Iconography: the good and the bad

Hanselman had my attention with his seminal article on the painfully anachronistic icons we still use to this day in computing (long after their relevance to everyday life has passed):


Today I had the pleasure of a different take on some of the most noteworthy icons in computing:


What does all this mean to me?

  1. We need to remain aware of the meaning of how we summarize expected actions/outcomes in our interfaces, and try very hard to connect to the target user. Making them learn our meaning just because we’re too lazy to learn theirs is a massive fail
  2. Cultural context is key – just because those of us with the experience of growing up at a certain time in middle-class North America are aware of what a certain visual used to mean, doesn’t mean the other 6 billion are just as “intuitively clueful”. I got to grow up in the shadow of the US and am keenly aware of how easy it is to assume that “everyone is like us, right?
  3. Sometimes an outcome has no analogue or universal meaning in our experience, and we should pick something with elegance or abstract individuality. I’m a big fan of doing it right, but when there is no “right”, do it artfully.

Neilsen’ Ten Usability Heuristics (including my favourite)

These simple-sounding but powerful principles keep resurfacing in my work, and a quick reminder never hurts.


My current favourite is "aesthetic and minimalist design":

Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.

I keep running into the proponents of "what’s the harm in a little more info?", and I find this principle of "relative visibility" compelling. I’ll see how well this works as an argument for not overloading the user with "just in case" information.

This week in after-work design & tech events in PDX UX Happy Hour, BSides PDX, Flux

Did any of you get out to Rose City Comicon this weekend? Tell me what you thought – I’d love to hear how it went down. I was in the outskirts of hippie country, catching up with friends who are decidedly veering off the grid.

This week: hackers. You ever wanted to hear how security researchers work their magic, or what they’re interested in breaking (or fixing)? BSides PDX will definitely give you your fill – I’ve been to the past two cons and they’re a fascinating look inside the mind the of the hacker. Sometimes scary, always educational.

This Week in my kind of PDX fun
· Tues Sept 24th: Portland UX Happy Hour “Combo meal with PDX Web & Design” (Calagator)

· Tues Sept 24th: Internet of Things Meetup PDX “The $1K Hardware Contest and Oregon’s Plans for a Hardware Incubator” (Meetup)

· Wed Sept 25th: Lean Coffee (7:30am) (Calagator)

· Sept 27-28th: BSides PDX Annual Security Hackers Gathering (EventBrite)

· Fri Sept 27th: Flux Feminist Hackerspace Grand Opening (Calagator)

On the Radar
· Wed Oct 2nd: CHIFOO “Finding and Measuring the Awesome in Education” (Eventbrite)

· Sat Oct 5th: PDX Code Retreat – Fall 2013 (EventBrite)

· Tues Oct 8th: UX Book Club “The UX Team Of One” by Leah Buley (Twitter)

· Oct 7-12th: Design Week Portland – just ignore the horrible gimmicky page design, I’m sure there’ll be some talented designers featured there

· Jan 11th 2014: Portland Code Camp 2014 (EventBrite)

· March 2014: CHIFOO talk “Show, Don’t Tell: Storytelling Experience Design in Modern Comic Books

This week in after-work design & tech events in Portland PDXQS, CHIFOO, PDX Web & Design

I have to admit, I did nothing last week as social “after-work design & tech fun”. Bad Mike – no gold star for you last week. Instead I found myself researching the Comic Book Storytelling UX talk – it’s six months away but I’m already obsessed with collecting the perfect pages – fun for me and eye-opening for you. Dog help me if this keeps up.

Of note: the October CHIFOO event is a tickets-only event, and tickets are going surprisingly fast. (57 left as of press time) If you’re thinking about it, get yours now!

See you on the sunny hot streets of Portland.

