Times have changed :/

I remember a time when I only had (and needed) one PC. Now I work at a friggin' computer farm!

Like I hadnt had enough. Stoke City is loosing (again) against Chelsea (again) What a turn-off!

Avoiding the Uncanny Valley of Interface Design

There is a theory in robotics first proposed in a 1970 paper in the journal Energy by the roboticist Masahiro Mori. In short the theory states that as you get closer to making a robot that resembles a human, the more unsettling it will be. When our perception of human attributes is visualized, it is a curve that tracks upward when we begin to encounter more human-like machines.1

We reach a point where there is a steep drop-off. It indicates a point of being too human-like, with something that is not quite right. It triggers psychological alarms that detect the very subtle and unsettling differences associating the mind with things like death. It’s the reason movies (with computer generated people) like “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf” were blamed for poor box-office returns.2 This disturbance in our perception — before we reach the perfect likeness of a human being – is the Uncanny Valley.

In design we have been continually moving toward similar territory. There is more realism in user interface today due to factors like faster computers. As digital products have become more sophisticated applications there is a need to create controls and interface elements with clear affordance. This means adding touches of 3D through lighting effects, shadows, textures, and so on.


Cockpit app interface for MacOS

There are a few side affects to this surge of realism. I think that there is an Uncanny Valley in interface design that some Websites and applications have landed themselves in through approaching interface design in the wrong way. The Uncanny Valley of interface design might not cause something disturbing, but the user experience can be compromised.

The Good, The Bad and The Trendy

It’s no secret that I speak often and loudly about trends. The real issue I have with trends is when they are used for the wrong reasons. There are certain effects that have become just a default tool for many designers.
As I see it the rationale behind using them is:
1) It’s easy. No thinking involved. Just add a texture, and it’s “designed” now. It’s 99% imitation with 1% perspiration.
 2) They are designing eye candy that will be recognized by other designers as “great design”
3) They don’t know the user and why the effect was used in the other places they saw it. These effects bring their interface into the Uncanny Valley of UI where they seem like the other Websites or apps, but something is off.

What many of these designers don’t realize is that they are doing their client a disservice. Users don’t come to the site or open the application to stare at a UI. They come with needs to find certain content or to complete a task. They have other things they’d rather be doing like walking their dog. They aren’t designers and into the details of every pixel. They could care less if the text has the letterpress effect, unless it hinders their experience.

It’s hard as a designer to find examples of good design. What I mean by that is good design that isn’t eye candy targeted for designers. There is some really beautiful work on blogs and galleries. Of course it’s beautiful though, it’s made for people like me. Sometimes I feel like we’re all so wrapped up in our design world and talk about how crappy some sites look and that we could do much better. What we really mean is that we would design it so we would like it better when we visit/use it.

I went to a large creative conference a while back and saw some really inspirational stuff. I felt reinvigorated after coming back to work. When I sat down to write a report to basically justify the company’s investment for me to go, I went blank. None of the information could be applied to what I did on a daily basis. I realized that the conference was just for designers to feel cool and see things only they would like. It wasn’t anything that would really benefit the users or clients I designed for. That seems to be a lot of the type of work that is praised, as well as the designers who work on it.

Getting Real with Users

Apple has been pushing realism into its interface design for a while now. From glossy buttons, to the metal chrome in iTunes, and now with the guidelines for the iPad. Some of it makes a lot of sense. With the touch interface you want it to be inviting and feel familiar to the user. A screenshot of a notepad application that looks like a real notepad will probably sell a lot better than one that looks clean and digital. Some designers have taken this lead the wrong way.
Pushing the leather buttons on the Calendar app feels very much like real leather buttons would feel: Tacky. — iA
In the article “Designing for iPad: Reality Check,”3 Information Architects (iA) go through a lot of the feelings and explorations they did when starting to design for the iPad. They found that going too far with the realism just brought it into the realm of the Uncanny Valley of interface design. The interface seemed to be more kitsch and gimmicky than an effective way to present content to a user. The interface can get to a point of realism, yet fall short. Real books lay a certain way when they are open. Objects don’t always have six perfect beams of light on them.

