Monthly Archives: October 2007

What will happen when Microsoft stops supporting Windows XP?

I recall recently seeing a news article about how Microsoft has extended the date when it will stop supporting Windows XP, from January 30th of next year until some undetermined point in the future. Apparently, when the launch of Vista was being planned, Microsoft thought the new OS was going to be such a success that they’d be able to stop supporting the current OS as early as the beginning of 2008. Hah! With many users, such as myself, having no plans whatsoever to ‘upgrade’ to Vista, mostly because the OS seems to be basically a prettified version of XP, with some improved search capabilities, a huge RAM appetite, but with all the same security annoyances as before, akin to what Alan Cooper likes to call badly designed software made to look pretty: a pig with lipstick on it. Ok, I’m being a bit unfair – I’m sure Vista has some interesting innovations. But that becomes not very relevant in the face of what appears to be a general rejection among both individual users and large corporations alike – is there a single Fortune 500 company out there that has made the switch to Vista? And even if there has been (I’d be surprised if there has), I would imagine that the majority have not. So, the more interesting question (or pressing, if you’re Microsoft) to me seems to be: what will happen when Microsoft stops supporting Windows XP? Will users:

A: Give in and switch to Vista?

B: Switch to OS X? (Cnet seems to think so)

C: Switch to something like Ubuntu?

D: Stop using computers altogether ;)

Come to think of it, D maybe wouldn’t be so bad. As for me, I’m probably in the B category, but what I think would be most interesting would be if a lot of people picked option C, especially a few large corporations – that could very well spell the death-knell for Microsoft.

Single-click: The one Windows feature *still* missing from the Mac

Apple will soon be releasing the new OS X Leopard, which will be adding over 300 new features to the OS. There are some absolutely amazing additions to the Mac OS in this release, such as the Time Machine backup tool or the Spaces custom workspaces to keep your desktop clutter-free. And yet, as I was scanning through this stunningly impressive list of Insanely Great stuff, I was once more disappointed (and a bit surprised) to see that Apple *still* has not added the one feature that has led me to continue to use Windows: the single-click feature…

Single-click - the one Windows feature *still* missing from the Mac

Now, for someone not familiar with this feature (and, actually, for someone who is familiar with the feature), this might seem a bit weird, so let me elaborate. For me, I’ve found that constantly doing a lot of double-clicking causes pain in my wrist, so access to this feature, and the prevention of wrist pain is no small thing. And I guess what is really significant here, is that, even though I know that the Mac OS clearly is superior and just all-around more modern and robust than Windows XP, I still haven’t made the switch. Or, to be more specific, I haven’t made the switch back. For many many years, I was a hardcore Mac-Head, but then I needed to use Visio for my work, and was therefore forced to use a PC. At the beginning, I hated it, but then I discovered that, as with many things once you become more familiar with them, wasn’t so bad at all. (Keep in mind that this was in the pre OS X days, at which time I’d have to say that Windows was in fact the superior OS.)

I have to say that I am really surprised that Apple has not added this, especially with the web making single-click an even more predominant interaction form. I’ve talked to some Mac users and when I describe the feature to them, they are as surprised as I am, especially when I explain some of the bonus benefits of the feature, such as if I am creating a new file and want to name it similarly to another file, I just hover my mouse over that file, at which point the file name field is populated with that value, and I can just modify it (e.g. adding ‘v2′ at the end or whatever.)

If perhaps I should be mistaken, and Apple in fact has added this feature, I’d love to hear about it. I’ve searched extensively for it, including for 3rd party software, but to no avail.

Usability testing of books

I’ve done a lot of usability testing in my day, but today I participated in one that was different from anything I’ve done before. Rather than testing the usability of a website, we were testing the usability of a book. This, by the way, was a test conducted by Liz Danzico, the editor of Rosenfeld Media, and it all came about because of her post about the test on her blog.

What was most interesting about participating in this was that I found myself looking at something—a book—that I’ve used for pretty much long as I’ve been around (after all, before I even knew what the word ‘Book’ meant or what a book was, my mother was probably, surely, reading bedtime stories to me – Mom? You are of course reading my blog, yes? Could you maybe post a comment to confirm?), and yet here I was looking at it as if I’d never seen it before, as if this were a completely new website somebody placed before me on a monitor and asked ‘so, what do you think?’ I handled the ‘prototype book’ that Liz carefully presented to me, leafing through it a bit, looking at the table of contents, the index, the back cover.

In a nutshell, I found myself feeling very strongly that contemporary book designers can learn a thing or two from information architects, the people who organize information on websites. Seems weird doesn’t it? After all, book designers have been designing books for hundreds and hundreds of years, so you’d think they’ve pretty much got it all down pat. Not so, at least in my opinion. Similarly to how the web is transforming the music industry, it appears that books are equally susceptible to the impact of the web. No, no, I’m not talking about the paperless office or some futuristic hoopla about how the web spells the end of the book. I’m talking about how the way that we use the web, the way that we move from one page to another, the way that we have come to expect information to be organized on a web page, or in a website as whole, consciously or otherwise, is affecting how we think about and read books.