This Week in my kind of PDX fun
· Tues Sept 10th: PDX Quantified Self “QS Co-laboratory” (Meetup)

· Wed Sept 11th: CHIFOO “Using Value to Position Design, UX, and HCI More Strategically In an Organization” (CHIFOO)

· Thurs Sept 12th: PDX Web & Design “Developing/Designing for Google Glass” (Meetup)

On the Radar
· Wed Sept 18th: Agile PDX “Ward Cunningham On Getting Current in the New Web World” (Calagator)

· Thurs Sept 19th: PDX Quantified Self “Show and Tell” (Meetup)

· Tues Sept 24th: Portland UX Happy Hour “Combo meal with PDX Web & Design” (Calagator)

· Tues Sept 24th: Internet of Things Meetup PDX “The $1K Hardware Contest and Oregon’s Plans for a Hardware Incubator” (Meetup)

· Wed Oct 2nd: CHIFOO “Finding and Measuring the Awesome in Education” (Eventbrite)

· Sat Oct 5th: PDX Code Retreat – Fall 2013 (EventBrite)

· March 2014: CHIFOO talk “Show, Don’t Tell: Storytelling Experience Design in Modern Comic Books

What’s going on in after-work design & tech events in Portland SEMpdx Networking, UX Happy Hour, big data

CHIBowl was fun last week, but I had to dive out before it got raucous. (At least, that’s the way that event would end if it’s was up to me.) Got to see some friends put on a real conversational show, and made a few new friends whose names are just as ephemeral as my bowling prowess. (I noticed not one but two monogrammed bowling shirts – fashion rules.)

Did you make it to PDX Web & Design? I am dying to know what UI Designer “tools” they discussed – and I haven’t seen any slides mentioned after the event L

I won’t be around next week (vacation on the humid East Coast) so you’re on your own. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.

I discovered an interesting Social Psychology course offered by Wesleyan University that starts this week and goes for a couple of months. We’ll hear and discuss about the social dynamics of subjects such as Persuasion, Obedience, Conformity, group behaviour, Conflict and Empathy.

Where could you find me this Week?
· Tues Aug 13th: SEMpdx Presents the Annual Rooftop Networking Party, co-sponsored by CHIFOO and others (Meetup)

· Wed Aug 14th: UX Happy Hour @ the White Owl Social Club (Calagator)

· Thurs Aug 16th: PDX Big Data Discussion Group – open discussion at Green Dragon (Calagator)

· Aug – Oct: free online Social Psychology university course (Coursera)

On the Radar
· Wed Aug 28th: Portland JavaScript Admirers (Meetup)

· Wed Sept 4th: PDX Web Development “Get to know members” (Meetup)

· Wed Sept 11th: CHIFOO “Using Value to Position Design, UX, and HCI More Strategically In an Organization” (CHIFOO)

· Thurs Sept 12th: PDX Web & Design “Developing/Designing for Google Glass” (Meetup)

· Tues Sept 17th: Internet of Things Meetup PDX “(tbd)” (Meetup)

· Delight Oct 7-8: [I’m not going but you might be interested] (Delight)

What’s going on in after-work design & tech events in Portland CHIbowl, PDX Web & Design

I dropped in on the Portland UX Happy Hour last week – a new group with an ad-hoc mission and an interesting variety of people – co-led by two energetic people (Jenny Mahmoudi and Elea Chang) who are working to bridge the Portland design communities. Met some interesting new folks, had fun and eye-opening conversations, laughed and jabbered.

See you for a round of bowling this week – and I’ll catch you next week at the SEMpdx networking party (who’re throwing their arms pretty wide to the whole tech community). I’ll have to step out on the PDX Web & Design meetup this Thursday, so if you’re going please take notes – I’d love to know what kinds of tools UI people are using!

Where could you find me this Week?
· Wed Aug 7th: CHIFOO – annual bowling party (free for members!) (CHIFOO)

· Thurs Aug 8th: PDX Web & Design “Beyond the Comp: A UI Developer’s Toolset” (Meetup) [Well, not me ‘cause I’m celebrating my sweetie’s birfday]

On the Radar
· Tues Aug 13th: SEMpdx Presents the Annual Rooftop Networking Party, co-sponsored by CHIFOO and others (Meetup)

· Thurs Aug 16th: PDX Big Data Discussion Group – open discussion at Green Dragon (Calagator)

· Wed Aug 28th: Portland JavaScript Admirers (Meetup)

· Wed Sept 4th: PDX Web Development “Get to know members” (Meetup)

