I’ve been back from my mini-break but somehow managed to catch a terrible infection in my chest. Ugly stuff coming up. I thought I had left these kind of colds back in Canada years ago. Visiting a doctor here is always a cheap and relatively quick experience. Doctors here love to prescribe drugs and the visit I had this week was no different. I left with a cocktail of drugs which only last a few days thereby guaranteeing that I will return if I am not cured. Luckily each visit to the doctor, including medication, only costs about $4.50US.
One of the downsides of working independently is how much more inconvenient being sick is – no one can cover for you and you don’t really have “sick days”. It’s times like these that I miss working in a large company.

Merry Christmas!

My bags aren’t packed and I still have a desk of work to clear (notice how I am writing this instead of doing it) but tomorrow I say good bye to the cold and head for the warmth of a sandy beach. Though a short break it beats eating what they pass for turkey here.

Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honour to this Day,
That sees December turned to May. -Robert Pinskey

Hope you have a safe and happy holiday.

Web Design Guidelines (old)

I have been reviewing old documentation lately and came across this old guideline that I created in 1999. Six years feels like an eternity. These guidelines were for a large corporate web site redesign, the largest I had been involved with up to that point. I think there is some things to be proud of with the work we did on the site and the documentation. We set-up a weblog (unfortunately the content has been lost), which in 1999 wasn’t a mainstream idea, and we were granted a certain amount of liberty with the visual design of the documentation; liberty which I would never take now nor be granted. We managed to produce (there were two of us) this documentation in print and the web in both Mandarin and English. Unfortunately the mark-up is an entirely awful by-product of Dreamweaver or GoLive – I can’t remember which tool I was using then. There are some good tidbits in there even now and it’s a good exercise for me to see where I was thinking way back then.
Read: Web Design Guidelines.

Outsourcing and Made in China

An article in the CS Monitor detailing just how hard it is to not buy a product made in China – it just might be impossible. I post this as I ponder some thoughts from another site about outsourcing jobs overseas. People often don’t embrace the opportunities that global markets represent – instead of complaining about your web jobs going to India or China take the opportunity to forge a partnership with developers there to allow you to bring your hometown clients to a whole new market. The Chinese can export products to your hometown, then why can’t you export your services to them as well? I remember overhearing or reading a small web development firm in small town Canada chiding the Canadian governments approach of over complicating the process of encouraging small businesses to reach beyond local markets. You don’t need long workshops – you need a telephone and the get up and go to call someone for work.

“We hit the first rut in the road when I discovered our son’s toes pressing against the ends of his tennis shoes. I wore myself out hunting for new ones. After two weeks I broke down and spent $60 on sneakers from Italy. I felt sick over the money; it seemed decadent for a pair of children’s shoes. I got used to the feeling. Weeks later I shelled out $60 for Texas-made shoes for our toddler daughter.
We got hung up on lots of little things. I drove to half a dozen grocery stores in search of candles for my husband’s birthday cake, eventually settling on a box of dusty leftovers I found in the kitchen. The junk drawer has been stuck shut since January. My husband found the part to fix it at Home Depot but left it on the shelf when he spotted the telltale “Made in China.”
Mini crises erupted when our blender and television broke down. The television sputtered back to life without intervention, but it was a long, hot summer without smoothies. We killed four mice with old-fashioned snapping traps because the catch-and-release ones we prefer are made in China. Last summer at the beach my husband wore a pair of mismatched flip-flops my mother found in her garage. He’d run out of options at the drug store.
Navigating the toy aisle has been a wilting affair. In the spring, our 4-year-old son launched a countercampaign in support of “China things.” He’s been a good sport, but he’s weary of Danish-made Legos, the only sure bet for birthday gifts for his friends. One morning in October he fell apart during a trip to Target when he developed a sudden lust for an electric purple pumpkin.
“It’s too long without China,” he wailed. He kept at me all day.
…After a year without China I can tell you this: You can still live without it, but it’s getting trickier and costlier by the day. And a decade from now I may not be brave enough to try it again.”

Read the article, A year without ‘Made in China’. Found at DanWei.

Audio User Experience – Q&A

Kathy Sierra was nice enough to send me an email asking me some thoughts on audio/sound. I sometimes need this impetus to write down even the briefest thoughts on a subject (and these are just brief sketches). The following are her questions and my answers.

Do you agree with me that the power of audio/sound is being greatly overlooked in so many areas of product design, user experience, etc. (as opposed to areas where sound is recognized as crucial, like movies and commercials)?

