Archive for November, 2007

Faster prototypes, better specs

I ran across a tool called Lucid Spec that allows you to do rapid screen prototyping with clickthrough capabilities. They bill it as a tool for creating better specifications, which it would invariably be in the hands of a good user experience designer.


Design mode, with user detail screen in the middle, and supporting panels on the sides.

It could also be a tool for making higher fidelity “paper prototypes“, although that can backfire on you. When doing paper prototyping, it actually helps you get better user feedback if you have rough sketches that don’t look too polished.

However, after the paper prototyping phase, this Lucid Spec tool could be quite useful for showing the developers what to develop and how it should work.

Resources on paper prototyping:

Are online maps usable?

I ran across an old (July 07) blog entry on GISMO (Geographic Information Systems and Mapping) about map usability which led to a couple really interesting items:

  1. User-Centered Map Design from the Usability Professionals Association(UPA) points out that:
    Many people find map reading difficult. The problem lies in translating an exocentric bird’s-eye perspective of traditional maps into an egocentric perspective of the human vision. The experiment presented here suggests that electronic egocentric map displays using real-time 3-D and GPS positioning technology are more efficient, less erroneous, and more user-friendly than traditional static maps or electronic north-up or head-up maps.

    Map-reading involves a shift in perspective from what we’re used to. You look at most maps from above, yet most of us spend our days looking at the world from a sideways perspective. Why not make navigation systems that look the same as the world we live in? Of course it depends on the application. How would you show a population map or a land cover map from a human’s ground perspective?

  2. With Tools on Web, Amateurs Reshape Mapmaking–an article from the New York Times. This one I’d seen before, but it’s still interesting. It talks about the phenomena of the GeoWeb 2.0, which is enabling regular, every day folks with no geospatial training to make maps on the Web. With the wide availability of GPS units (and GPS on every cell phone–though many cell phone providers are still reluctant to let the user access their GPS coordinates) and simple map-building tools like Google Maps, the expertise level needed to build a map is no longer the private domain of GIS experts. In the article, Donald Cooke, chief scientist at Tele Atlas North America, states:

    “But you can also go hiking with your G.P.S. unit, and you can create a more accurate depiction of a trail than on a U.S.G.S. map.”

    Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media, a project affiliated with Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the journalism school at the University of California in Berkeley, says:

    “The possibilities for doing amazing kinds of things, to tell stories or to help tell stories with maps, are just endless.”

So what does that mean?
The environment of the web is changing the way people interact with geospatial information, and it will continue to evolve towards more human-oriented solutions. Web users are becoming more and more used to:

  • Information delivered to their desktops. Users no longer have to go out looking for everything. They can subscribe to news and data feeds and get that info delivered right to them. That applies to location-aware data and maps just as much as it does to CNN news feeds.
  • Rich, interactive (AJAX) controls. They expect to be able to:
    • zoom in and out just by rolling the wheel on their mouse
    • pan by clicking and dragging
    • move sliders back and forth
    • draw boxes or polygons right on the map
    • enter a placename or address and zoom right to it
    • drag and drop map markers and other objects

  • Customization options for look and functionality. Users now have the power on many web pages to add or remove gadgets and change the look and feel of a page in a matter of seconds.
  • Direct manipulation. Users can easily add points and information directly to the maps they see on the web. They can pull in data from many sources and upload GPS points in real-time, from the field.
  • The ability to pull in and view/compare data (by dragging and dropping datasets) from more than one source:
    • without having to download or store anything on their own computer
    • without having to buy expensive, installed software

With the advent of Second Life, Google Earth, Virtual Earth and other virtual worlds, users now are even beginning to expect the ability to fly to their location and move the globe on a computer screen like a child moves a toy car or airplane.

Businesses, nonprofits, and government organizations today have to consider this new interactive paradigm and updated expectations of web users, which is very different than the paper maps of old. Those who can be innovative and deliver more human-oriented geospatial solutions will be successful. Those who stick with old, static models will be left in the dust.

Finally a Useful GPS Device for your Car!

Last year at the Where 2.0 conference, I first saw the Dash Express, a location-aware device that connects to the Internet to get information in real-time from your car. I just got e-mail from Dash that the testing phase is nearing an end and they’re about to release a limited number of these handy devices in the first quarter of 2008.

