Friday, October 22, 2010

UX Quickie: Don't Tempt Me, Domino's

It's a Friday night. I'm home alone, starting to pack for my move - in other words, being very, very boring. I have exercised enough this week/today to earn me a Friday night pizza. So I go to, which is my standby when I want something cheapish and still edible, and browse through their coupons. I find this:

[insert standard Homer phrase here]
Sweet! $5 for a personal pizza? I'm so there, man.

... Well, then. That begs the obvious question: if I can't use that deal, why did you offer it to me? I mean, really. If it's not an option, don't make it an option. That's not rocket surgery (to steal a phrase from the inimitable Mr. Krug). Your system obviously knows when the deal is available - it did just tell me - just, you know, don't display it when it isn't.

Speaking of telling me when the deal is available, clearly this is designed to restrict these deals to lunchtime ... but does anyone have any idea when 0:00am is? More importantly, what does the system think 0:00am is? Well, 0:00 = midnight on the military clock. And, as it happens, there are plenty of Domino's stores that deliver past midnight. Who wants to order a bunch of lunchtime specials for midnight snacks? :D

Thursday, October 21, 2010

UX Quickie: A Few Google Blunders

There are three issues that I have with some Google products that tend to recur and today all 3 happened to happen one after the other, prompting me to post about them.

Android Default Tasks

When Android begins an Activity - call it a task, if you like - it has the ability to broadcast out who can take it on if the programmers suspect that many programs may be able to respond. (Dear Android Geeks: I know this is way oversimplified; hush.) When more than one program is available to run the command, Android gives you a choice and also allows you to set one of those choices as a default. It's pretty cool, and pretty standard for an OS. However, whenever an app updates, the default choice for that particular task is voided. As it happens, for many of these tasks, it seems that I do them about as often as the app is updated, making it almost moot to set the default. This is very frustrating.

Google Reader Next Bookmarklet

Do you use Google Reader? Probably, millions do. One of my favorite features is the "Next" button.

Next, please!
See, I love populating my reader with far more feeds than I could ever actually read, and then creating these bookmarks in my browser bar and just clicking next to read a random article whenever I have a few moments. It takes the cognitive load out of getting through my reader inbox, making it far more pleasurable for me to read my news in the morning. If you'll notice, there are actually two options for making these Next book marks. There's a general  bookmark, which will draw on the entire library, and tag-locked ones that will only pull news from certain folders. Sounds awesome, right? Except that those latter ones pull news from sources that I do not follow. It's really kind of odd, and I have no idea how it happens - and I'd like it to stop.

Chrome Form Autofill

Pretty much every modern browser does form autofill these days. You know, when you start to fill one field out and the browser helpfully offers to fill in the rest for you? For it's first few iterations, Chrome didn't do this - or at least didn't seem to. In these later versions, however, this feature has been added and seemed to work great - until I started filling out grad school applications. It was then that I found out that the feature is a little, shall we say, overzealous. Here's what happens when I tried to fill out the newsletter form from Ikea:

Holy suggestions, Batman
Look at all those different suggestions for filling in the rest of the form! It records everything, apparently. And, in doing so, has confused both itself and me. In fact, this overzealousness has reduced this feature from a useful utility to an annoyance, which I don't think they quite had in mind.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

UX Quickie: Double-Checking In Foursquare

I'm a frequent Foursquare user. Oh, I can hear the snickers and the judgments miles away, but whatever; I just like a data-driven life. Where was I last Tuesday? If I can't remember, I can look it up.

Foursquare's Android app (and maybe the others) does have a rather annoying tendency, however. To understand why it's annoying you have to understand the use case, but luckily it's really very simple:

  1. Fire up my GPS and the Foursquare app on my Nexus One 
  2. Check the "Places" page to see if Foursquare lists the place I want to check into. If it doesn't I search for it.
  3. I tap the place to go to the place page.
  4. I tap the "Checkin" button and check in.
  5. I tap the "Home" button on my phone, "minimizing" the app, and flick off the battery-draining GPS.
I don't have their user research in my hands, obviously, but intuitively this doesn't seem like an edge case to me. I use the application until I've achieved my goal, then I jump out and do other things I need to do. Makes sense, right?

