UXCamp Vancouver Nearly Here

I was going to blog earlier this week about the upcoming User Experience Camp Vancouver, which Karen Parker and I are organizing and holding at the Vancouver Film school this Saturday, but the event sold out nearly immediately, and I fear that writing about it here will be frustrating to so many who can’t get in. The venue is a good one, but it only holds a little over 100 people, and we hit that number within a week and half of announcing it in a few online areas.

At any rate, my takeaways, even before UXCampVancouver starts are:

  1. There is clearly a desire here to have a conference where local User Experience people (that includes Information Architects, User Interface Designers, Web Developers, User Testers and Researchers, Software Entrepreneurs, etc.) can meet and share information and opinions.
  2. We may need a bigger venue if we do it again
  3. Being free doesn’t hurt either. After all, a chance to talk about this stuff, plus some coffee and treats, comfy chairs and Wi-Fi is a good way to spend a late fall Saturday in Vancouver, wet and rainy or not.

At any rate, if you do want to get on the Waiting list, there is still a chance, although remote, that someone who has signed up for a slot will bow out, so give it a shot, and hopefully I’ll get to see you on Saturday.

Eek!

For decades there was a religious war regarding what computer users should be doing with their hands when they weren’t typing. No, not that religious war (you cheeky monkey!), the one about the pointing device, which would allow a user to make gestures on the screen, and address parts of a graphic user interface. Before I even started using a computer, I imagined that I’d be using some sort of ‘light pen’ to do Music Notation on the screen, since I’d once seen someone using that kind of a device on a documentary (and wasn’t it used in the movie The Andromeda Strain)?  Then, when I was just returning to the US from school in England, a fellow student (who was Canadian) said I should look into using ‘A Moose’. No, I misheard his Toronto accent. He wasn’t talking about the Canadian animal, but the Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie of Robert Burns fame A Mouse. The original, first computer mouse, invented by Douglas Englebart in 1963 had this drawing in the patent:
Original Mouse Patent Engineering Drawing

The Original Mouse Patent Engineering Drawing

Though the drawing doesn’t show it, Englebart’s mouse, which was one small part of Engelbart’s a larger project, aimed at ‘augmenting human intellect’ had 1 button. The drawing mainly shows how the block uses multiple rollers, which sense which way the mouse is being moved in terms of X and Y coordinates.

When Apple shipped the first Lisa computer (and of course, the first Mac) , the commandment that ‘Thy mouse shall have but  1 button’ was spoken to the masses. On the other side, the X-Window System, and the IBM PC mouse had multiple buttons (2 or 3). The two to three camps dug in for years, each claiming the ergonomic, moral or practical high ground over the others. The antipathy between the 1 or many buttons groups continues to to this day, even if this division is no longer the case. Many people believe that Apple has stayed true to their gospel and only makes or supports a 1 button mouse, but the unforutnately named ‘Mighty Mouse’, which shipped in 2005, supports multiple buttons virtually rather than physically (you click on one side or other other to simulate one or the other button), and also has a roller ball and 2 physical side buttons, providing no fewer than 5 buttons. The proliferation of mouse buttons, sometimes 2, sometimes 3, sometimes 5 or more, depends on the system and software one encounters. Some trackball devices have had 5 buttons that effectively provide even more control messages by allowing a different kind of click from different combinations of those buttons. Apple’s latest mouse (the even more unfortunately named ‘Magic Mouse’ – what group is coming up with these names?) even goes farther, making the entire mouse surface another control surface in and of itself, like the trackpad on a laptop. This, to me, is akin to attaching a steering wheel to the top of a gearshift, or some other bizarre composite, but I’ll have to withhold judgement until I try one, even though it sounds like the Industrial Design equivalent of a Turducken.

The point is, complex gestural movements, involving more than a simple click (or double click) on a pointing device have pretty much been adopted by all computer makers, with at least an accepted level of complexity, although for the most part, a user can work up to that complexity, by moving from simple gestures to more complex ones over time, hence the idea of a short cut to a function instead of making  that function only executable from a complex gesture.

As a friend of my parents puts it, ‘Anything worth doing is worth overdoing’. I shouldn’t be surprised by what I thought was certainly a post on The Onion, but no, it was serious, and it was the Open Office Consortium who was proposing this mouse:


The Open Office Mouse. Really. No, really.

Holy Roller, Batman! This thing is certainly the other end of the spectrum from the mice we’ve seen up until this point, at least for the general public. (More complicated mice like this one have shown up on engineering stations, imaging systems, and countless other vertical application machinery).

If you look carefully (click on the photo to see it a bit larger), you’ll see that it has no fewer than 16 buttons and a roller that are visible. The description actually boasts that it has “18 programmable mouse buttons with double-click functionality” and “Three different button modes: Key, Keypress, and Macro”.  They even show a comparison chart comparing it to other mice on the market.