As an owner of a Nissan Quest with a built-in GPS, I have plenty of frustrations with static GPS devices. The map on our GPS was outdated by the time we bought it–it actually routed us to a dead end one time, a place where an earthquake had destroyed the road and none had been built to replace it. It often shows us driving on blank map because it has no record of the road we’re on, or gives false directions. On top of that, Nissan wants us to pay them for an update DVD (that will also be outdated by the time we get it). We have just given up and gone back to paper maps because they’re more reliable and easier to use.

What’s different about Dash is it’s actually getting smarter as time progresses. Because it connects to the internet for information, not only does it have up-to-date roads, it’s also got real-time traffic updates with the ability to route around traffic jams (how handy!) and a plethora of other information you might want when you’re out and about. Things like “what live music events are happening in town tonight and where are they?”, “how much do the houses in this neighborhood cost, and where are the open houses today?” are now doable from your car with this handy Dash device. It even has built-in theft protection. When I saw it, I immediately wanted one, as did just about everyone else in the room. Unfortunately, by the time I reached the guys to volunteer for the roadtest, they already had enough volunteers. Sigh. I would have loved to evaluate the usability of the device. I guess I’ll just have to wait …

Glenn on AnyGeo posted a couple videos that I’ve taken the liberty of repeating here. Be careful watching these: you may find yourself wishing you could get one right now, like me!

The video Glenn took:

and a video clip from the Web 2.0 Summit:

GeoRSS in a Google Gadget

We’ve been playing with GeoRSS at work and I got the challenge of putting the GeoRSS feed we developed into a gadget that users could put on their iGoogle pages or web sites. I can’t show you the one I developed at work because the feed isn’t public (yet), so I developed another one using a publicly available feed (USGS volcanoes). This is a super-simple little gadget that uses Google Maps API and puts a little marker on the earth for each of the GeoRSS news feed items. I wish I had the ability to edit the items because the balloons get kind of big and unweildy inside the little gadget, but that’s beyond my control.

Add it to your iGoogle page.
Add it to your web site.

I’m sure many of you already know all this, but for those that don’t:

What’s GeoRSS? It’s a location-aware news feed. There are many types of GeoRSS feeds: homes for sale, USGS Earthquakes, flickr location-tagged photos, etc. I can imagine so many more excellent applications for it–how about best fishing holes, animal migration patterns, disease monitoring, best places to drink beer, …

What’s a gadget? If you haven’t customized your Google page yet, you are missing out! Google allows you to add handy little gadgets (mini-web applications) that give you everything from the weather to the image of the day to google map search or e-mail in a small, compact little package so you can fit lots of them on your page, and move them around wherever you want them.

The whole thing takes about 30 minutes to put together, and then a bit of tweaking and testing. The best part is it doesn’t require any programming! Just a little HTML and some XML.

USGS also has an Earth as Art gadget I helped with. This was my first experience developing a gadget: no geographic context, but it’s a lot prettier.

Add to iGoogle.
Add to a web page.

EPA shows Air Quality on Google Earth

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just unveiled their Google Earth version of air quality emissions sources on Google Earth.

The KMZ file from the EPA shows different colored markers for different sources of air pollution:

  • Cement Facilities
  • Chemical Manufacturing
  • Electric Generating Units
  • Natural Gas Pipelines
  • Oil and Gas Production
  • Petroleum Refineries
  • Pulp & Paper Industries

Clicking on any of the multitude of colored markers on the globe brings up an info balloon that shows a graph of the carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds for that facility.

This is a great step forwards in making air quality data more usable because it provides the geographic context, but you have to be an air quality expert or a pretty determined researcher to interpret the data. The questions that pop into my mind looking at it are:

  1. What does a high level of volatile organic compounds (or particulate matter or …) mean to my health? There is information on these topics on the EPA web site, but it’s provided separately. A more usable approach would pull in the relevant information right in the balloon (or at least as links from the info balloon).
  2. How far from the facility location would the effect be felt? What is the potential coverage area impacted? I’m sure it varies by weather conditions, but polygons or circles showing the potential impacted area would be more helpful. Even more helpful would be a calculator that would allow you to enter wind speed and direction and see the affected area as an overlaid polygon on the earth.

