Sunday, January 30, 2005


Firefox: after the hoopla

I really find it strange I can find no one who will say anything negative about Firefox. If Firefox is supposed to be a revolution in browsers, I'm pretty disappointed. Sorry, it just ain't that different from any other browsers, and I've tried a few.

Most of the new bells and whistles in Firefox I find useful in only special circumstances. Tabs might be useful when I need to move back and forth between different sites, but is no real advantage if I'm just hopping from one site to another without returning to previously visited sites. The RSS feed into the bookmarks is a cool concept, and an aid to help me scan news articles and deep link to them, but...I find I don't really want to deep link to news articles that much. I can't make out much from the short headline appearing in the bookmark feed, and I lose the larger context of the stories and how they are played out in the publication.

I really only have found one superlative feature: the realtime search within a page (though I don't like the placement of the search at the bottom of the window.)

Now, to commit heresy, I need to point out what is wrong with Firefox. First I don't like how it loads the page: it handles CSS with jerky fits, and that annoys me, who while focusing on a section of the page, see it jump around. I also don't like how there is no history button. "Go" is not a good label for where to find history, and the items listed are too few, requiring one to pick History off the Go menu, an extra step. The go forward and go back buttons are too small, and too close to the very small drop down arrows to go forward or backward to a specific page. I often click on the wrong part of the forward/backward cluster, and either get a listing of pages when I just want to go back a page, or vice versa.

Finally, I hate the included search window. In the default skin, it is too small to put much of anything, and one has to hit return to search, no possibility of using a mouse. The Google bar for IE does it right, providing space to enter text, a memory of what you entered, and the ability to switch between versions of Google. I find myself using IE just so I can use the Google bar.

I have to hope Firefox will improve in usefulness, and not just be the toy of developers wanting to add new whistles while core needs are neglected.

Thursday, January 27, 2005


Outlaw products

It seems companies are keen on globalization when it allows them to sell to many markets, but disdainful of global markets when it undercuts tidy profits gained in protected markets. The same companies that lobbied for zero tariffs on information technology are now throwing up non-tariff barriers to prevent consumers from shopping around for the best deal.

One common tactic is to suddenly stop marking dual voltage products. Apple is guilty here. Introducing regional coding restrictions is the tactic Hollywood use on DVDs and Nintendo now uses on game cartridges. Now HP is introducing "regional coding" on it's ink cartridges to prevent one from using a Japanese "region" ink cartridge in European "region" printer.

The Wall Street Journal (17 January 2005), which wrote on the topic, noted: "ironically, tweaking products for different regions can increase manufacturers costs. " It is cheaper to have one design that works everywhere, even where it provides more flexibility, like dual voltage appliances. But do manufacturers care about lower costs? They only care how to increase their margins.

As someone who has moved several continents, and who travels frequently, I find these practices contemptible, the equivalent of censorship.

I had a personal experience of such restraint of trade today, when I picked up a new Uniden telephone for the den. The phone is as basic as is sold these days, not even cordless. But on the packaging was an ominous warning telling me I must only use the phone in the country I bought it. I know from experience that what is know as "plain old telephone service" (POTS) is very standard, and I was curious what was so special about this phone that prevented it from ever traveling to, say, Australia.

One the phone, I found a green sticker, noting the phone has a "Telepermit". I understand permits to drive a car, or use a hunting rifle, and for other dangerous activities, but I wasn't aware one needed a permit to use a phone. I decided to check out what was going on. It turns out that the Telepermit scheme is designed, administered, perhaps enforced by de facto telco monopoly in New Zealand, which also is in the business of selling phones. Not to worry, their site assures me it is in "everyone's best interest" to support the Telepermit scheme, though why is not clear. The official reason is to "maintain" and "improve" the standards of service.

Curiously, one can't get equipment one imports oneself, for one's own personal use, certified -- the Scheme makes it too expensive. Consumers are advised that the cheapest alternative to the buy equipment in New Zealand that has been already designated as acceptable by the Telepermit scheme. Don't be fooled thinking that just because an overseas model looks identical, has an identical model number, acts identical, it would be identical to a Telepermited one. It isn't -- it would be cheaper.

