Saturday, July 30, 2005


fact or opinion? the mass market ethnography

I've finished Kate Fox's Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour. I discovered this GBP 7.99 "popular science" paperback at a local bookshop, and was excited to see discussion of "participant observation" already on page 3. Fox is a social anthropologist writing about the most ordinary of topics, English life. I felt hopeful I would pick up some tips both on techniques to obtain ethnographic data, and ways to present it to a general audience.

Generally, the book was disappointing as ethnography. Fox works for an organization called "the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford," which describes itself as a non-profit think tank. In contrast to most ethnographies, which are published by academics, Fox was able to write a breezy book unencumbered by methodological discussions. But I also felt the book lacked credibility. Far too many assertions were made without any backing information. Very often I was left with the impression that Fox was giving top-of-the-head opinions, instead of doing detached observation to arrive at her conclusions. Much of the book seemed like a running debate with the TV presenter Jeremy Paxman, who has written on the English character. But it was a case of one opinion countering another. Fox never says "look at his evidence..."

The only useful data tip was if you want to interview DIY enthusiasts in the parking lot of a DIY store, offer them tea and donuts, since that is in keeping with the spirit of their DIY mindset.

I was also disappointed that Fox never contradicted any stereotype of the English. She said she wanted to "get inside the stereotype", that is, to explain it. But she was adamant that all the stereotypes of the English are true, even when others say the culture is changing. (Is the queue a vibrant tradition or a fading one?) I found this insistence of the immutability of English culture silly. I think good anthropologists today believe that all cultures are changing as a consequence of technology, exposure to other cultures (travel, multiculturalism), and other forces of adaptation.

In general, I would have expected a 400 page ethnography written over a period of three years to contain something that would surprise me. A good ethnography should ring true, but also provoke at least a few thoughts along the lines of "I hadn't thought of it that way before." One expects a detached observer to pick up on something that generally escapes everyday notice. The book is valuable to me in illustrating how important it is to demonstrate one has done research, if one is reporting that common perceptions are indeed true. And if you say something novel (for me, that coasters are considered lower class), also show that your assertion is based on fact, not just stereotype.

Friday, July 29, 2005


the "value" of self-help

Here is a brilliant observation from John Maeda:

I do admit that I read a whole bunch of these sort of self-help books. Is there anything inside them worth reading? Certainly. Although the number of nuggets you can get from these books is definitely not proportional to how many pages there are.

Self-help is a classic taboo topic. Admitting to reading self-help can potentially call into question

I admit to data mining self-help literature. I wish there was a more efficient way to transfer the knowledge. But repetition of theme is at least a partial substitute for the more difficult act of doing, which is where the benefit is realized.


is activity theory growing up?

Don Norman has a much discussed article in the current SIGCHI interactions on "activity centered design." I haven't seen the actual article, as I am still waiting for my copy of interactions to arrive. Typically, my copy is sent from the States via an Arctic detour to Sweden before heading south toward Antarctica to reach me in New Zealand. In the interim I have to read Norman's bootleg copy of the article he posted on his website.

I'll avoid commenting on the obvious polemic of the article (that UCD can be harmful), and instead focus on Norman's mention of activity theory (AT). I happened to study HCI at one of those woolly-minded universities that have been enthusiastic about AT. If you don't know much about AT, I can't explain it suscintly, other than to say involves a lot of triangles. There are these triangle-within-triangle diagrams that look like some sort of esoteric mapping of astral planes. Indeed, AT has been so theoretical, metaphysical even, that the rumor was that SIGCHI routinely rejected papers about AT, considering them too impractical. Now Don Norman is writing in the SIGCHI flagship publication mentioning his "own brand of 'Activity Theory,' heavily motivated by early Russian and Scandinavian research."

I am very interested to learn more about Norman's personal brand of AT. I'd enjoy a discussion shorn of triangles and Marx.

There has been some recent interesting AT-grounded work done that appears modestly practical. I've seen AT applied by several people to work-flow processes. Let's hope AT emerges from the fog of theory into the light of application.

Thursday, July 28, 2005


acrobat sucks

Different computers, different versions of Acrobat. Same week. This happens all the time.

Don Norman: "Boycott unusable designs."
Me: "I wish I could."

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


swedish rounding: world-famous in new zealand

For many months I have been mildly confused about what I am charged for goods in New Zealand. Since 1990 New Zealand has had no one or two cent coins, but many items have 99 cent price tags. I am generally charged a dollar for these, but sometimes I am charged only 95 cents.