The problem with this is how the Foursquare app behaves when I return to the application to check in somewhere else hours later. The application, not entirely unexpectedly, picks up right where it left off, at the same "You Just Checked In" screen. What it won't tell you is it just checked you into that location again. I didn't pick up on this until I noticed my Location Stream in TweetDeck one day showing me having checked into  a place that day that I had actually been the day before. I looked at my Foursquare history and found dozens of these double-checked incidents.

This isn't a normal UX issue like most of the stuff I post here. In fact, I can totally see how a lot of people wouldn't really give a damn if the app occasionally checked them in twice (I care because, well, I'm a geek). But it's a UX issue because it exposes the fact that a user's actions cause unintended results for somebody. I mean, how would a place's "Mayor" feel about having been booted over what is essentially a bug? And I'm sure Foursquare did not intend to help accidentally helping some people game the system.

Now, is this problem caused by lack of user research or lack of understanding about how Android Activities work? Who can say but them, really? I just hope they fix it.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Song of the Moment: "Mayday (M'aidez)"

"Mayday (M'aidez)" by People in Planes as found on Beyond the Horizon

I first saw these guys a few years back, invited along by a friend of mine. I had never heard of them before that night, so I went in completely fresh. They weren't even the headliner, but they totally rocked The Showbox, brandishing their quirky version of dance rock to an adoring crowd that was dancing around like they were in a night club. If you're having a down day, this clip is sure to get you back into high spirits.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Costume Idea

A week ago or so, I took this picture for my Facebook page:

And it has inspired a costume idea: I shall be a mathematical superhero of my own creation. However, I wouldn't mind a little crowd-sourced help. So far I'm thinking I'll get a long-sleeved white shirt, the pi shirt over that, and then some white gloves. Then maybe I could use blue and red sharpies to cover the visible part of the sleeves with equations.

Any ideas on a additional pieces? Or a name? Leave a comment or find me on Twitter.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

UX Quickie: Finally, A Tag Cloud I Like

The latest research/blog post from OkCupid has been taking the Internet by storm; if you haven't read their piece on Gay Sex vs. Straight Sex, it's really a must-read.

Hidden in this report - and many of their others - are tiny little UX gems. The author loves to whip up little JavaScript widgets so that people can interact with the data and see things for themselves. It's really quite genius.

But my favorite little gem is how he chooses to represent the tag clouds. Tag clouds can be a really useful thing, but I really hate most implementations of them. In addition to promoting a feast-or-famine information culture, they tend to be ugly, jarring, and hard to parse. But I really, really like the ones he uses here:
Oo, I think I see a bunny!
There are two things he's done that make this tag cloud way better than average. Can you spot them?
  1. Not only are the terms visibly weighted, they are sorted by popularity. You can always tell the top two or three popular things in a tag cloud, but sorting out the rest is next to impossible. This is an easy and obvious solution for communicating popularity levels in a meaningful way.
  2. He alternates colors, making it easy to tell when one tag ends and another begins.
Bravo, Christian Rudder, not only for research both well-done and well-presented.

This Must Be Recorded for Posterity

Those last few posts were a tad heavy, so I thought I'd share this great conversation I had last night. I was talking to a random girl on Twitter very briefly and the end of our conversation went like this:
Friend: I am, indeed, a night owl, but unfortunately I have to get up at 5 fucking 30 am so I am going to sleep.
Me: Cool. And I agree that all hours before 9am ought to be punctuated by "fucking" instead of ":"
Me: (a minute later) ... omg I just realized what a horrible double entendre I just made.
That's me. Smooth like sandpaper.

A Message for Bill O'Reilly Concerning the Ground Zero Mosques

I watched the clip of you on The View this morning. And I'd like you to "listen to me - you might learn something."

  1. It's not a Mosque. It's an Islamic Cultural Center. It's the difference between a church and the YMCA. (1)
  2. There's already a Mosque near ground zero - CLOSER than the not-Mosque you're talking about. (1)
  3. Young American *Muslim* men and women have fought and are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have died for us there. (2) The same is true of Taoists, Bhuddists, Hindis, Athiests, Agnostics, and every other sect in this country. Are you too ignorant to realize that Ground Zero is hallowed for them as well?

The dangerous people are not the ones that happen to worship a particular god or gods. The dangerous people are the ones who can't stand that there are people who don't worship the same God that they do - and that includes you, sir.

