Saturday, November 29, 2008

Gesture and Touch Based Interface: G-Speak from Oblong

Check out this new gesture- and touch-based interface that was developed by Oblong technologies. I came across this video on the Interaction Design Blog - as they rightfully state, this is the closest thing I've seen to the interface from Minority Report. The demo itself is pretty awesome. It showcases several cool features from this system, here is a quick overview of these elements:

Three-dimensional navigation that enables users to access content via an interface that can organize data within a three-dimensional environment. This enables users to "directly manipulate" data objects and quickly access to information. This is achieved because users are able to leverage their familiarity with physical space to navigate this virtual world.

This is not to say that users can just rely on their physical-world metaphors to successfully engage with this system. After all, computer-based metaphors always have an aspect of "magic" because the physical actions we carry out have meaning beyond their direct physical impact. Therefore, users will need to learn how to use their hands to pull, turn, push, select and act on objects within this virtual space.

Integration of physical and virtual spaces to enable users to interact seamlessly across multiple computers and screens within a given environment. This is a really cool feature that can enable an user to easily move files between computers and other devices, such as mobile phones. Better yet, users are still be able to manipulate the files using the same interface across any of the connect devices. Compare this to Microsoft's surface which enables users to drag a file on the screen so that it is added to a mobile device. However, in order to handle the file once it is on the mobile device, then the user needs to leverage the mobile-device specific interface.

One additional aspect of this physical-virtual integration is that it allows users to change the physical configuration of the system in order to impact the virtual configuration. This is illustrated in the video when the user rotates the "screen table". The data being displayed on the table rotates along with the physical movement of the table, except for the pointer which is being manipulated by the user. This pointer does not move because the users hold his hand stable to hold the pointer in place. Sounds like a small simple element but it adds a lot of possibilities to the interactions that can be supported by this system.

Collaborative interaction is enabled by the system's multi-user support. Therefore, several users can work simultaneously with the system. It is not clear whether different users can work on different types of tasks simultaneously within the same environment. One additional questions is if multi-task support is provided then what are the requirements and how would the behavior of the system change in order to support this type of usage.

The data interaction and visualization opportunities provided by systems of this type will likely enable humans to interact with increasingly complex and large data sets. I would love to see this system in action first hand. Until that is possible I will have to be content with this vide. Hope you enjoy it as well.

[via Interaction Design Blog]

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Issue with Design of "Sharing & Permission" Functionality on MAC OS X Leopard

I am a die hard Apple fan who has been using Macs for over 11-years. Some of the features that I like most about Apple computers is that they are more reliable, less prone to errors, and easier to recover from errors than Window-based PCs - at least based on my personal experience as a regular user of both Macs and PCs. Overall, I find that Macs are better designed than PCs.

Earlier today I came across what I consider to be a major flaw in the design of Apple's Leopard operating system. This issues created the most frustrating experienced I've ever had with a Mac, yet I believe that it can be easily remedied in future OS updates. In this post I will even offer up some of suggestions for how Apple can solve this issue from a user interaction perspective.

What's the Issue
Let's start with the lesson I learned: if you are running Mac OS X Leopard then don't mess with the system's "sharing & permission" preferences for your start-up drive.

So here's what happened. Yesterday I was fixing the "sharing & permission" preferences for my computer's hard drive, which is also my start-up drive. To the right, I've attached an image of the info window where these preferences reside. I made sure that the preferences for "admin" and "everyone" were set-up properly; these were set to "read & write" and "write only (drop box)" respectively. In the process I also set-up the preference for the "system" to "write only (drop box)".

Little did I know that by changing the permission for the "system" I had created a situation where my computer would be unable to start-up. This became apparent this morning when I turned on my MacBook and the system became frozen while on the boot-up screen where the Apple logo appears above a small and round progress indicator.

Since I have a high-comfort level with, and decent working knowledge of my MacBook I suspected that the change I made to the "sharing & permission" preferences could be causing this issue. That said, when I called a local authorized Apple representative here in Brazil (where I am currently visiting my parents) the rep was quick to tell me that this was obviously an issue related to a corrupted hard drive and that I would need to re-install my operating system.

Before going down this painful route, I decided to first take an alternate approach to resolve this situation based on my initial hunch regarding the source of this problem. I rebooted my MacBook as a hard drive by connecting it via firewire to my sister's MacBook. Then I was able to change the system's "sharing & permission" preferences on my computer's hard drive back to its normal state of "read & write".