One day I found a sign on the counter of check out explaining something called "swedish rounding". The explanation said something like they "round down prices ending in 1,2 to 0 and 6,7 to 5 and round up prices ending in 3,4 to 5 and 8,9 to 0." My head was spinning trying to figure out how that worked. I have since see the explanation more simply as 0,1,2 are rounded to zero, 3,4,5,6,7 are rounded to 5, and 8, 9 are rounded to 10.

Even if you can do the math, it doesn't mean you can guess the price. Retailers can use alternative rounding systems, as long as they are consistent. The consumer affairs department notes that for "an item marked $1.99, traders can charge either $1.95 or $2.00."

I was curious about where this swedish rounding concept came from, but nearly every reference to it referred to New Zealand rather than Sweden. Even searching Swedish sites seemed to yield only a merger reference to "Nya Zeeland."

Just as I am figuring this out, New Zealand is in the mist of phasing out the five cent coin. This change is sparking a new round of rounding methods. According to a survey of retailers, rounding practices will vary greatly. Some will round five cent items up, some down, and some will simply round everything up.

As New Zealand abandons its famous swedish rounding, it is left to Germany and other Euro zone countries to keep the tradition alive. Even though a cent in Europe is worth more than a cent in New Zealand, the one and two cent coins are reportedly unpopular with some Europeans. If Sweden ever joins the Euro, perhaps it will reclaim its legacy.

Sunday, July 24, 2005


more on the culture of roundabouts

I wrote recently of my feeling, based on personal experience, that roundabouts were cognitively complex. Since writing those views, I discovered the distinguished Canadian human factors engineer Kim Vincente describe roundabouts as "complex and demand attention and mental agility." Clearly, roundabouts, as a technology, are not user-friendly.

Yet Vincente also notes that a particularly complex roundabout, called the "Magic Roundabout" in Swindon England, does not have a particularly high accident rate, despite its complexity. Are roundabouts intrinsically safe despite their complexity, or does something else account for the the safe record of the Magic Roundabout?

At the moment I happen to be reading a book by social anthropologist Kate Fox called Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour. Fox argues that English drivers may be more polite when compared with drivers in other countries. "English drivers are quite rightly renowned for their orderly, sensible courteous conduct....You don't have to wait long until someone lets you out of a sideroad...all drivers keep a respectful distance....people are remarkably considerate about pulling in to let each other pass".... etc.

So perhaps roundabouts can work only in England, land of the gentle driver.

But as a pointed out earlier, roundabouts can result in knots of traffic, where everyone is waiting to give way to the person on their right. This leads to impatience and confusion. Fox doesn't address roundabouts, but she talks at length about queues. Fox argues the English, unlike many cultures, is a "fair play" culture, rather than an opportunistic one. She observes English people having near arguments over who is supposed to go first, each side insisting the other goes first. In an opportunistic culture, people might jockey for position to get their chance to go next.

I am not always convenced by Fox's sweeping generalizations, even though they contain many insights. But I do believe cultural norms of turn-taking affect the success of any system that relies on interpretation to decide how people behave in cars. Unfortunately, when a system relies on cultural norms (instead of unambiguous rules), it can get messy. It is often not clear whose turn it is. When two people arrive at the same place at near the same time, they both have to have seen the same event (one may be daydreaming), and have interpreted it in the same way. If the two people not only have different understanding of what happened, but different expectations about who should go next, it doubles the problem. The use of roundabouts relies heavily on user interpretation, which is why is it problematic. Roundabouts offer two problems: potential differences about who should give way to whom (based on estimations of position and driving speed), and differences in who has the "right" to more next once both parties realize the ambiguity of the situation.

Saturday, July 23, 2005


sewing for geeks

a gift for grandma? Posted by Picasa

I saw this sewing machine in the window of a shop in Christchurch. I find it intimidating, but I don't sew either. I would be curious to know who buys these, and how they relate to the technology. If it weren't a sewing machine I would assume it was meant for blokes, given the screen and all the buttons.


I'm no genius

spot the problem Posted by Picasa

I admit to being bored by keyboards. I've used dozens, maybe hundreds over the years, and have rarely encountered anything too troubling with any of them. Sure, some feel a bit better, and they all have subtle differences in layout, but so what? I have never been troubled by repetitive stress, and have therefore never been that curious about premium keyboards.

For complicated and annoying reasons I was forced to replace a perfectly fine keyboard with a USB one for one of my computer set ups. This was not a gratification purchase, so I went for cheap. I located the cheapest USB keyboard sold in New Zealand, made by a company ironically called "Genius."

