New projects – UX Notts

UXNottsPoster

Frustrated with the lack of local UX events, I’ve decided to run one. Thanks to support from both the Creative Quarter and my colleague Wayne Moir we have now got a UX event in Nottingham.

UX Notts has its first event on the 19th November and the Pavilion on Lace Market Square. Which will be looking at Agency vs In-house design.

Previously I’ve been involved in running events like Nottingham’s Girl Geek Dinners and helped with Women wot Tech in Sheffield, but I’m looking forward to doing something specific to UX and to be back in the centre of Nottingham.

User Interfaces in Games

Games UI Series

For some time I have written about both my professional and social interests on this blog; covering user experience and gaming, but I want to combine them and look at user interface design in games. I think this is an oft-neglected part of games, especially with the usual budget and time constraints, however as with any software design the usability of the user interface can have a profound effect on the user’s experience.

World of Warcraft screen with massive campaign detail

An advanced user experience on World of Warcraft

Usability in games is not restricted to on screen interactions, there is a such diversity of ways to interact with your gaming platform of choice; be it joypad, keyboard, touch screen, or no controller at all. This makes the platform and method of interaction a key part of the user experience in games, as such I will explore the strengths and weaknesses of these human-computer interfaces.

Some games designers and developers think that creating games is completely different to creating other software, because they are creating entertainment rather than tools. However recently as we have seen an increasing overlap between games and applications e.g. Epic Win we can see that these lines are far more blurred than previously considered. Software development has only recently realised the commercial value of user experience, but games developers often consider themselves the audience as well as the creators, failing to realise that their familiarity with their game hampers their ability to see their product impartially; perhaps more frustrated by the focus groups that require them to “dumb down” games than they are in the issues that may cause that confusion in the first place. While games do need to offer challenges in order to evoke a sense of achievement, these challenges should be designed and deliberate and not a hurdle of a poorly designed interface.

I was delighted to see that Edge has added to its staff Graham McAllister; the CEO of Vertical Slice, the UK’s first usability testing company to focus solely on games. This recognition of the need for usability in an industry leading publication can only help raise the profile of the value of understanding your users.

I’m hoping to write a series of game reviews, which look specifically at the UI and give a heuristic review on their strengths and weaknesses as well as offering possible alternative solutions where appropriate. Read More

Android and HTC: The mobile power couple

I recently acquired a HTC Desire running Android 2.1 and it has significantly changed the way I use my mobile phone. The primary reason for this can easily be attributed to Android. I knew when selecting a new phone that the apps would make or break it.

So why not go with iPhone? Because HTC make the best hardware on the market.

HTC Desire

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Hardware vs Software

I have been a fan of HTC handsets for several years now, as they regularly push the hardware limits of mobile devices, squeezing in just that bit more functionality than their competitors; however more often than not the software was a letdown, not living up to the potential of the hardware, even in things as crucial using it as a phone.

Apple blew the market away; the hardware is not as groundbreaking, but it made sure that the OS fully supported the hardware functionality, concentrating on the usability of the product in a market that was saturated with terrible UI design.

Windows Mobile

A few months later Android launched.

Apps

The reason my mobile usage has changed is largely because of Marketplace. My old HTC Diamond, has amazing hardware, but runs Windows Mobile and the apps are sold in a more traditional software business model (as you might expect on a Microsoft platform) with a price tag to match. Apple created the AppStore, as a single point for all apps, accepting micropayments through iTunes.

Android has easy access via their Marketplace and also utilises a lot of the other successful Google applications like Gmail and Google Calendar, meaning for me it is taking the tools I’m already using and seamlessly putting them in my pocket. I could check my Gmail on my old Diamond, but it was pull not push and didn’t support HTML; now it is easier to use my phone than it is my PC.

Apps are purchased through Google Checkout with a 24 hour refund policy, so rather than enforcing heavy restrictions on the apps available as with iTunes, users can try and review apps without cost for 24 hours.

Widgets

Android has a desktop like space which you can customise with widgets, which means you don’t need to launch applications to get to useful information, such as your appointments, photos or if your train is on time.

HTC and Android

HTC have a history of taking off the rough edges of the OS interface with HTC Sense. This made my old HTC Diamond very usable and it hid a myriad of Microsoft’s sins behind smooth animation and gradient interface menus. With Android this work isn’t needed, allowing them to concentrate of creating some great looking apps and widgets; that means your phone is ready to run straight from the box, no need to go hunting through the Marketplace for Facebook or Twitter apps, just sync and go.

