So, As It Turns Out, I Was Right, Sort Of

From Jan 31, 2010: Why the Mac OS X 10.7 UI Will be the iPad UI.

I didn't see the App Store coming, but the "virtuous circle" of iPhone -> iPad -> Mac OS, yes. The single-task interface, yes. Hiding the Finder, yes. Auto-save so you don't have to worry about file system hierarchies, yes.

Gizmodo has more details, and ends by stating that, yes, this is the future of the desktop UI, and not just on the Mac.

On App Inventor: Speaking the Language of Novices

Google's App Inventor is a great idea. Empowering consumers to create is always a good thing. Visual Basic was the key to Microsoft's long-time success. Map making tools are the reason why Warcraft III and Starcraft still sell on retail shelves, more than a decade after their release. iMovie, Windows Movie Maker and its counterparts have helped make YouTube the site for almost every Web meme of the last five years.

Visually-oriented IDEs are a great way to develop software quickly. Visual Basic and Delphi are two classic examples of this, and their tradition of partial WYSIWYG views carries on to Visual Studio and Flex Builder today. (I've also made the argument that if Adobe wants CFBuilder extensions to really take off, they need a visual UI to create them.) They've even evolved to have a similar visual language: panels spread out on the screen which allow for inter-panel communication and interaction, playing off visual and interaction patterns common to many IDEs. When you fire up Eclipse or Visual Studio, you, as a programmer, can say "Oh, I know the basics of how this IDE works because it looks like other IDEs I've worked with."

All of those tools, however, expect that the user has some kind of fundamental understanding of the basics of programming: simple data structures, simple logic controllers, and so on. You simply can't get by without them.

Now let me say that I've had minimal direct experience with Google's App Inventor. I don't think that's a problem here because I want to talk about first impressions, as those mean a lot to the average, non-technical user at whom Google is targeting the product.

Take a look at this screenshot from the product's home page:

App Inventor Demo Screen

The focus of the UI is on the simulated phone screen in the middle of the window, as it should be. Take a look at the list of controls under "Palette," on the left. There you'll see titles for controls such as "Canvas," "ListPicker," and "TinyDB." Although there is a question mark next to each which, when clicked, tells the user what the control is, that text (and other text on the screen) is very much the language of the programmer and not the user. A non-technical, non-programmer, average, everyday Android phone user (who is the target user of App Inventor) would probably look at that and say "What the heck is a ListPicker?" I've worked with a lot of "non-technical, non-programmer users," and know pretty well that when any "programmer-ese" comes in to play in the UI, users tend to be taken aback and almost immediately take a combative approach to this UI written in a language other than their own.

This programmer-centric language works its way in to other elements in very subtle ways. Look at the properties you can manipulate in the "Components" and "Properties" panels. The text which describes the properties you can manipulate, while clear, is written in camel case — a programmer's, not average user's, convention. "CheckBox1" could just as easily have been displayed as "Check Box 1." The same goes for "BackgroundColor" and "BackgroundImage." I know this sounds trivial, but it's clearly the work of programmers who expect that users will get or, at least, grow accustomed to the way software is written by programmers, not "average end users."

I also have to wonder if the basic assumption of the standard IDE UI as the default UI is an appropriate one. In my experience, users are task-focused. They want to be able to make a movie from video on their camera and upload it to YouTube. They want to write a letter to their congressman about an issue that is important to them. They want to set up a quiz for the students in their class to take. As users are task-focused (and not document focused), an application should start with smart defaults and help a user accomplish basic tasks quickly. Instead of showing the standard IDE UI at startup, App Inventor may be better served with a "Start Screen" which could ask:

What kind of application would you like to build?
  • One that uses data from my Twitter account.
  • One that uses maps to display places that are important to me.
  • One that lets me chat with my friends.
  • None of the above.

The options presented here, when selected, would then pull together some of the basics for the application, saving the "average user" quite a bit of time and lay out most of hte plumbing required to get their desired application off the ground. This "Start Screen" could be turned off in the application's preferences for user who don't want to be bothered with this kind of getting started page.

The blocks tool that the team has devised to map out the internal logic of the application is really smart. It makes visualizing the logic clear and it's easy to drag and drop components in to the right order. No-code development environments like this are key to getting "average users" to use the tool to create applications that do what they want.