· Wed Sept 11th: CHIFOO “Using Value to Position Design, UX, and HCI More Strategically In an Organization” (CHIFOO)

· Thurs Sept 12th: PDX Web & Design “Developing/Designing for Google Glass” (Meetup)

· Tues Sept 17th: Internet of Things Meetup PDX “(tbd)” (Meetup)

Jawbone UP: magical devices (which begets an immediate wish list)

I’m one of those crazy bastards who loves to track all sorts of data about myself – what I eat, how well I digest it, which scary movies I’ve seen more than five times, how often I’ve listened to that embarrassing electronic-psytrance-chill group.

So I was a goner when I spotted the Jawbone UP in my last buzz through the Apple Store. Sara suggested it as an early birthday present to myself, which turned a normally-agonizing months-long decision into a two-minute mental debate over colour, size and which credit card to use.

The unboxing-and-configuration experience was a spiritual experience. Every design choice seemed to hit my endorphin button, from information design (what questions were asked for what little information they needed to convey or discover) to interaction design (nice simple choices laid out in a pleasing and effective manner) to great visual design (colours, sizing, contrast).

However, within a few days I started to itch for more – this feels like a device with so much potential, and it feels close enough for me to touch but teasingly just out of reach.

Sleep mode

sleep graph
I didn’t sleep so hot last night

Doesn’t seem to register those times when I’ve fully awakened but didn’t “get up”. I’ve had that experience at least once a night since getting this band, but only once in the first four nights did the band trigger that alert-but-still-lying-down state as “awake”. Since then I’ve seen more “orange slices” in my sleep, so maybe it’s tuning itself to my behaviour – or maybe I’m just thrashing more.

Steps while horizontal

lifeline steps
I am a couch-surfing master

I had an experience one morning where I never left the bed and yet registered 286 steps. How can that be? On another occasion, I checked the band before and after getting in the car and driving for half an hour, and no steps were registered – so obviously some types of movement scenarios are being done right.


Just as much of a PITA as any other calorie-counter app, but I’m not sure if that level of granularity is even ever going to be integrated into cool/insightful reports. The food log is a very rich database, but for someone like me who eats a lot of home-cooked food (due to my celiac and lactose intolerance, I can’t eat as much prepared food as my laziness would like), I end up having to make some pretty undesirable choices: (a) forgo the nutrition information entirely on a “custom entry in my food library”, (b) choose something that might be close from the available (but hard to preview) restaurant/commercial foods, or (c) just take ridiculous guesses as to the nutritional values of meals prepared from the fridge.

Smart Alarms

Why does the wake alarm still go off after I’ve switched UP to “I’m awake” mode? Isn’t this supposed to be meant to be a “smart alarm”, to wake me out of sleep? And have I not proven I’m awake by holding down the “mode switch” button for the required two continuous seconds? I find the silent alarm redundant and annoying for this reason, and after a couple of weeks I just gave up and turned it off – even though it would be brilliant to wake me at “the ideal time in my sleep cycle” on those rare occasions when I’m sleeping way past the time I should.

Sleep/awake button

What is the “correct” (by-design) expectation for when I should trigger the sleep mode: when I lie down? When I’m starting to feel sleepy? When I intend to try to get to sleep? I don’t know what I’m supposed to be learning from the “how long I was awake before sleep kicked in”, or whether it matters. Y’know what would be interesting? Graph of “time you crawled into bed vs. amount of time before you fell asleep”. That would tell me whether I’m really wasting time going to bed early or not (i.e. am I getting more sleep when lying down earlier, or does that only weakly correlate?).