The scheme also warns that it will not convert overseas mobile handsets by loading local software --- in the interest of preventing fraud. Desperate customers, returning from overseas, or perhaps immigrating to New Zealand, are told they must buy a new mobile, they can't use their old one. There is a security code that the mobile manufacturer supplies the network operator, and only the original network operator can change that code. The network operators rationalize this practice because they say they have subsidized the cost of the phone, can don't want the customer jumping to another network. While is true that networks do subsidize some phones, it is equally true that many mobiles bought today are not subsidized. When one buys a phone, one owns it outright. One isn't leasing it, or buying a license to use it. If phone networks wanted to keep customers on their network, they could lease phones -- but then they'd need to service them too, something they don't want to bother with. So instead, consumers are left with products they are responsible for paying for and maintaining, but that they don't really control. It's like being infected with a computer virus.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Empathy and egocentricity

I learned recently a friend in London (an American actually) has been working with Sony doing user research on the EyeToy. So heady is the research that she traveled all the way to New Zealand--just before I moved here--to present her findings on the project to the Asia Pacific CHI conference. As I catch up with this news, I think wow, cool -- and feel a tinge of envy. My work at the moment is more mundane: I'm looking at billing systems. No cool factor, indeed, I can't say I find invoices intrinsically interesting at all. But curiously, I'm enjoying the project, despite not being interested in bills. My enjoyment paradoxically comes from being able to put distance between my egocentric self and the material itself. I hate bills; I mean, really hate bills. Life's too short to spend time pondering them. Sure I might save some money if I paid more attention to them, but is it worth the psychic cost, I rationalize? (Oddly I get excited about saving money on things I am prone to want to buy anyway, not the things I resent spending money on.) Then there are people more sensible than me, who pay attention to such matters. Another group, fewer in number, really care passionately about bills. I talk with these people and can strangely identify with their needs. I want them to succeed because I'm not competitive with them. I might believe there is a right way to do something I'm passionate about, or a right way to design the EyeToy, but I can more easily step back and hear what other users think is the right way to do something I would care little about, if it weren't for their interest in the issue. I am interested because other people are interested, not because I'm inherently interested myself. Humans, myself included, are egocentric by nature: we think, even if subconsciously, how do I care about this? It's easy to empathize with users when you can focus on them first, and then the issue, rather than first seeing the issue first, which can trigger personal associations before the consideration of the users'. So looking at the EyeToy isn't easy if you think harbor a personal interest in it. My hat's off to those how can maintain a natural egocentric interest and manage to empathize with the interests of others, who may just see things a bit differently.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


Trapped by a "durable" good

My Bosch dishwasher is slowly tearing up our china and glassware. I've never been happy with how it loads -- wide gaps prevent much from being loaded in it, and what can go in it doesn't fit snugly. Every few days, we discover a new chip. I want to trash the whole thing, but that would be wasteful, to send a "working" large appliance to a landfill. Problem is, I can't fix it. It's not that a part is broken, it's the design that's broken. I want to rip out the inside and replace it entirely.

Monday, January 24, 2005


Thorvald Bindesbøll

I'm interested in learning more about the Danish designer Thorvald Bindesbøll (1846-1908). I'm always interested in finding inspiring figures in design, and it would seem Bindesbøll was a remarkably talented designer, working in ceramics, silver, graphics, furniture and architecture. A major design prize is named after him. Unfortunately, I haven't found much in English to tell me about him. I've only found a exhibition catalog, Thorvald Bindesbøll: A pioneer in Danish Design (Museet pa Kolinghus, 1997), which lacks any illustrations at all (!)

If you are aware of other resources, please let me know.


Workplace ethnography

My friend Louise Ferguson has recently written up a good Ethnography reading list. I thought I'd add a couple insightful ethnographic accounts of IT and design not on her list I've read recently.

Gideon Kunda's Engineering Culture: Control and Commitment in a High-Tech Corporation (Temple University Press, 1992) is readable account of work and life at a company I assume is the late Digital Equipment Corporation, though it might be Hewlett Packard. The title is a wonderful double entendre, exploring the dissonance between the espoused humanism of an employee-centered company with the reality of pressures placed on employees. Gideon describes the situation as a "culture trap" that combines "normative pressure with a delicate balance of seductiveness and coercion". In companies with strong corporate cultures, "corporate definitions of reality serve as unquestioned criteria for their [the corporation's] self-definition and their world view."

