Learning to Use a Mouse

Late last year, I was involved in usability testing and encountered something I did not expect to find. Multiple participants were completely defeated by Apple’s Magic Mouse.

Specifically, they couldn’t figure out how to scroll. This problem was compounded by the way that scrollbars vanish by default in more recent versions of OSX. To top it off, the default scroll direction recently reversed in OSX, meaning that even if these participants learned how to use the Magic Mouse, they kept scrolling the wrong way.

I didn’t expect to be helping participants learn how to use a mouse in 2014. Twenty years ago, usability texts discussed how you might find test participants that don’t have computer experience (meaning you might have to train them) and of course the older someone is, the more likely it is that they’re not experienced with computers. And I’m just coming at it from the perspective of usability testing in the USA—of course there are places in the world where people don’t use a mouse.

But we were working with American college students, and Apple made them feel stupid. I like the Magic Mouse, overall. Having the scrollbars vanish doesn’t affect my workflow. And I spent a couple of days training myself to use the new scrolling direction. For someone used to Windows or older versions of Apple’s computers, or someone that just uses a laptop all the time, walking in off the street and trying to use this lab setup was challenging and distracted them from the test tasks.

I’m not sure what to do about it yet. I’m not ready to say that we need to screen people or offer a short training session. I did go back and change the scroll direction, restore the scrollbars to always displaying, and get another mouse with a scroll wheel. Doing these things solved the immediate problem, but I’m just not sure what the long-term implications are.

About About Face 4.0

I got a copy of the fourth edition of About Face for Christmas because obviously that’s the kind of gift that I would appreciate. I read the second edition almost ten years ago and it’s a book that stuck with me over the years.

The thing I valued most when I read that book was that it altered the way I thought about design problems. The example I always reach for is the extended riff on the ubiquitous “Save” button you find in things like Word. It’s a button that you have to click (or a menu command you must choose) to commit any changes you make to the computer’s permanent memory. Sure, there is auto-save functionality but even in 2015, it is… not quite satisfactory.

Cooper argued that this is a button that shouldn’t even exist in the first place. Why doesn’t our software simply remember everything we did? It should save everything as we go. If we make mistakes, it can be corrected by also having extremely effective “Undo” functionality.

The key idea here isn’t to design a better “Save” button. The better design is nothing at all. The idea that sometimes it’s better to design nothing at all has stuck with me over the years. I’m pleased that the core of this idea, saving everything as you go, has been incorporated into more tools (though notably still not Word).

Practical Skills and Built-in Knowledge

Years back, I joined Tim Keirnan for his Design Critique podcast to talk about shaving technology. Learning about the evolution of the straight razor, safety razor, and finally the cartridge and electric razors that most people use now was what kickstarted my interest in the ways that we build knowledge into our artifacts.

When you use a straight razor—that is, a very sharp knife—you must take care of the blade, keep it honed, and hold it at a precise angle and move it in specific ways. Without the knowledge of how to use the razor, you have a suboptimal experience.

The safety razor has a lot of this knowledge built into it. It’s built to hold the blade at the right angle. Rather than maintaining the edge of the blade, the blades come sharp and are discarded once blunted.

As our artifacts become more advanced, we build more knowledge into them. More people are capable of doing more because of the spread of the knowledge. We lose the need to learn as many skills, though, and to understand the way our devices really work. Overall, I think we’re better off, but it’s interesting to keep in mind what we lose.

An outline of the history of Southeast Michigan UX

I want to research and write a history of the user experience field in Southeast Michigan. I think the heart of this effort will be, unsurprisingly, research. Other than poking around in organizations’ websites, I think the heart of this research effort will be interviewing people that were involved in our history.

I’ve been thinking a bit about how to organize the history when I sit down and writing. Obviously, this is all subject to change as I learn more, but roughly, here’s what I think:

  1. The early days of Southeast Michigan UX – TecEd and the auto industry (maybe all of time before 1996?)
  2. The time period when the University of Michigan School of Information is reorganized to include the Human-Computer Interaction discipline and the invention of the information science flavored Information Architecture (1996 – 2003ish)
  3. The era of active chapters of UPA and CHI and other organizations like IXDA and UX Network, and the growth of more academic programs in the area at WCC and MSU (2003-2010ish… I’m not sure where exactly to put the boundaries of this time period, and there may be enough going on here that it’s worth cutting up further)
  4. A flowering of new organizations, while older chapters diminish (2010 – today)

That third part in particular has a lot going on, so it’s ripe for subdivision. It’s also worth noting that this division is chronological, but it may make more sense to slice up the material by themes or to follow particular threads. My concern is that simply covering everything year by year would just result in a jumbled-up timeline.