After having encountered this problem, I checked a pre-Leopard version of the Mac OS X and confirmed that it does not allow users to change the "sharing & permission" privileges of the system. This helps ensure that people did not encounter the problem with which I had to grapple this morning. Check out the sample image on the left. As you can see when "system" is selected the "access" privileges cannot be changed.

Fixing the Issue
There are many ways that this issue can be resolved from a user interaction/experience perspective. Here are some of my suggestions, hopefully Apple will be willing to take one of these to heart:
  • When users change the "sharing & permission" preferences for the system, the OS should prompt the user regarding the impact that this action will have; better yet, they should not allow the user to make this change unless they change the start-up drive configuration.
  • If the user has been able to change the system's "sharing & permission" privileges, then the computer should display an error message that explains the situation and ideally the system should also provide the user with the opportunity to change the access privileges to the drive in questions - using the necessary system admin password, of course.
  • In the near term, Apple should make sure that all of its employees are aware of this issue. When speaking to authorized Apple service reps I was informed that this issue was definitely a sign of issues with my hard drive - most likely a sign that the HD was corrupted.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Search Application Design for Flickr

I know that the ability to design custom search engines for Flickr has been around for several years. Many designers have played with this technology and many publications have written short features about these mash-ups. That said, I have not found a recent comprehensive list of the most interesting image search engines out there. So this short post is my stab a creating a list of the best ones out there. I am going for quality rather than quantity here but please let me know if there are any ones I missed (as I know I must have).

Tag-Based Search Engine (Compfight)
Let's start with the simpler search offerings. This applications allow users to search Flickr images by tags and text. The benefit they provide is that the results are displayed in a way that makes it easy for users to scan a large number of images efficiently. This is especially helpful for art directors and designers who are looking for images for their comps or layouts. There are several search engines out there that offer this type of functionality.

Color-Based Search Engine (Multicolr)
Next up is a color-based search engine from Idee Labs. This application allows users to search for images based on colors and color combinations. User interaction is centered on a small pallete of colors located on the right-hand side of the screen. A matrix of images, located to the left of the pallete, displays the search results based on the color selections.

Visual-Based Search Engine (Visual Search)
Visual search is another application from Idee Labs. It enables users to search for images using a combination of text-based input for tags and image based input (e.g. selecting of a representative image from a results page). This search engine allows people to use an iterative process to find the image they are looking for - first they can search by tags, then they can select one of the resulting images to further filter the results. The one issue is that Idee does not support flickr via this search application (they only support searches on the Alamy image library). A similar search engine offering from Idee Labs (called BYO) allows users to upload images to kick-off their search.

Sketch-Based Search Engine (Retrievr)
This search engine takes the idea from the Visual search one step further by allowing you to create a sketch that serves as the search query. They still have to work out a few kinks with this one as the interaction was often sluggish. However, when you get the sketch tool to work properly it is pretty damn cool.

Galaxy-Based Search Results Interface (Tag Galaxy)
You are probably wondering what the hell I mean by Galaxy-based search results interface. It's hard to explain how this interface works but let me give it a shot. Tag Galaxy allows users to search flickr tags using a visual interface that is akin to a galaxy. Every time the user selects a tag the application automatically generates a new galaxy where the main planet is comprised of all images containing the tag that was searched for, while the smaller planets represent tags that are related to the original tag (or main planet). Check it out so that you can make sense of my rambling.

3D Wall Search Results Interface (Cooliris)
This cool search application allows users to search multiple sites including flickr, yahoo!, and google. The really cool feature that it provides is that it serves the results of each query using a 3D wall interface. Unlike the other applications that I've called out here, users need to actually download and install an add-on to their browser in order to use this search engine. Though this is a bit annoying I found that it was definitely worth it.

Now Build Your Own
Here is a tutorial from Tech Labs on how to make your own Flickr search engine. This will at least get you started with an understanding of the Flickr API. Though the API seems to be simple enough, the work needed to bring your creative idea to life will probably be more complicated especially if you are trying to create an experience like the Tag Galaxy and Cooliris. I haven't tried to build one of these myself, so I can't vouch for the ease (or difficulty) associated with designing one of these.

[sourced from PSFK and JeetBlog]

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Micro-Interactions and Magnetic Prototypes

In this post I will touch upon two interesting but unrelated pieces of content that I came across earlier today. The first is a presentation about the importance of micro-interactions in today's Web 2.0 world, from Critical Mass' David Armano. The second is a short post regarding a new prototyping technique that involves use of ink jet-printed magnetic, from Adaptive Path's Alexa.

