Design Gems from Moscow (with love?)

Through the usual way that one stumbles upon something on the Internet (by…stumbling upon it), I found the web site of the Art Lebedev studio, who have become known because of a breakthrough keyboard that has been talked about (and wished for) for quite some time. The keyboard has struck a chord (pun intended) with a lot of geeks, because it’s one of those ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ kind of products. Each key is an LCD, and can be programmed to both display a different character and type that character (or perform that function) when pressed. Here’s what that could mean:

Set for English: (lower case)

Optimus Keyboard set for English

Those same keys set for Photoshop:

Set for Photoshop

Wait, what it if was set for the game Quake?

Set for Quake

On top of this extraordinary keyboard, there is also a brilliant, if less ergonomically spot-on mouse:

The Mus 2 Mouse from Lebedev Studios

In addition to these bits of Industrial design (and geek fancy-tickling), Mr. Lebedev, who along with his studio, is in Moscow, also writes a sort of blog, although it is not an RSS feed (but I wish he would make it so) called Mandership. According to Mr. Lebedev, it’s been a project since 1997 (which would account for it’s pre-RSS structure). I also notice that the most recent entry is in 2006. I hope he does another few this year. Nearly all of the posts I read were gems of clear thinking about design, the way the world works, and the way people think. No wonder he and his compatriots at his studio keep coming up with such brilliant products, even if some of them are harder to bring out of the concept stage.

What’s the Best UI for Twitter?

The Twitter Logo

I’ve become fascinated with the new web application called Twitter. It’s a way of simply and tersely updating others on your status: This makes it kind of like a cross between a blog, instant messaging and perhaps SMS (cell phone text messaging). Twitter is like a blog, because it broadcasts your thoughts, moods, impressions, and other personal mumblings to the world at large. It’s like instant messaging because it consists of short messages, no more than 140 characters in length. It’s like SMS messaging because twitters (or is the singular a ‘tweet’?) can be recieved on a cell phone (and I believe you can update your own status via a cell phone, although this is much easier and cheaper in the US than Canada or overseas). Oh, and your twitter status updates only go to the people who choose to ‘follow’ you (and likewise, you only get updates from those people who you know and want to be updated about. Your posse is your update audience, and you get their updates as well.

To use twitter, you bring up the Twitter web site, and if you have an account and have left a cookie that logs you in automatically, you make a twitter/tweet by typing your message into the form. To help you stay under the 140 character limit, there is a countdown javascript that tells you the number of characters you have left. It’s not that inconvenient or confusing, but I keep wondering if there’s a better way.

I suppose that using an SMS cell phone to update my status would be best, but even then, typing is a problem. Perhaps there could be a special twitter application for phones and PDAs (or both, like my Treo or a Blackberry), with set phrases that you could use by pressing buttons or the option to insert your location, if it knew you were near a particular place that you are often located at, like Work, Home or a friend’s residence. The key here is that twitter has a different User Model than the web, or Instant messaging, or even perhaps SMS.

A User Model, as I define it, is everything about a given situation that a user experiences when they are accessing or operating software or hardware, including their posture, how much time they have, their level of comfort (or discomfort), what else they might be busy doing, the amount of attention they can/want to dedicate to the activity, etc.. A lot of software assumes that you are sitting in a task chair, have a keyboard, mouse or trackpad and a monitor of decent size, that you have a block of time to dedicate to the activity you are engaged in and you can devote nearly your full attention to the task at hand. Some software assumes that you are connected to the Internet, but other (non-web, of course) packages don’t. In contrast, Instant Messaging always assumes that you are connected continuously to the Internet, are a pretty fast typist, and can devote all or perhaps part of your attention to the conversation you are having. A web application called ‘Do I Need a Jacket’ (or www.doineedajacket.com) is designed to be used just as you are just leaving your home or office. You look at it for a second, perhaps from a standing position and peering over at your screen, and it remembers the last place you put in for it’s ‘setting’ (you can also change the thresholds for cold, chilly or wind speed that trigger a yes or no answer for the question of whether you need a jacket or not). One click is all it needs once this is set up. SMS assumes only that you have your phone or Blackberry with you and that it is turned on. It also assumes that you don’t have a full keyboard (although the remarkably good keyboard on the Blackberry has begun to change this a bit).

