Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Grad School Finalists

For the past 5 months or so, I've been combing through lists of potential grad schools, looking for the perfect combination of programs that would suit my fancy. See, I want to study something that's a fairly rare combination of disciplines, or at least rare enough that I'm going to be pursuing two post-graduate degrees to get it.

I want to study the usability and of public transportation systems, and be able to engineer information systems that positively affect said usability. To do that, I'll need to continue my information science education - concentrating on a cog sci/HCI/IxD program - and shore up my domain knowledge of public transportation system design and planning with a PhD in either Transportation Engineering or Transportation Planning.

Anyway, here's my short list (in order):

  1. University of Queensland
  2. University College London
  3. University of California, Berkeley
  4. Georgia Institute of Technology
  5. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  6. University of Texas, Austin
Now, all that's left to do is get letters of recommendation, write a personal statement, applications, interviews... Yeah, better get on that.

Tunesday, Vol II

I don't know how many people like this feature of the blog, but I really do. So far, each playlist represents a very interesting and eclectic group of songs and that's exactly what I'm going for. For everyone who listens to one of these things, there's likely to be something you like, something you hate, and something you've never heard. It's the beauty of accidental discovery.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Last night I biked down to Georgetown in Seattle for my friend Andy's birthday. Normally I wouldn't blog about such pedestrian affairs, but this was not any normal birthday party. See, for the past year or so, Andy has been learning the guitar and he's really been digging it. So for his very-milestone-worthy 35th birthday he decided that he wanted to spend his birthday pretending to be a rock star. How pimp an idea is that?

He rented out The Mix Lounge and just rocked out on stage, complete with beautiful women holding up applause and laugh signs, and played the hell out of some David Bowie and some Cracker. He was clearly nervous, a little raw, and he took as many mulligans as he damn well pleased . . . but it was awesome. All of his friends - myself included - clapped and cheered him on the whole night. And I think he drew on that; as the night went on, he got better and better.

Andy, I like the cut o' yer jib, as they used to say in ... uh, well, somewhere. Seriously, I'm inspired. I've been playing guitar since I was 11, been singing for even longer, and I never go to open mics or even do karaoke. Why? Well ... because I'm afraid. I could dress that up with a lot of excuses and half-baked reasons masquerading around as logic, but it's really just that simple: I've been afraid - of failure, most likely.

Maybe I should do something about that. I dunno if I'm quite ready for an open mic set, but I can start by practicing some songs, like maybe some of these:

Who knows, maybe I'll work up the courage to go to an open mic someday. Maybe even sooner than I think.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Can't Win 'Em All

I realize that this is based purely on anecdotal evidence, but it's my experience that a lot of the tools that UX people make for themselves are not the most usable things in the world. I'm not sure how universally true this is, but when I say this at IA/UX meetups, people seem to give one of those oh-gods-tell-me-about-it smiles while rolling their eyes, so it must be true enough.

Why? I honestly have no idea, but it's amusing nonetheless. Here's an example I found the other day while looking for jobs on the Interaction Design Association's website. I typed in "junior" as a keyword for the job search and was a little surprised about what I got back.
If "UX Director" is a junior position, I'm in a lot of trouble.
UX Director? Senior Interactive Designer? How did that come up in a search for junior positions?
Had they written "junior candidates dare not apply", this job still would've shown up.
Ah, I see. This is actually a full text search. So why is the search called a "keyword" search? The Information Architect part of my brain associates keyword with metadata - I thought it was letting me search for what the document was about, not what the document contained. This is why Steve Krug says that the only two perfect labels for a full text search are "search" and "go."

But the problem is a bit deeper than a mislabeled search box. The information architecture is not as mature as it needs to be. See, to my way of thinking, when searching for jobs, searching metadata is what you want to do. Establishing a controlled vocabulary is almost impossible when your content is being produced by your user base and there's no editorial control over it, ergo it can be hard to ensure that full text searches are going to consistently return what the user is expecting (as happened to me). But, through the use of taxonomies and folksonomies, there can be a reasonable level of control over the metadata of the documents, allowing for the successful use of things like (wait for it) a keyword search. In my example, if the information architecture allowed for job posters to mark the seniority level of the positions in the posting, then I might have been more successful in searching for a junior position.

