Miscellaneous and Useless Information


A few months ago I said I’d blog about the highlights I had gleaned from my friends’ blogs. Well, here they finally are:

At its Max developer conference, Adobe gave a sneak preview of a new tool code-named Thermo that allows designers to create the front end to Flash-based rich Internet applications without writing code. For example, you can import a layered Photoshop image and convert parts of the image to real UI controls. You can also create dummy data so that you can test out your design without needing the database code to be finished.

Someone posted videos of the Thermo demo on YouTube. I highly recommend watching them; the demo is one of the most impressive I’ve seen, especially in the end-user programming area.

What other typeface has both a book and a movie about it?

Helvetica at 50 by BBC News Magazine

Also last month, I went to a San Francisco Bay Area ACM meeting on component-based user interface design, which turned out to be a talk on UI design patterns. Aha! It turns out that SAP has developed an extensive collection of design patterns for their domain of business applications, and they have an extensive web site for designers. The main points I got from the talk:

  • SAP has 3 types of patterns
    • patterns for frequently discovered user requirements
    • patterns for composing UIs from components
    • patterns for executable UI components
  • The only way to drive adoption of patterns is to build them into the tools that designers and developers use
  • SAP validates their patterns through user testing
  • Patterns do "freeze" UI innovation overall, but the patterns themselves will evolve over time
  • There is always a tension between those who use the patterns and those who deviate from the patterns to innovate on the UI

Google and iFilm are hosting a video that answers: “How would Microsoft package the iPod?” It is absolutely hilarious, because it’s true. Who would make such a scathing video? Microsoft.

I just came back from two intriguing talks from this month’s BayCHI meeting. The first talk was about Chandler, the open source PIM that seems to have been under development forever. Mimi Yin talked about Chandler’s design philosophy and how it’s different from typical e-mail/calendar programs (her slides are online). For example:

  • There is a universal inbox, called the Dashboard, that can hold anything: e-mail, calendar, documents, etc. These go into one of three categories: Now, Later, and Done. Stuff moved from Now to Later can be “tickled” so that it moves into Now at a specified time. The idea is that things go back and forth between Now and Later, picking up more information about how they get done, until they are actually Done.
  • Stuff can go anywhere. An e-mail message can go directly into the calendar or a to-do list, and it also stays in your Dashboard.
  • Tags are used for bottom-up organizing (so that you can find it later), while categories are used for top-down organizing (putting stuff in collections). They have somewhat different affordances, but tags can easily become categories and vice-versa.

This all sounds good, but I asked how much of this was driven by user observations. Mimi said the biggest source came from looking at people’s e-mail folders to try to figure out what their organizational schemes were. So I’m still not sure how much of Chandler’s design is driven by what people actually do versus the Chandler team guessing. I hope it’s more the former.

Chandler is particularly interesting to me because it’s trying to address many of the same issues as the IBM research project I’m in, Unified Activity Management.

The second half was an absolutely hilarious talk by Merlin Mann about modern life in general and dealing with the deluge of information. In fact, he manages a whole web site about this problem called 43 Folders. One organizational framework that he discussed in particular is called Getting Things Done (which Mimi also touched on in her talk). Instead of rehashing what Merlin said, take a look at his intro. Suffice to say that geeks seem to have gravitated to it, so I’ll have to take a look.

I just got back from a BayCHI talk by Jensen Harris, the lead designer of the new Microsoft Office 12 user interface. He’s actually already blogged a lot of what he talked about, so I won’t repeat it here — take a look at his “Best Of” list on his blog for an overview. Instead, here are some high-level impressions.

  • Jensen is an excellent speaker. He’s clear, funny, and not afraid to poke fun at Microsoft’s previous attempts at “improving” the user interface of Office.
  • UI designs are actually driven by data that is collected anonymously, and with permission, from current Office 2003 users. It may not be perfect data, but it’s a lot better than guessing.
  • The new UI is most easily adopted by novice users. Power users already know Office well, so they have the most to loseWeight Exercise in the new UI. The biggest thing Jensen feels the new UI is lacking is customizability for power users.
  • Office 12 is about a year away from release, but Microsoft is already talking very openly about it. They haven’t been nearly this open in the past, and other companies certainly aren’t as open today. I believe it’s from a combination of starting from a position of strength and feeling the pressure to show that they are innovative, that the next version of Office really is worth buying.

Today the SBC/AT&T merger was completed. It’s a little bizarre to think of AT&T as my local phone company, essentially having grown up after the 1984 breakup. Anyway, the new AT&T logo was also introduced today, and it’s like the old one but 3-Dified for extra spiffiness.

Actually, I don’t think it’s too bad, but I decided to look at a design community blog called Speak Up to see what they think. The verdict: nearly universal condemnation, with a few “let me sleep on it”s. Not unexpected — I haven’t seen a logo redesign that these people do like.

What I found more interesting is that there was also dismay over how the new logo was described in their press release. One commenter said the statements were “empty, meaningless BS that do a huge disservice to the profession of design.”

I mentioned last month that Microsoft is overhauling the user interface of the next version of Office. Now member of the Office user experience team, Jensen Harris, has a blog all about Office’s UI, both its past and its future. It contains some good insight into how Office’s UI has evolved, how they are designing the new UI, and what issues they’ve already run into while testing it.

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