1) The Daily Show, August 10, 2010, Municipal Land Use Segment
2) Colin Powell Endorses Barack Obama on Meet the Press, October 19, 2008, 4:30-6:22

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Following Sin

I've got a confession to make: about a week ago, I started following a few porn stars on Twitter. Actually at this point I think it's more like a few dozen. However, the reason probably isn't what you're thinking. (Ok, not just what you're thinking.)

A few weeks ago a friend of mine and I were having a discussion that started out being about censorship, morphed into the ins-and-outs of the morality of adult entertainment, and finally ended up as a thought-provoking intellectual exercise about what it must be like to live in that culture.

I couldn't stop thinking about that idea: adult entertainment as outcast subculture. I often find myself making snap judgments about people who decide to be strippers or cam girls or (wait for it) porn stars. I often hate myself for it - especially for the hypocrisy therein - and, after awhile, it became clear why that conversation was on a loop in my head: I was guilty of judging what I didn't understand.

That kind of burned me. I like to think that I'm above that kind of thing, as I'm sure a lot of people do, but we all have biases and prejudices that we don't even know about. And, really, how could I be expected to understand? My reactions were practically reflexes, drilled into my head by mainstream culture. For American audiences, being that overtly, evangelically sexual is taboo at best and downright contemptuous at worst.

I mean, can you imagine what being intimate means for a porn star? What most of us consider intimate is their everyday life, especially on set. It's a complete inversion of expectations. And how the hell do they deal with fans? Would you be able to tolerate interacting with a group of people whose only connection to you was pure lust? How would you deal with bumping into them at the grocery store, knowing the "I want to see you naked" thought is not at the back in their mind, but waaaaaaay up front? I think it's impossible for any outsider to understand those kinds of things.

I think the only real way to get rid of bias and prejudice is to spend time with the people you're biased or prejudiced against (this is the theory behind Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days). I decided it was about time I did that. I wasn't exactly about to start hanging around in tittie bars, though. I figured I'd check to see if any of them were on Twitter (it's not exactly complete ethnographic immersion, but it's close enough for government work). I did a quick Google search and wadda ya know - I found a list adult entertainers on Twitter (NSFW). I chose a few and started following.

And I gotta tell you, it's been fascinating. Sure, there's a fair share of self-promotion and the like (that's pretty much par for the course on Twitter), but the fascinating stuff, ironically, is the mundane. It's just incredible to watch these people, all of whom have more partners in a week than I will ever have in my life time, talk about the weather or how their hamburger was underdone or praising the latest Jay-Z album or asking the Twitterverse whether they should watch Star Trek or Iron Man tonight.

I can't yet say I can relate to the kinds of things I talked about a few paragraphs ago, and I don't know that ever will - or even want to - but I can feel my misconceptions melting away. I've watched them interact with fans and each other with an ease and a sense of humor that's almost intoxicating. I've watched them thoughtfully comment on current events - like the Chilean miner rescue and the Don't Ask Don't Tell news - sometimes even eloquently. I've sometimes even been witness to their rapier wit - and even enjoyed some exchanging some witty banter with a few of them.

This little experiment has totally rocked my perception of people who choose to be in that industry. As it turns out, they have families, hopes, dreams, worries, likes, dislikes, opinions, politics ... they're people. Just people. Who happen to be different. Furthermore, it's perfectly clear that my small sample is completely comfortable with their lifestyles and with who they are - and they don't really give a fuck if you aren't. Frankly, it's hard not to admire that kind of confidence.

I'm in the News!

This morning I attended my very first press conference, watching as Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and city CTO Bill Schrier proudly unveiled the redesigned I must admit to a little pride myself as Knowledge As Power (KAP) was singled out for their help in the process; it was through their efforts that I got a chance to volunteer my time and work as a usability researcher, helping the city successfully implement low-cost, Steve Krug-style usability studies. (I even got my own shout out - see, my name's even in the press release!)

I'm very proud to have been party to KAP's pilot usability study program, and I harbor hopes that it will turn into a paying job in the not-too-distant future. The people at the Department of Information Technology - and the Citywide Web Team, in particular - were an absolute joy to work with, and they've done a hell of a job updating the site. I look forward to watching over the coming months as they continue to improve the site and implement our recommendations (that document should be public very soon).