And, hey, did you notice that map?
"The location?" Did I miss the memo?
With x miles of the location? What location? Do you mean everywhere on the screen? Does that mean I can zoom all the way out, type in 100, and find UX jobs on the International Space Station? Sweet! You might think I'm making this up, but this is honestly how I thought it worked. Seriously. I zoomed all the way in on Seattle, moving the map this way and that, and then searched and was surprised that I was still getting jobs from San Fransisco and New York. Then, it clicked. Or, more specifically, I clicked. And then a little red dot appeared over the map. Oh. That's the location. Well, why didn't you say so?

Not to be a completely negative nancy, I do have to say that the RSS feed on the search results is kind of a nice touch. I'm not so sure I want to get results in my RSS reader in particular (I'd prefer to be notified by email), but I like that they considered that I might not find what I was looking for the first time and are attempting to save me the trouble of coming back and searching again.

What is all this mean? Getting the user experience right is hard work. Even when designing for an audience that we ought to know so very well, it can be hard to get it right. So, the next time you're using a website or a product and you're enjoying it, take a minute and thank the design and development team. Send 'em a note. Buy 'em a beer. Who knows? Maybe they'll do it again.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Getting a UX Job is Not Easy in This Economy

Yeah, I know, could I make a more obvious statement with the kind of unemployment rates we've been having? But from the job postings I've been looking at, I think it's more than just that. There aren't just less jobs, but the jobs there are like super jobs: one position that's meant to cover a wide range of things.

Take this one for example. The job title is Information Architect, but look at all the other things they're expecting from the position:

  • Usability Studies
  • Personas
  • User Flows
  • Wireframes
  • Affinity Diagrams
  • HTML and CSS expertise
  • Photoshop, Illustrator experience
  • Flash/Silverlight experience
No wonder they expect 5 years experience. They've shoved about 5 different jobs into one position. And that's not even close to being the only job description I've seen that tries to do that. It's like they're all hoping that someone that's done at least one of these things for 5 years should have it down cold enough to juggle them all reasonable competently.

Am I just complaining because I can't find a job (yes), or is it actually an issue? Well, allow me to let Morville and Rosenfeld explain:
"... The information architect ideally should be responsible solely for the site's architecture, not for its other aspects. It can be overly distracting to have to deal with other, more tangible aspects of the site, such as its graphic identity or programming. In that case, the site's architecture can easily, if unintentionally, get relegated to second-class status because you'll be concentrating, naturally, on the more visible and tangible stuff."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I Am Zelbinian, Burner of Worlds

Remember that transit map shower curtain thing, and how I said it was the nerdiest thing I'd ever done? Well, brace yourself; I think I may have topped that.

As I mentioned before on this blog, I play a tabletop RPG by the name of Burning Wheel. (I'm just the king of backlinks today, aren't I?) A couple of weekends ago, we had a late summer heatwave here in the Emerald City, and so I kept retreating to the safety of nearby climate-controlled cafes. After 4 days of that, I started to get really bored and so I spent an afternoon burning up a world for us to play in using a nifty (if buggy) program called AutoREALM (like AutoCAD - cute, huh?). I came up with this:

Yeah, I probably need professional help. Or, hey, maybe I could be professional help; doing this stuff for a living would be really fun.

Tunesday, Vol I

It seems I like recurring tropes (it makes me a very lazy blogger). Here's another one. Every Tuesday, I'll choose somewhere between 10 and 12 tracks from my library completely at random and present them here for your listening pleasure (or woe, as the case may be).

Monday, August 23, 2010

UX Quickie: On Hashtags & URLs

Hey, everyone! I want to introduce you to a great site that is guaranteed to satisfy a need that everyone has. It's especially great for office workers. Here, check it out:


Seriously. Go ahead. ... No? Wait, lemme try something.


How about now? That any better

This is a bit of an extreme example, I admit, (and a joke about as old as the sun) but it illustrates how hard it can be to divine what the hell someone is trying to say when every word in a hashtag or URL is the same case. Want a more mundane example? I just saw on my Twitter feed:
5 yo (v. sad): When I grow up, I want to be boss of the family, but I'm going to be a DADDY, not a MOMMY, so I won't be. #hereallysaidthis
It's very cute, but the punchline got muddled a bit because the first time I read that hashtag my brain deciphered it as "Here Ally Said This." It's a perfectly reasonable sentence - if you throw a comma in the right place - but, in this context, it didn't seem to make much sense. I furled my brown and read it again, finally coming up with "He Really Said This." (Forreals?! No wai!)