Wish List

  • Provides me trend correlations to show how my mood correlates with sleep or food intakes (if any)
    Lets me input other qualitative markers on the graphs like “took a pill” (pain, anxiety, antacid)
  • Full data dumping: I took my band and a computer to a recent Quantified Self session, thinking we could hack on the rich data that the Lifeline seemingly keeps. However, what we got from the web site was a cryptic (terribly annotated) and heavily-edited data set – none of my meals or nutrient data, nothing I could see that captured my moods (especially not the custom labels that are so easy to add), no rich data showing my actual steps (not even in short-time-increment intervals like “how many steps in each 5-minute period”).
  • Community: I’d dearly love access to a community of UP wearers (e.g. online forum) to discuss, compare results, insights and guesses of what’s going on. Following a twitter hashtag isn’t nearly there.
  • Food library (1): how can I edit/delete an entry that I screwed up? I misread the Servings value on a jar of food, and now the Library entry there is forevermore going to be double what it should be (worse, because I combined it with a single-serving food – I created “peanut butter toast” as a one-click entry). Now I can either delete and re-create that entry and edit all previous meals, create another entry and try to remember which one to choose, or “dial the portion size” on the bad entry to an approximate value.
  • Food library (2): wouldn’t it be awesome to one-click copy a “meal” worth of nutritional-values-populated food from one meal (or one ‘team member’) to another? This one came from my partner – she’s furiously adding all the ingredients one by one for each meal so she gets accurate calorie, protein etc data. Now why couldn’t I “copy” her meal and add it to my own feed? I often eat the same thing she (or a friend who’s also part of my team) eats, but I don’t get any real “writeable/reusable” value out of that team membership.
  • Auto-interpolating sleep: UP has a manual toggle into “sleep” mode (telling my device when I’m sleeping), which forces me to either (a) toggle it as soon as I crawl into bed, so that I never forget, or (b) try to catch myself going to sleep just before I actually slip into unconsciousness [or risk losing the tracked sleep entirely]. I’d love for the UP to “sense” when I’m resting on my back and call it “sleeping” without me having to remember to toggle it back and forth. Heck, even if it recorded a session that wasn’t actually sleep, couldn’t I later “curate” my data to re-categorize the false positive?
  • Edge-case bug: Irritatingly, if I forget to switch it back to “awake” mode before plugging it in to dump its data to my phone, it turns out that the UP app doesn’t log that sleep as “sleep” but just as another form of activity. In other words, someone forgot to test and optimize for “what if the user plugs in their UP while the band still thinks the user is asleep?” I’m sure to the designers it sounds like a non-scenario, but it’s happened to me once already and I doubt it’ll be the last time.


A couple of months into bonding myself to this techno-upgrade, I killed it. Inadvertently, but still. I followed instructions, never immersing it fully under water, but instead took a nice long shower (officially endorsed by Jawbone) to refresh myself after a couple of weeks of bedrest. (That’s another story for another time.) Darned thing never responded to another button press again, and I can only believe that somehow its water resistance became less so.

So I dropped a note to the very polite and helpful folks at Jawbone support, who after supplying me with instructions for soft- and hard-reset (neither of which worked, but both of which were reassuring for future occasions when I might find myself painted into a firmware-not-hardware issue), shipped out a replacement band at their (warranty-amortized) expense.

They shipped it to me in an environmentally-sensitive envelope, but with not one iota of expectation-setting, preparation or documentation to let me know (a) if the replacement band needed to be charged [it did, it was dead] or (b) how to properly convince my UP app to forget about the old band and orient itself to a new one.  I dug around like a madman to find out if there was anything I should NOT do with a replacement band, and finding nothing I finally just synced it with the app and was pleasantly surprised at how little I had to do.

I remain a member of the UP clan.

celtic warriors

My philosophical thoughts on Futuristic User Interfaces from sci-fi and anime movies

Futuristic user interfaces from cyberpunk and anime movies

The thing that strikes me most about this uber collections just how indecipherable many of these future UI’s are, and how unintuitive nearly **all** are.

stark monitors

I can only conclude from looking at these (and remembering many others from past sci-fi romps) that in Hollywood, and especially in the dark days of personal computing (when many of these movies were made), computers and their UI’s have nearly always looked absolutely inscrutable to most of the population, and that the only hope most civilians (not engineers) had for the future was that humanity would get genetically smarter as we advanced.

We would get smart enough that as a species, our brains would finally be able to treat these masses of poorly-laid-out information and instructions as a normal course of interfacing with machines, and would be able to process this stream of pixels in real time. It really says more about our hopes for the species in the future (less broken, reaching pinnacles of performance and capability) than it does about what we aspire from our machinery (which apparently, was very little – they would remain cryptic arbiters of control over our environment). I am SO GLAD that we have already at this point in computing technology found ways to start to think “human-first” in the human-computer interaction.