The Apple Calender app interface

Creating a word processing app that looks like a typewriter or making the interface for a cooking app look like a real kitchen is driving it right into the Uncanny Valley. It becomes design for designs sake and we lose all sense of purpose for the application. I can guarantee though, that if you put a screenshot up in a certain designer snapshot gallery, you would shoot to the top of the popular list.

If you design something that looks like a book, then users will expect it to function like a book. With a book you lose some of the power and functionality you have with a digital product where it wouldn’t make sense to have a scroll bar on the page and the pages would restack to show your place in the book. It is interesting to see that although the iPad is capable of richer graphics, the Kindle still seems to be a preferred e-reader, with Kindle outselling iBooks 60 to 1.4


The iBooks interface


The Kindle interface

If we review the use of smaller interface elements, like buttons or symbols, we find the same holds true for them. There needs to be a balance of detail and simplification. If we go too far in either direction the meaning of the symbol becomes convoluted. With symbols and other UI elements we should be trying to communicate concepts, not replicate an exact physical object.5
Image from Realism in UI Design on UX Magazine

It comes down to being subtle and rational with using realism. The interface should not be full of excise UI elements that force a user through hoops because it looks great. If you use a metaphor make sure it is strong and helps to propel the user through the Website or application.

Playfulness vs. Usefulness

Realism in interface design is a delicate balancing act. I love a lot of the playfulness in the new apps I’ve seen. I think that the reason they work well is that the interface doesn’t overwhelm the experience. I’ve seen arguments that being a bit playful with the interface is a good thing. It enhances learning the application and engages the user. I completely agree.6

However, think about how many apps users have to do this with. That’s a lot of apps to have to relearn how to navigate. If you think about a DVD’s navigation, it’s a similar thing. They are about the experience, there’s no question. Sometimes I put in a DVD and I can get around easily to find a scene or adjust settings. Other times it is hard to figure out because the designer decided to try and be overly clever.

Even if the application is something for our enjoyment, we still have tasks we need to accomplish. If I go to respond to someone on Twitter, or purchase a song on iTunes, they are still tasks. If the iTunes store looked like jukebox I am certain that the playfulness would get old once I came back the second time to purchase music.

It is so easy to love a certain effect and want to use that everywhere. Not all projects need to have the selections sitting on a perfectly lit wooden bookshelf. On one hand we want to be creative and make something that is appealing and can sell the product. On the other side we have to question the cost of that approach on the experience itself and balance style and function with purpose.

1) The Truth About Robots and the Uncanny Valley: Analysis – Popular Mechanics
2) Into the Uncanny Valley – Seed Magazine
3) Designing for iPad: Reality Check – iA
4) Kindle Outselling iBooks 60 To 1 – The Next Web
5) Realism in UI Design – UX Magazine
6) Usability Ain’t Everything – A Response to Jakob Nielsen’s iPad Usability Study – Johnny Holland

The Man Who Destroyed the Boring Interface and Lived

From the earliest graphical user interfaces, to the latest pixel perfect work seen in apps, the most basic elements of the interface have remained pretty much the same. For example the button: It has gone from a flat rectangle, to a beveled rectangle, to a beveled rectangle with a gradient.1
One of the first systems to fully utilize a graphical user interface (GUI) was the Xerox Star (Xerox 8010 Information System). It followed close to the metaphor of an office using folders and documents, and the user would click on icons and open windows… pretty much what we do today. The Star ended up becoming a commercial failure.


Xerox 8010 Information System

From there, the more recognizable players like Apple and Microsoft came into the game. They were able to evolve the interface into what we know and use today.
So, it seems that interface design has remained a bit stagnant all these years, until today. Exciting designs and fresh experiences are being built around us. A rich, graphic realism is pouring into our work. It’s a new day for design. But wait, it’s not so new after all. In fact, there was one man who dared to see the interface in a different way years before many designers were even able to utter their first words. He saw more potential in the basic screen than just rectangles; he saw a design playground.

A Gooey (GUI) Pioneer

Kai Krause is considered an influential pioneer in interface design. He built many successful products that encouraged exploration and learning where most software at the time was mostly bare bones and unengaging. Kai breathed a new life into software design that was, until then, mostly dormant.


