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Gettin’ Higgy wit It

Human interface guidelines go far beyond the idea of a simple visual style sheet — “Buttons should have X units of padding” or “Window title bars should be dark gray” — and provide a comprehensive framework for developing consistent and enjoyable user interfaces. As my interest grew in the overall user experience, I dove into the HIGs for the major desktop environments: Mac OS X, Windows, GNOME[1], and KDE. The level of thoroughness and strictness of each HIG roughly mirrored my layman’s opinion of each environment, though there were some surprises.

Mac OS X

Far and away the most useful HIG in my opinion. Sure, Apple has been known to deviate from their own HIG (sometimes in baffling, trivial, or confusing ways), but the baseline from which they work is much clearer in both explicit specifics and its implied intentions.

Of particular interest to me were the menu guidelines, for both the menu bar and contextual menus. I was working on improving both menu types in a major product for the company I was working for at the time, and Apple’s HIG provided clear guidelines on how to standardize the common elements and rationale for managing custom elements. One thing which sets Apple’s HIG out from the pack is that it doesn’t shy away from explicitly telling you not to do something (contrast with the Windows HIG, below).

OS X Lion’s bothersome tendency towards skeuomorphic nonsense notwithstanding, Apple is unsurprisingly the leader when it comes to defining the user experience of their platform.

Windows

The Windows HIG is expansive, but it suffers from the platform’s long history of allowing a myriad of ways to accomplish any given task. The ability to say no is an important quality of any editor, and the strength of the Windows HIG is sometimes diluted by allowing similar widgets which operate in subtly different ways. If developers don’t have a clear directive of which widgets to use for a given situation, it stands to reason that most users won’t grok the differences in behavior when one developer chooses A and another chooses B.

I’ll be interested to see what the Windows 8 HIG looks like, as the Metro UI will require a tighter rein to maintain a consistent experience.

GNOME

Having only using Linux in general and GNOME in particular sporadically at best, GNOME’s HIG turned out to be a good deal more thorough than I expected. Concise guidelines for most standard uses were provided, and importantly, explanatory text was included to help define the rationale. This supporting text helps to inform decisions when a situation is encountered that is not explicitly covered by the HIG.

As one might expect the GNOME HIG is not as comprehensive as the Mac OS X HIG (or as restrictive, some might say), but it does show that a collaborative project can execute a clear vision.

KDE

I have had the least hands-on experience with KDE. Working primarily from a vantage point of the stereotype that KDE appeals to the most devoted hackers and tweakers, I found the KDE HIG to mostly reinforce that view. In contrast with the GNOME HIG, which gave me a real sense of the GNOME design approach, the KDE HIG was an incomplete collection of loose guidelines. That’s not to say anything directly about the KDE environment itself, but the HIG didn’t paint a very clear picture. One might infer that a lack of clearly defined guidelines would manifest itself in the end user’s experience, but I’d have to demur on that point out of personal inexperience with KDE.

Beyond

Evaluating these HIGs individually and collectively was an enlightening exercise. Not only did it sharpen the focus of each platform, but seeing where there was (and wasn’t) common ground between the HIGs provided a universal de facto desktop standard of sorts.

HIGs are also available for each of the major mobile platforms — iOS, Android, and Windows Phone 7[2]. The design choices outlined in each provide a look into both current and future mobile development, and as OS X Lion and Windows 8 are demonstrating, possibly the future of the desktop as well.

  1. This was prior to GNOME 3.0. I’m looking forward to exploring both GNOME 3.0 and Unity when I get the time, and I plan on posting after my first hands-on experiences with them.
  2. webOS also has a HIG, which could be an interesting read, but perhaps of muted practical relevance.
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UX in PDX

After receiving a tip to check Calagator (calendar + aggregator) for tech-related events in the Portland area, I decided to attend the October meeting of CHIFOO (pronounced “ky – FOO”), the Computer-Human Interaction Forum of Oregon.

First on the agenda was the “CHIFOOd” meet-up at a pub[1] for some food, drinks, and discussion, which proved to be a good introduction for a newcomer like myself. The speaker for the night’s event (who I arbitrarily sat down next to before realizing who he was) proved to be as approachable and talkative as anyone else there. And perhaps fitting for a meeting of people who explore the human side of computer interaction, it was there that I first heard that Steve Jobs had died that day.

After polishing off some sliders and pints[2], it was time to amble over a few blocks to the main event. Thomas Tullis presented a program titled, “Why It’s Time to Move Beyond the Usability Lab,” which discussed a number of engaging examples of how and why to explore options beyond the traditional methods. In addition to keeping the floor open for quick questions during his presentation, several times during the program all in attendance were able to participate in live polls via text messaging. (I did acquiesce and buy a cheap-o burner mobile phone before embarking on our cross-country drive. I had the phone on me that night and abstained from voting in the first poll, but eventually gave in for the second and subsequent polls. Damn you, snakes!)

All in all, a very interesting program and a group whose meetings I’m sure I’ll be attending more of in the future.