A Brief History of UX in Southeast Michigan

How did the user experience community in Southeast Michigan get to where it is today? At the UXPA/CHI/STC holiday mixer a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded again of just how much information about our history exists in people’s heads and nowhere else.

This isn’t news, and I’m not the first person to think of it by far. There’s certainly recognition out there that the founding figures in HCI aren’t going to live forever, and if we want to preserve any of our field’s history, we’d better start writing it down.

Indeed, writing about history from the past twenty years or so presents some interesting challenges that history from previous times did not—much of our correspondence has moved to email. I imagine that in the future where storage is cheap and the Internet never forgets, historians will drown in the amount of electronic correspondence available to them (emails, tweets, and the like). However, years and years of my own digital communications are completely lost, and I suspect I’m not the only one. There’s a time period—say, the 90s and 00s—where our emails were much more ephemeral than today.

That’s a problem for historians working in the future, though. My immediate problem is that there are a lot of living people with knowledge in their heads rather than knowledge that’s written down. I don’t want to write a comprehensive history of HCI, though that would be fascinating to read. I don’t even think I could cover all of Michigan. Southeast Michigan alone is interesting enough.

After all, this is the region that produced TecEd, a respected user research company, an early iSchool in the form of the University of Michigan School of Information, and the place where information architecture was born one of the two times it was born. This area has seen chapters of the UXPA and ACM SIGCHI rise and decline, and an explosion of independent groups. I want to get out there and interview the people that were around for these events.

I don’t know exactly what I will write, where I will write, or how long it will be, but the more I think about it, the more I want to do this.

2012 was the year of the analytics book. 2015 will be the year of the history project.

Watching Doctor Who Legally

As I write this, it’s Friday, November 7, 2014. The season/series finale of the 8th season/series of Doctor Who is tomorrow. Or, rather, it’s a couple of days away. I’ll be watching it on Sunday morning after downloading it from iTunes.

This will be the third year in a row that I’ve watched Doctor Who through legal means. I haven’t had cable in a long time, and for a few years, I found ways to watch the show as it aired rather than waiting for it to come out on DVD. I realized, as many people do, that I would gladly pay for a hassle-free way to watch this (and other) shows.

Just to be clear: Waiting until Sunday morning to watch this show on iTunes or Amazon sucks. In the case of Amazon, it really sucked this year, because their season pass was going to force me to pay an unknown price for not just the actual episodes, but also for all the bonus materials. Still, I’m on board with paying for something I want to watch and having a frictionless method to get it.

That’s the same reason I pay for Spotify and why I’ve bought old games on Steam that I’ve already owned on CD-ROM and why the thought of being able to subscribe to HBO GO intrigues me.

As this post gets published, it won’t be long before the Christmas special, and I have to solve the problem of how to watch it all over again. Convenience matters. Convenience sells.

The Inscrutable Google Docs Plus Button

Google DocsI find the aesthetics of Google’s Material design attractive (even if it’s not my favorite thing ever), but it takes some getting used to. What really caught me recently was the “make a new document” button in Google Docs.

When it comes down to it, it’s not the symbol itself that’s a big problem—I can make sense of a plus sign as something that adds another doc.

Mostly, it’s the placement of that button that gets me. The last iteration of Google Docs put the button in the upper left corner. With the redesign, it migrated to the opposite corner, so that was one change that threw me off.

Another part is that the button changed from a notice-grabbing, contrast-ey red to the same blue that everything else in the interface is. I guess they’re relying the contrast of blue against grey rather than a nice red that pops out of the page as a whole.

Lastly, Google changed from a text label to a plus sign. The plus sign makes enough sense when you think about it (although, as an aside, I’m skeptical of just using symbols rather than labels). Without the color and sensical placement of the button, though, there was no reason for me to think about what the plus sign meant. It wasn’t even that I found the button confusing—I simply didn’t think about it until I realized I didn’t know how to create a new document.

Does UX Need Professional Organizations?

Does the user experience field need professional organizations? I’m not sure.

I put a lot of time into my local UXPA chapter (back when it was just the UPA), and more recently I’ve worked with the international UXPA. I did so to help myself network, but also because I take professional development pretty seriously. Of course, there was also an element of doing good for my local community. in the 2000s, Southeast Michigan had a vibrant and highly active UXPA chapter that put on 6-10 meetings per year and participated in local conferences.

As I write this, I’m getting ready to go to a holiday mixer organized by the local UXPA, ACM SIGCHI, and STC chapters. It’s an informal event, in that it consists of showing up and trying to take over part of a bar, and one thing I look forward to is talking to some of the other locals who have been or who are active in our local professional scene.