Development

Fragmentation has always made mobile development difficult and while neither platform is particularly easy to develop for, Apple have recently taken the step of excluding apps that have been compiled from Flash, which could reduce the number of developers with the necessary skills to create apps. Android is Open Source and Java based as opposed to Apple’s Objective C, and there is an increasing market of tools to help compile for your desired OS. Apple no longer has the largest market share, although the expected release in June of a new handset will most likely boost iPhone sales again.

The cost of submitting an app is considerably cheaper for Marketplace than it is any other platform, and the volume of apps is increasing as the Android adoption grows.

Handsets and Networks

Apple has at last allowed networks other than O2 sell the iPhone, but the hardware doesn’t change until Apple release new version. Android is available on many different handsets, so you can pick one that best suits your specific needs. HTC are constantly developing new handsets so you can always get the most cutting edge technology on the market.

Pivot – interesting data navigation from Microsoft Labs.

Pivot is a tool for browsing large collections of data, such as Wikipedia, and really shows the value of a good API and semantic data.

It contains a filtering system on the left to help you dig into and out of the data, combined with a smooth zoom interface as we’ve seen implemented before in Seadragon and Photosynth and some very familiar browser elements such as tabs, most visited history on your homepage and bookmarking. It offers a very visual way of interacting with large data catalogues, such as movie databases or games catalogues, through film posters and game covers, something that I really love.

You can see Gary Flake demonstrating Pivot at the TED conference in Feburary here:

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The interface is lovely and it does open up new ways of interacting with these large data sets, but there does seem like some work has been done to prepare the data for use in Pivot, to make it more visual, such as the very way the different endangered species are shown, or the Wikipedia categories are visualised. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean if the data isn’t already visual as with films or games then there is an interesting piece of design work to be done to take full advantage of this browser. I’d love IMDB to get an API as this would be an amazing way to navigate their site.

While I instantly enjoy the visual navigation style, this is still far from replacing my usual browser, because while it allows me to interrogate the data in new ways, I am not sure I would use this new way of examining data for the current sets available, after all I tend to dip into these data heavy sites only when I have a specific query on something, where searching is much more appropriate than browsing. While I do think that the way we search and find data will change dramatically I think this sort of interface could really come into it’s own on the sites I tend to browse, such as Amazon or Facebook and I think it could offer a really interesting dimension to Twitter.

Project Natal

Project Natal was announced by Microsoft at E3 as new interface peripheral for the Xbox 360, which removes the need for a joypad, instead body movement, facial recognition and voice are used for interaction.

We have seen similar innovations with the EyeToy for the PS2 and the notion detection in the Wii, but both have severe limitations. The EyeToy is a single lens camera, so it is easily affected by lighting and background, while the motion detection in the Wii is built into the joypad and has limited capabilities by default.

The demo shown at E3 is jaw dropping, showing seemingly natural interaction with a character called Milo, but anyone with any experience of Microsoft demos treats them with appropriate levels of scepticism. Since they haven’t beaten the Turing test there is certainly some smoke and mirrors going on, in the words of Milo’s creator Peter Molyneux “If we had, then applying it to a computer game would be the last of the solutions we’d use it for.”

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Other demos include a painting application and a dodgeball style game. They are relatively low tech examples but the dodgeball game has been demonstrated with journalists and celebrities, and has appeared to withstand their scrutiny. Interestingly Endgadget’s demo turned the lights down to see if it can cope with different lighting, and it had no problems.

Although shy on the details Microsoft have said it contains an RBG camera, an infrared camera, a multi-array microphone and a depth map. New Scientist among others suggested it is using the infrared camera technology by 3DV, an Israeli company that Microsoft purchased. This heat detection allows it to maintain a level of functionality regardless of light sources or obstacles.

Project Natal claims to have facial recognition and voice recognition, but we’ve only really seen this in the Milo demonstration, which could have been entirely scripted. So the extent of this capability is still not fully understood, although the voice recognition is based on Windows 7 functionality.

While Natal does recognise actions sitting down, a notable thing from the demos is the space of the room they were demoing in. When you use your whole body as a controller you need enough space to do so. A bit like Wii Fit, removing the traditional controller can pose logistical problems for the smaller household; for me my living room becomes more like an obstacle course.