  1. In spite of (because of?) Calagator’s technology focus, “beer” is one of the most prominent entries in the site’s cloud tag.
  2. This pub in particular offers the choice of US or Imperial pints. I was tempted to ask for metric, but ultimately restrained myself.

Self-checkout lanes are checking out

It turns out that my avoidance of self-checkout lanes at supermarkets wasn’t just a demonstration of my personal tendency to be a stubborn old curmudgeon: major chains like Albertson’s and Big Y are phasing them out in favor of standard service lanes (Boston.com, Consumerist.com).

Of the many things I have principled objections to, using automated tools isn’t one of them — my use of ATMs vs human bank tellers is easily 20:1 in favor of robots, for example[1]. But tools have to fit the job, work well, and most importantly, offer a noticeable benefit to the end user. Self-checkout lanes at supermarkets, in my experience, offered fewer advantages than they did drawbacks. Though there was a chance of enabling a speedier exit from the store, it was more likely that I would encounter a computer barking at me that there was or wasn’t some expected item in the bagging area, an item or coupon that couldn’t be scanned, or some other unspecified failure which required a manager’s attention.

These problems highlight how important it is to consider the overall user experience. Automation may be alluring to a business looking to shave costs, but when its effect on customer satisfaction is considered, the total cost of ownership may be much higher than expected. (Not to mention some of the other concerns mentioned in the linked articles, such as intentional and unintentional theft.) Sometimes a new technology just isn’t better than its predecessor.

  1. ATMs are often finicky and have a slew of minor usability issues of their own, but nonetheless generally earn a passing grade. I’ll be signing up for a new bank soon, so mayhap a future post will chronicle my first attempt to bumble through an ATM system I’ve never used before.

Three reasons

Of the many and varied reasons to tell Facebook to take a flying leap, three stand out to me.

  1. There is an inherent duplicity in providing a service that purports to be about facilitating communication, but in reality exists primarily to serve as many eyeballs as possible to advertisers. While there can be some value in such a service (though the long-term benefits are dubious; see #2), without honesty it’s ethically bankrupt. Tape Op magazine is an example of how to handle both needs with respect: you can subscribe for free on the condition that your name will occasionally be sold to relevant advertisers, or you can pony up with cash. With both options, you know exactly where you stand, what you’re getting, what you’re paying with, and who benefits financially.
  2. It can be easy to dismiss concerns about the future of technology as the missives of technophile pedants. But it ought to give one pause to think that, with many touting Facebook as the next generation of electronic communication, we’re collectively granting a single, for-profit corporation carte blanche to set the course.
  3. Sitting with a glass of Scotch at a typewriter: classy. Doing the same while mucking about on Facebook: sad.

A workable digital distribution model

The first mp3 I ever received was given to me by a friend that I had known for years, who lived just down the street from me. By “given” I mean:

  • downloaded for me (he had the internet at the time, whereas I would not be so lucky for another year or so),
  • put on a 3.5″ floppy disk
  • walked over to my house, and
  • handed to me.

The file — “Castaways”, by Common Rider — was then copied to my massive 1.1 GB hard drive, along with some piece of software or another that could play mp3s (which I was lacking at the time).

Fast forward ten years or so: while cleaning out assorted technological detritus at my company’s office, I came across an unopened box of 500 floppy disks destined for the trash. The combined storage capacity of the entire box is less than my 1st-gen iPod shuffle, not to mention the 100:1 floppies-to-iPod weight ratio.

Even without succumbing to pointless nostalgia (well, OK, just a little), there’s a certain appeal to the floppy as a means of digital media distribution, at least among friends:

  • Its limited size forces you to be judicious about what you share. It’s easy to hook up someone’s FireWire drive and copy hundreds of gigs of files, but there’s no discernment between the good stuff and the filler.
  • It makes you more conscious about your choice. You put more time into crafting exactly what you want to say when you sit down to write a letter than you do when you type out a quick e-mail.
  • Pandora and other robot music suggestions are great, but nothing beats a hand-picked track by a good friend.
  • CDs can be unreadable after one scratch, but a flopppy still functions after throwing it across the room or spilling Hawaiian Punch on it.
  • An unlabelled floppy has a certain mysterious intrigue to it.

But then again, I recently sent someone a telegram, so what does that tell you …

Cut & paste

I’m not usually one for Internet memes, but I saw a pretty good one on The Bored:

  1. Go to Wikipedia and click random page. First page is your band’s name.
  2. Go to Wikiquote and use the last 3-6 words of the first random quote as your album name.
  3. Go to Flickr and go to the last 7 days. The 5th picture is now your album art.
  4. Photoshop everything together.

Numbers! Charts! Tables!

Two informative charts: 

  1. How Sweet Is It?: Calories, Grams of Sugar, and Teaspoons of Sugar in 12 Ounces of Each Beverage (PDF, via Diluting America’s sweet tooth, one drink at a time)
  2. Current WHO phase of pandemic alert

Bonus: Not a chart, but still key.