Mac OS 9|

Most designers look at screenshots of Kai’s design work and refer to it as kitsch, discounting it as mere eye candy for the time. I would imagine if Jakob Nielsen had nightmares about interfaces, they would look exactly like Kai’s Spheroid Designer. If we withhold judgment of “good design” and think about that time in the history of interface design, it’s hard to not appreciate that unique vision.


Kai Power Tools Spheroid Designer

When most interfaces looked more like terrible clip art, he dared to push the boundaries of digital design. We see the remnants of his influence splashed across the Web. The staple design techniques like transparency, rounded corners, drop-shadows were in his products around 20 years ago.


Kai Power Tools Lens f/x 3.0 over a Photoshop window

The tools that Kai created didn’t feel or act like tools. They made people want to reach out and start using them. The off-the-wall interfaces hid a real technology and power beneath their surface. There was no developer’s mental model present here. There was probably not even a user’s mental model to be considered either. It was a Disneyland of interfaces that simply welcomed you to its world to stop in and play for a while.2

Curse of the Sameness

The sameness that we currently find in design is pervasive. Sometimes it feels like the same designer worked on every site or application. What’s interesting is this isn’t a new problem. Although Kai pushed the limits of what was done in interface design, he ironically ended up creating another period of stagnant trends in design. The software he helped build was blamed for creating this string of “bad design.” When asked about this, he responded:
“[…] the camcorder is not a shortcut to Citizen Kane, it is an immensely beautiful and important tool to preserve memories. In that sense I do not like my tools to be approached as one-click-art short cuts to Mona Lisa, but as beautiful aids for playing with your own brain. As such, I’ll compare them to computer games any day.
The most unimaginative misuses are visible from ten yards away, while the subtle little glow and soft texture may be almost completely invisible. […] Surely the tools have a certain look and that can lead to sameness, but that’s actually more of a social problem than one of technology: conformity in style and flat emulations of the existing stuff are the common practice in 95 percent of all books or movies or records. Sad, yes. But I am always happy to see the best escape over the top.”3

Escaping Flatland

The story “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions,” is about a square living in a two-dimensional world. The square is visited by a three-dimensional sphere which he cannot comprehend until he is educated by the sphere of the existence of this other dimension called “Spaceland.” The square’s mind is then opened to new possibilities of other dimensions.
There will always be designers that latch on to a tool or technique and keep us in Flatland. The designers with a vision will break away from the rest of the pack because they are open to possibilities. Sure, they might push us straight into the next wave of sameness. We will certainly look back on today’s popular designs with the same disdain that we do on the “Web 2.0” styles. That’s guaranteed.
We can’t forget that all design is the result of a person, not a tool. Whether or not you admire or dislike the work of a designer like Kai, you have to respect them for moving us past the stagnant Flatland of design and showing us new possibilities.

1) UX Concepts – Rethinking the Button – Dax Pandhi
2) The Genie in the Machine – The Atlantic Online
3) Artist at Play – The Atlantic Online

Vim undo tree visualization

I wrote previously about an awsome plugin to give Emacs Vim-style undo trees.

Vim's undo trees are the best thing since sliced bread, but the interface for browsing through the tree is not pleasant. The Emacs undo-tree library has a way to visualize the tree and move through it with your keyboard, which solves this problem.

But now, thanks to Steve Losh, Vim has an undo-tree visualizer too. Delicious. Though it's still beta and promises to eat your babies, it seems to work pretty well. I think the diff view of the changes for the undo is a really good idea.

Thus continues the eternal Vim/Emacs arms race.

Vim undo tree

iPad? More like iAd. Vertisements.

Via Slashdot, it seems soon you may be able to subscribe to newspapers on the iPad in the near future.
Sure. Why pay $10 for a paper copy of something when you can pay the same $10 for a likely-DRM'ed copy that can only be read on a $500 portable computer?

In all honesty though, instant delivery, lack of clutter, "take it anywhere", being able to archive issues indefinitely, text search... those features might be worth the money, if it was a really good newspaper/magazine.

