Category Archives: Human Interface

Some of What I’ve Been Up to Lately…

Back in 2010, I made the decision to restart the user experience consultancy portion of Human Computing (www.humancomputing.com). As such, I stepped back from my role running the ComicBase portion of the business, and have been focused on designing new products for some very cool clients in the enterprise, mobile, and consumer electronics spaces.


One of our largest clients this past year has been TiVo, the folks who brought us both the DVR and the ridiculously cute corporate trademark.

I’ve just completed a long contract there, which–among other challenges–saw me helping design their next generation of high-end DVRs and streaming video boxes. This was a terrific project which I was lucky enough to see through end-to-end. On it, I got to do everything from sawing apart old circuit boards and visiting Radio Shack in the middle of the night to assemble testing prototypes… to doing screen design… setting up user studies… and even working with an exceptionally clever engineer to figure out how to get the box installed (and the cable guy back on his way) in a third of the time it used to require.

Best of all, I got to meet and work with some amazingly smart folks both on the user experience team and throughout the company. I may even sign on more adventures there next year, but for now I’m very happy to be back in my robot-strewn office at Human Computing helping put the final touches on the much-anticipated (and slightly overdue) ComicBase 16–and looking forward to a terrific Christmas with my family.

Hey! We Made That!

Almost a year ago, I got brought in to help design the new Verizon VCast Messaging client for Android. Now at last, the finished product is finally out in the world (and out of non-disclosure!)

Much like a movie, the final cut of the product morphed a little from the original design, but the fundamentals seem to have made it to the marketplace intact. Kudos to our visual designer, Mark Castaneda.

Engadget even linked to this rather nice preview (from Droid Life):

http://www.droid-life.com/2011/01/13/verizon-enters-the-text-app-arena-with-v-cast-messages/

Evan Doll on the iPad (via uxtalk)

I’ve started a separate blog focusing on user interface and design issues (uxtalk.wordpress.com), but I wanted to note a recent posting about designing for the iPad, courtesy of fellow Apple alum Evan Doll who now teaches a course over at Stanford on usability.

Noted tech visionary Alan Kay also seems interested in the iPad, judging from his recent comments.

The Apple iPad: Why a “Fourth Device” Makes a Lot of Sense

At CES, the buzz was on 3D, but  my money is that the new consumer device most bought this year isn’t shutter glasses and a new 120-240Hz TV, it’ll be an e-Reader of some sort–and most likely one with a picture of a piece of fruit on the back.

Apple, of course, just announced their long-awaited (and unfortunately named) iPad. Starting at $499, it’s a very slick piece of technology, although the gadget press overall seemed muted in their enthusiasm. Most of the critical comments centered on it being a “fourth device” (the others being a desktop, laptop, and app-phone) which doesn’t really replace anything. While I’m sympathetic to the complaint about lugging yet another device around, I’d argue that for its intended audience it very well may replace something: books. And for many other people, at many times, it may also replace the laptop and television as ways of consuming entertainment on the go.

What we’re seeing in the iPad is a new being: the media consumption device with a few capabilities to process and mark up media on the go. Unlike say, a laptop, it’s not equally capable of both authoring and consuming media; it’s fair to poor at the former, and outstanding at the latter. But luckily for Apple, most folks, most of the time, are media consumers.

Given the right ecosystem of content delivery, the iPad (and its successors) could prove as indispensable to people on the go as the tattered Dean Koontz paperback in their overnight bag. What’s more, it has the potential to replace stacks of textbooks or (more immediately in my case) the need to carry around several hundred pages of product specifications and technical notes as part of a work project. It also has the potential to prove an amazing device for browsing the web–probably the most-favored (and little-recognized) time-killer next to watching television.

Lastly, the iPad is already changing the eBook game, bringing full color and snappy screen response as well as the ability to read all the books from both the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble libraries (assuming Apple keeps to their promise that anything that runs on the iPhone will run on the iPad).

In the end, I think the iPad will succeed and find a way to become that fourth device in people’s book bags. In all likelihood, it’ll just replace a few of the books in order to make room for itself.

From the Department of Unintended Design Consequences

It’s no secret that I love the idea of LED lighting, and hate the idea that so much energy from a conventional incandescent bulb is wasted in the form of heat. It turns out, though, that colder climes are discovering that there’s a lethal downside to electrical efficiency when it comes to traffic lights:

http://gizmodo.com/5428749/energy+efficient-led-traffic-lights-are-backfiring-in-a-deadly-way

The problem is obvious in retrospect, but I for one sure didn’t think of it ahead of time. I suspect there’s one of those annoying, “try it small before rolling out across an entire city” lessons we should be taking away from this one, as any fix is likely to be hugely expensive.

Human Computing Gets a Phone System Upgrade

Please share in our joy at putting a stake through the heart of our old telephone system at the office–or at least the telephone answering/routing portion of it. (Note to AT&T: Your 974 is a fine office phone, but the 984 answering system at the heart of it—to quote Jean-Louis Gassée– “…could be even better.” I’ll spare you the translation of what that implies it is currently).

In any case, the direct phone numbers to reach us all on are:

Wish us luck as we settle into the new phone system, and please let us know if you have any difficulty with any part of it.

Progress Bars for Stop Lights

Designer: Damjan Stanković

from Yanko Design–a brilliant concept.

The designers offer a rationale that seeing exactly how long you need to wait for a light will let you know whether it’s worth it to switch off your electric car, but this strikes me as a bit grasping. The real worth behind the concept is the same for progress bars everywhere–they’re tremendously reassuring indicators that the wait is progressing steadily toward an end, and which let you adjust your own expectations immediately toward the perceived completion time. (Thwarting this is what makes Microsoft’s Copy progress bars so frustrating).

(From XKCD)

In a study I did at Apple years ago, we subjected users to an unexplained delay in the computer’s processing after they hit a “Save” button while doing data entry. Half the users actually concluded that the computer had crashed (getting up from their seats for help or pressing the Reset button) when it didn’t respond in 8.5 seconds. Displaying a watch cursor bought several more seconds, and an animated watch worked even better. But a progress bar* had the users more-or-less-happily waiting for several minutes–exactly the effect you’d need to calm tensions in a cross-town commute.

*A standard (not indefinite) progress bar–we didn’t test indefinite progress bars in this study.

As enthusiastic as I am about the concept,  then there’s the part where reality intrudes: The LED technology behind current stop lights makes this physically possible, but although the circuitry needn’t be expensive to make it work, the labor and construction costs involved with replacing or retrofitting existing stop lights–quite possibly running nearly six figures per light(!)–make any sort of broad-based switch-over extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future.