I expect the major topic to be the same problem that we’ve had to address for the last few years: What the heck are we doing?

Our CHI and UXPA chapters can’t find officers. Without officers, there aren’t enough people to plan events, which usually involves soliciting speakers, finding venues, and figuring out how to provide food. Our local chapters are solely funded by registration fees for events, so without putting on events, there’s no income, making it harder and riskier to plan further events.

It could be that the world has moved on and there simply isn’t as much of a need for the old organizations, with their concept of membership and formal titles. A key feature of Michigan’s UX professional scene is that the UXPA and CHI chapters covered the entire state, which consists of multiple clusters of UX people living and working at least an hour’s drive away from each other. It could be the case that it’s easier in 2014 to get UX-related training and to meet your neighborhood colleagues without spending a couple of hours on the road. It could be the case that there are more readily available infrastructures for organizing your own events, like Facebook and Meetup, than there were 10 years ago.

Given these factors—and note, these are just the ones I could think of on the spot—it could be the case that there just isn’t a need for formal organizations anymore, and that UX professionals will find ways to get together. Speaking as the co-chair of Ignite UX Michigan for the last two years, it would have been practically impossible to organize that event without the infrastructure of the UXPA and CHI chapters. They have large mailing lists built up over several years, and they have bank accounts—something that’s super helpful once you get into the world of sponsors and having assets owned by an organization rather than an individual.

It seems like at any given time, there are only so many people in the world with both the energy and the time to take on volunteer work with existing organizations or founding their own or just doing their own thing to organize professional activities. Over the last few years, those people haven’t been involved in our legacy organizations, but they’ve been busy nonetheless. Lately, Michigan has seen more localized groups and a mixture of formal and informal meetings.

I suppose I come down on the side of “these institutions are worth saving.” I’m sure that at least part of the reason is that I have invested my own time into the local UXPA chapter, but I also know that formal institutions offer remarkably useful infrastructures for building large and sustainable events and, through volunteering to help plan events, an opportunity for those who find networking painful and false to do so in a structured and slightly-less-painful way.

Software and hardware, mind and body

When we designed software or websites for desktop computers, it was easy to think about the user interface in isolation from the hardware the user would actually use. When smart phones broke out into the scene, we were (once again) reminded that the software user interfaces we design exist in physical devices that allow us to interact with the software.

The software is the mind or spirit, and the hardware is the body. When you think about them in isolation, you miss the emergent properties of the whole. As it is with humans, so it is with our digital devices.

As a user experience designer (or whatever the job titles happens to be), it’s all too easy to focus on the spiritual side of the device. This makes sense, because for practical purposes, most of us don’t influence the hardware side. But our software or websites do exist in glass, metal, and plastic bodies and I imagine we will want to be more mindful of this in the years ahead.

How Smart Should a TV Be?

An article on the Verge last week got me thinking. “Bring back the dumb TV” argues that the apps in TVs will always be worse than the experiences you’ll have using external devices that plug into a TV, and that the optimal TV is just a collection of inputs.

And… yeah, I can see the point. When I look at the apps I use in my TV, there’s the painful Amazon app, the painful YouTube app, and the completely adequate Netflix app.

One huge problem is the lack of keyboard. Typing by using a d-pad to navigate around a QWERTY keyboard on the screen is a bad, bad experience. From that perspective, the YouTube app got a whole lot better once I connected it to my iPhone and iPad, and used those devices to select videos.

If I could do that with Amazon, it would get a whole lot better, but the pain points in the Amazon app—all of their complete misjudgments about how people would watch TV shows—is a whole other blog post.

Then I consider the Netflix app. It doesn’t wow me, but it works okay and most importantly, it has been noticeably updated during the time I’ve had the TV. If apps that are installed on my TV can improve, then there’s no excuse for not improving them.

To get, at last, to the point of that Verge article: I like not having a bunch of stuff plugged into my TV. I don’t want to keep buying new stuff and accumulating more devices. Planned obsolescence is deeply uncomfortable. I like being able to use the same remote control to operate my TV and all of the services I use to watch content on the TV (although if I already have the iPhone, it’s nice to use that, too).

On the other hand, while software can be upgraded, the hardware is not getting any newer. Theoretically, there could come a day when my TV is not up to the task of using things like Amazon or Netflix. Also, to the best of my knowledge, I can’t go out an install new apps for new services. When the Amazon/Netflix/Hulu-killer comes out, I’m kind of out of luck.

It’s hard to say what I’ll want some number of years in the hypothetical future. For now, though, I’m pretty satisfied with my smart TV, all things considered.