But wait, there's more.
The Cupertino company has agreed to provide an opt-in function for subscribers to allow Apple to share with publishers their information, which includes vital data that news organizations use to attract advertisers, industry sources say.
While the leap into the digital tablet market comes with short-term problems for newspapers, the iPad and future tablets will provide a new digital palette for publications to create sophisticated and lucrative ads, said Needham & Co. analyst Charles Wolf.
"I would say it's a risk, but I would argue it's a short-term risk," Wolf said. "If you can put animation and multimedia into ads, that will greatly enhance reader views. I am certain of that."
So as I understand it, first I buy a $500 gadget. Then I pay for a newspaper subscription. Then a bunch of companies want me to give them personal information about myself, so they can share it amongst themselves.
 And then I have to view ads.

Animated ads.

The only thing better would be if the iPad also woke you up at 4AM and tried to sell you life insurance. Maybe Apple would let me install a free ad-blocker script for my news reader though. It is my hardware, after all... pfffft, yeah, I could't keep going with a straight face.
And thus my desire to get an iPad, kind-of sort-of building over the past couple of months, once again flatlines.

Corruption is not for amateurs

Oh dear oh dear... It appears that a taxi driver has gotten himself in trouble by trying to offer a 20 Rand bribe to a traffic cop, and now has to appear in court on charges of corruption. Tsk.

Well, and rightly so. I mean, what an idiot! Everyone knows that the going rate for traffic cop bribes is at least R100! Of course you're going to get yourself arrested when you offer the guy only R20! He's going to feel insulted and pissed off, and he's going to get all righteous all of a sudden and haul your ass to jail! What else do you expect?

To illustrate the state of justice in South Africa: metro police spokesperson Wayne Minnaar stated that "motorists who attempt to bribe officers who are not corrupt, will be arrested and have to appear in court to be charged with corruption." (Emphasis mine.) I kid you not, that's what he said. A police spokesman makes a statement on a very minor and unremarkable case, but he does feel the need to make the distinction, and apply his statement only to officers who are not corrupt. Go figure.

The message, then, is clear: you will feel the wrath of the law and be snared by the mighty arm of justice... but only if you try to bribe a cop who is not corrupt. Fortunately there's not much chance of that - they're a bit rare these days. And when you attempt to bribe one who is (which mean in the overwhelming majority of cases) then of course you're purrrrrfectly alright...

A witch! A witch!

There is no denying that the soccer worldcup games of 2010 have been a great success, especially where South Africa's new and improved image in the eyes of the world. No stone has been left unturned to keep the problems that continue to plague the country (such as crime, poverty, miserable living conditions, dysfunctional municipal and governmental services) out of sight. Soccer fans are very enthusiastic, and return home convinced that South Africa is a modern country with an infrastructure and society that are on par with the best ones found in Europe and the US.

Apart from a slight case of witchcraft, that is.

Artist Yiull Damaso, who feels that art should provoke an emotional response, has created a modern version of Rembrand's The Anatomy lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. In Damaso's version the knife is wielded by the late AIDS orphan Nkhosi Johnson, while the cadaver is that of Nelson Mandela. The onlookers are political figures such as de Klerk, Zuma, Mbeki and opposition leader Zille.

Whether or not this is within the limits of good taste is up for debate - which is not unusual for daring expressions of art. But the ANC has slammed it for entirely different reasons. Not only do they call the painting "racist" (because everything that displeases the ANC is considered racist these days) but the real problem is that we're dealing with a typical manifestation of witchcraft: "In African society it is a foreign act of ubuthakathi (witchcraft) to kill a living person..." according to the ANC's statement.

Witchcraft is not uncommon in South Africa. Every now and then people are killed because they are suspected of witchcraft. Even more people (especially children) are being killed and slaughtered for muti - a form of traditional healing that uses human organs for certain rituals and treatments, and even (if desperate measures are required) human sacrifice. Yes, we are talking about South Africa in the year 2010 - the country that currently hosts the soccer world cup.