I noticed that the keyboard had a rather small "shift" key on the right. No big deal, I'll get used to it. I overestimated how plastic my brain is. The keyboard proved to be the most annoying peripheral I have ever used. I kept jumping around on the screen. No matter how much I tried to hit the shift key, I kept failing. I slowly realized (duh) that the shift key was located next to the up arrow, and that both these keys had up arrows on them. What Genius laid this out? And what silly usability person bought it? I now approach keyboards with a new humility.


out of context

out of context Posted by Picasa

This container of foil-sealed water was acquired on a recent plane ride. My wife held on to it thinking she might want to drink it while laying over at the airport, waiting for her next flight. Instead, it found its way home, to our kitchen, where it has been now for several days.

The fact that the container remains in limbo highlights the fact we don't know what to do with it. The water is at once perfectly good and perfectly useless. In the context of our kitchen we don't need the water. How to put it to good use now that we aren't on a plane? Add it to the earthquake emergency reserves? Sadly, the "natural spring water" is set to "expire" in a couple of weeks. That would be a terrible waste.

Saturday, July 16, 2005


interface longevity

Designers, like most people, aspire to leave a legacy. Who wouldn't want to believe that something done well should serve people for a long time. But technology-based designs don't generally last long. Technology advances, raises our collective expectations of what is a good design, and once popular designs are put to pasture as more updated ones replace them.

It is rare for an interface to last too long. Even Apple's Mac OS, which seemed to get so much right, has been through radical updating over the years. Websites are finally settling down after years of monthly reskinnings, but there are still subtle changes happening all the time that cumulatively change the look.

Look at screen shots of most any interface from 10 years ago and it will look dated. There is one exception that is so retro it defines dating. The BBC's Ceefax teletype news service seems to have more lives than cats do. I discovered the service when I got Freeview digital box for my TV while living in London. But the service is 30 years old, largely unchanged since the launch. My British friends will no doubt have nostalgic memories of using Ceefax on their BBC micros. Now I see that someone has created a Ceefax "widget" for OSX/Tiger. Who would guess that a service designed for the hearing impaired would have such legs.

Friday, July 15, 2005


participant video studies

Disposable camera studies have been around ten or more years. Participants in a study are asked to document something about what they do, or perceive. The outputs can be interesting, can offer a great stimulus material for participants to discuss with researchers.

Now we have the ability to do video studies in the same way. Rather than lend expensive digital video cameras to participants, one can now give them a video camera for under $30. - $29.95 one-time-use video cameras ready

This development could be an exciting new chapter in ethnography. I have expected that video diaries would soon emerge, but I expected they would come from video phones, not disposable video cameras. One advantage of video phones is that they are always on the person, so always ready for use.

People can now film how they do an activity, or something they notice. The only danger I see is the potential for junk. Photo taking requires more thought than shooting video. I have seen people forget to take pictures and rush to shoot the roll to have something to bring in. The temptation could be larger for videos: just stream through 20 minutes of random stuff. So video is probably better for self-documenting activity, rather than recording perceptions.


the myth of multi-tasking

Evidence continues to show that people can not safely drive and chat on a mobile phone at the same time (I've seen two studies reported just this week). The reason is not dexterity -- the problem exists with hands-free sets as well. The reason is cognitive: we can't concentrate on two important unrelated activities at once.

The implications of these findings go beyond cell phones. What the cell phone studies show is that multitasking is a myth. The myth of multitasking, spun by techno journalists and trend gurus, asserts humans have rewired their brains as a consequence of increased exposure to technology. The "rewired brain" enthusiasts speak with gushing romantic faith that echoes Maoist ideas of the arrival of a "New Man" unshackled from his biological limitations. They claim people are different from how they were in the past: smarter, faster, and omnipresent, thanks to technology. Those hours whittled away in front of Playstation or Xbox have made you able to perform mental feats previously impossible. Well, not quite. Being quick with the game controller does not mean you can also carry on a meaningful conversation at the same time.

I would like to see talking on mobile phones in moving cars made illegal for the sake of public safety. But I also hope the growing research on cognitive overload will cause us to reassess the stress we create, and are subjected to, that results from technology disrupting our context. "Always on, always available" or "Anytime, anywhere" may sound like freedom, but it also entails a cost. I would like to see the concept of Intrusion addressed more systematically. We all know Intrusion is disruptive, it can break our concentration, but do we really know what it costs us in concrete terms? Is anyone doing real field studies of Intrusion, quantifying its prevalence and documenting its effects? If you know of such work, please let me know.

Sunday, July 10, 2005


has microsoft no pride?

