Interface design

Blogger redesign from folks at Adaptive Path and Stopdesign

Blogger relaunched today, upping the ante for Typepad, the paid blog service from SixApart (makers of MovableType blogging software).

Behind the scenes, Adaptive Path and Stopdesign collaborated on the new functionality and look. Folks at Blogger share some of the new features that position the service to bring blogs to the masses. For web geeks, the fact that a handful of the best designers in the medium created new templates is pretty cool too - and it’s interesting to see how many of those templates take the CSS Zen Garden approach and simply restyle the same codebase.

The Page Paradigm

Mark Hurst has written an interesting discussion about web pages and how people navigate. In it, he reminds us of something he wrote in 1999,

On any given Web page, users will either… click something that appears to take them closer to the fulfillment of their goal, or click the Back button on their Web browser.

The interesting part of his message here, I think, is that the IA/designers’ focus on aspects of the UI such as navigation consistency is less important than the supporting of users in getting them to their intended goal. He says provocative things such as “users don’t care where they are in the website”. If you can get your head past that idea, 3 bullets summarize what this should mean for you in practice:

  1. Identify users’ goals on each page.
  2. De-emphasize or remove any page elements (or areas of a site) that don’t help to accomplish the goal.
  3. Emphasize (or insert) those links, forms, or other elements that either take users closer to their goal, or finally accomplish it.

I’ve posted additonal personal opinions on this topic elsewhere on my weblog. Peterme discusses Mark’s ideas as well, pointing out that he shouldn’t dismiss the value of wayfinding cues in order to make the point that empasis should be placed on user needs and behaviors supporting those needs. Christina doesn’t see the harm in Mark’s oversimplification and suggests that informational cues such as breadcrumbs put the burden of mental strain on the user. It’s nice that she also suggests alternatives identified in her Widgetopia to helping users identify alternate paths related to their current task, addressing a point that I think is important — “Where can I go” is perhaps more important than “Where am I?”. Manu Sharma adds that both Peter and Mark are probably both right in this debate, but the difference in perspectives is explained by their different experiences.

Tracking user navigation methods by logging where users click on web pages

I wrote about some research we're doing in my organization to observe user interaction with navigation by tracking where users click on the page (body, local navigation, breadcrumbs, global navigation). Our observations aren't dissimilar to what Michael Bernard observes in usability testing -- links to content are most often searched for/clicked in the body of pages. Navigating our site (a digital library) consists mainly of browsing through a directory (a-z lists are available as are a poly-hierarchical directory listing), so what we were mainly interested in was how people made use of the links in the local navigation. I'd be interested in seeing if other people have done this and what they were looking for. I find, as an in-house site developer, that being responsible for a site for a long term (as opposed to just launching one and going on to a new project) gives one good opportunity to observe and assess the site for usability. Your can assess patterns of use over long periods of time. You can make contact with users and keep the lines of feedback open with them over time. Clearly there is something unique about being involved in the evolution of a singular site, which I am only beginning to appreciate.

Widgetopia

Widgetopia - Over time, Christina has pulled together a heap o' widgets... interesting... a blog being used as a notebook... ...

link [Other Blog (Tom Smith)]

Yahoo! SmartSort

Yahoo! is doing some interesting things with its SmartSort, a new product browsing interface allowing multiple sorting options. Seems like a great way to filter out products that you don't want and match the needs you do have. I felt like it could go even further to help you filter out what you don't want. Since they have data on specifications for PDAs (e.g. OS), why not have a sorting option for other features as well? For instance, I'm curious about wireless (BlueTooth and WiFi) options. Why not add that in? Very nice, nonetheless.

Managing the information glut

Dennis Berman's article in the Wall Street Journal, "Technology Has Us So Plugged Into Data, We Have Turned Off" talks about a phenomenon called "absent presence" or "surfer's voice". He refers to it as "...a habit of half-heartedly talking to someone on the telephone while simultaneously surfing the Web, reading e-mails, or trading instant messages." Because many of my meetings are conference calls I frequently hear the person on the other end typing while I get the "uh huh" responses. I have to direct specific questions to people that require more than yes or no answers in order to get their attention sometimes. Then I get, "I'm sorry, can you repeat the question?"

Related to computers, this article makes me think of two different problems. One is the ability focus on singular tasks to successful execution or completion. The other is how to get back to one of the many open tasks you have waiting for your attention. One of the ideas the article throws out is that of using software to help people regain their focus on singular tasks after going off on tangents -- responding to IM messages, etc. They suggest a simplistic solution in limiting extra information seeking sessions, e.g. with web reading, news feed watching, to help make the information glut manageable. But, it's hard to call all of that reading "extra" when some of it is business-related environmental scanning and simply beefing up your knowledge on topics of interest.

How can software help this problem? One area of focus seems to be on using visualization to alter the desktop metaphor to some more meaningful UI that presents a stream of information. See Jeff Raskin or David Gelertner on this topic. It's that idea of figuring out what you're working on that's interesting to me. I think of this problem in terms of how I keep track of "to do" items. With a list on paper of the prioritized tasks for the day, I can periodically check on how I'm meeting the day's goals. It's a high-level view of things I should be juggling with the goal of eventually finishing them one by one. In terms of a computer UI, I see Apple's Exposé as a step in the right direction towards helping users visualize what they're juggling at once. Apparently Microsoft's Longhorn may be considering ways to help users make sense of what they're juggling too.