Why is this kind of stuff bad? Because it introduces ambiguity; it makes me think. In particular, it makes me think about something that I really shouldn't have to think about. Hell, it's not even something that the person on the other end wants me thinking about. (Ahem... unless you're trying to trick someone. Like I just did. #doasisaynotasido)

Plus, it's a mistake that's laughably easy to avoid. Not that that seems to stop people - apparently there's a whole blog dedicated to this stuff.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Song of the Moment: "Shallow"

"Shallow" by Porcupine Tree found on Deadwing

This is probably the most straightforward song in Porcupine Tree's extensive catalog. It also happens to be one of the most bitchin'. What really makes the song come together for me is not just the killer guitar riffs (with some awesome, awesome tone), but Gavin Harrison's groove-stained drumming. Let the rocking commence!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

UX Quickie: A Nook of a Search

I love my Nook. It's a nifty little piece of gadgetry if I do say so myself. But the search function could use a lot of love.

Yesterday, as I neared the end of the current novel I was reading (The Gun Seller, if you must know - quite good) I thought about what I wanted to read next and I realized I had yet to read the infamous Polar Bear book. Quite embarrassing, really. Anyway, I went to go search for the book with my Nook (kinda musical, isn't it).
Come to me, information architecture!
And I got this:
A nice, neat bunch of search results.
Nice. The 3rd result turns out to be exactly what I was looking for. I was pleased because I honestly hadn't expected Barnes & Noble to offer it as an eBook (technical books are usually hard to find in that format). I scrolled down and open it and it says it's available for download over WiFi only. Doesn't say why, but I figure maybe it's a restriction from whichever cell phone company agreed to provide the 3G for the device.
Wi-Fi only. Ain't that a bitch?
Now, it didn't actually matter since I wasn't going read it right then and there, but for some reason I didn't want to pay for it without being able to download it right away. I thought "I better see if I can get a WiFi signal before I buy this so I can download it." I don't even think it was about the money, I think it was because I just wanted to be able to buy and download in one smooth motion. It just didn't feel clean otherwise. (And hey, it's a gotta-have-it-now, instant-gratification type of culture, isn't it?)

Anyway, as a result of that little thought process, I backed out of the screen to go and deal with my WiFi settings. I made sure it was connected and all that, then I came back to the Shop screen. Since I literally backed out (by using the back buttons), walking back along the same history trail, when I came back I had to search again. When I did, I was a little disappointed that it didn't save my search history - it's not exactly the easiest thing to type on - but, no biggie. I just searched again. When I did, I found this:
Uh, what? How does the same query produce a different result? Well, that's simple: it doesn't. I hit the back button to double-check my query.
My Bostonian heritage sometimes sneaks out and bites me on the ass.
See the mistake? I left out the "r" in the word architecture. That explains why I didn't get the same results. But it certainly does not explain the results I did get. The first result there - Neuromancer - doesn't even have the word "information" anywhere in the search result nor in the listing (not to mention my made-up word "achitecture").

Let's catalog the problems here:

  • Lack of smart WiFi configuration - I try not to be heavy-handed with this stuff, but I have to say that this is really dumb, and not just because a for-profit company throwing roadblocks in the way of a customer making a purchase is never a smart strategy. ("But wait," you say. "Maybe they just didn't realize that the WiFi restriction would be a roadblock." If a large, mature company like Barnes & Noble doesn't realize that turning instant gratification into not-so-instant gratification may come as a bit of a downer to some folks, then they just aren't doing their homework.) Sure, they can't control WiFi availability, which is probably the biggest handicap, but they can at least remove that question from the user's mind. The fix is really obvious: let people configure their WiFi settings without leaving the screen. One of the Nook's strengths is the color touchscreen below the main eInk display, giving them ample opportunity to build in a simple WiFi wizard right there. 
  • Lack of auto-correction - This one is just mystifying. Including spelling auto-correction on a device with a touchscreen keyboard is almost routine these days. Even stranger, the Nook uses Android, which has the damn thing built in. That implies that someone actively removed it when they rolled their own version of the open-sourced OS. Damned odd.
  • Lack of search history - Again, mystifying because, again, this is something that is built-in to Android. Was it a lack-of-working-memory issue? On a device that ships with 2GB of snappy flash storage and room for 1500 eBooks, keeping a list of your last, say, 5 searches doesn't seem that hard, does it? Why this is good UX is a harder question to answer. I don't really have the research to back it up (and I'm feeling kinda lazy right now), but it feels right. It's also a pretty common idiom, which usually - usually - happens for a reason.
  • False positives in the search results - I don't work for Barnes & Noble, neither am I privy to their internal discussions, meetings, or memorandums. But having a search query that should yield no results instead yield a list of top-sellers just reeks of marketing. Sure, they might occasionally sell an extra book or two. But, in the meantime, they've ensured that I give their search function a vote of no confidence. And, not to sound like a broken record, but a well-tuned, fault-tolerant search engine is, unsurprisingly, included by default in a OS built by Google.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why I Love Burning Wheel

When I rummage around in my brain looking for the first association I have with tabletop roleplaying games, it's difficult to tell which one actually came first, but I there's a distinct memory in my head of a winter camping trip with my Boy Scout troop when I was about 9 or 10. It was early evening, and we were all ready just to sit and do something low-key after a long day of having fun in the snow. A few of the older boys brought out some books, emblazoned with the title "Dungeons and Dragons" in a epic font. Tired as we were, we played until the wee hours of the morning when our Scoutmasters finally made us get to bed.

I loved it. I played it quite a bit with the boys in my scout troop for the next couple of months after that particular camping trip, but then, boys being boys, we moved onto other things for awhile. Since then, I've hardly played tabletop RPGs at all. It wasn't so much that I didn't enjoy the game any longer, I certainly did. But I found it hard to find people I enjoyed playing with. For a long, long time I couldn't really put my finger on why that was, but I just got the sense that the way I got enjoyment out of those games was not the way they did.

Then, when I was at PAX East, my friends and I wandered over to the card and board game checkout table, and we happened to pick up a game called Munchkin. Aside from the fact that the game was tremendously fun, this was the first time I had heard of munchkinism. Suddenly it became clear to me why my efforts to have fun roleplaying had so often come up short: to varying degrees, a lot of the people I had played with were guilty of munchkinism. 

I researched the idea a little more. In particular, I picked the brains of some friends who had more roleplaying experience than I did. I discovered a general feeling that systems like Dungeons and Dragons, though well-known and still a lot of fun, tended to foster munchkinism, particularly when the Dungeon Master didn't know how to deal with it. For instance, people tended to play just to get items or make unbalanced min-maxed characters (in other words, exactly the way people play Diablo II).

So, when I started searching for a gaming group again in earnest, I also looked for an alternative to the world of Dungeons and Dragons. It had served me well, but I needed a game and a group of gamers that was more focused on roleplaying than on mechanics, that was more interested in telling a good story than pushing all their stats past 18. Thanks to my friend Colin, I found that alternative in Burning Wheel, and I honestly don't know that I'll ever go back. 

Why, you ask? Well, I'll tell you (otherwise why the hell would I be writing this). Here are a few of the things that have made Burning Wheel very rewarding for me thus far:

In my previous roleplaying experiences, characters were created by picking a race, a class, rolling some dice and then, if you felt like it, covering all that with a thin veneer of backstory. In Burning Wheel, picking a race (called a Character Stock) is where the similarity stops. And, if I may say so, it offers the finest translations of Tolkien Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs to have ever made their way into an RPG, tabletop or otherwise.

From there, you figure out your character concept. It can be anything. Really. Ideas that would be mundane in most other games can be rich, diverse, and fulfilling in a Burning Wheel campaign. Then you burn your character ("burn" is the BW lingo for "create") using lifepaths, constructing a rough skeleton of the character's history from birth until just before you start using him (or her). Then you assign your stat and skill points based on what your character would have earned through his "life". Pretty cool, huh?