I use a Hotmail (Microsoft) email account for impersonal mail, such as mailing lists and such. While it has never been elegant, I haven't expected too much, given that it is free for basic service. But in past months it has grown increasingly unreliable, to the point where I am now only able to sign on about 50% of the time that I try. This is a "level of service" is bordering absurd. Even for non-urgent email it is too inconvenient.

Redmond is damaging their brand even further by offering such shoddy quality on something so uncomplicated.

UPDATE. The problem seems to be related to deep linking logged on account. This has always be mysterious to me, as sometimes I am taken to New Zealand branded site, and sometimes a UK branded one. Whatever has changed, I am not aware of being notified of it.

Saturday, July 09, 2005


rules of the road

Some rules are logical, some rules are convention -- they make sense if you accept the starting premise -- and some rules are cultural, it is just how things are done. I am starting to think that New Zealand's "give way" system of traffic management is cultural.

After a number of months driving in New Zealand, I realize something very odd: there are few traffic lights here. Perhaps in the past there wasn't that much traffic to justify traffic lights, but New Zealand today has one of the highest per capita car ownership rates in the world, and traffic can be congested. But it isn't just traffic lights: there are few stop signs either. In fact, nearly every intersection is governed by a system of "give way" (yield) rules. New Zealand is gaga for roundabouts (traffic circles), even in the middle of highways. One can even encounter strange hybrid roundabouts, involving three or five spokes instead of four, odd contortions that look anything but round.

The give way system offers the illusion that one doesn't need to stop, but the reality is quite different. I have heard that roundabouts are supposed to offer more efficient way to get cars through intersections than traffic lights. But in my experience, the system collapses when there is traffic congestion, which is often. People queue waiting for the person on their right to go. But that person also is waiting for a person on their right. And so on. What is described in the official Road Rules as a simple give way to the person on the right, in practice is a quagmire of confusion, as everyone is waiting, feeling it is their turn, but unsure if they really have the right of way.

I am also reminded of the failure of the give way system when I watch the television. Every day public service adverts are broadcast admonishing one to watch carefully in all directions when pulling out in a busy intersection. The unfortunate person in the ad get crushed by an oncoming car because she thought she had the right of way. By like a game of chess, she had to think several moves ahead to anticipate how someone else turning on the busy street perceived their right of way.

From a cognitive perspective, I think the give way system is deeply flawed. If one only needed to follow one variable it might work. Instead, yielding is conditional on a chain of prior claims. It is similar to trying to understand a compound, complex sentence while brush your teeth.

Traffic lights are much easier. You just need to be okay with being told to stop.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005


your attention, please!

I once saw a funny skit by the British comedian Lenny Henry, that highlighted the various "audio signatures" of different versions of Windows as they booted. Henry added a Rastafarian version.

But it is interesting to question what noise we notice, what we simply enjoy, and what escapes attention all together. For audio feedback in machines, Stephen Wilcox advocates using "semi-musical" chords that don't sound too musical (we don't pay attention to these) and don't sound too harsh (we focus too much on the sound, rather than what it is meant to cue). Wilcox suggests chords from Bartok and Stravinsky. I guess this approach doesn't work so well for people who consider Bartok's and Stravinsky's music lyrical.

Monday, July 04, 2005


worst software award

I am really pissed off with Abode Acrobat. Every version seems to be worse than the previous one. I own version 4, but it is increasing rendered useless by documents created in newer versions, which have "enhanced features" that version 4 can't understand.

I hate the idiotic digital rights management of newer versions of Adobe. They often force the user to print out a document, instead of allowing him to save it to his disk. We are sliding backwards here people: my office is getting more cluttered by paper now, not less cluttered.

I hate how buggy Acrobat is, even Acrobat reader. The more crappy features Adobe tries to force on me, the more crappy code that results. Acrobat doesn't play well with Explorer, Firefox or Active X.

Acrobat is a corporate centric solution. The user be damned. It is time for users to stand up and voice their discontent.

Friday, July 01, 2005


business as iterative design

I believe passionately in the power of iterative design, making changes to get feedback, so as to learn how to arrive at a better solution. Iterative design is not simply testing if something works, it is finding information within the feedback, information that can be acted upon. Iterative design is a form on continuous learning.

What iterative design is not is planning. Many people comfortable with notions of project planning and business planning cast a wary eye on iterative design. But no less a business authority than Peter Drucker notes the power of iterative design in the evolution of firms. He notes:

"When a new venture does succeed, more often than not it is in a market other than the one it was originally intended to serve, with products or services not quite those with which it had set out, bought in large part by customers it did not even think of when it started."

Try writing a business plan around that scenario.

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