Thursday, July 23, 2015

Please see the Iteration Group blog

Hi there!

This is an old blog - with occasional posts from 1999 to 2012.

Please see the Iteration Group blog, where the team and I post about User Experience, Product Development, Web Design, Mobile App Design, and related topics.

Friday, August 10, 2012

WinDirStat - See treemap of your file system, easily find big files

WinDirStat is still a really great tool, even after all these years.  Very useful!

I don't know of any other way of quickly and intuitively finding out what's taking up my disk space.  Perfect use of the treemap visualization.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Excel "Comment" Bubbles Need to be Improved

It's about time that Microsoft improve the "Comments" functionality in Excel:

Wow. Just plain ugly. Shooting from the hip:

  • That shadow technique (angled lines) is a bit...dated.
  • Square corners? Rounded would be much better, especially given the grid-like nature of Excel.  Rounded corners would create a nice contrast to the rest of the display.
  • 8 ways to tug / pull / stretch?  Totally unnecessary.  Why should this be resizable to begin with?
  • Default size: about four rows of text high.  Doesn't automatically resize.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Stop Using Lorem Ipsum!

I think I've discovered a handy way of summing-up how I think about designing user interfaces: No Lorem Ipsum!

A Symptom of a Bigger Problem: Lazy Product Design
Lorem Ipsum isn't always bad. It's often useful in "marketing pages" - places where you want to indicate there will be a few paragraphs of text here, a sentence or two there, etc. But when designing interfaces? No way. Use Real Data. Text that represents, you know, what the user might actually see.

Designing and building great software is hard. You've got to put yourself in the shoes of the end user, try to understand their needs and motivations, and try to create a tool that's really useful (and hopefully fun and interesting too). You've got to sweat the small stuff. Every screen. Every permutation of every screen. Every label, every text box, every error message. It's the accumulation of thousands of design decisions that makes something great.

Using "Lorem Ipsum" or "Menu Item 1" or "Product 1" (or whatever) makes it harder to design great software. What happens when "Product 1" becomes "How to Be Funny: The One and Only Practical Guide for Every Occasion, Situation, and Disaster (no kidding)"? Find out early so you can design accordingly.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"The problem is we don't understand the problem"

Aza Raskin, the talented user interface designer (and son of the original designer for Macintosh, Jef Raskin), shares a really insightful short story that suggests how we should go about tackling "deeply difficult challenges."

Aza goes on to talk about a man named Paul MacCready who sought out to build the first human-powered airplane. From the article:
The problem was the problem. Paul realized that what needed to be solved was not, in fact, human powered flight. That was a red-herring. The problem was the process itself, and along with it the blind pursuit of a goal without a deeper understanding how to tackle deeply difficult challenges. He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve: how can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours not months. And he did. He built a plane with Mylar, aluminum tubing, and wire.
I think this perspective is useful when thinking about technology-based solutions to K-12 education. Modern instructional formats (like Academy123 and Khan Academy) afford scale, "failing quicker", and iterating toward success.

Imagine "a process of ongoing improvement":
  • 100,000 mini-videos, 2-3 minutes in length, in one subject (say, algebra).  For each specific topic (say, simple factoring), videos are recorded in dozens of different ways (teacher A, B, C. Easy, Medium, Hard. Instructional method X, Y, Z).

  • Each student is prescribed a customized path through those videos. The prescription changes on-the-fly.  Some students, for example might respond better to a male teacher, a female teacher, a young teacher (peer), and older teacher, etc.

  • Hundreds of videos are re-done each week, based on student results, attention data, and other analytics. The content gets better over time.

Click here to Play

Scaling teachers using technology

Issac Asimov, the famous Science Fiction writer, wrote an amusing short story (below) that describes a highly individualized and customized learning environment, while at the same time, reminds us how our existing education system is so outdated and inneficient (textbooks that students don't read, 35 kids in a class, students grouped by age and not by ability, etc.).

Has technology advanced enough such that we can approximate, with sufficient "fidelity", a real flesh-and-blood teacher?

