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A Step Backwards In Usability?

Monday, May 30th, 2011

I recently read a preview of a column which is to be published in the next addition of ACM CHI magazine, Interactions. This particular article is a rather interesting read in that it touches upon what the authors argue are the many short-comings in current Gestural Interfaces; stating that they pose a huge step backwards in terms of Usability.

This may not have raised many eyebrows if it were not for the expertise of the articles authors, Donald A. Norman and Jakob Nielsen; both of whom know quite a bit about HCI.

Experimentation in new technology and the process of learning what works and what does not can be challenging. This article raises some important, yet mostly overlooked, concerns surrounding new technologies which are built upon Gestural Interfaces; i.e. current touch screen devices such as iOS and Android. Certainly a good read for anyone interested in Touch Screen development. Gestural Interfaces: A Step Backwards In Usability

Put your Best People on Mobile

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

So first the biggest number – 5.2. That is in billions with a B. There are 1.2 billion personal computers in use worldwide including desktops, laptops and tablet PCs like the iPad. There are 1.1 billion fixed landline phones. There are 1.0 billion automobiles registered and in use. There are 1.6 billion television sets, 1.7 billion credit card users, 2.0 billion internet users, 2.2 billion people with a banking account, and 3.9 billion radio receivers in use worldwide. Mobile utterly dwarfs them all – with 5.2 billion currently active, ie fully paid mobile phone subscriptions. Active mobile phone accounts. 5.2 billion. yes, 4.5 times more mobile phone subscriptions than personal computers or landline phones. 2.5x more mobile accounts than all internet users. 3 times more mobile subscribers than the total number of television sets. Mobile is huge. – Tomi Ahonen

These numbers are simply staggering.

For sometime now Myself and pretty much everyone else for that matter have been speaking quite a bit about the significance of Mobile. And while it may seem quite obvious that Mobile is huge, understanding the sheer magnitude of Mobile is truly put into perspective when some real world comparisons are made.

To get an idea of just how big mobile is, consider the recent article published by Tomi Ahonen, (which I found thru Brian O’Connor) in which some rather astounding numbers are provided in his aptly titled post: All the Numbers, All the Facts on Mobile the Trillion-Dollar Industry. Why is Google saying: Put your Best People on Mobile?. Certainly a must read for anyone interested in Mobile Development.

HTML5 Semantics: The contenteditable Attribute

Friday, April 15th, 2011

The HTML5 Specification introduces many new semantic attributes in addition to new semantic elements. One particularly interesting addition is the introduction of the contenteditiable attribute, which can be found under the User Interaction Specification in Section 7.5.

A Brief Overview

The contenteditiable attribute allows for the editing of content within any valid HTML5 element. By default, elements implicitly inherit edibility from their parent element unless explicitly defined.

The API

The contenteditiable attribute is an enumerated attribute with three states which map to the four keywords:

true

The true state indicates that the element is editable; it is specified by the ("" Empty String) or true keywords.
false
The false state indicates that the element is editable; it is specified by the false keyword.
inherit
The inherit state indicates that the element is editable if it’s immediate parent element is editable.

Examples

The following examples provide basic “live” demonstrations and source implementations of the contenteditiable attribute. (Note: These examples assume an HTML5 compatible Browser which support this attribute.)

A basic editable element

This content is editable, try it.

A basic nested editable and non-editable element

  • By default, this content is editable via it’s inherited parent elements value.
  • This content is not editable via it’s explicit contenteditable value.

Outline Styles

Setting editable element outline styles with CSS attribute selectors:

Complete example

run

Some Concluding Thoughts

As you can see, enabling and disabling an editable element in HTML5 is quite simple with the addition of the contenteditiable attribute. This allows for some very interesting possibilities when implemented in conjunction with many of the other new features in HTML5; specifically, the Web Storage API and the spellcheck attribute.

Technological Innovations and the Arts

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Successful innovators in sciences and technology are artistic people. Stimulate the arts and you stimulate innovation.

I have always maintained that any skill or talent acquired can be attributed in part to an innate creative impulse; be it to learn something new or build something new. I am sure many of you can relate to this: that never ending fascination and driving force which compels one to create. Ultimately, creativity is the driving force on which all software is based and, one could argue, on which everything is based.

