Stretchy layouts are not good, yet every Ã¼ber techie who has a 20 inch or larger monitor wants web sites to stretch when they open their browser to the width of the monitor. Well maybe not every Ã¼ber techie wants stretchy layouts, but enough that comment on design related message boards that it really irks me. Why is it bad, because paragraphs that span exceedingly long widths are difficult to read. This is of course assuming they are long enough to still take several lines. A single line of text is not hard to read. And, of course, if the site is only images or video, then it is not as much an issue if at all.
I completed the MS in HCI at Depaul with my last class being an independent study to build a tool for testing/researching navigation and how people acquire/find information from them. Actually, I have been researching this for the last year on and off so this was in a way more of a culmination of thoughts and reading. The main outcome was the development of a web based tool that could be used to present tasks to a user and collect data as they interact with a menu navigation system. Ultimately, the project was a continuation of Dr. Craig Miller’s research into how users conceptually navigate a hierarchical menu structure. He had developed several prototypes that used java and flat text files to present the data.
As with most academic endeavors of this kind I, the student, started with a fairly broad goal and needed to narrow it down. However, my goal was not exactly the same as Dr. Miller’s as I wanted and still want a general purpose tool that could be used for a variety of research activities related to testing website navigation and usability. Where as he and another researcher are seeking to better understand the conceptual model of users as they learn a menu and find information organized in that menu. For me, my practical work experience has lead me to see the need for an easy to use tool to help better organize/prepare complex menus for websites, especially after a site has launched. So I am first assisting Dr. Miller and the other researchers in developing a tool that will work for their testing, but also I am trying to develop it in a way that I can use to do basic testing of web usability in general.
I have produced a prototype tool and released it as an open source project. It can be found at the address below. It is in alpha (or even pre-alpha) phase so any recommendations, thoughts, or contributions will be welcomed.
The project was written in PHP and uses a MySQL back-end. There is a demo and you can download the source plus the setup files from the site. If you have questions you can contact me via the project site. Essentially, the UI Nav Test tool is a very stripped down CMS with features for presenting tasks to a research participant and it also has a basic reporting page and allows the researcher to download the raw data for further analysis. While the appearance is very basic, this is intentional. As the purpose is to identify problems with labels and organization, not whether something looks pretty or not. The demo is set to use one of Dr. Miller’s content domains which is focused on understanding how people conceptualize the navigation steps they will take to find items.
I finally upgraded my personal system. I had been wanting to get a new Intel based Mac for quite a while now. My previous system was a powerbook g4 which has been a rock solid machine for the past 3 years. Yet since the announcement of the Intel switch I have been drooling over each new system release. As a web developer being able to run Windows and test pages in IE and yet still use a mac for developing has been managed by having two systems sit on my desk. Which is a pain in the buttox and takes up room I could use for… for what I don’t know. I was going to say laying out notes, but I rarely print things out anymore. Well I will have room to put whatever I want instead of a PC.
I just finished the capstone course. Normally the last class to be taken, but due to it only being offered one time a year, I have one remaining course to complete my masters degree in HCI. It was a tough quarter in part due to a family problem, but also the from amount of work that was needed. I had to go to Japan for a week about midway through, but I was able to finish all the work required. We had to write 3 papers reviewing published research/articles by well known HCI practitioners as well as conduct our own research project and do a write up.
The first review was of a writing by Bruce Tognizzini. Tognazinni is part of the Neilsen, Norman group and a former Apple employee. Several years ago he put out an article called “A Quiz designed to give you Fitts”. In the article he goes over questions that every HCI expert should be able to answer. Well you also have to be a Mac user and being an engineer would probably help (note having a degree in HCI does not necessarily make you an engineer). He uses the article to basically lament the passing of the old Mac OS and how superior it was to the new Mac OS X (and of course Windows). To which I have to say, he is full of carp (sic). While I love Macs and started out in System 5, Mac OS X is light-years beyond the previous OS. He is also on the record as hating the dock (but that is another article), which I also love. So while I respect him for his contributions to the GUI world, I think his emphasis on Fitts is a throw back to mechanical engineering and is not entirely applicable to the web today.
Here is the full review of Tog: Tog: Week 1 [pdf 103k]
The second review was of Chapter 3 from Jeff Raskin’s “The Humane Interface”. Raskin another Apple alum, outlines the need to for modeless interfaces and that he believes there is no such thing as an expert user. Again I can respect the man and his great contributions, but we are given utopian HCI platitudes, that haven’t gained traction despite being known for a decade or more (which is a long time in tech). I completely disagree with not differentiating users and providing different ways to do things. To me this is akin to the idea that all learners learn the same way, which has been shown untrue. While certainly nobody probably knows every feature of a program (except the developers), they can be experts in the use of specific features. Which is in my opinion enough to warrant accommodation different from beginners. Learnability is a key principle of usability and should take into account that people learn in different ways.
Here is the full review of Raskin: Raskin: Week 2 [pdf 106k]
I will wrap up in another post on my final project later….
lsof | grep iTunes | grep TCP
lsof -i tcp:daap
If you work in a place that allows sharing itunes over the network, you may wonder who is listening to your shared media. Just two different Mac OS X terminal comands needed to find who is listening to your iTunes. There is also a handy app called iTunes Monitor that works quite well and also does the lookup of the ip address. Finally there is a widget iTunes Connection Monitor that allows you to quickly see the ip address and what is being listened to.
This was a very good class, as I learned a lot more than I expected and took away some experiences that will significantly help me and those I work for in the future. The interest in applications that allow groups to work together online has been growing, with technology being a limitation on what can be done. However, with advanced web developments, tools, infrastructure and abilities that lower the barrier for implementing this kind of application, this sector is now veritably exploding.
It was a tough quarter on a another level as I changed jobs after being in the same company for over 10 years. So I had to deal with interviewing and departure details, as well as, adjust to a new work place. Interestingly, the class had an immediate effect on my transition. In future interviews, I will be sure to enquire about a companies use of groupware and ways of collaborating virtually. As my new job has required me to work with team members who are located in different buildings and my new boss is in another state. Other valuable learning included a good overview of the current crop of groupware and the actual use of two groupware applications. This class also required a team project, which went really well, in part because of the groupware that we used.
I finally completed the last of the core courses for the HCI program. Now I only need to take two more electives and do the capstone. This last class was definitely one of the better courses I have taken. While it was similar to the HCI 460 course it is different in that it focused more on the the initial user observations whereas 460 was about usability testing methods and reporting. The class started out with us doing our own user observation. This involved finding a task to study a user performing. Then finding a user and arranging a time to observe them.