Yes I agree but there is a good reason – I would also extend your characterization of crucial to include games and toys.
Movies and commercials are passive shared experiences. Task based products are interactive and not generally shared. It’s an obvious but crucial difference. Everyone outside of China may agree that noise is something that we would rather not experience. But sound is not noise.
Sound is distinguished from noise by the simple fact that sound can provide information.
Sound answers questions; sound supports activities for tasks, so sound is inheritly useful. Consider the information provided by the click when the bolt on a door slides open, the sound of your zipper when you close a pair of pants, the whistle of a kettle when your water is finished boiling, the sound of a river moving in the distance, the sound of liquid boiling, of food frying, and the sounds of people talking in the distance. In the workplace there are the sounds of keys being pressed on a computer keyboard.
Natural sound is as essential as visual information because sound tells us about things we can’t see and it does so while our eyes are occupied elsewhere. Natural sounds reflect the complex interaction of natural objects; the way one part moves against another, the material of which the parts are made. Sounds are generated when materials interact and the sound tells us whether they are hitting, sliding, breaking or bouncing. Sounds differ according to the characteristics of the objects and they differ on how fast things are going and how far they are from us.
An extension of the statement that tasks are not shared is that the environment in which the tasks are competed are – one person’s sound is another noise. Visual displays are not as intrusive as auditory ones.
So the question of whether or not auditory interfaces would or should be used is primarily a question of implementation – how to restrict the receiving of the information inherent to sound to the person meant to be receiving it? When we solve this problem cheaply then I think we will see a great deal more use of sound in other products’ development.

Do you see any areas of great leverage — places where audio/sound could be incorporated that could make a big difference in either usability, user experience (even if simply for more *pleasure* in the experience)?

I hesitate to use these buzz words but with the popularization of Ajax/Web 2.0 interfaces it may be a good time for people to start experimenting further with sound in online application interfaces. Since these interfaces load data in real time, we lose a vital visual clue from the pages loading or refreshing. Sometimes the data change happens so fast we can’t follow any clues.
But these ideas are always met with criticism. An example from Jeffery Veen, “Sounds I stopped counting how many times I tore the headphones from my ears when a site started blaring music or “interaction” cues like pops, whistles, or explosions whenever I moused over something. Am I the only one who listens to music while using my computer?”
I love childrens toys and gain much inspiration from them. Cheap cheap sensors which illicite wonderfully fun feedback. We should have these in everything. Imagine buying a jacket that when you closed the snaps it sounded “heavier” than it feels or looks. Like the difference in sound between the door closing on a Lada and a Benz. Lots of possibilities.

Any other comments on your “Adult Chair” experience? What you learned from observing users interacting, etc.?

The adult chairs were just a small part of a broader set of objectives in creating non-elitist interfaces to musical expression. Though all of my work at that time were prototypes, just some manifestations of some ideas I had, I was harshly criticized because of the lack of “new science” or extended interactivity. Basically my work was too simple due to using off the shelf tech. and short lengths of time that people were engaged in the activities. I rejected this criticism, mostly, because I knew the criticizers didn’t understand the goals of the project and they weren’t looking at people actually using the prototypes. Though it was never intended to be so, this project ended up being the greatest champion of user centered design for me personally. We video taped allot of sessions and gathered allot of anecdotal data which drove later iterations of the design.
Some of the conclusions:

  • Its really hard to design interfaces that have no visual responses. In a game we developed around an interface similar to Adult Chairs (hulabaloo) children kept looking for flashing lights or some kind of physical response. Eventually they learned to use their ears only which was good as it was a music appreciation game. Children here are very conditioned to visual response.
  • People love being surprised and they want to have fun. They don’t care if the technology came from radio shack – they care if you can make them smile.
  • Features, options, and controls are not needed to allow people to have fun for a short period of time. To keep them engaged for long periods of time people want that control.
Any other thoughts or tips for the rest of us?

I think too often when people thing of audio interfaces they immediately think of the horrible implementations in Yahoo IM, icq, and flash sites with hip hop sound tracks. It can be intelligently and elegantly designed.
Another thought is the difficulty in designing “gray sound”. Computer user interfaces are gray – not thought provoking – sit in the background and purposely boring. Icons and language localizations aside I think they work everywhere. But how to design auditory signals that work everywhere – cultural differences abound and what data is there to help us?
I live and work in Taiwan, arguably the noisiest group of people anywhere (i’m guessing). They “appear” to have a tolerance for noise and a need for sound that is far different than my own. Because their environment is so full of aural cues how do we design for them? A Japanese garden is a place of tranquility. A Canadian park a place of clean nature. A Taiwanese park is frequently experienced with a soundtrack as they pump in music and nature sounds to keep it from becoming quiet. Quiet seems to make them uncomfortable. This is just one example of what is acceptable or normal for levels of aural cues across 3 different locations and cultures. I think localizing audio interfaces will be quite challenging.