The plague of “smart refrigerators”

I think we’ve all by now heard of the mad, magical future in which your new refrigerator will have the intelligence to know when you’ve just run out of milk and will automatically order more for you. A perfect digital servant, that just happens to knew exactly which items in your fridge you need repeatedly, at a perfect frequency to match their consumption. But what about stuff I bought once and no longer want? What about the milk that went bad (even before the due date) and has to be poured out all at once? And what about all the commodities I keep on the shelf, and put in the fridge once I open them?

This so-called “smart fridge” is one of those nearly-generic, ubiquitous, almost brainless examples trotted out as a stand-in for for future tech, just as we see those stupid example apps show up on every new “extensible” piece of technology (phone, widgets framework, whatever) – the stocks, sports scores and weather apps. The apps that *no one* ever uses more than the first week of owning that tech (well, I’m sure there’s someone – like the dev – who must use them, but no one I know – and not like “I don’t know anyone who will admit to buying a Michael Jackson album while he was alive”).

Which reminds me of the foolish crapware that used to show up only on new PCs – but now ships with some Android phones and with all “smart TVs”. Ugh – I saw a report recently (https://www.npdgroupblog.com/internet-connected-tvs-are-used-to-watch-tv-and-thats-about-all/) that most smart TV users just watch live, streamed or pre recorded content on their TVs, and almost none use the “smart” apps (generally less than 10% of smart TVs). In my experience they’re a resource of last resort – like when everything else has stopped working you’ll try them, but dog help you if you try willingly – hopes dashed, spirit mashed, ego crashed.

Which also reminds me of a great blog article by Scott Hanselman (My car ships with crapware http://www.hanselman.com/blog/MyCarShipsWithCrapware.aspx) about the terrible interface to the in-dash entertainment system in his new Prius. I’ve got the same one, and I fell victim to the same wow factor when considering the purchase. Once I actually tried to *use* the onboard apps, however, I quickly gave up – too slow, too many clicks, too many unintuitive choices, too few usages that weren’t much more efficient on my smartphone.

I happen to agree with Hanselman – not just about my in-car screen, but the in-TV “smarts” and the soon-to-be-everywhere “smart” appliances. I’d much prefer (at this stage in the “smarts” development) that these lesser apps be removed entirely in favour of just giving me a fully-integrated big screen on which to mirror my already-quite-handy pocket-sized computer. I understand the need for these industries to try to find ways to achieve bigger margins on the sales of these well-established markets. I just believe that these are poorly-executed, lesser-than bolt-ons that add nothing to the primary experience of the device to which they’re attached, and which will be in a few short years a supreme waste of space and an embarrassing relic. I fully expect that I’ll be unable to use *any* of the onboard capabilities of the Prius Entertainment system in three years’ time, and will have to add an aftermarket device or just sell the car to some rube.

I’d personally love to rip and replace the smart interface on my TV with something that was receiving active updates for more than six months from the manufacturer, and which provided me actually-helpful and complementary capabilities I can use right from my TV – and which aren’t just easier and more intuitive on my phone. How’s about a TV guide wired right into my TV? Or something that told me how much TV I’ve watched for the past month or year, and a breakdown of what kinds of shows I’ve watched? (Not that I’d find that info indispensable, but at least it would relate directly and more tightly with the device from which it derived.) How’s about a remote upload capability (push only, no pull – no need to freak out the privacy dudes) for all that data – and more, like power consumption and device health statistics, so I could do something useful and more permanent with that data?

And as for the fridge: how’s about a sensor that tells me how “empty” the fridge is, giving me a clue I should go shopping soon? This could be based on how much power it’s taking to cool the contents each day – or how much the fridge weighs (compared to an average of the last six max weight measures). Or what if the fridge could actually pinpoint where that foul smell is coming from – and better, could give you a warning when the crisper is getting more “moist” (i.e. more “rotty”) than it should be.

That would be a smart device I would actually appreciate.