I've used "average users" in quotation marks throughout this entry. That's because I don't think the real audience is "average users" — meaning someone who owns a smartphone but hasn't developed software before. The tool was developed by university-level faculty and targeted towards students at various levels (elementary, middle, high and university) but in the context of teaching software development. As such, I believe the tool makes the fundamental assumption that you have to have some knowledge of the art of programming. That assumption informs the design of the UI and how users interact with it. It makes it vastly simpler for individuals to develop applications (even me!), but it's not a tool that can be used by just anyone with experience with smartphones.

App Inventor was created by a lot of people much smarter than I. It's also still in beta and something I know that the team will improve upon over time. I just have to point out that if they really want to create something which allows the average user of a cell phone to build their own applications, they need to create a UI that, from start to end, reads in the way that an average, non-programmer user would understand.

Making Your Web Apps More Human

I was reading a post on Luke Wroblewski's blog recapping a presentation on "Designing Humanity in to Your Products" at the Web App Summit 2009 and it got me thinking about the tensions I often find in creating the text for the Web applications I build.

We have an interdisciplinary team responsible for all the educational and training content developed at my place of work. They're very smart, talented people who know a lot about their specific area of expertise. Over time, we've settled on a writing style that's, well, a bit formal. We're an academic institution, after all, and the Chicago Manual of Style is pretty clear on how words should be crafted for the page.

The problem with sticking to a standard like Chicago is twofold:

  1. We're on the Web, not the page. The Web really is different from the printed page.
  2. Web 2.0 experiences are fast becoming (if not already) the standard. Users expect to be referred to in the first or second person. Users expect to take center stage in all the activities available in a Web app. They expect the casual, conversational style of Facebook to be how all Web apps should work.

I'm not trying to single out the technical writers and editors that we have on our team. They're great and really know what they're doing. I'm also not abdicating the basic rules of academic writing to Facebook or IM style. (I teach an online course at a graduate institution, after all, and I see how lazy students can be when it comes to writing.) What I am trying to point out is that often when we generate the text for our Web applications, we're bound by a sense of obligation to "proper style" or "business tone" that's so formal it only reinforces the stereotype that computers (and by extension, the Web applications that run on computers) are so devoid of anything resembling personality or idiosyncratic style that we can't, fundamentally, connect with them.

Part of the success of Facebook or Twitter or any number of Web 2.0 sites is the way in which they approach the user: a friendly, conversational tone with human-readable (and understandable) messages. As pointed out in the blog post, we need to take a conversational rather than formal tone, especially when it comes to error messages or other "system guidance" to users. This may result in a site with a less authoritative (as in totalitarian) voice, but the benefit is that users feel assisted, not punished, when they need to ask a question or something goes wrong.

As I've been implementing newer apps, and those using my Contextual Guidance API, I've made a conscious effort to keep the tone less formal and more conversational. This has resulted in a few discussions about what's appropriate (contractions seem to be a sticking point), but I think the upshot are apps that are more approachable and, by extension, more human. People have such limited time to get anything that they don't see as non-essential done, it's important to make them feel that they're dealing with an app made by humans, for humans.

30 Essential Controls for Web Interfaces

I realize that I've been posting a lot on user interface design for Web applications, but it seems that there are more and more excellent resources becoming freely available on this front every day. What's even better is that many of these resources provide simple, clear examples for best practices.

Thanks to the good folks at Ajaxian, I came across 30 Essential Controls, a page which lists frequently used Web UI controls (ie; multi-select box, rich text editor, autosuggest, etc.) and which RIA frameworks use them. So if you're prototyping a particular UI and want to know if the framework you're considering (because you are using frameworks and not trying to reinvent the wheel, right?) supports that type of control. There are handy links to many specific control implementations inline, so it's pretty easy to find some of these controls while others you'll have to go searching for.

The parent site for this page, which is for the book "Designing Web Interfaces: Principles and Patterns for Rich Interactions" has quite a few good resources itself, including a blog from the authors. If you haven't seen Bill Scott's presentation on Designing Web Interfaces on Slideshare, it's definitely worth checking out and making it through the 300+ slides. He just did a webcast on O'Reilly and should be posting the audio from the session soon. Take a look at the "Explore the Book" page as well, as it summarizes most of the content of the book into an easily usable page.

It looks like I'll be picking up their book shortly.

10 Useful Web Application Interface Techniques

I'm rarely disappointed when the smart folks who put together Smashing Magazine come out with a new article on Web application design and information architecture. Their style is straightforward and remarkably jargon-free, especially when compared to other UI design-focused sites.

