offer some helpful budgeting and financial management services, here are some for the UK:

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Wesabe / money.telegraph

Wesabe has been around for a few years now and offers support for most major UK institutions. They offer an aggregation service, allowing you to see all your financial data in one place. There is an active community around the service, as well anonymous data aggregation, allowing Wesabe to offer advice based to you based on your particular spending trends in the context of the wider community. Other functionality includes putting statements in “plain English” and aggregating this information across the community; so if a user identifies retailer TSC1238934 as Tescos, then if you were to shop there you will automatically see Tescos in your statement.

Wesabe have released an API and offer automated tools for downloading statements as well as various widgets to make your information more accessible. Recently the Daily Telegraph has partnered with Wesabe in the UK, further adding to its credibility.

Kublax

Kublax is new to the UK market, however it is powered by Yodlee, who is one of the biggest service providers in account aggregation, having partnered with large corporate banks too. Plus because it is UK specific it supports most of the UK financial institutions. It has similar functionality to Wesabe allowing you to compare spending and to get advice based on your own spending habits, with a focus on localisation. But it doesn’t offer an API for developers to create more tools. It has some inbuilt fraud detection and alerting.

Buxfer

Buxfer’s functionality is limited in comparison, but offers budgeting tools that are particularly good at managing money between people and can automate splitting costs and tracking debt, which can be useful and relieve social tension when finances are tight.

Wigadoo

Wigadoo is a UK service for sorting out events with a group of friends. Although it is not directly about managing your own personal finances, it is a useful tool for when you have to sort out the money for a trip with a group of mates and it avoids one person having to shell out for the cost for the whole group and they then take all the risk that someone will cancel or not pay their share. You no longer have to nag friends for the money they owe you, or have to feel guilty about not paying them back yet. Making these social money situations easier is always helpful when money is short and it is easy for it to become a source of tension.

In addition to better tools to help us manage our finances, the web offers alternative ways of borrowing money to the traditional bank loans; at a time when banks are reducing risks and lending far less, peer to peer lending continue to loan money and offer a way of raising necessary cash.

Zopa

Zopa is peer to peer lending that started in the UK and has spread globally. The principle is that you can borrow or lend money from other individuals rather than from institutions. As a borrower you make a pitch about what you want the money for and how much you need, and as a lender you decide who you want to lend to, how much and at what rate. The borrower can choose the best rate from the offers made.

Although technology will be hit by the financial climate too, you need only look at the staff cuts going on across the board in tech companies to see that, I think that through these Web 2.0 offerings we can better empower ourselves with the tools to help us weather this storm.

Services like Wesabe and Kublux enable us to gather advice from a community as well as from our own actual spending data. By having all your information in one place you get a complete picture of your financial situation. However this isn’t without any risk; since your data is aggregated it is important to be considerate of where you are storing your financial information, but there are huge advantages to be had by participating, both in convenience and in access to information otherwise unavailable. There are plenty of good services out there, but I have tried to look at ones I know will work for the UK, if you know others or have any experiences with any please let me know how you have found them.