Electrical (un)safety in Taiwan

“Anyone who’s lived in the busier areas of Taiwan longer than five minutes will already know to trust the electric and fire safety about as far as they could throw a hippo. What surprised me is when I moved into a newly built, modern house in the mountains that I thought had been built to high standards.” (llary)
I just had to share this photo of the electrical switch box that controls the power to the 2nd and 3rd floor. It’s like something out of an old horror movie.
I have made a point to not labour on much about certain things that drive me crazy about living here in Taiwan. I think it’s more constructive to happiness and a sane mind to move beyond the frustrations. This is especially true since I have been treated with such kindness by those I have had the fortune of being friends with. But its hard to not to make a passing comment on the unsafe electrical systems in Taiwan homes and how few seem to care.
This past week the house has been without power on the third floor due to the electrical wires melting. The electrical system in the house can’t take the loads that would be considered pretty normal elsewhere in the world. Naturally the land lord was in China and no one had the authority to call someone to come and fix the problem. So I called someone myself – he came over looked things over, went out to buy some wire (what electrician doesn’t have wire?), and patched things up with duct tape. That lasted 30 minutes.
The landlady came back from China and called her electrician/plumber. He gave me the impression that electrical in this house is mainly for the lights, a tv, and a fan or 2 only. Forget all that modern appliance stuff. When I asked this guy if he was going to replace the wiring and the switch box he simply stated he didn’t have time. Weird – why not stick around and do some good work instead bouncing around Hsinchu nickel and dimeing his time. There is power but for how long is unknown. There isn’t even a way to protect things against spikes in power as nothing is grounded. There are standards here for such things but as one follows these rules, despite the fact that they are for your own safety.
The quality of construction in so many things here is laughable. Nothing that is made and sold here works. It’s easy to say a blanket statement like that because it is almost entirely true. There is no concept of quality and “doing the job right”. My uncle who was a cabinet maker would labour over his work not to get it good enough but to make it the best he possibly could. Often his cabinets were works of beauty. You don’t see that here very often.
Thats the short form of my story. There are a few more people telling there experiences at Forumosa.

Richard Etter’s Melodious Walkabout

A project quite similar to my proposal Guidebot which unfortunately I couldn’t get enough interest in the project to get some budget to take it beyond a simple exhibition poster. It’s great that Richard Etter was able to take something similar, and likely more capable, and make it real. His project is likely a far better fit for the the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology than mine was for where I was working at the time. Fraunhofer investigates human-centered computing in a process context.

A variety of navigation systems have been developed that use a GUI-based interaction style. However visual navigation systems are often inappropriate in the dynamic mobile context since the user has to watch the device and cannot keep his eyes on his surrounding environment. Auditory navigation systems are more convenient, mobile users can easily interact with the system and are not visually distracted. But most auditory systems navigate the traveler by using precise spoken instructions and speech requires high attention.

Read: Melodious Walkabout – a new approach to navigation – Richard Etter

PingMag’s – The Website Development Process

We’ve been too serious and downright stodgy for too long. Maybe the power of fun is catching on, here is a delightfully fun, unique, and understandable approach to presenting the usually boring web development process to clients. It’s over simplified but for a first meeting with an inexperienced client this could be a great way to break the ice and get them involved. Kudos. Use this approach for your next financial services client and perhaps they will actually enjoy yet another meeting with yet another vendor.
Check out: PingMag’s – The Website Development Process

Creative Jam

When coming up with ideas for the smenms project the team used methods somewhat like this. We had specific constraints in the project which we either defined or were defined for us. Within these constraints we set-out to come up with as many concepts as possible – I think our goal was 100 in an hour. It was exhilarating, fun, and quite fruitful.

It’s been said that art, creativity, and innovation are about the recognition and mastery of constraints.
“Man built most nobly when limitations were at their greatest.” — Frank Lloyd Wright
One of the best ways to be truly creative–breakthrough creative–is to be forced to go fast. Really, really, really fast. From the brain’s perspective, it makes sense that extreme speed can unlock creativity. When forced to come up with something under extreme time constraints, we’re forced to rely on the more intuitive, subconscious parts of our brain. The time pressure can help suppress the logical/rational/critical parts of your brain. It helps you EQ up subconscious creativity (so-called “right brain”) and EQ down conscious thought (“left brain”).”

Embrace your constraints and use them to your advantage.
Read:Creativity on speed

Catriona’s first attempt at photography

Catriona took this shot with one of my Lomo’s while she was following me around on photo shoot here in Hsinchu. She’s only a bit over 2 years old. I think she certainly deserves to have her own camera for Christmas – what a delight it will be to see the world from her eyes. I do look big to her, as she constantly reminds me. She might just be the next Rodchenko. It’s fun.