10 Useful Web Application Interface Techniques is their latest posting on the subject (see that article for even more, related articles on effective UI design techniques). While I do get a lot out of reading these articles, and the tips and strategies are usually dead-on (and make good common sense), one of the things I love about what they do is that they provide visual examples for nearly every tip and technique. It's a great way to quickly survey what other sites are doing, and how they're working to innovate in UI design.

Neuro Web Design

A less buzzwordy title for this book would be "The Neurosociology of Effective eCommerce Design," but I suppose that's not as pithy as "Neuro Web Design." This brief, clearly written and surprisingly obvious book by Susan M. Weinschenk examines the neuroscience behind effective Web marketing and design, focusing in particular on eCommerce.

Quite a bit of the book covers how the "old, mid and new" parts of the brain affect our decisions to buy and act in the ways that we do. (I'd argue that you could interchange those three terms with "id, ego and superego," but there are physical parts of the brain which map to these concepts.) Weinschenk focuses quite a bit on socialization and how we need to be a part of a group, especially when we make decisions about buying. She focuses on the effectiveness of public reviews, reciprocity, immediacy, and threat in designing your Web commerce and marketing strategy.

It was interesting to read that psychologists are now demonstrating, though data, the effectiveness of "chunking" content — a practice that my work has put to use for over a decade now in long-form online educational content. Learners provided much anecdotal data about preferring chunked content, but Weinschenk points to studies that back this up with numbers.

A lot of what she says makes great common sense and is, honestly, pretty obvious when you think about it. She presents things in a very easy-to-read and understand style. I did find, though, that the overall book is a bit thin as the core concepts are repeated in a number of different ways over 132 pages (padded with elegant spacing, pictures, and reminder boxes throughout). It also ends rather abruptly, providing very little wrap-up, but this isn't fiction.

Web App Design Anti-Patterns

Slideshare is a great learning resource. There are presentations from top-level presenters in a number of fields (particularly Web design and development) posted there, although you sometimes have to wade through the litany of "Hot Brazillian Girls" slideshows that never quite seem to go away. You can subscribe to their very convenient RSS feed of latest presentations submitted to the site, or the most viewed presentations within a given day or week or month, and so on. I usually review one or two presentations a day on the site.

Bill Scott, the Director of UI Engineering for Netflix, posted a great and detailed presentation on "Designing Web Interfaces: Principles and Patterns for Rich Interaction." What's really useful about this presentation is not just the depth of examples but also his pointing out anti-patterns in Web application interface design. Anti-patterns aren't well discussed in this area, and I think he makes some great points about common approaches to interaction which may be less helpful than we expect them to be.

The presentation is below, but you should definitely head on over to Slideshare if you haven't already, as there's a wealth of useful presentations there.

Designing Web Interfaces
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: ajax rich)

Protoshare: Sweet Collaborative Wireframing

Protoshare is a full Web application that enables Web application teams to collaborate with clients and customers on prototyping Web sites. I'm a big proponent of prototype-based development, but one of the drawbacks to this methodology is that there aren't a number of really good tools to facilitate the process. Those that do exist are desktop-only and somewhat expensive. Protoshare enables you and your team and your clients to build out protoypes completely online in a surprisingly rich, drag-and-drop environment with smartly integrated commenting and discussion.

Where Protoshare really shines is in the wireframing layout process. They've done some very impressive work with JavaScript on the browser, and the very rich UI is fluid and responsive. Even more impressive, you can make your wireframes fairly interactive, utilizing RSS for dynamic data display, or menu drop-downs or flyouts that really let you and your clients see the workflow, rather than just talk about it. You can certainly build HTML prototypes that do the same thing (and we do!), but Protoshare helps to automate that process.

I've been looking at it as a way to enable our team and our clients to work remotely and still collaborate effectively, and I think it meets that requirement. However, as most of my team and our clients are all within a short walk of each other, I'm not sure that the fees (which are not steep) and the lock in to the product are worth the investment. We can also generate richer prototypes on our own, but certainly not as fast. If our designer/developer team and clients were more geographically dispersed, Protoshare might be a great tool for us to use. I think the product is really excellent for smaller design shops or independent designers who want to collaborate with their clients without driving around (or flying to) a lot of meetings. I don't know if you'd use Protoshare to protoype a fairly large corporate intranet, but I think that aside from not being able to handle the full scope of AJAX-based interactivity (though you can address that by building Flash movies and inserting those in to the Protoshare wireframe), it's a very capable tool. (Though I would like to see real-time audio communication built in to the tool. It's very, very useful to talk through the workflow with collaborators, rather than just post comments asynchronously.)