Micro-Interactions in a Web 2.0 World
I came across this presentation as I was surfing around, after having gone through Bill DeRuchey's presentations. David Armano's background as the VP of Experience Design at a Digital Agency comes across loud and clear from his focus on "brands" in this presentation [link to David's blog]. The one main point that I took away is that "your brand is the sum of all it's interactions" (captured in his own words).

I fully agree with his perspective though I would change his words slightly to "your brand is the sum of peoples' experience of all it's interactions." I know this sounds quite a bit clunkier, however, I think it is important to call out that peoples experience of the same interaction may vary widely based on their beliefs, values and mental models.

I also want to call out that this presentation includes a thoughtful, and in my view accurate, perspective regarding the impact that web 2.o has had in the way people interact with each other, communities, brands and society at large.

Magnets for Prototypes
In this short post from Adaptive Path, Alexa makes a strong case for the use of custom-made magnets for prototyping interfaces. Now-a-days magnetic sheets for ink jet printers are widely available on Amazon or your local Staples. So you can create magnets that represent each interface elements and/or widget and that can be easily manipulated on a magnetic board. Though it does not work for every project, Alexa claims that this technique has "expedited concept communication, prompted new ideas through playfulness, and equipped people (who often don’t like to draw) to express ideas quickly." Definitely worth a try.

Interaction Design Basics: Presentations from Bill DeRouchey

Since I kicked off my interaction and experience design curriculum a few months ago I've been following Bill DeRouchey's blog, which is aptly titled Unfortunately, shortly after I started following his blog Bill stopped posting, his last contribution taking place on August 28th.

Earlier today I checked out his site to take a look at some of his older posts to find out if he had any older nuggets of wisdom to impart - this is in opposition to my usual practice of remaining on my side of an RSS reader. I was happy to find several presentations that Bill has developed for conferences on the topic of Interaction Design. Here is a quick overview of three presentations that I found very informative (if you are already an interaction design pro you probably won't find these very interesting. That said, they are great for novices like me).

In his presentation, Language of Interaction Design Bill provides an overview of basic interaction design concepts. In this presentaiton Bill makes a strong case regarding the fact that a language of interaction design already exists. By "language" Bill refers to the fact that people have already learned to attach specific meaning to colors, shapes, etc. Therefore, designers need to take these language into account when designing interactions. For example, designers should use green to signify a start button and red to signify a stop button.

Another interesting presentation created by Bill is entitled History of the Button. Here, Bill provides a high-level overview of how buttons evolved from late 1800's when Kodak first put a button on a camera to today when the button is a virtual area that is defined by the content on a computer screen - "clicking" a button has evolved to "touching" a surface. Soon the button will be the environment as we start seeing more gesture-based interfaces. To wrap up the presentation Bill reminds us how all of these "buttons" will need to be designed.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Book Summary: Where the Action Is - Embodied Itneraction - Chapter 5

Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction
By Paul Dourish
MIT Press, 2001

Chapter 5 – Foundations

In this chapter Dourish addresses the notions of “meaning” and "coupling," which are central concepts to our understanding of embodied interaction. In the realm of meaning, he explores the aspects of ontology, intersubjectivity, and intentionality. These aspects refer to the structure upon which meaning is created, the shared nature of meaning and the "directedness" of meaning. The concept of coupling on the other hand, refers to our ability to act on and through the world by manipulating the various aspects of meaning listed above.

After exploring these various notions, Dourish goes on to examine the two uses of the idea of embodied interaction that arises from this chapter (and book). The first use is as the basis for a design approach "that is oriented toward the way in which people interact with systems as a a fundamentally embodied phenomenon." The second use is as a tool to evaluate and identify issues with the design of existing interactive technologies.

Now let's delve deeper in the various aspects of meaning and the notion of coupling...

Below I will provide an overview of each aspect of meaning that was explored by Dourish: ontology, intersubjectivity, and intentionality. Each of these aspects “plays a different role in embodied interaction, and each raises different set of issues for interactive system design.”

Ontology provides the structure on which meaning is created. “It deals with how the world can be separated into a collection of entities whose meanings can be established, separated, and identified, and how these entities can be related to each other.” Designers often use the term ontology to refer to user’s conceptual models and to the internal representational structure of software.

One important challenge for designers is that there isn’t a single “ontology” that is shared by everyone. Therefore, designers need to be mindful of the existing “ontologies” that are held by users of their products.