Paradoxically playing a game with your body rather than your thumbs can be both more intuitive and harder work. I am old enough that can still remember my initial awkwardness interacting with a computer mouse or a console joypad, even though it seems like second nature now. However this hurdle is removed by Natal, making gaming and potentially all human-computer interaction much more accessible and intuitively responsive to an even wider audience, although it lacks the feedback a physical peripheral affords.

If I sat playing Burnout as it has been demonstrated with Natal my arms would ache after a while. But one thing I do know from marathon Guitar Hero sessions is that I will play through most aches for the right game. Interestingly a great many of the games we play allow us to explore far beyond our own physical limitations, so I wonder where the disparity is between simulation and escapism and what we desire from our gaming experience.

I don’t think we will be getting rid of the joystick anytime soon, but this definitely opens the door to new kinds of games and game play that we haven’t seen before. Its greatest potential is in the creative and imaginative hands of games and software designers everywhere.

Google Wave

I loved the Google Wave demo, but probably for all the wrong reasons. I loved the fact that it was an honest demo, ok so that means it breaks, but I prefer to forgive a few bumps in the demo than see canned demos that are so slick I'm left wondering if it was all faked up.

Google Wave made a lot of noise when the demo video was released, and understandably, anyone with an ounce of geek in them keeps an eye on what the big guys are up to. I love how Chrome has changed the way I browse the web and I'm interested to see how Wave might change behaviours too.

For the most part Google Wave, while technically a huge accomplishment, is really the next generation of the web (whatever we might call it), it is a natural evolution from where we are now.

I like the concept of simultaneous conversations; I’ll often have at least two concurrent conversations with an individual via instant messaging, and being able to thread that could be really useful. However I can imagine not wanting to share everything I type straight away. I find the thinking time typing allows me to be really useful. Interestingly I might not turn off the functionality – and give the game away – but rather think more before I type. Typing becomes more transparent like talking, but still lacks the other sensory cues we use in communication.

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I’m interested in the concept of collaborative working, with multiple people working on the same document at the same time. I can’t think of another example where people could work so dynamically together in a virtual space. However this level of collaborative working raises its own issues. The goal of any collaboration needs to be clear for it to be effective, but this is even more so when working in the context of Google Wave.

Enabling sharing of photos, media and information is a fundamental part of how we interact online. Wave seemed to offer some some nice tweaks to improve this experience. But the demo didn’t really explore for me the relationships between the people that are interacting. Are they all already established contacts that are part of your network? How to you grow your network? It maybe that you don’t, that you just use existing networks such as Facebook and Twitter and consolidate them in Wave, but for such an application that is fundamentally social it would be odd to not support a means of growing your network in a more direct fashion.

Overall Google Wave looks very impressive; it has certainly broken some technical barriers and shown us what the next step for the internet holds for us. But for the most part it is an evolution, rather than a paradigm shift. Although I imagine it will change the way we collaborate online and our expectation around web interactivity and responsiveness.

Girl Geek Dinners is relaunched in Nottingham

At last the ball is rolling…

I'm really excited that at last I have managed to get the ball rolling and Girl Geek Dinners are back up and running in Nottingham. I have to say a massive and huge thank you to everyone who has been really supportive. I've never run an event like this before, but what I lack in experience I make up for in enthusiasm and a willingness to ask questions.

If you want to be kept up to date about these events then either email me or follow @NottsGirlGeeks on Twitter.

Ada Lovelace Day: Molly E. Holzschlag

If you are reading this then you are probably already aware of Ada Lovelace Day, but just in case; it is a day dedicated to blogging about women we admire in technology:

I'm choosing to write about Molly E. Holzschlag, and why I admire her. (Disclaimer: fangirl moments are therefore to be expected).

Molly Holzschlag

I've been working with the web for all of my professional career and it became very clear, very quickly that web standards were fundamental in making writing code easier, while more importantly being necessary to create an open and accessible web that was capable of what we hoped and imagined it could do. Although she doesn't know it Molly has been with me every step of my journey, writing about best practice and web standards, shaping the way I and many others work. I started way back with a HTML and CSS textbook and A List Apart and WaSP.

Molly was leader of WaSP (Web Standards Project) from early 2004 through to the end of 2006 and in that time drove real change by recognising that it is not enough to be evangelical about your subject, you need to make connections with and influence those that create the tools and the code inorder to affect the change you want. She helped build relations with Macromedia to influence the tool that web designers were using, and connections with Microsoft to help improve the browser that most people were using. Coming from a history of hacking Dreamweaver to try and force it to write valid XHTML while struggling with browser inconsistencies, it was good to know someone was talking to these corporate giants and refusing to be ignored.