Isaac Asimov - The Fun They Had -

Friday, June 10, 2011

Use These Mockups: Lots of Design Patterns in Balsamiq Mockups (BMML) format

For those of you that use Balsamiq Mockups, here are a bunch of templates I created that you might find handy.
Download them all in one ZIP file (90KB).

I find myself re-using many of these elements when I design applications (especially the boring/tedious/must-have features, like Forgot Password, Sign In, 404 page). Enjoy!

The following mockups are included in the ZIP file:

Home Pages
Home Page, Members Only Mockup
Home Page, Downloadable Product Mockup
Feature Tour
Feature Tour Mockup
Pricing, Upgrade, Downgrade
Pricing Page Mockup
Upgrade & Downgrade Mockup
Upgrade "Thank You" E-mail Mockup
Read-Only List of Items
Read Only List of Items Mockup
Editable List of Items
Editable List of Items Mockup
Add Item Mockup
Edit Item and Delete Item Mockup

Invite Friends
Invite Friends Mockup
Invite Friends Via E-mail Mockup (Popup)

Settings / My Account Page
Settings / My Account Page Mockup
Sign In
Sign In Page Mockup

Sign In Popup Mockup
Forgot Password Process
Forgot Password Page Mockup
Password Reset Email Mockup
Reset Password Page Mockup
404 Page Mockup
Log / History Page Mockup
Downloading Page Mockup
Windows System Tray Mockup
Windows Tour Mockup

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Blast From the Past: ICQ and AoLOL!

Yesterday, at the Israel Conference here in L.A., I met, in person, for the first time, someone that I've been communicating with electronically for about 15 years. Funny when that happens.

I first met Yair Goldfinger when he was working on ICQ, a company that he co-founded back in 1996 that invented instant messaging as we now know it. I was 16 years old, a Junior in high school, when I was introduced to the ICQ team. These were four young Israeli guys working on something that turned out to be really, really big. In a way, ICQ is symbolic of kicking-off the dotcom boom: the prototypical startup that exited really, really big (sold to AOL for $400M in 1998).

The ICQ guys asked me to give them some feedback on their web site, which, at the time, was littered with broken English. I was rather helpful in that A) I can speak Hebrew fluently and I connected well with the team and B) English is my native language, so I could help them get things into decent shape.

I was really intrigued by their product, especially considering that I had built something somewhat similar (but vastly simpler, without their bigger vision): an add-on for AOL 2.5 that, among other things, allowed you to see if your friends were online. And, if they were, you could send them instant messages.

I called the product AoLOL!. It was my very-first piece of commercial software. I labored over it for months and months until my cousin, who had some experience in the world of computers, demanded that I release it. I was new to software development, and by the time that I had built an adequate number of features, I learned so much about how to improve my work that I couldn't bear to release the software as-is. It was never good enough! (typical problem among software developers).

The product actually did quite well (considering the circumstances) and sold hundreds of copies (shareware, $14.95 per copy). It was an incredible feeling to get checks in the mail from complete strangers!

At one point, the ICQ guys asked me if I'd be interested in joining them - they were in the Bay Area at the time - but I had to decline (I was still in high school!). They also offered me UIN #007 (ICQ didn't have usernames, they assigned numbers to each user), and I I declined (don't ask me why). My UIN is 104007 (four thousand and seventh person to sign up - they started at 100,000).

Later, AOL launched the "buddy list," and I let the ICQ team "borrow" my AOL account ("yar1g") to check it out, see how it works, etc.

Fun to look back. Everything was so exciting and new.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

DeviceReady: Test Your Android App Across 25+ Devices

I keep hearing from lots of folks that Android fragmentation is a big problem. When developing apps for Android, you have to consider the various devices, versions of operating system, form factors, etc. Sounds like a nightmare.

I've been thinking lately about one possible partial solution:

A service that enables Android app developers to submit their app and get screenshots of how the app looks and performs across the most popular Android devices.  Not an emulator.  Your app running on each of those devices.

Like Selenium + Browsershots for Android.