It’s nice to see the EPA taking steps to make their information more accessible. Some simple usability enhancements would make the information much more relevant to the average public.

The Usability of my Tent

So much is written about the usability of web sites that people forget that usability isn’t just about web sites. Usability engineering applies to anything and everything that people use. It’s a science of understanding humans and how they interact with things, a way of measuring how effective of a tool we’ve given the user, and a way of designing products and engineering improvements to benefit the users.

Picture courtesy of Coleman. This is not my actual tent.Take my tent, for example. I’ve been camping since I was a tyke and setting up a tent used to be a pretty arduous job. Something a kid could handle, but it quite a bit of time and some assistance from the parent-units. Then someone thought of those magic snap-together, bendable poles with elastic ropes in the middle to hold them together–that made setting up your tent much, much easier. Tents became almost an instant popup, and once you got your snapping, bendy poles in place, you could pick up your tent and move it anywhere you want it.

Problem was, you had to string those poles through these long, fabric tunnels on top of the tent and most of the time they would come apart. Kinda frustrating. There are still a lot of tents out there like that–my son got one for Christmas last year. He can set it up, but he needs a little help.

My parents gave me a tent, though, that eliminated that problem entirely. You snap together the frame, then hook the tent onto it. The rainfly drapes over the frame, hooks to the front and the back of the tent, and you snap in the corners like you would a seatbelt. It’s amazingly simple–one of the most intuitive user interfaces I’ve ever met! The tent itself is a pretty plain vanilla, one room/4-person tent, but I love it. It’s got a little hanging pocket right by my pillow to put little things like my glasses and my flashlight in at night, and it’s so incredibly simple to set up! Who wants to spend your vacation time setting up tents? Tent users want to get that part over with as quickly as possible and move onto the FUN.

The people who designed that tent took usability into account. They thought of a better way to meet the user’s goals of spending more of her limited vacation time having fun (and less time setting up camp)–and believe me, the users really appreciate that.

My point here is not to think of usability engineers as “web designers”. Usability is important in web design, but it is much farther-reaching than that, and it’s a lot more involved. Usability is a blend of human psychology, scientific research, and systems engineering. It’s often called human-computer interaction (HCI), or human factors engineering.

Interview with a Usability EngineerSun Usability Labs: What is Usability Engineering?

Can developers be usability people too?

I’m in the unfortunate situation of being de-scoped at the moment (that is, part of my job just got cut, so now I get the joy of going out and searching for more work), so I went up on our company web site looking for openings and I found a couple positions that were looking for usability.

However, what they want is one person who can both develop software and do usability. That’s not what I am, and for good reason. While I love computers and what they can do for me, I am at heart a people person. I thrive on trying to understand people better so that I can make tools that will better serve the person using them. I have a strong sense of empathy, which I think is a requirement for a good usability engineer.

This is not typically true of software developers. I’ve got loads of them as friends and I adore them. They are intelligent and usually have fantastic senses of humor, but they would prefer a computer over in-person interaction anyday. I have noticed they occasionally actually even take pleasure in making things difficult for the user (usually as some form of joke).

So what am I saying here? I’m saying (and this is a generalization, but …) that developers are not people people. They thrive on making electronic devices do new things, but they don’t particularly rejoice in studying human behavior. Human behavior is what drives usability of any product or interface. Human cognitive abilities, reactions, preferences, limitations–these are the determining factors that effective user interfaces must take into account. (Most) software developers don’t excel at those factors, but usability professionals do. (Of course, there are exceptions–I know a few developers who are also excellent at user interfaces.)

The other problem with having software developers make user interfaces is they develop for people like themselves. What percentage of our population is like a developer? Approximately 20%. Software developers are the type of people who want to know how it works. When they see a cool web application, they try to figure out how it was built. The other 80% of us just want it to work and couldn’t care less how it works.

Perhaps we need to get out of the old mold of believing that our software developers should develop interfaces and try a new approach. One that includes someone who lives and breathes user experience, but maybe doesn’t know (or care) so much about the inner workings of the code behind the interface. This approach also saves precious developer time (which is usually very expensive). Let’s stop wasting our developers’ time by asking them to do something that is against their nature.