Twitter needs only a little bit of attention (like IM), but it is required sporadically, like an incoming SMS or IM. Like a blog, it requires that you think about yourself, or at least what you want to say, but unlike a blog, you don’t have to be a writer (or even be able to write a full sentence!) Twitter can serve some very useful purposes, like letting a bunch of friends know where you are if you are meeting up later, or receiving constant status reports (even from RSS feeds, like the local weather), or perhaps even some applications we haven’t thought of yet.

At any rate, this is a new kind of application, with some very interesting challenges related to the User Model as well as the role that online messaging can have in our lives. For a version 1.0 it’s crude, but then again, IRC (Internet Relay Chat) was also pretty crude as well, and look what that gave rise to (AOL chats, Minitel, AIM, Gtalk, iChat AV, Meebo, and who knows what else?!)

Contactability Versus SPAMbots: What to do?

Here’s an issue that both touches on usability, as well as this blog itself:

A visitor to this blog noted the lack of contact information (such as my email address) in plain view. My answer to him was that this is partly on purpose. As many people know, when you leave your email address on a web page, software that is designed to harvest email addresses can easily grab that address and put it in SPAM databases. I learned from my Kendall Group web site that doing this resulted in a nearly unusable email address (ddrucker@ that address is constantly inundated with hundreds of SPAM a day, and only after I completely removed it and put up a ‘closed for business’ page up has this begun to let up , but not entirely).

There are some solutions for this problem, but I’m not sure which to adopt. Here are the ones I know of:

  1. List my address as ‘name “at” domain name’ , rather than an address that is actually written out. This is inconvenient, and relies on the ability of people to figure it out (and machines to be unable to – I’m not sure if they have improved the SPAMbots so that they can get around this). It’s a relatively simple but user unfriendly solution, that is potentially useless if the software has been made more ‘intelligent’ to get around this subterfuge.
  2. Create a ‘Contact Me’ form for the initial email, much like a comment, but on it’s own page and with a simple mailto form script. While it’s not particularly elegant (and mailto scripts have their own security problems), it might do the trick. Again, there’s no guarantee that SPAMers might find a way around this one.
  3. Include the text “To contact me, please use a comment.” somewhere on the home page. This is easiest, and would have a pretty good chance of getting by the SPAMbots. It is, however, less ‘friendly’, since initial communications would be public and not everyone likes having their opening communication visible to all (even though I can actually choose to not publish the comment and still respond via email).
  4. Years ago I’d heard of services where email sent to an address for the first time required the sender to validate themselves (essentially respond to a link in an automatic responder email). I’ve forgotten what it was called, but it sounds good in this case, but I’m not sure what kind of reaction it might cause (since it puts most of the responsibility upon the person who is initially trying to get in touch to verify that they are not a SPAMer)

So, there is my quandary: How to make myself more ‘contactable’ without opening up the door to the inevitable flood of SPAM. I already receive about 2-300 SPAMs a day from my old address, so this is no small issue. I know that there are probably some other solutions, but I do not want to run extra SPAM software on my Mac, and do not want to have to buy a PC to run SPAM software either. I want to stop or discourage these emails before they are sent, not have something sift through my mail to remove them afterward. I sometimes access my email from the road via webmail, so extra SPAM-filtering software doesn’t help there.

Any ideas?

Warning, Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!