There is even a "Witchcraft Suppression Act" in South African law. This bill states that:
6 Any person who conducts himself in the manner below shall be guilty of an offence:-
1 (a) Imputes to any other person the causing, by supernatural means, of any disease in or injury or damage to any person or thing, or who names or indicates any other person as a wizard;
(b) In circumstances indicating that he professes or pretends to use any supernatural power, witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or disappointment of any person or thing to any other person;
(c) Employs or solicits any witchdoctor, witch-finder or any other person to name or indicate any person as a wizard;
(d) Professes a knowledge of witchcraft, or the use of charms, advises any person how to bewitch, injure or damage any person or thing, or supplies any person with any pretended means of witchcraft;
(e) On the advice of any inyanga, witch-finder or other person or on the ground of any pretended knowledge of witchcraft, uses or causes to be put into operational any means or process which, in accordance with such advice or his own belief, is calculated to injure or damage any person or thing; and
(f) For gain pretends to exercise or use any supernatural powers, witchcraft, sorcery or enchantment.
There is no denying that South Africa has done a brilliant PR job. It's a bit of a shame, of course, that all this money and effort has gone into hiding the country's real problems from the world, rather than solving them, but that's politics for you, I suppose...

We are safe! We have anti-virus software!

It's been one of those days. On my way to an appointment with a (hopefully future) client I got a call to let me know that said client had been rushed into hospital with acute and worrying symptoms. Planning-wise, things went downhill from there.

In an attempt to salvage at least some of my workday, I managed to pop in with another client this afternoon to discuss proposals for a company logo. Because such a thing really has to be presented and discussed, it's much easier to have them on paper. Which is fine... Except, being professionally involved with graphics, I do not have a color printer. Inkjet printers are a pain in this climate as the nozzles are virtually garantueed to terminally clog up within days, and ink is bizarrely expensive - even within the context of printer ink being ridiculously overpriced worldwide to begin with. And the budget does not (yet) allow for a color laser printer. So on my way to the client I made a stop at the local digital print shop, which normally works fine for me. But not today.

One of the guys (a new one, a pimply-faced youth with a radical hairdo who communicated mostly in grunts and mumbles) took my USB stick and plugged it into the computer. Nothing happened for a while, and then an anti-virus message popped up. "Yes, we've been having that all day long", he said. "We've been hit with a virus somehow." Nice. So I felt obliged to point out to him that, a.) his anti-virus software would work better if it weren't weeks out of date (this being a stand-alone machine) and b.) that plugging his clients' USB sticks into a machine he knows to be infected with a virus is hardly an example of good service. "No problem", he said, "the anti-virus software has stopped it before it infected your USB stick." Really? Permit me to doubt you, my friend. Anyway, all PCs in the print shop were terminally stuffed up and none would even print. So I was obliged to take my business elsewhere, which necessitated a detour past the local Postnet office - a pain because it's out of my way, it is more expensive, and the people who work there are morons.

The moron factor was once again demonstrated when I arrived, and requested some printing. The lady at the counter plugged my USB stick into a stand-alone machine first, because "We always have to do a virus check, sir". Okaaayy... So up comes a window in which Kaspersky Anti-virus starts to do a number on my USB stick. Which happened to be full of networking tools, so scanning it took forever. But guess what: the only thing with whch Kaspersky came up was the spyware in an ancient eDonkey client that was still kicking around in one of the directories and that I haven't used since the turn of the century. According to Kaspersky, everything else was fine. Uh-huh.

When she plugged my USB stick into a second machine to print the four JPEG files in the root of the stick, nothing would work. We could see the files, but not print them. So I took my stick back and plugged it into my Ubuntu laptop to see what was going on. And guess what - all JPEG files had been replaced with shortcuts to a suspicious .EXE file that never used to be there; there was an autorun.inf file that was new as well, and a whole lot of other stuff that had been modified. And Kaspersky (which was of course also way out of date because this, too, was a stand-alone machine) never noticed anything.

Great. So I reformatted the stick, copied the four JPG files onto it and, lo and behold, now they would print. Woohoo.

Anyway. The moral of the story is, once again, that the user is and will always be the weakest link in the computer security chain. Which isn't exactly news... but I wonder if they still make memory sticks with write-protect switches on them, like the first one I used to have, many years ago. With users like these, we need 'em.
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