Monthly Archives: January 2015

Learning to Use Inbox

I’ve been trying to use Google’s Inbox for the last few days, without much luck. It’s kind of a similar situation to Mailbox, a few months back.

I’m really on board with the idea of reimagining email, though. My conclusion at this point is that the design of this rather similar apps is that they just don’t work well for me.

The thing is, to really make use of either of them to their full ability, I have to go into Gmail and turn off all the filters that automatically sort most of my messages into folders and bypass the inbox. I also need to think about a new model of handling the “to do” emails. I don’t typically think of my personal* emails as “do now” or “do in a week.” Mostly, they are “do this as soon as you have the energy to do it,” which means that my emails stick around in the inbox or relevant folder, marked unread, until I can handle them. Also, in the past year I really started using Evernote for many things, including keeping track of tasks. I hesitate to open up another source of to-dos.

The ability to make email disappear until I’m ready to handle them sounds really cool, but it’s just not the way I’ve worked – I generally don’t have specific dates where I think I can deal with them.

The bundling capability in Inbox also looks pretty cool but, again, I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on my email through heavy use of folders (or labels, if you will).

What I really want to do is try out Inbox for my work email. That’s where I always have emails that I want to follow up with at specific times and have a continuous stream of topics where I can’t really predict how I’ll want to support them. Maybe one day.

*As it turns out, “personal” actually means “personal-for-fun and personal-for-all-professional-activities-outside-my-job.”

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.