While I won’t comment on the oddness of an open software consortium designing hardware (or rather, having a designer design some for them), I have to admit that this initial paragraph, on the page ‘About the OpenOfficeMouse, caught my attention:

The OpenOfficeMouse was designed with the goal of being the best and most useful mouse the digital world has seen to date. Initially inspired by the keyboards on the Treo smartphones, it was designed by a game designer who was annoyed with the paltry number of buttons available on high-end gaming mice. Because gaming mice have historically been designed primarily for FPS¹ games, not MMO² and RTS³ games, they do not possess sufficient buttons for the dozens of commands, actions and spells that are required in games that make heavy use of icon bars and pull-down menus. After discovering that the available World of Warcraft mice were nothing more than regular two-button mice decorated with orcs, dwarves, and Night elves, the idea of the WarMouse was born. After much experimentation, it was determined that 16 buttons divided into two 8-button halves were the maximum number of buttons that could be efficiently used by feel alone. However, in the process of design and development, it quickly became apparent that many non-gaming applications would also benefit from having dozens of commands accessible directly from the mouse, especially applications with nested pull-down menus and hotkey combinations. OpenOffice.org was selected as the ideal application suite around which to design this application mouse because the usage tracking feature of OpenOffice.org 3.1 permitted the assignment of application commands to mouse buttons based on the data gathered from more than 600 million actual mouse and keystroke commands enacted by users. The OpenOfficeMouse team are advocates of Free and Open Source Software, which is why we are members of the OpenOffice.org community and have created custom profiles for other OSS applications such as Mozilla Firefox, Mozilla Thunderbird, The Battle for Wesnoth, D-Fend Reloaded, and The Gnu Image Manipulation Program.

So what we have here is a design for a gaming mouse, now re-purposed for general purpose applications (like browsing the web, email, and the Open/MS Office suite of word processing, spreadsheets and presentations).

Maybe it’s because I don’t do much gaming (and by ‘don’t do much’,  I mean hardly at all),  maybe it’s because I come from the ‘make it for a klutz’ school of UI design because I’m not very coordinated, but I think that this approach to User Interface or Industrial Design will never have much of a following. It wasn’t lost on me that I had to look up some of those acronyms to provide the footnotes here. Sure, there will always be some small group of people who want more and more direct power over their work from their hardware, and they often buy the most baroque control devices. For me, however, the whole idea of taking a piece of gaming hardware and repurposing it to work on everyday tasks is about as appealing as using a flight simulator to do your banking. Sure, you might get more fine maneuverability during a funds transfer (if you could master the controls), but it hardly seems worth the effort. Maybe that’s the key here: Having a competitive advantage from  your hardware and your skill with it during a game is far more important and more likely to have you make that effort than being a whiz at moving from cell to cell in your spreadsheet or even triggering one of the 100 or so macros you’ve created for your word processing tasks.

So to the OpenOfficeMouse folks, I say, good luck, but forget about selling one of those mice to me. Now, we start seeing the ‘direct to brain’ controllers, where I don’t have involve my arms and fingers at all with typing and gesturing on the screen but just think where I want to the cursor to go, I’ll be more interested. That would be the 0 button mouse, which I think I’m going to have to address in some future post.


¹first-person shooter
²massively multiplayer online
³real-time strategy

Solving England’s Plug Size Problem

When I lived in England, believe it or not, everybody had to be an amateur electrician. I’m really showing my age, but back in the mid 80’s there wasn’t a common universal plug throughout England, so you had to buy your plug separately from the ‘flex’ which they called the electrical cord. I’m serious. You bought your appliance, lamp or other electrical device (I remember that in my case, it was a radio/cassette tape recorder), and then you bought a plug ‘kit’, which let you splice the plug on to the flex. You had to attach your plug yourself to any consumer electronics. It’s almost laughable, but that’s what the state of electrical standards adoption was in late-20th century England.

Eventually, the UK did standardize on a plug, but it ended up being the largest and bulkiest plug you’ve ever seen, including a fuse inside the plug itself. It was almost as if the Brits only begrudgingly accepted this newfangled invention of electricity, and decided that they were going to only allow you to use it if you had the proper muscle power to hold and manage these huge electrical plugs. The notion that you’d carry around an electrical device that needed to be plugged in hadn’t even been entered into the equation.

When people started carrying around laptops, the large size of UK plugs became even more troublesome. In the case of a Macbook Air, the UK plug was several times thicker than the laptop itself. Enter a clever designer and an ingenious design to the rescue. This video shows how a folding approach not only allows one to carry around a slim plug and unfold it when needed, but actually creates a new, secondary standard, where all of the prongs are still accessible but in a folded state, so a whole bunch of these folded plugs can be plugged into an adapter, which is plugged into the wall in its unfolded state (or perhaps, a new sort of power strip, built for the folded prong arrangement). To see what I mean, have a look at the video. It shows that sometimes good industrial design can almost work miracles. Lets hope this idea catches on:

Information Design Gone Wild

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
— from Ariel’s Song, The Tempest by William Shakespeare

I loved the almost anal-retentive display of data through a heads-up display about the scenery and other details in the opening scenes of the movie ‘Stranger than Fiction‘:

Now, imagine that kind of data display about everything; The chemicals in the soil around you, the wavelengths of light as they strike your skin, the building materials of the structures you walk by; all are a sea of data that is not so much invisible as it is inaccessible. Now imagine, if you had a heads-up display on your glasses (or on contact lenses, as is suggested in Vernor Vinge’s Novel Rainbow’s End). If you are ‘wearing’ as Vinge calls it, you now have the possibility of superimposing all sorts of data on top of the reality you see around you. In fact, if you prefer, you can replace that reality with one as rich and strange as you like.

Rather than a real place, what if this were done with, say, a Fairy Tale. Tomas Nilsson, a design student at Sweden’s Linköping University, decided to do just this with the Little Red Riding Hood story, which started out as a class project:

As computing and access to data becomes more ubiquitous, I think this will start to change our view of reality. It’s a subtle thing, but the fact that many people now carry some sort of device (either a smart phone or a portable GPS device), so they are never truly lost. That’s a big change of their reality, right from the start.

The other evening, my iPhone had some problems, so I headed home to try and fix it (I did, the software needed to be reinstalled). The ride on the bus felt very strange without being able to listen to podcasts or music. I couldn’t check the time. I couldn’t call anyone, or check my email. It wasn’t until then did I realize how much I rely on this little brick of metal and glass.