Recently, I came across a rather interesting article on scienceblogs titled “The Art of Scientific and Technological Innovations”. The article describes numerous scientific and technological breakthroughs which are based on artistic concepts. These include breakthroughs in such fields as engineering, medicine, biology and more.

Certainly a good read for any UI Engineer. Also, for those who find the link between creativity and programming interesting, I highly recommend Pragmatic Thinking and Learning by Andy Hunt.

Ergonomics of Mobile Touchscreen Design

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Dan Saffer has published an interesting article illustrating the Activity Zones for Touchscreen Tablets and Phones which appear to provide the most natural level of usability.

The article is particularly interesting in that it touches on (pun intended) the human factors involved in how we physically interact with devices. The Activity Zones outlined in the article equate to the areas which provide the greatest level of physical comfort when interacting with a touchscreen device.

The general physicality of natural, symbolic and sequential gestures associated with designing touchscreen experiences as well as the environmental distractions and engagement models of mobile experiences is a topic which I find quite interesting. This is a significant leap forward from the traditional WIMP interaction model. All of these considerations allow for a more Human centered design focus, just as it should be; after all, this is the purpose of UI Engineering.

Multiple Form Factor Software Design

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

I have been giving a lot of thought lately about designing software in a Multi-Form Factor paradigm and felt I would share some initial thoughts on the subject. Keep in mind much of this is still quite new and subject to change; however, I have made an attempt to isolate what I feel will remain constant moving forward.

First, User Experience Design

My initial thoughts on the implications of what an ever growing Multi-Form Factor paradigm will have on the way we think about the design of software are primarily concerned with User Experience Design. While using CSS3 media queries to facilitate dynamic layouts will be needed for most Web Applications, I do not believe these types of solutions alone will allow for the kinds of compelling experiences users have come to expect, especially as they will likely compare Mobile Web Application experiences to their native counterparts. Sure some basic solutions will be needed, and for some simple websites they may suffice. However, in the context Web Applications, as well as just about every application developed specifically for a PC, too, I believe UX Design will need to leverage the unique opportunities presented by each particular form factor, be it a PC, smartphone, tablet or TV. Likewise, UX will need to account for the constraints of each form-factor as well. Architecturally, all of the above presents both opportunity and challenge.

To further illustrate this point, consider the fact that it is arguably quite rare that a UX Design intended for users of a PC will easily translate directly to a Mobile or Tablet User Experience. The interactions of a traditional physical keyboard and mouse do not always equate to those of soft keys, virtual keyboards and touch gesture interactions. Moreover, the navigation and transitions between different views and even certain concepts and metaphors are completely different. In simplest terms; it’s not “Apples to Apples”, as the expression goes.

With this in mind, as always, UX Design will need to remain at the forefront of Software Design.

Second, Architecture

Multi-Form Factor design obviously poses some new Architectural challenges considering the growing number of form factors which will need to be taken into account. The good news is, most existing, well designed software architectures may have been designed with this in mind to a certain degree. That is, the key factor in managing this complexity I believe will be code reuse; specifically, generalization and abstraction. A common theme amongst many of my posts, code reuse has many obvious benefits, and in the context of Multi-Form Factor concerns it will allow for different device specific applications to leverage general, well defined and well tested APIs. A good example being a well designed RESTful JSON service.

Code reuse will certainly be of tremendous value when considering the complexities encountered with Multi-Form Factor design. Such shared libraries, APIs and Services can be reused across applications which are designed for particular Form-Factors or extended to provide screen / device specific implementations.

Some Concluding Thoughts

In short, I believe both users and developers alike will be best served by providing unique User Experiences for specific Form Factors as opposed to attempting to adapt the same application across Multiple Form Factors. One of the easiest ways of managing this complexity will inevitably be code reuse.

I also believe the main point of focus should be on the medium and small form factors; i.e. Tablets and Smart phones. Not only for the more common reasons but, also because I believe PCs and Laptops will eventually be used almost exclusively for developing the applications which run on the other form factors. In fact, I can say this from my own experiences already.

While there is still much to learn in the area of Multi-Form Factor Design, I feel the ideas I’ve expressed here will remain relevant. Over the course of the coming months I plan to dedicate much of my time towards further exploration of this topic and will certainly continue to share my findings.