A surprisingly similar account is offered by Andrew Ross in No-Collar: the Humane Workplace and its Hidden Costs (Basic Books, 2003). Ross looks at dot boom darling Razorfish, the web design successor to the employee-centered workplaces of HP and DEC. Ross describes in detail how Razorfish tried to become family and religion to 20-something designers, making them believe that company loyalty was an act of self expression. "Employee self-management could result in the abdication of accountability on the part of real managers and an unfair shouldering of risk and responsibility on the part of individuals." "Perhaps the most insidious occupational hazard of no-collar work is that it can enlist employees freest thoughts and impulses in the service of salaried time." Ross refers to such companies as "needy", compared to traditional companies that are simply greedy.

Both accounts look at the ideology of the workplace, the words and symbols that the companies use to define themselves, and how these play out in the everyday working lives of employees. In this age of unrestrained enthusiasm for all things branding (i.e. strong brands = good), it is good to see detailed descriptions of what is involves in reality. Beneath the idealism can be disfunctional, even cynical, psychological manipulation.

Sunday, January 23, 2005


World class kiwi design

After a few months in New Zealand, I am starting to find some exceptional products made locally. Three of my favorites, which stand out as better than similar products I've encountered in the States or Europe.

Icebreaker sweaters are made from fine merino wool but intended for use out of doors. Their finish is perfect, the appearance sublime, and their performance is better than the yucky polyfleece people normally wear.

Cuisine magazine may be the best food and wine magazine in the English language. My wife likes the recipes, I like the travel features, and the photography is outstanding. Unfortunately the website doesn't do justice to the magazine.

Formway's "Life" desk chair is the most amazing desk chair I've seen. It's made by a local Wellington company that has thought through how to allow the chair to adjust without forcing the user to make the adjustments. It is available in the States from Knoll.

Thursday, January 06, 2005


What happens when the "thumbs generation" grows up?

Kids love texting. Any parent will tell you that. And I've see it in the lab as well: adults struggle to register for email using their mobiles, while teens effortlessly sign on. Calling youth the "thumbs generation" is campy, but accurate as well.

Text is made for youth. They want low cost communication, gossip potential, and a way to fill downtime waiting for public transport. But while youth have special incentive to learn to text, unlike adults, it doesn't mean they will drop texting as they grow up.

A shocking scene this evening in downtown Wellington: a girl, maybe 17 or 18, texting as she was driving. I don't think it's a good combination. I'm sure she is far better at texting than me. But I bet I'm a better driver.

Sunday, January 02, 2005


Provocative book of the past year

My colleague Trent recommended and lent me Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. The book raises profound issues for both design and life, and was probably the most thought-provoking book I read in 2004. Interestingly, John Maeda of MIT has also singled the book out on his SIMPLICITY site.

Schwartz has a simple thesis, backed by empirical data. Essentially, the explosion of choice we are offered causes more regret than happiness. Schwartz focuses on what he calls "the price of maximizing", which leads to the "curse of high expectations." We are happier with our choice when made from a smaller selection. People think they want more, until they make their choice, then they worry if the choice made was the right one. Schwartz draws on his own work, and the work of Stanford economist Amos Tversky and especially Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman.

"More is less" is a challenge to sacrosanct notions of consumer sovereignty embedded in today's business culture. While we have long known that too much choice can be distressing, causing cognitive overload, and resulting in "satisficing", Schwartz looks at the emotional, rather than cognitive, side of choice. And what he says runs counter to much of today's design philosophy. In the post-modern, user-focused design age, designers are to assume that consumers choose what's good, not designers. There is no standard of "good design" anymore. Moreover, we have moved back in time to design being about a lot about style. Designers are extolled to appeal to endless and amorphous desire, not be stuck on needs. But emotional design does not necessarily offer lasting user satisfaction. Users don't know what to want, because the choice is based on so many intangibles. If I buy a neon green computer this week, suppose I want an orange one next week?

As I think about the topic, I'm not ready to dismiss the importance of emotional design, but I do want to limit its application. Humans have only so much emotional capital to invest in objects. It is silly to think they will want to get involved emotionally with everything they own. I read a charming essay by Harry Rich of the Design Council about his adventures buying a carpet in Marrakech. He went through dozens of carpets before finding just the one for him. But it wasn't a chore, it was an education in carpets that made him appreciate his choice all the more. It's a great example of what the philosopher Michael Polanyi referred to as connoisseurship as knowledge. The connoisseur considers making distinctions as rewarding as much as making a final choice.

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