To test the concept, I quickly came up with a name (DeviceReady), threw together a landing page using Unbounce, shared the idea on Hacker News, and purchased about $75 worth of Google Adwords.  The results after 3 days:

Pretty good, right?

I think this is a winning idea because:
  • A company serious about their android app really should test it across dozens of devices.
  • Presumably they are spending a lot of money building and testing their app.
  • The cost of the service, at, say $100 per month (5 submissions) or $25 per submission would be negligible.
  • It is unreasonable to think that a small or mid size android dev shop (most of them) would buy dozens of handsets and manually test on each.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Idea: Building a Better World Meeting Planner

I'm often having meetings (phone calls, really) with folks on the other side of the planet (Europe, Asia, Australia, etc.). Rather than thinking too much and trying to convert time zones in my head (and inevitably screwing things up), I turn to sites like The World Clock Meeting Planner.

There, I enter my location (Los Angeles), the location of the person with whom I'm meeting (say, Sydney), and it shows me a really useful grid:

Results from The World Clock Meeting Planner.

The green indicates the "safe zone" for scheduling a meeting (the typical working hours, 8AM to 5PM, for each location). So, at a glance, I can see that, say, 3PM to 5PM Los Angeles time would likely work for me and the person I'm meeting with that's in Sydney.

Really useful, but not great.  I'd like something that's better.  Specifically:
  1. Remember my location! Every time I visit World Meeting Planner, I have to re-enter my city (Los Angeles). It should fill this in by default.
  2. Remember my history. While it's I might meet with folks across hundreds of different cities and time zones, it's unlikely. Remember the locations that I've used in the past, and suggest them to me (like a sidebar that allow me to choose a location I've previously used with one-click).
  3. Autocomplete. Allow me to type the first few characters of "Sydney" or "Auckland", and complete it for me. Don't make me scroll through a big ugly list of possible locations!
  4. Be flexible with location names. Let me type "Sydney" or "Auckland" or even just "New Zealand". If it matters (it may or may not depending on the timezones and time of year), force me to choose a specific city or time zone.
  5. Ideally, integrate with Google Calendar. Create a Google Calendar plug-in* or browser extension extension that improves the UI when creating a new calendar item. Allow me to choose a number of locations and see the "safe zones" for meeting. As above, remember the locations that I've used in the past.
Adding an event in Google Calendar. Aside from the fact that this UI could use a lot of work, it would be great to have an integrated world meeting planner.

* Does Google allow plug-ins to Calendar or Google Apps? Does such an infrastructure exist? If so, any good options for monetization? I'm sure something like this could be created and monetized for mobile devices, but what about the desktop?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Idea: Screenshot Archive of Home and Landing Pages

Learning about MOAT ad search today (via TechCrunch), I was reminded of a company called Who's Mailing What! that I stumbled into while doing some Zumbox R&D.

Who's Mailing What! is a really simple and useful low-tech idea: scan the direct mail (paper) that's sent to folks around the country.  Make this database browseable and searchable to anyone who might want to see, say, exactly how Geico markets its products to consumers.  Really useful to other direct marketers.

Why not offer something similar for web pages?

Take screenshots, at regular intervals, of home pages and landing pages of leading web companies.

Not just (too coarse: Spreedly vs. Recurly vs. Chargify)*.  I don't care about links or preserving functionality, I just care about layout, wording, button design, calls-to-action, etc, which have presumably been refined over time by these companies.  Most modern web companies respect that home page and landing page design is "a process of ongoing improvement," and employ analytics and A/B testing tools (like unbounce, which is awesome BTW) to track and increase conversion rates.

I suspect that enlightened web marketers (folks who design home pages, landing pages, manage search engine marketing campaigns, display ad campaigns, e-mail marketing campaigns, etc) would pay for a subscription service that showed them how (and when!) their competitors designs have evolved (again, changes to layout, wording, buttons, calls-to-action, etc.).

* P.S. Any way to link to multiple web pages?  One link opens n pages?  Like how Hipmunk enables you to open multiple tabs on their site?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Few Firefox 4 UI Complaints

Like most of the planet, today I downloaded Firefox 4 to check it out. I've been a happy Chrome user for a while now (and before that, Firefox).