Interestingly, Protoshare requires that you use Firefox 3. While IE is almost fully supported, Firefox is what you need to be using to fully engage with the application. It's unusual for almost any Web-based application to require Firefox over IE, but that's what they've done. I'm not sure that this isn't a problem, as home business or corporate clients may not want or be able to install Firefox just to collaborate with you. They may just ask that you meet with them in person instead.

Designing the Obvious Moment

Robert Hoekman Jr. has written two quite excellent books on user interface and interaction design. I read these books earlier this year, but thought I'd finally get to blogging about them as part of my ongoing book reviews.

Designing the Obvious was the first of the two books and, for me, the more successful of the two. It's rich with UI design aphorisms that simply make good common sense. Written in a simple, conversational style that draws heavily from actual Web application development experience, this book, and its counterpart just make sense. The book deserves to be read by anyone who actually builds any kind of Web application user interface, no matter how simple or complex. One of the things I really liked about his approach was the whole concept of turning beginning users into intermediate users quickly. That was the inspiration for my whole series of posts on the Contextual Guidance API. His outright demand that you make it simple, eliminate anything unnecessary in the app and in the design, and focusing on how you accomplish a task at every moment within the application is great advice. My team has taken that advice to heart and has begun designing our new applications around much of Hoekman's advice in this book. The result has been applications that visually make more sense to our clients, and clients that are really happy with what we're developing.

Designing the Moment is focused on very common, very specific moments of interaction with a Web application and how they can be made better. It's less cohesive as the previous book, which took more of a big-picture view to the art and process of designing user interfaces. In this book, the examples are very specific, somewhat less generalizable, but many of the same principles from Designing the Obvious come in to play. My sincere feeling is that a number of the solutions presented in this book will become outdated over the next couple of years (ie; blog and social networking site design) but, again, the basic principles of clarity, task-orientation and removing all but the essential are more than sound.

Designing the Obvious should be mandatory reading for all Web application developers, even those who rarely work on the UI. At the end of the day, the interface is the application, no matter what application you're using. Knowing how to create great interfaces is key to building great applications.

Getting Back to the Original Pointing Device

Smashing Magazine is a great site that frequently provides inspiration and illumination about all things design (and technology design in particular). I stumbled across the site a couple years ago and I'm always impressed with the quality of inspiration they provide.

They recently put together "10 Futuristic User Interfaces," a look at where user interfaces might go in the not-too-distant future. Interestingly, a lot of the interfaces point (no pun intended) to heavy use of the original pointing device: the finger. Of particular note are the interfaces for Futuristic Glass, Motorola Sparrow, Composition of the table, and Ringo. All of these interfaces rely primarily on hand-based motor skills to grab and manipulate information in a meaningful way.

Pointing as the primary means of communication isn't exactly new, or futuristic. We can see lots of implementations of "touch" devices in use today. Microsoft has Surface and its various, manufactured-real-soon now incarnations. There's the Wii. There's a number of new multi-touch computers, including the well-advertised one from HP. And there's the iPhone. A combination of devices are making touch-based interaction (computing) a reality.

My question, though, is this: will people forgo a century or more of developed typing skills for a touch-based interface. Touch-based interfaces are largely serial input devices. You can't type more than one letter at a time on the iPhone. Multiple touches signifies a single, special action in multi-touch interfaces. I suppose you could make the argument, however, that keyboards work the same way: a machine only accepts one key as input at at time. However, keyboards are fast. You can use all 10 pointing devices on your hands at an incredibly rapid rate to generate input. Touch devices expect that you'll be using a single input . Given the range of motion required for or the limited space available in touch interfaces, it's nearly impossible, at this point, to provide input at the same rate as a keyboard. A common complaint that Blackberry device users have about the iPhone is that it's much slower to create responses/entries on the iPhone than it is on the Blackberry because of the keyboard and because you're able to provide input at a much faster rate.

This is a problem that time and ingenuity will probably solve. However, the miniaturization of technology prevents a major barrier to rapid input via touch. The average finger size of our species isn't going to get smaller any time soon.

Another major obstacle to input interfaces like Ringo (which is pretty dang cool) is the need for small, inexpensive and completely proliferated holographic projectors. That day is probably coming too, with the march toward technology miniaturization.

So touch input, glass-as-the-computer, and the proliferation of holographic projectors. Maybe Minority Report had it right all along.

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