At one of my favourite sites, Infosthetics (see my blogroll), they note that the UN has come up with a new Warning Sign for Radiation. Here it is:

New Radioactive Warning Sign

According to the report, this symbol is…

the result of a 5-year project conducted in 11 countries around the world. the new symbol, developed by human factor experts, graphic artists, & radiation protection experts, was tested on a total of 1,650 individuals in Brazil, Mexico, Morocco, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Thailand, Poland, Ukraine & the United States to ensure that its message of “danger – stay away” was crystal clear & understood by all.

It’s interesting to note that this symbol follows a bunch of the ‘rules’ of UI design regarding warnings:

  1. It’s red. Red is the colour of blood and is often associated with danger. This is the reason that I am always upset by web sites (like Webnames.ca) who decided that their link colour should be red to match their colour scheme. Red should almost never be the colour for your links, people! I’d even go so far as to say that red should be reserved in most UIs for only warnings or errors.
  2. It uses a triangle shape, which is frequently used in warning signs because of the sharpness of the angles, connoting danger or at the very least, unpleasantness (if you got poked with it)
  3. Unlike the old Radiation symbol (which is the three-sided symbol at the apex of the 3 figures within the sign), it has a verb in it! The arrow with the person running, which looks very much like an imperative ‘Go!’
  4. It has some scary looking lines that show the radiation. Although this is not a rule per se, it does illustrate some activity, which is a good example of how an invisible force like radiation can be portrayed.
  5. It shows the Death symbol, (skull and crossbones), though this could be misread as ‘Radiation can cause Pirates and make you lose your left foot’ if you wanted to be thickheaded/silly about it. (For a whole series of misreadings of IKEA warnings for comic effect, my friend Matt made up a whole slew of hysterical examples ).

I’m glad that they tested the symbol in countries like Brazil, Mexico, Morocco, Kenya, and Saudi Arabia, etc.. So often ‘Universal’ signs or icons don’t take into account differences in other cultures. I remember some years back something about Men’s and Women’s room signs not working well in countries where pants vs. dresses or skirts were not necessarily the sole marker of secondary sex characteristics. Who knows, maybe some Kilt-wearers in Edinburgh had to think for a minute.

How Small is Too Small?

As I started to customize different WordPress Themes for this blog, I found myself at one point editing some icons: the ones that appear next to the date () and author (). These icons are 9 by 9 pixels, which is probably the smallest graphic that I’ve ever edited in a UI, at least something that was not connected to anything else (like the corner of a window or curve in a box). These icons are not really much more than a decoration, and frankly, I’m somewhat on the fence about them. They do draw the eye to the date and author, but I’m not sure that’s either a good thing in this case (since the author, 99% of the time will be the same) and because they do add a bit of clutter. Since they are so small, they are not clickable (nor should they be). Perhaps the might be useful as the holder of more information, like the date and time. This would be information that is not necessarily helpful to see all the time, but in those cases where it would be helpful to mouse over the object and get more information, such a small element might be handy. In that case, mouseable (as opposed to clickable) might not be a bad idea.

I thought that 9 by 9 might be the limit for icon size, and that this was so small that one colour (or black and white) might also be a rule. Although they are slightly larger at 16 by 16, the free set of icons from FamFamFam called “Silk Icons” are actually in colour. There are 700 of them and many of them are quite good. Let’s hope that a lot of people use them, as they provide some good examples of good icons on the net. I’m particularly impressed with clock and table edit .

Nevertheless, I believe that when you get below 16 by 16, an interface element probably is for display only. The only exception might be the arrows you see on heirarchical menus, and even then it’s connected to a much larger item (the menu).

Update: My friend Jan has noted that these icons show up as not much more than ‘dots’ on his high-resolution laptop screen. I forgot to take into account that as screen resoloutions go up (and more devices are miniaturized), one has to take this into account. So, I’m thinking that these days the smallest one can get in a UI element is probably closer to the teens or near 20 pixels for any sort of meaningful information. Unless you consider a dot meaningful, which it is at the ending of a sentence, like this one.