Upon first glance, I've got a handful of UI complaints. Things that could obviously and easily be improved, I think.
  1. The "Title Button". Why orange? Why so prominent? Why so high-contrast?

  2. Clicking The "Title Button". Ohh my. This is a UI abomination. OK, maybe it's not that bad, but it's really bad. The groupings are unclear. Why two columns? What is the difference between items in the left column and the right column? "New Tab" has an arrow indicating that mousing-over it will reveal more stuff...or, is it pointing to the right column? Edit is italicized for fun! The Cut icon (scissors) has to be the worst Cut icon I've ever seen. Almost doesn't look like scissors! The Print icon...

  3. The Tabs. I see now that Chrome has spoiled me with a really nice tab design. These Firefox 4 tabs are so blocky. The vertical lines separating the tabs are too bold. The fact that both sides of each tab intersect with the horizontal line beneath them is too harsh. Chrome, by contrast, has a neat curved tab design, where only one side of the tab (except for the leftmost tab) intersects with the line.

    Chrome Tabs: Nice

    Firefox 4 Tabs: Ugly

    Microsoft Word's tab design, for instance, shows an interesting way to improve upon Firefox 4: by hiding the border of the not-in-focus tabs.  I guess this might not work well in Firefox, given the design of the Bookmarks bar.

  4. The Buttons and General "3d-ness". The Home Button. The Bookmarks Button. The Firebug button (if you use this addon). They're light up-top, dark towards bottom. Have a slight shadow. Rounded corners. They look nice, but these details just aren't necessary. Too many lines. Accentuates the whitespace (the area in between buttons) too much. Again, see Chrome for contrast (apparently even the Chrome logo is going flat)

Aza, where were you!?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Idea: Recording top web content (plain text) into podcasts

Thinking out loud:

What if you took popular news articles and blog posts and "automatically" converted them into podcasts (using real human beings)?

For example, see this article (popular on TechCrunch and on LinkedIn Today):

Original blog post:
The City By The Meh: Thoughts On Falling Out Of Love With The Valley

Podcast I recorded - click the play button:

Check this out on Chirbit

Create a content factory (using some simple workflow software) whereby a handful of dictators (with great speaking ability) get fed the text content - their job is to speak the text out loud.  Their speech gets recorded and is instantly made available for download to iPods, web browsers, and whatever other devices.  Maybe even other distribution channels like XM satellite radio and Pandora (folks who might want to passively hear the news in the car, at home, at work, etc.)

To start, the task of recording, say, a few hundred podcasts per day would be trivial.  Considering that there would be no "transformation" (that is, the dictator just reads the content aloud; doesn't summarize or anything), each podcast would only take a few minutes to record.

I wonder how this could be monetized and also how the original writers could be compensated?

Works for any country in any language.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Haptic Interfaces for the Permanently or Temporarily Blind

Thinking out loud:

We're all aware of mobile phones that vibrate to tell us about a call or a message.  What about other really useful haptic interfaces?  Those that utilize our sense of touch?

It seems to me like there should be lots of lots of ways to utilize our sense of touch in situations where folks are temporarily or permanently blind.

Simple case: imagine a person driving a car and turning on his left-turn-signal to indicate a lane change. A camera embedded in the car notices another vehicle that's possibly in the drivers "blind spot."  The car reacts by delivering a short vibrating “buzz” to the drivers lower back (on his left side).  A useful, passive indicator for short-term blindness (doesn't even interrupt his conversation with the passenger!).

More extreme case: imagine a blind person approximating sightedness with the use of a simple device. Like the kids toy that is made up of hundreds of tiny silver pins (fun to create a rendering of your hand), a thin device with a large number of “pins” would be placed across the back of a blind person (or whatever part of the human body that is both large and sensitive enough). Paired with a modified GPS device and simple camera, a blind person could walk down the street and have a simplified rendering of his surroundings – there is a street there, another street there, a car is moving along here, a person is walking towards me here (a “scratching” feeling would move from his lower back to his upper back), etc. Given our ability to learn by repetition, I would imagine these haptic cues would slowly become second nature to the blind person and would help inform their behavior and movements.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

vCard utility for Gmail / Google Apps that auto-imports?