The Player Creates the Story
I know not all games are this way, but in many tabletop RPG's the game master (GM) is king. Your adventure is entirely dependent on your GM's storytelling skills (and/or ability to buy good add ons). In Burning Wheel, the GM is mostly just the arbitrator and the person who takes care of all the NPC business. You decide on a setting/world together as a group at the table and then the GM uses your BIT's (discussed in a bit) to create conflict. Resolving the conflicts encountered is what generates the story, and so storytelling becomes decentralized. It's like that game where you write the first sentence of a story and then pass it around the room and then you see what you get, only better.

Roleplaying is a Game Mechanic
The real meat-and-potatoes of the game is based off the Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits (BITs) you create for your character. These things basically tell the GM - and the other players - what you want your character to be about and what you want the game to be about. Playing these BITs up - or going against them for the sake of storytelling - earns you something called Artha. Artha can be spent to improve die rolls, change your luck, or even save your character's life. Good roleplaying = more Artha = more tangible, mechanical benefits during conflicts. Genius, isn't it?

Any Setting You Want
What's that? You don't want to play the old standard adveturers-meet-in-a-medieval-bar-and-band-together-inexplicably campaign? Then don't. Play any campaign and setting you want, inspired by your favorite works of fantasy and fiction. And if the game doesn't give you everything you need to play your desired setting out of the box (so to speak), pick up the Monster Burner and build your own lifepaths, character stocks, traits, skills, and more. 


But, perhaps the most important reason I've embraced Burning Wheel so fully is that it makes tabletop gaming feel like something that isn't dirty. You don't have to hide this stuff away in your basement. In fact, our group plays at bars, for all to see. Because it's not about being a nerd (ok, not all about being a nerd), it's about creating a meaningful story and experience with your friends. Hell, even girlfriends might dig that.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

UX Quickie: Castelli Fingerless Cycling Gloves

I haven't ridden my bicycle consistently for months (due to an elbow injury last December), and now that I am, I've found myself digging around in my closet for my cycling gear. Apparently I have about 20 pairs of cycling gloves, which is good for all those extra limbs I acquired after that nuclear waste accident (kidding).

One pair in particular I like a lot.
Yes, I know one glove is not a "pair" - I have another one, smartass.
They're a pair of fingerless gloves made by Castelli. One of the most annoying parts about cycling gloves, at least for me, is that after riding for awhile, they have a way of sticking to sweaty hands and become difficult to remove. They almost literally have to be peeled off, especially on a hot day. Castelli found an elegant way to circumnavigate this problem. See it? Here, I'll give you a closer look.
Holy finger holds, Batman.
Ah! They're finger holds! At first the little straps are confusing because they're unusual, but once you put the gloves on it becomes almost immediately obvious that the little loops afford putting your fingers through, and then pulling them off is completely natural.

Very cool.

Aside: I'm thinking this UX Quickie thing might be the first entry in another recurring trope on this blog. The idea? Just a quick post about a small usability thing that I think rocks or that I think is terrible, particularly if it's something that's on a physical thing (as opposed to the intangible world of software). I don't know how often I'll do this; I'll probably post them as often as I'm inspiration strikes.

Song of the Moment: "Iguazu"

"Deportation/Iguazu" by Gustavo Sanaolalla found on the Babel Soundtrack

Both Babel and The Insider put this song to great use during provocatively emotional moments, helping to create an amalgamation of ambivalence: it's happy, yet it's not. It's sad, yet it's not. If you've never seen either of those films and you're hearing this for the first time, I admit that by itself, though beautiful, it doesn't quite have that punch to it. But part of the brilliance of this piece is that once you have seen those movies - once you've heard it used to convey that deep chasm of emotion - it can communicate nothing else. One listen to that fluttering guitar and it all comes rushing back.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


A week ago, my friend Wiggles invited a bunch of people to descend on a local coffee house and 'gami the place up.

Said coffee place: Trabant Coffee & Chai, U-District, Seattle
Photo Credit: Coffeehouse Reviews
And so we did. So we did. And in fine style. Here, we see a group of seemingly normal people practicing the black art of the origami upstairs in the shadowed eves of Trabant.

And would you look at our creations!

I, myself, made a sailboat or two.

Mostly so I could go fishing.