Adult chairs exhibited in Taipei

Never underestimate the power of fun.
Today one of my tangible interface experiments is being exhibited in Taipei as part of some industry showcase – apparently the President of Taiwan is going to have a look though after yesterday’s election I doubt he will have much enthusiasm for the fun my piece seems to provide. The continued quasi-popularity of Adult Chairs always suprises me as it was without a doubt the simplist interface I had made. I think it proves how important simplicity, discovery (surprise), and fun can be in creating these type of products (interfaces). At least in the context of everything else that was being produced by the company.
Adult chairs were shown in a greater exhibition I had back in January and were a part of a project I was running called smenms. They were very simple prototypes which consisted of 7 pressure sensors (couldn’t afford 8) hidden in 4 pillows which when activated controlled a simple parameter of music. I wanted to embed sensors in ordinary objects which would allow people to interact with music and sound with a form that had a completely different use. It was hoped that by making the interface invisible and a part of ordinary objects we could invoke a sense of wonder, surprise, and hopefully engage people in the creation of sound and music in a whole new way. The whole project followed an iterative project development cycle, with every cycle producing an increasingly expressive musical interface. This was a slightly different version of the first iteration which utilized a simple on/off interaction metaphor. In first experimenting with different sounds, music, and parameters in which to control (I originally wanted people to control wildly different parameters but no one found it fun – it sounded too “post modern”) I finally settled on controlling the volume of separate pre-composed tracks. I was disappointed in the amount of expression but the audience was enthused – perhaps the lively music I wrote and produced carried the day.
Yesterday Chientai and I were setting it up for likely the last time. I will miss projects like this.
Here is an example output of the song the chairs controlled called Sit and Dance.
More info. here and a related article which perhaps should have been the title of this one Never Underestimate the Power of Fun.

Mr. Nobody owns my files

Sometimes I wonder if having so much control over my hosting account is such a good thing. It’s amazing how the tools we use to communicate and ‘enhance productivity’ end up costing us so much time.
I have been over the past week or so trying to customize a php based gallery ‘solution’ (is there a better word?) to use in upcoming projects and on a new section of my site 35togo. I had some problems with it and decided to delete the files from my server and start anew with some changes I had made. Unfortunately I couldn’t delete the files from the server, I kept getting a non-descript error message – after I opened a support ticket with my web host this is what I they responded with:

“The problem in this case seems to be that this directory is owned by the user “nobody.” The web server normally runs as the user “nobody,” and any files that it creates will be owned by this user. You won’t have permission to delete such files, by default. To remove these files, you’ll need to create a script to remove the files, then run that script as CGI. Since it will run as “nobody,” it will have permission to delete files with this ownership.”

It’s a good piece of knowledge. I wish they would have offered to delete the directory for me since they have root. Much of the software I use on my server write files and create directories. So unknown to me till now, I have acquiesced control of these files and directories to “Mr. Nobody”. In the future if I want to avoid this problem I should use CGIwrap or PHP CGIwrap (to run scripts under my own userID).
This is all I’m sure pretty basic stuff, especially to those who are unix and apache mavens, and I’m sure I will solve this. But do I really want to spend time on this? Sometimes I think I spend too much time learning to do too broad a spectrum of things. Instead of perfecting craft I become a master of nothing.

Bag Usability Tip

Which bag is it easier to find things in?
I have been spending an inordinate amount of money on bags since my days as a musician when it was vogue to have the newest gear to carry your instrument. I have more bags lying around my place than I care to admit. Bags to carry cameras and laptops, day bags, overnight bags, walking bags, hiking bags, suit bags, camping bags, and on and on and on. Having seen and used so many bags over the years I have come to see the same mistake being made time and time again. And though it may seem petty, I do believe that it’s the little things that help build a good product and ultimately customer loyalty.
This mistake is the most simple imaginable. Make the interior of the bag bright so you can actually see what you are searching for. Black bag interiors make it almost impossible to see inside the bag.
I bought a fancy camera bag last week and this didn’t really hit home until I tried putting my camera inside it’s cramped confines. It’s difficult as heck to guide the camera into the bag without some visual clue as to where it is going. Finding some small items inside has proven frustrating as well. All the other bags I use on a regular basis have highly reflective interiors which allow me to see inside quite easily.
A bit of user centered design goes a long way to improving a product. Ask a few questions and watch people use your product under normal circumstances. It doesn’t take much time, effort, or money but the results can be “illuminating”.