The second aspect of meaning explored by Dourish is intersubjectivity, which refers to how meaning can be shared. Unlike physical phenomena meaning is based on beliefs and intentions, which are not objective phenomena. That said, humans are still able to coordinate their behavior despite the absence of an objective reality. They do so by learning about each others beliefs and intentions.

There are two places where designers need to address the problem of intersubjectivity in their designs. First, designers communicate with users throught the system. Therefore, they need to establish a common ground of understanding regarding the constraints and affordances provided by the system so that users understand how a desing should be used.

Second, users communicate with other users through interactive systems. Therefore, designers need to create systems that are supportive of the ways in which people develop shared ways of using and working with systems. "What is important is not just what the system can do, but rather, what it really does do for people in the course of doing their work."

Intentionality refers to the referential nature of meaning - so what the heck does this mean? Essentially, the notion of intentionality proposes that meaning is a relationship between two separate entities. For example, in this simple sentence "I love my wife" the word "wife" features an intentional realtionship between with the lovely woman whom I married a little over three years ago.

The importance of intentionality to computing can be understood when you consider that computation is essentially an intentional phenomenon - the value of computation is that it refers to things. "If the key feature of the computational system is that it refers to elements in the world of human experience, then the key feature of interaction with computation is how we act through it to achieve effects in the world." This is true of our interaction with any system, not only computational systems - it is carried out to achieve an effect in the world.

Coupling refers to the way in which we create and break down relationships between entities for the purpose of enabling and supporting our actions. This concept is crucial to understanding embodied interaction because it addresses the way in which meaning is made manifest from moment to moment as we act in the world.

To illustrate what this means lets go back to some concepts that were explored in previous chapters of this book. Specifically I want to focus on the notions of present-at-hand and ready-to-hand.

Let's say that you had a hammer in your hand. First you will likely conciously focus on the the way you are holding the hammer in your hand to ensure that it is oriented correctly and so on. At this moment the tool can be said to be present-at-hand. Once you are comfortable that you are holding the hammer properly you proceed with hammering a few nails. At this point your focus shifts to the action of hammering the nails and the hammer and your arm become a single unit - they are in fact "coupled." In this stage the hammer can be said to be ready-to-hand.

This example is clear but greatly simplified. Of course when we are acting in the world we tend to interact with many entities at time, rather than a single one. Therefore, the problem humans face is how to assemble a range of entities at any given moment to achieve whatever effect is desired.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Reading List: Interactions, November & December 2008

So this past week I received my first issue of Interaction magazine. This is one of the many publications that I've subscribed to as part of my curriculum on interaction and experience design. I was surprised by the heavy research bent of this magazine. I guess I've become used to the overly graphic nature of mainstream technology magazines such wired - after all, Interaction has much more of a professional bent (after all it is published by the Association for Computing Machinery).

Anyways, this month's edition had quite a few interesting pieces - below I've included a short paragraph regarding the most intersting ones. In all honesty I have not finished reading through this issue yet, so I may end up adding a few more articles to this list over the next week or so.

Designing Games: Why and How
This article focuses on the value of game design as tool to enable interaction designers to practice and improve their skills. Games are unique in that they can present a host of unsual interaction issues that have never been solved - hence they can challenge designers in new and unique ways. To help designers get started designing games, Sus Lundgren provides several different approaches that can be leverage by novices or experts. [link to article]

Signifiers, Not Affordances
I have just finished reading Donald Norman's bestselling classic design book: The Design of Everyday Things (also known as The Psychology of Every Day Things). In this book Don Norman investigates the concept of affordances that was originally introduced by J.J. Gibson. Affordances refers to the possibilities for actions that are provided by any given object. For example, a seat affords the possibility of sitting.

In this article Don explores how the concept of affordances is focused exclusively on the possibilities provided by objects. Therefore, it is rather limited when you consider that it does not take into account the possibilities for action that are provided by people, social groups, and cultures. These entities are not objects and cannot be said to offer affordances, though they do heavily influence the possibility for actions available to people who inhabit, or interact with, these social groups or cultures.

That is where the concept of "signifiers" comes in. "A Signifier is some sort of indicator, some signal in the physical or social world that can be interpreted meaningfully. Signifiers indicate critical information, even if the signifier itself is an accidental byproduct of the world." The concept of affordance is essentially a type of "signifier" - on that is specifically associated to an object. [link to article]

Some other articles from this issue that are on my reading list include: "Taken for Granted: The Infusion of the Mobiel Phone in Society," "User Experience for Ubiquitous Computing," and "Think Before You Link: Controlling Ubiquitous Availability."