Finally, I made myself a nice, uber throwing star.

I wanted to get everyone to make one so that we could then dress up as ninjas and confront the Seafair Pirates, but unfortunately no one was having it.

Next year, pirates. Next year.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Song of the Moment: "Transmissions from a Lonely Room"

"Transmissions from a Lonely Room" by Stone Temple Pilots, found on Shangri-La Dee Da

Sweet, savory, silky, and sticky.

For most of their career, STP drew comparisons to the Seattle grunge scene and Led Zeppelin, often spat from lips that lay below upturned noses. As their career moved forward, however, they seemed to grow more and more comfortable peeling back that hard edge they'd honed so well and letting some of their other influences bleed through, such as David Bowie and the inimitable Beatles. (I have a hunch that Weiland was mostly responsible for said bands' influence in their music, but it's only a hunch.)

There are a number of songs in their catalog that wear all of these influences well, but I feel like this is one of the best examples. Just listen. It's almost like George Harrison and John Bonham are in there somewhere, the eastern-tinged psychedelia coating the silky groove at the core as caramel and sprinkles might cover an apple. Can't you just imagine yourself laying on the grass, staring up at a baby-blue sky filled with cotton-candy clouds that dance - and just a little bit dirty - as they whisk past?

And isn't that the perfect mood for a beautiful, lazy summer day? As I sit outside in 80º weather with a beer, and a book, it sure seems like it to me. Pitch perfect, you might say.


After venting my frustrations with Twitterfeed yesterday, I thought I might like to do a nice positive UX post lest you think I'm just a Negative Nancy about this stuff. I may not be filled with sunshine and puppies, but I've got at least a few bottles of each stored away for the right occasions. And today, I'll be singing the praises of a company that doesn't get that treatment very often these days: Starbucks.

But, before I begin...

Disclaimers And Caveats
"What, the Starbucks website is perfect? They have no major UX issues?" The answers to both questions are almost certainly no. I'm just callin' 'em as I see 'em.

"Oh, C'mon, Starbucks isn't the first person to do that!" Probably not. But just because something's been done before doesn't mean that it's done well forever thereafter. And hey, if I haven't seen it, it's new to me. (Also, Starbucks is not a person, despite what the law says.)

"I could totally do better than that." Ok. No one's stopping you. Do it.

Ok, glad we got that settled.

When I was looking for the calorie content in one of their sandwiches yesterday (for my data-driven diet), I was a bit taken a back by the design of their navigation menu (in a good way).

They don't look like anything special right now, I admit. In fact, my one small quibble with their design is that the menu "tabs" don't look clickable at first. They are taking advantage of a very pervasive web idiom, which makes it hard to mistake those headers for anything but ways to navigate to a different part of the website, so it's fine. But making their clickability (is that a word?) a little more obvious wouldn't take away from the cleanliness of the design and it would help that occasional user who hadn't quite internalized this particular navigation idiom.

Anyway, I was supposed to be talking them up, not down, right? This is the flyout that happens when one of the menu areas is hovered over with a mouse:

There are two things that I think are fantastic about this design. First, instead of trying to fit all this in a traditional flyout menu, which would've been long and cumbersome, or hiding some choices, they instead structured it almost like a miniature web page that's been stripped down to it's bare information architecture. I'd have to do testing to be sure, but it seems like the hierarchy is narrow enough that I wouldn't expect users getting flustered or experiencing information overload while figuring out what to click on.

But the second thing is even better. You may not have even noticed it because of the way I cropped that shot, so here's a closer look.

See what they did there? Those little links in the "bubble" at the bottom (what would you call it?) are cross-references. They did their homework. Consider the "Coffee" and "Menu" section headers. They designed the former to be a brew-at-home catalog (with a small helping of information about their roasts) and the latter around the coffee beverages you can buy À la carte. Then they realized - probably through some combination of user research, usability testing, sheer cleverness, and trial & error - that people could conceivably look for the some things housed under "Coffee" under "Menu" first, and vice versa. It depends on what the user is looking for and how the user defines the goal. And so they created their bubbalicious cross-reference sections - which conceivably are easily noticeable and yet not distracting - to help those users out.

Brilliant human-centered design. But I still won't drink their coffee.