Wondering out loud:

Does anyone know if there is a vCard utility for Gmail / Google Apps?

For those who don't know, vCard (.vcf) is a file format standard for business cards used in lots of apps, both desktop and web-based.

For example, if you're using LinkedIn, you'll see an an icon that lets you easily download a vCard for the contact that you're looking at:

If you click on the icon, the vCard file downloads to your computer:

In the olden-days when I used Outlook (RIP), I'd double-click to open this file, click Save, and the contact would be added to my Address Book.

These days I use Gmail (well, to be precise, "Google Apps for Business"), and this vCard is basically useless to me.  The only way I can see to get a vCard into my Gmail contacts is to use the Gmail "import" feature:
  1. Download the vCard
  2. Go to Gmail Contacts
  3. Click Import
  4. Locate the file
  5. Click OK
Has someone created a utility to make this easier?  Has someone created a simple Windows app that creates an association between .VCF files and Gmail so that I can just click on a vCard file and, voila, it is automatically added to my contacts in Gmail?

OR, a Browser plugin/extension (Chrome please!) that does something similar?

While I believe that this would be useful to lots of folks out there, I would expect that a utility like this would be especially valuable to all of the corporate customers that are moving to Gmail (from Outlook/Exchange, Lotus Notes, and other "legacy" e-mail systems where vCards are first-class citizens). 

Monday, February 7, 2011

GeoClock: Ambient World Clock (Physical Device)

Here's an idea for a physical device that's "on the shelf". From January 2007.

Back in 1999 I worked for Bertelsmann Ventures (now BV Capital) in Santa Barbara, California. The office was in a really cool location (just off State Street), on the second floor of a really great building (above the Wine Cask restaurant). Lot's of dark wood and character.

One of the partners had a really neat looking world map hanging on the wall of his office. Later, I found out it was a GeoChron, a special kind of world map that displays the time, anywhere in the world, at a glance. It also shows you where it's dark and where it's light (the declination of the sun)

The GeoChron is a really interesting device. It's completely mechanical (not digital), hand made, and is rather expensive (prices range from $1,700 to $3,000). Here's more information, directly from the manufacturer:
The Geochron is the only instrument of its kind to simultaneously exhibit the current time anywhere in the world as well as displaying where the sun is rising, and when it will set. Each gear is individually hand-cut to ensure optimum synchronization. Each world map is made using state of the art lithography printing which uses specially formulated inks designed to make the map resistant to ultraviolet light.
Fast forward to January 2007. Digital picture frames were a big consumer craze. These were $100 to $200 devices that would sit on your desk and show you a slideshow of photos.

I thought there might be an opportunity to create modern version of a GeoChron, one that would be perfect as an executive gift or desktop accessory. I called it GeoClock.
My "GeoClock" design. It says "ambient" in the top-right corner because I pitched the device to David Rose, CEO of Ambient Devices. David had experience designing, manufacturing, and distributing hardware devices at retail stores. I sent him a "prototype" which was an off-the-shelf digital picture frame with a number of still images in sequence, "faking" what the real product would look like.

I figured I could sell this thing for $200 to $300 dollars. I didn't know much about the hardware costs, but I assumed that the components were very similar to the digital picture frames: a display, some kind of processor, some memory. And of course, some custom-developed software that would render a picture of the earth, draw the declination of the sun, refresh the display every x seconds, etc.

Here are some additional thoughts that I captured in a short presentation:
GeoClock Overview

Has the time for a product like this passed?  It seems like digital picture frames came and went. I assume it's because 1) they're rather wasteful (always on, drawing power) and 2) the image they produce fades and degrades over time.

Clearly this would make a great app for Android, iPhone, iPad.  A quick search in the Apple App Store lists a number of them with similar features.