With dozens of devices and applications beeping for your attention, is the only effective way to give business users better signal to noise to just tell them tune out a little and eliminate the number of things they try to watch? Or is there a far off concept for computer users that will make this watching of information and managing of individual processes more manageable -- a solution that is reasonable, usable, and won't be met with too much cultural adversity?

Web Design Practices

Heidi Adkisson is launching webdesignpractices.com this month. She has a sneak peek up for navigation practices (linked above).

Basically, the site takes her Masters thesis study of 75 ecommerce sites and makes it more accessible online. (For the impatient, you can download the 8mb pdf of Heidi's thesis).

I met Heidi at the IA Summit in Portland, and think that this will be a great resource for the community. I'm hesitant about considering common practice to be best practice (as gets implied in surveys like this), but it's good to consider if something really is a de facto standard, and what reasons your own project has for doing things differently.

Netflix redesigns, shifts navigation to right without warning

Users of Netflix might have discovered a slightly changed site this week. The DVD rental company redesigned their site, simplifying the global menu and shifting the local menu from the left to the right. The design is fine, but I thought it was strange to redesign and shift the local navigation over without giving any warning to users that it was about to happen. Very different from the experience you expect on large, popular sites. For example. when Yahoo! redesigned their home page, the change was subtle, and a preview of the changes to come was available for weeks before they cut over. That, to me, seems like a better practice to uphold when redesigning.

User Interface Library

Gabe Zentall has published a library of user interface templates in Adobe Illustrator (also available as PDF), which provides UI elements for use in prototype design. It covers Windows, OS X, and Palm. The templates are excellent excellent for creating high-fidelity wireframes or prototypes. Template sets are separated on different layers in the Illustrator file and all are of course, completely editable. This is perfect for Illustrator wireframers. I'm thinking that this would be a nice OmniGraffle pallette as well.

[Thanks, Column Two and Reloade]

Video search on PBS.org

Gary Price points out that PBS is offering free keyword and or title search of some of its video. Being the father of a two-year old, I do regular visits to JungleWalk with my son to look for animal videos. Now I can add Nature to my bookmarks.
Searching is quite nice on PBS. You can do keyword searches or browse by show/program title. Odd that they don't let you view the metadata, though. I wondered after searching the Nature archives for "leach" why vampire bat and mosquito videos were returned when what I wanted to find was the blood sucking leaches from the same "Blood Suckers" show. I guess there is one metadata record shared per show, which I guess makes sense when there are only 2 or three short videos available per program. That way, obviously related videos are presented in your search results.
Available presently on PBS:

The Right Number

Scott McCloud, author of Understanding Comics has started his own online novela/comic called The Right Number. It's about math, sex, obsession and phone numbers and it features a zoomable interface. Check it out.

Typepad Screenshots

The creators of the blogging application MoveableType are launching a hosted service called Typepad. There's now screenshots of the new UI, and it looks much cleaner than MoveableType's interface. Definitely a hotly contested race to see who can make blogging easy for the masses, with Blogger Pro being the other visible contender.

However much I like MoveableType though, I can't help thinking that Microsoft or AOL will be the one to take blogging mainstream.

IT & Society special issue on Web Navigation

On SIGIA, Dick Hill points out this journal. Edited by Ben Schneiderman, the Winter Issue of IT & Society was dedicated to Web Navigation and contains articles ranging from user frustration, to PDAs, to browser design.

Piles of documents

Some interesting speculation on Mac Rumors about Apple integrating a finder feature called Piles that creates a finder metaphor based on the physical act of viewing/sifting through a pile of documents on a desktop in meatspace. Here's a description from an earlier Tog article.

Apple holds a patent on this one. Developed by Gitta Salomon and her team close to a decade ago, a pile is a loose grouping of documents. Its visual representation is an overlay of all the documents within the pile, one on top of the other, rotated to varying degrees. In other words, a pile on the desktop looked just like a pile on your real desktop.

To view the documents within the pile, you clicked on the top of the pile and drew the mouse up the screen. As you did so, one document after another would appear as a thumbnail next to the pile. When you found the one you were looking for, you would release the mouse and the current document would open.

Piles, unlike today's folders, gave you a lot of hints as to their contents. You could judge the number of documents in the pile by its height. You could judge its composition very rapidly by pulling through it.

Designing Contact Forms

A practical application of captology (persuasive technology) is encouraging site visitors to contact the company. Miles Burke tackles design for contact forms and provides useful thoughts on getting more feedback and interaction from site visitors.

The rest of SitePoint's usability section is well worth browsing.

Door of Perception 7: Flow

there is literally a wealth of fascinating presentation material and cutting edge theory of experience design to be found in the collected talks available online from the Doors 7: Flow conference

this one by London's Design Council on Humanising Technology was particularly intriguing

Design Council's Humanising Technology effort

Design creates space for common language between disciplines.

One company we are working with is developing highly complex software for large businesses in the energy industry. The company moved from being knowledge consultants in the industry to developers of a new technology that will allow real time financial modelling. Even before they have a UI the small, highly specialised team realised that there was no shared representation of the technology and therefore different perceptions of the benefits it will bring.

OmniGraffle UI palette

Robert Silverman's OmniGraffle GUI palette is nice. Is meant for designing cross-platform interfaces although you can see hints of Mac OS X in the shapes. Contains most of the standard widgets you'd expect in an application builder.

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