As a case in point, I mentioned to Liz that I would expect something akin to a ‘Getting Started’ section in the book, and the reason I wanted that, of course, is because it’s something I’ve come to expect in online help documentation (as well as in product-specific websites.) This, of course, would be for how-to books, and not for a more theoretical text.

Additionally, I’d expect a very tight integration between the book (keeping in mind that this is a book for computer professionals) and a companion website for the book. I would assume that I could go to the companion site and find additional content, similarly to what one might find on a DVD in addition to the movie, and of course things like errata (which already is quite common.)

Taking this a bit further, I would like to see a discussion forum, where the book essentially is the hub of a community that can congregate online to share their thoughts. And what would really bring the book-web connection home would be the presence of a wiki, where maybe the author sort of continues writing their book, possibly in response to comments made on the discussion board, or maybe uses the wiki as a live beta of a forthcoming future edition of the book. I guess the overall idea is that the web would function as an organic, living extension of the original work.

Why doesn’t Amazon.com support embedding of their content?

So yesterday, when I was writing about Bill Buxton’s new book, I went to Amazon.com, thinking I’d grab a picture of the cover of the book, and as a thank you to Amazon.com have the image of the book cover link to their site. So, I started doing the same old rigamarole of saving the book cover graphic, opening it in Photoshop to tweak it (resize it, remove the gray background inserted by Amazon, etc.) and then I thought “wait, why I am I sitting here preparing a graphic that already exists on the web? Why not just point to that graphic?” So, I went back to the Amazon site and viewed the page source and trawled around to find the url for the image. And I’m sure if I had tooled around enough in the page source, I would have been able to find the right link, but after a while, I simply decided this wasn’t worth my time. At some point, while all this was happening, someone sent me a link to a video on YouTube (yes, it was another completely ridiculous but funny YouTube video, and no I won’t tell you what it was), so I went to watch it, but found myself instead staring at YouTube Embed/URL feature and wondering why in the world Amazon doesn’t add this to their site. Y’know something like this…

Mockup of how the YouTube embed feature might look on the Amazon site

Let’s see what all the possible advantages might be of this feature:

  • Authors of the book can easily promote it on their site, and the embedded content could include optional sales info or ratings info or whatever.
  • People who have reviewed the book on Amazon’s site can display a snippet of their review on their website. Users who want to read the rest of the review would be taken to the Amazon site.
  • Bloggers, like me, who want to write about a book could easily display a book cover (and maybe optional features like the search inside link in their blog entries.

So why hasn’t Amazon done this? Is there some legal reason that prevents it? Do they already have the feature but I just wasn’t able to track it down?

Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences

I’m about half-way through Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experiences and, even though this book definitely is a tome (if not in size, then definitely in weight – the paper quality is very high – the book must weigh in at 5-10 lbs), it’s a fantastic read. First off, this book is about *a lot* more than sketching. In fact, Buxton doesn’t even get to actually talking about this (at least in practical terms) until around p. 250 or so(!), which is approximately where I am now. Instead, he lays the groundwork with multiple sweeps across a range of disciplines, from ‘designing for the wild’ (an incredible story of a close friend’s encounter with an avalanche and the testament to the power of good design in the face of a life or death situation) to a (I think) completely unique take on the story of the iPod and why it has become such a huge success (it’s probably not what you think) to a section on the history of industrial design, placing the actual meat of the book – methodologies and best practices for nitty-gritty everyday design – into powerful perspective. The part I’m on right now talks about the value, nay critical importance, of learning and understanding the practices of other team members in a design team, as in programmers developing an understanding of visual design and vice versa. Maybe what’s most weird about the book is that while it is incredibly dense, as in a 10pt serif font, because Buxton’s writing style is so fluid, and he is so passionate and knowledgeable about design (in the absolutely broadest sense of the word), reading this 5lb (10lb?) tome feels more like another equally great but much lighter read.

New Course I’m Teaching at Smart Experience: Prototyping in Practice

I’m really excited to announce a new course I’ll be teaching at Smart Experience: “Prototyping in Practice.” This will be a two-session course, in which we’ll first lay the groundwork by discussing what prototypes are–focusing on web-related prototypes–and why they matter (as in asking the question “What if we skipped the prototyping part of the design process? What is the cost, risk, etc.) and then explore when the best time is to prototype, what parts of a design to prototype, the level of fidelity that will be sufficient to accomplish the prototyping objective and much more. Finally, we’ll get to the meat of the course, which will be a discussion and hands-on workshop, where we’ll explore various prototyping tools and methodologies. This is a great course for anyone who either is fairly new to web design or has been doing it for while but wants to extend their skill set to include prototyping. Read the full course description here and, if you decide to sign up, as a thank you for stopping by my site, feel free to use the discount code FOSE (“Friends of Smart Experience”) for a 10% discount on the class.