Also, I continue to be caught off guard by the fact that Mike and I are on a first name basis. I was tickled pink that he came over and thanked me personally for donating my time, clearly very happy that I was involved in the process. I was, too - life has kind of gotten in the way of me getting involved in local politics, and it feels really good to be making a difference in what little way I can. It's so personally fulfilling, I can't quite put into words how good it feels; I wish I had a nice nest egg hidden away somewhere so I could continue volunteering my time and helping them out.

All I can do is hope that some other departments in the city find our services valuable enough to be willing to pay for them.

P.S. If you're interested in the work KAP does, you should follow @KASPower on Twitter.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Learning to Read

I've spent a large amount of my free time the last few weeks re-watching episodes of House and Star Trek: The Next Generation. As fun and geeky as that is, it's such a huge gods damned waste of time, especially when one considers the large list of to-read books in my Goodreads catalog. I actually really do like reading, but I'm so used to multitasking all the time I prefer to just have something on to watch that I don't have to pay any attention to if I don't want to (leaving aside the facts that multitasking is impossible and very probably not so good for the brain).

Reading more is something I profess that I want to do, but am clearly not doing. Instead I do things that entertain me without really having to do anything at all except sit there. The good part about this problem is it's fairly easy to solve using the user research methods I know and love. The above paragraphs right away indicate a few mental barriers:

  • Watching movies/TV has a lower effort/entertainment ratio (perceived)
  • Just sitting and reading a book feels like it's not productive
  • I have a natural tendency to (pretend to) multi-task, and so I feel like my mind wanders easily when I'm reading
  • I tend to get distracted by the TV/Computer when they're around

After thinking about the problem a little more (hey, there's not much else to do on an airplane sometimes), I realized that another thing standing in my way was that I was always fighting with myself about what I should read. I tend to read non-fiction more than fiction since part of me feels like reading fiction is frivolous. Of course, another part of me realizes how inane that is, since fiction is art and enriching oneself with art is a very important form of education, not to mention the myriad of classics I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't read. Yet another genre vying for my attention is technical books - especially ones on IA/UX stuff or transit planning or some of my old math textbooks. Distilling these down to bullet points gives us:

  • All the possibilities of what to read at any given moment lead to cognitive overload
  • Cognitive overload leads to crippling indecision
  • Indecision creates a perfect excuse to not read

Ok, good. We've got a good list of mental barriers/problems to solve. Were I solving this for a client I'd do some ethnographic interviews, subject-matter expert reviews, literature reviews, surveys, and lots of other stuff to round out the problem and then boil all that down to personas and functional specifications, etc. etc. But the reason why we do all that stuff is that we usually don't have direct access to a user's brain - in this case, I don't have that limitation so I'm going to shortcut the process (also: I'm feeling lazy). I'm just going to go for the first thing that I think might work, go with it until there's proof that it doesn't, rising and repeating as necessary.

The reality is that no solution is going to make up for a lack of willpower. However, a clever solution will require less willpower to implement. All I have to do is lower the perceived "work" (or raise the perceived "fun") value enough that I read often enough for the effect to snowball, thus turning reading from a chore to an enjoyable habit. So what did I come up with? I'm going to read three books at once. 

Basically, I pick one book from each of the three categories I talked about above - fiction, non-fiction, and technical - and I just rotate through a chapter at a time. The chunks are big enough that I get a sufficient amount of story/content for me to remember the continuities correctly, I'm context switching often enough that my mind doesn't get too restless, and I don't have to put any though into balancing pleasure reading and learning because I'm doing them all at once. An added bonus to this is the chance for happy associative accidents, from which inspiration and eurekas are often born.

At first, that sounds insane, I know, but I tried it on the plane this weekend and I think it's going to work well. It nullifies most of those bullet points easily, at least in theory. The one item left unresolved is the problem of distractions/mind wandering. Mind-wandering is very common and, as it turns out, can be very healthy, so I have neither the ability nor desire to eliminate that completely. But I can eliminate distractions (like, say, Facebook) by picking up shop and heading to a local coffee shop. Hopefully by the time I get to grad school the habit will be ingrained enough that I'll have the wherewithal to be able to read for hours at a time anywhere I am.

I'll let you know how it goes - whether you want me to or not! ;)

P.S. All hail the return of the blog!

 P.P.S. Want to know what I'm reading? Right now:

Friend me on Goodreads if you want to be kept abreast of all my reading habits.