March 2010

Last week I was interviewed by the Canadian public radio show Spark for a segment called “Computers are Hard — Who’s to Blame?” (If you read this blog, you can guess my answer).

I had a very interesting phone conversation with Dan, but I think only a couple of sentences made it into the show.

The whole show (which is 53 minutes and covers bamboo bicycles, and the prediction of the weather by the reading of pig entrails, as well as software usability) is up on the web here. They have a podcast you can subscribe to, too.

Yet another example of how the simplest designs are the most effective.

Alex Faaborg writes about how the Test Pilot menu item study is influencing the redesign of the Firefox menu bar.

Nothing much to add right now except to say that it’s very satisfying to see Test Pilot having a concrete impact, and that I’m proud to have been part of this work!

Apparently Windows Phone 7 will not have copy-and-paste. Huh. What do you know?

It sounds like Microsoft is depending on the software to be smart enough to recognize data types to get selected content to the right application without the need for the user to manually copy and paste. This is pretty interesting to me since it’s similar to the idea of nountype recognition that we were exploring in Ubiquity. I haven’t used Windows Phone 7 (obviously), but my gut reaction says it’s hard to make data type recognition work reliably, so a manual override – copy-and-paste – is still needed for the cases where automatic recognition fails. And what if I want to do something weird that Windows didn’t expect?

The capability to do things that the authors never expected: this is the definition of flexibility in computer systems, and their flexibility is their power.

I applaud simplifying systems by removing unnecessary complexity. But there’s unnecessary complexity and then there’s necessary complexity. Remove too much, and you may cross the line between simplifying a system and crippling it.

For example, what about this non-multitasking OS that Apple wants you to use? Single-tasking seems like a huge step backwards to me, and I wonder if the simplicity is worth the loss of capability.

Not every device that accesses the Internet needs to be a full-featured computer; there are obviously a lot of people who want some features of the Internet without the complexity of a computer.

But there’s so much that you can’t do with a device that only runs one program at a time, or that has no copy-and-paste. Single-tasking may be OK for a device meant only for consuming information, but it’s crippling if you want to use the device to create anything.

(When I first heard Apple was making a tablet, I envisioned something with a stylus I could use for drawing. I might buy one of those. The iPad, sadly, is not that device. It’s optimized for consumption, not creation.)

I hope the trend towards simpler gadgets doesn’t result in a loss of the ability to go outside the bounds of what the inventor envisioned, the ability to create. Creating stuff is pretty important to me.

Tomorrow’s Design Lunch will be about the results from the Test Pilot study on menu item usage. Jinghua, Blake and I will present what we’ve found out so far about what menu items are most commonly used (and how this breaks down by operating system and by mouse-clicking vs. keyboard-shortcuts). We’ll have a brainstorming session about what this data might mean for future redesigns of the Firefox menu bar, and try to come up with questions for further investigation.

We’ll also present some findings about the demographics of the Test Pilot user base.

The design lunch is Thursday March 4, 12:30pm – 1:30pm PST. The details of how to watch or participate remotely are on the Design Lunch wiki page.