Converting Photoshop files into MXML with Adobe Thermo

Victor sent me this unofficial sneak peak presentation of Adobe Thermo presented at the MAX 2007 conference in Chicago:

Be sure to also check out parts II and III of the video. What’s truly ground-breaking about this new app is how it allows for transforming what were just layers and objects in Photoshop (and possibly other apps – they only used Photoshop in the demo) into actual functioning interface elements on a web page. In other words, rather than being stuck with whatever ui theme that the framework you are using supports, you can just draw the components and then tell Thermo what part of your drawing should have what functionality. In other words, I can turn a text layer in Photoshop into a text field, or two rectangles into a scroll bar. All of this is functioning within Flex, meaning that Photoshop files effectively are being converted into MXML. Rather than requiring developers to recreate all the designer’s efforts, they can now instead allow the designer to bring their work into their framework, and even continue their design work, prototyping behaviors (Thermo has a bunch of cool prototyping features built in, such as easily being able to add sample content) and exploring interactive versions of the formerly static Photoshop files.

In some ways, I am incredibly excited about Thermo, and can’t wait for the public release. But the devil will, as they say, be in the details, and that couldn’t be more true for an application as complex and powerful as this. The demo looks fantastic, but so did a demo of iRise, which I saw years ago, only to discover that the real application fell far short of its promises. Of course, Thermo goes far beyond iRise (after all, iRise is an application simulator, while Thermo in fact is intended to allow for creating real apps), and is many ways a much smarter model, particularly the use of MXML, which allows for much more control and portability.

So, for now, I’m definitely excited about this tool, but only cautiously so.

Offline at the Idea Conference

I just returned from this year’s Idea Conference in NYC. Yes, I know, I live in NYC and the conference was in NYC, so I can’t really say I ‘returned’ from the conference, but in many ways I can. Why? Because in the actual conference venue, I had no way of getting online, no way of blogging the event, keeping my inbox from overflowing, etc. etc. In fact, I tried checking email from my phone, but I couldn’t even do that. So, one might ask, was this a bad thing? And, of course, the answer is a definite maybe.

Why it was a good thing that we had virtually zero connectivity at the Conference

If there would’ve been wifi, if I’d be able to blog the even as it was happening, if I’d been able to stay on top of email, to check all the websites that presenters mentioned, then of course, I would probably have missed half the conference. I would have missed Michael Wesch‘s mesmerizing, sometimes heart-wrenching keynote, describing students in modern classrooms to be like prisoner’s in Plato’s Cave, questioning whether or not students are being prepared for the world they are growing up in by today’s schools (as in the students who spend far far more time using Facebook and MySpace than doing their coursework.) I would have missed Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg fantastic one-year-later presentation of their brilliant Many Eyes information visualization site. My favorite, which was both funny and scary, is the visualization showing which words were most commonly used in Alberto Gonzalez’s Senate hearings.

Words used by Gonzales during senate hearings

In fact, I would have missed so much of one of the best conferences I’ve attended in some time. Part of what made the Idea Conference such a success for me was the amazing diversity and consistent high caliber of the presenters. A lot of credit for this goes to Peter Merholz, who was the program chair and who very undemocratically hand-picked each of the speakers. Comparing the quality of these speakers to that of, for example, some of the IA Summits, well, there is simply no comparison. But let’s be clear, while this approach certainly has it’s place, a more democratic by-committee model such as that employed by the organizers of the IA Summit also certainly has its place. Otherwise, you’d basically have the same small group of A-listers doing the conference circuit, making it very hard for lesser known people to get a chance to present their ideas. Anyway, I digress. All in all, looking back I’m sort of glad there was no wi-fi (this was not by choice by the way, the organizers very much wanted to be able to do it, but apparently the people at Parsons/New School, where the event was held shut it down), and yet, and yet…

Why it was a bad thing that we had virtually zero connectivity at the Conference

There is simply something very ironic in having an event by and for people who live and breath connectivity, the web, the information ether, to have an event in the heart of Manhattan (granted, NYC is in fact a bit backwards when it comes to connectivity – e.g. you still can’t get reception in the subways, but that’s another matter) and not being able to get online. Oh, actually we were able to get online, but to do that you had to leave the conference and walk around on the street in search of a public hotspot – which you really didn’t want to since you didn’t want to miss the fantastic presentations. And speaking of missing the presentations, even though I said earlier that being able to blog about the presentation during the presentation might have meant missing half of it, well, I think that might only be half true. After all, why do we write things down? Why do students take notes in a class? To record, to remember, to process, and re-process the information through the multiple senses of seeing and hearing and writing it down and thinking about what you’ve written and reading it later. And when you’re doing that while also online, there is that whole added dimension being able to interlink your thoughts with what the presenters are discussing, that sense of immediacy, of getting your ideas and reactions out while they are fresh. Now, writing about the conference in retrospect, well, it just has a completely different feel. Weirdly, it’s bit like dreaming – you better write your dreams down as soon as you wake up, or they are sure to fade away…