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In 2007 Molly worked with Microsoft to help try and improve web standards support in IE, which filled me with hope despite the mammoth task; anyone who has worked in a large organisation will know they are difficult beasts to change. But she was never afraid to ask the awkward questions even to the man at the top: http://molly.com/2006/12/14/who-questions-bill-gates-commitment-to-web-standards/

Last month she moved to Opera, which I can only imagine to be a complete change and I look forward to seeing what work comes out from that, when she can achieve so much in the face of such adversity I really have to wonder what might be done in a company that offers support for those ideals.

However the reason I admire Molly goes beyond her hard work with web standards, it is also about her ability to build connections; her openess and honesty that comes across online. She doesn't fall into the traps of just code samples (although these have their place), single-minded ranting or blindly insisting that everything worked well, but has an ability to see the bigger picture and to enlighten us in such a way that motivates us to join her in trying to make the web better. Thanks Molly.

But Molly isn't the only woman I admire working in technology although she may be among the most renowned, so I'd like to take this chance to give a bit of recognition to a few others as well:

  • Beatriz Stollnitz (nee Costa) – Part of Microsoft's WPF team, and the go to gal on Databinding. Also a lovely person who was kind enough to let me pick her brainss at TechEd 2006.
  • Sarah Blow – Founder of Girl Geek Dinners and developer. Has always been supportive and helpful in my quest to get Girl Geek Dinners in Nottingham up and running again.
  • Leah Culver – developer at Six Apart, but one of the few female technical speakers I've seen at a conference, thanks in part to her work on Pownce with Kevin Rose.
  • Jo Stray – I've worked with Jo for sometime now and her indepth understanding of usability has been a great guiding compass for me.
  • Susan Hallam – A fountain of knowledge about all things SEO.
  • Aleks Krotoski – Games journalist at the Guardian, but it was her work on Bits many moons ago that had the most impact on me personally, as I realised that girl gamers were more prolific than I knew and they were smart and entertaining too.
  • Jemima Kiss – Tech and media journalist at the Guardian and prolific twitterer, she has an understanding of the web and an ability to write about it coherently and convincingly.
  • Nichola Musgrove – The first designer I worked with, when I was just starting out, she was a great mentor.
  • Amanda Gaynor – One of the few women developers I've had the priveledge of working with. Her enthusasm for her subject and her compassion make me honoured to also have her as a friend.
  • Alice Taylor – By day she is the Commissioning Editor for Education at Channel 4, but I have followed Alice more for her fellow game girl status and her ability to blog about the way gaming influences a wider culture, especially crafty gamers. It might be niche, but it's my niche.
  • Leisa Reichelt – I first heard Leisa talk at FOWA about ambient intimacy which beautifully described the changing way in which we interact, but more than that her work and approach have informed my own, especially in regards to her enthusiasm for agile user centred design.
  • Danah Boyd – Writes about the social side of the web, particularly in regards to teenagers. Some very interesting and well informed writing.
  • Emma Jane – The woman to speak to about anything front end Drupal based.
  • Jean Baird – A photgrapher, but single-handedly responsible for getting me interested in semantics, back in 1999, way before I'd even heard of the Semantic Web.

Create your own Photosynth

Microsoft have released a demo of Photosynth that allows you to create your own experiences. It still only works in Internet Explorer and requires a plugin to view. But I've been waiting for ages to have a play with this technology. It is amazingly simple to use, you just add a selection of photos of your subject and you are away, there is no labourious stitching of photographs required, it works out where they all fit in the scene.

I decided for my subject I'd take the popular Flickr topic of photographing your workspace. I've always felt my desk is a bit of an adventure (mess) and one simple photograph could never allow you explore its landscape in the same way I do. So I've made a photosynth of my desk here:

Photos are so much easier to take and store, they are on almost all mobile phones and services such as TwitterPic and Flickr show how taking photographs has become a normal way to document any event. When there is such a rich source of information, new ways of using and exploring this data is really interesting. If we think about how Google have recently had cars driving around the UK to map the streets for Google Maps, this effort and expense could be made redundant through the power of crowd-sourcing the photographs/data and applying a technology such as Photosynth. While Google just captures that street at that single point in time, this technology could also allow you to manipulate the time you are viewing that moment at. For instance if we take a popular tourist spot like St Paul's Cathedral, this has been photographed millions of times, so you could choose to not only experience it from a contemporary set of photographs but also using historic data, to experience the view in the 1920's for example.

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.