Monthly Archives: November 2002

Being a generalist

John Lim of PHP Everywhere:

“I’m actually a generalist. I can code a bit in Javascript, I know some C++, PHP and a thousand other useless languages. A generalist is pretty good thing to be in technology, because computers and software changes so fast and if you spend too much time specializing you’re already a dinosaur before you turn 40.”

Personalization vs. customization

Adrian Holovaty describes the BBC’s ‘intelligent’ design personalization. By keeping track of what links you follow, sections of the home page are given darker backgrounds to draw your attention to those you visit most often. Sounds like a great idea, but I wonder if it is too subtle to work well in practice. Is it better than increasing the number of news items I see on the home page if I always click on the “News” section? How long before every major web site is as personalized as Amazon?

Either way, it’s good news. Web sites that automatically adapt to the user’s browsing habits will succeed over those that need manual customization. Remember the and portals? The personalization burden was placed on the user, and the UI was awkward and limited at best. Those sites need to be smarter. When I go to, the only thing I ever do is click on “show me what’s playing now”. Why not save me a click and put the current TV schedule on the home page, plus a list of shows that I frequently see the detailed descriptions for.

A related article from 1998: Jakob Nielsen’s “Personalization is Over-Rated”.

Amazon usability

Odd that I had never heard of Good Experience, a newsletter by Mark Hurst. Just discovered it today via Tomalak’s Realm. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Maryam Mohit of Amazon:

“For example, quite awhile ago we developed the ‘similarities’ feature – the one that says ‘people who bought this also bought that.’ In focus groups, no customer ever specifically requested that feature. But if you listened to customers talk about how they buy things, they’d say, my friend bought this, and I like what they like. In other words, they get recommendations from people they trust. There was a cognitive leap, based on those comments, to realizing that we could create something like that based on the data we had.”

Peter on IA

Peter Merholz, “Thoughts on AIfIA and Information Architecture”:

“As information architects know, explaining what they do, even to smart people in related fields, is difficult. Once given a clue as to what user experience is, folks can understand that improving the user experience of a product will be valuable. That will never be true of information architecture, which, by nature, is more abstract and subtle.”

Late night with user interface web sites

Best of chi-web and sigia-l: “Using the archives for each mailing list, I’ve compiled a list of the summary postings from useful threads, and a few personally selected favorite postings.” [via WebWord]

Also on UIWEB, Reasons ease of use doesn’t happen on engineering projects: “The focus on features for features sake typically results in mediocre features, and a product that is difficult for people to use.”

While re-reading parts of Joel Spolsky’s User Interface Design for Programmers, it occurred to me that I had never actually used any Windows software written by Joel’s team. So I downloaded a copy of CityDesk and started clicking. Although it was mostly straightforward to use, there were a few glaring problems. First, some of the windows support control-W for File -> Close, some do not. There’s no obvious reason for this inconsistency. Second, when I went to publish my new site, I expected to be prompted to enter FTP info so that CityDesk could contact my server. Instead, previewing on the local machine was the only option available. It took a trip to the documentation to realize I had to turn on “Designer Mode” to show the FTP settings. Whoops.

Morality for and against war

From the BBC: “The international community has a ‘moral responsibility’ to avoid war with Iraq, the Catholic Church has warned.”

Meanwhile, Bob Kerrey (former Democratic senator) makes the moral case for war in Iraq:

“We know what a terrible thing we did after the Gulf War to encourage Iraqis to rise up and then not follow through in helping them. But you can’t take the worst America has done and then cite it as reason not to try and do anything good.”

Futurama, Oscars, and Ward Kimball

I haven’t seen Futurama since it first aired — the time slot doesn’t work for me, but I wonder why I haven’t been taping it. The fourth (and final) season started last night, so I finally made time to watch it again. What a great show. It was especially funny that the Al Gore character was voiced by the former Vice President himself. I guess it helped that one of his daughters was on the Futurama writing staff.

Associated Press:

“Gore’s head is introduced at a global-warming convention as ‘the inventor of the environment and first emperor of the moon.’ He’s also known as the author of ‘Earth in the Balance,’ and the ‘much more popular Harry Potter and the Balance of Earth.'”

And on the big screen… Disney has submitted Spirited Away (in addition to Lilo & Stitch, and the upcoming Treasure Planet) for Oscar consideration, but only in the Best Animated Feature category, not for Best Picture. This increases my concern that it will be difficult for animated features to ever compete with live-action films for best picture, now that they’ve been relegated to a separate category. Other likely contenders will be Dreamworks’ Spirit and Fox’s Ice Age. It’s not clear yet whether there will be enough films to trigger five nominees or just three, but either way I’d be surprized if Lilo didn’t take the win.

And finally… Animation Blast unveils their tribute to Ward Kimball:

“Ward Kimball has always struck me as being the quintessential animator. When I read about artists who played gags on each other and the crazy studio atmosphere of the Golden Age, I can’t help but conjure up the image of the impish bushy-eyebrowed Kimball running amok and causing all sorts of mayhem.”

Election Day

Today is the big day, and you should vote. Even though you can’t stand all the negative ads. Even though it’s hard to tell who’s the Democrat and who’s the Republican because they all move to the center for their campaign. Even though they just give us the buzzwords we want to hear (“education”, “health care”, “drugs for seniors”, “social security”) without telling us what they plan to do about it. Even though it doesn’t appear that half of them truly believe in anything anymore.

Even so, you should vote.

I voted last week on the eSlate, the replacement for the paper ballot in this county. It’s not a perfect interface, but good enough, and there was one convenient feature that I wasn’t expecting: when you vote straight party, it automatically marks all the candidates of that party and you can just page through the ballot reviewing and making changes as needed.

The only real concern I have is that people who have little or no experience with computers will be scared away from the polls, even though the system is easy to use. Luckily they had a demo station dedicated to showing people how it worked while we waited in line. I saw at least one person take them up on the offer.

Apparently the turnout this year has been higher than usual. The line was conveniently positioned along the donuts in the bakery (it was at a grocery store), and everyone joked about how tempting it was to grab a dozen glazed and make a party out of it.

Houston Chronicle: “Stakes high for eSlate voting”.

Associated Press: “Scrutiny of High-Tech Voting System”.

Austin American-Statesman: “Travis GOP reports problems at polls”.

Crufty interfaces and file paths

Matthew Thomas’ “When good interfaces go crufty” is a fun read. It’s nothing we don’t already know, but sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded that some of the interfaces that we are so used to are still confusing for new users. His talk on the evils of using file paths to reference files and applications is resurfacing in the Mac world, as a new crop of Cocoa-based applications generally ignore using aliases (not alias files in the Finder but the AliasHandle toolbox type to keep track of files that might be moved or renamed out from under the application). Try this test in BBEdit, then in Apple’s TextEdit:

  1. Make a new document and save it on the desktop.
  2. While the document is still open, rename it in the Finder.
  3. Go back to the open document, type some more text, and click save again.

When I tried this with OmniOutliner, I expected it to perform as poorly as TextEdit. Instead, OmniOutliner does recognize the change and updates the document’s title bar with the new name. But then it ruins this intelligence by asking the user whether they are sure they want to save with the new name. It’s as if OmniOutliner is bragging — “Hey look at me, I’m so smart I noticed that you renamed my file”. Applications shouldn’t need to show off, and the ones that just work as expected will usually be more enjoyable to use.