Art

Clanning Concept Art

For the unwashed, Clan Lord by Delta Tao Software is an archaic, sorely out-of-date Multi-player Online Role-playing Game  (MORPG) that has been running since the late 90s. The single world (server) and small population make it feel like a small town, thus all of the current players have the same goal (job). Thus, like any small group with common goals, it is a bit like a company: You have your people in it who are on the ball because they work well in teams and independently, those that only work in teams because they need direction, those that lead group of people in a direction, those that specialize in a subset of knowledge about the terrain (market or technology) all of whom trade their time and risk profit (experience) to advance, and finally those that just show up to have fun. These flyby ‘fun’ people are equivalent to the people who just show up for a paycheck. In the game, one seemingly minor mistake can lead to the death of the entire group.  This necessitates departing (experience and time loss) which is a bit like working on a project  and having it fail miserable because Joe Paycheck didn’t know or care that you shouldn’t have done X.

Considering the parallels I noticed about the in game group and the group of people you work with  day-to-day, I have found several commonalities that I have taken from work to game and from game to work that have helped me navigate real life teamwork, leadership and relationships.

(Original Circa 2012; Minor Update: 20170502)

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Don’t get me wrong. The people at MacUpdate usually do a great job of managing and taking user feedback. But even with their careful curation of Mac & iOS apps that receive updates (sometimes numbering close to 100 OS X apps alone in one day), things slip through the cracks. I wasted about 5 minutes trying to figure out why an updated app was not available via one-click update using the built in software updater nor MacUpdate’s Desktop app. After going to MacUpdate, it was only by reading the comment and then hovering above the download link that the answer was clear: the app was a beta, and using the built-in update tools both within the native app & the MacUpdate Desktop App wouldn’t work. Even though I have “show beta/pre-release” unchecked, it still showed up in the MacUpdate Desktop list.

I realized the problem when looking at the comment and the confusion about version numbers used and how Adobe doesn’t distinguish betas with “b” or “(beta).” Then I took a few minutes to write this. The focus is not what MacUpdate did — it is an edge case which reflects more poorly on Adobe. Instead it is a example of what UI designers everywhere are doing to the detriment of both advanced and novice users everywhere.

Making Simplicity Difficult (Form Over Function)

If you accept that the purpose of computers is to make tasks easier to accomplish than doing them without them, then what follows is logical. When the interface gets so polished the labels are rubbed off, advanced features are hidden or removed, and labels are replaced unlabeled/undocumented icons, it leads to problems using an application no matter what type of device the application runs on. Here is my brief comment on that.

I don’t mind clean, nice-looking interface (I strive to balance aesthetics with easy-to-access, powerful features), but don’t let streamlined designs actually slow productivity; whether that productivity is actually getting work done or doing administrative tasks such as updating your software.

This confusion is a clear case of form over function, which is the wrong direction (unless you’re selling soda or commodities…) for computing interfaces to head because it handicaps learning via obscuring helpful, orientating/navigating details and slows advanced users.

If the trend in UIs were to spill over in the real word, we would see street signs replaced with pictures of maps and street addresses removed from the front, and instead only inside each building. Menus boards would have descriptions and prices hidden, until a person opened a flap to read the price and description.

In houses rather than work aesthetics around function, some streamlined houses would only have one control panel that controlled all the lighting, heating, etc. but that panel would be fixed next to the circuit breaker box. If a house had individual light switches, they’d be placed at whim of a designer who never lived or had even been in a house. Some would be oriented at any angle the designer liked and on any surface — some nowhere near the door or on one or both sides of the door. Some switches would glow only when they were off, and not when they are on, and vice versa which is actually happening with electronic switches. All building layouts would depend on the whim of a designer that had no concept of architectural design patterns nor a care about the building’s function.

This current trend toward “flatness” that was a backlash against “skeuomorphic” design of last generation all dance around the real point of GUIs: to make things easier by giving feedback to users that allows them to assess both current application state and orient where they are in the system. The trend is stripping away both of these, making things harder to use, not easier. Sadly, people think simplifying the interface will help users whose learning is being retarded by confusing inconsistent and low-feedback designs. This over-simplification is in fact hurting more than helping. This is because simple is not necessarily a synonym for easy. (Easy things are simple, but simple things are not always easy oddly enough.) Product managers and designers think people want simple, when they really want easy. Making things easy should be the focus. The easier a more complex the task is, the more useful your software.

Making Complexity Easy (Form Follows Function)

Designers should look for the frustrating points and the complex points and make complex tasks as easy as possible — which means removing steps if it can be done without making the user’s knowledge have to ramp up greater than the complex steps.

This is my Menubar. This is easy:

menubar

It is very dense with information. By looking at it you can see with a glance that Bluetooth is on, I’m connected to the network with light traffic, my processor load, my sound volume, the day & date, my current battery level (full) & that I am plugged in, the time, the moon phase, the CPU temperature & CPU voltage draw. I could have the default OS X menubar, but then I wouldn’t be able to see this without opening applications, slowing me down. I often refer to network speeds and CPU load when something seems bogged down. I often check the date and time, and that calendat icon pulls down so I can see my schedule in Fantastical without opening the Calendar App. The functionality is available if I pull down my sound menu is Audio Switcher.

audio-switcher

All these save me time each use. The march of Menu Items and GUI Enhancements I use all take a complex array of data, navigation, and bother of doing complex things and make some of them a click or less away. While this might be ugly to some, it is not distracting and works well. This is my current balance point, but with each stripping down towards “simplicity,” this ease becomes more difficult. Thankfully the developers of iStat Menus, Fantastical, Bartender, Audio Switcher, Moom, TotalFinder, Default Folder X, Alfred and PopCar (among others) see the problem that streamlined interfaces bring. But rather than strip away information, they strive to arrange information in a way that is not overwhelming and give user configurable interfaces to really harness the power of a GUI. These companies (while not all perfect — some have fallen into this hole at least slightly) have UI designers, not artists making flat colorful mystery icons with unpredictable UIs that confuse people calling themselves UX designers.

(I think of myself more as a User/Communication Efficiency type of person, so while the “UX Designer” title sounds fancy, I’d rather be a “User Interface Communication Efficiency Designer” to put the emphasis not of the “experience” of using a product, but on the efficient use of communications media available. Plus, UICED sounds like a term that could be played with. But titles are kind of limiting in a way… so I’ll just be myself. When people ask me my title, I just sum it up to say “IT Consultant” since whenever I actually start to talk tech I notice most people’s eyes glaze over.)

I try to focus on what matters to get work done, so I can get work done with less effort and faster. Anything that gets hinders more than helps my efforts falls out of use. BTW, if you are not familiar with these products, many are mentioned and linked on my Recommended Apps page. You can also check out MacUpdate.com and see the trove of software — most at least decent — that they list. They are good guys, so if you see errors, write them and be nice please. They will get back to you if needed with a personally written reply, which is always worth a star in my book. “When I was a kid several days of Mac SW updates could fit on one page… now several pages might span one day.”

Thanks for reading.

While I have often said that a lot of UI changes are simply eye candy, and add nothing important other than “bling” to a design, not all UI changes fall into that category. However, looking back, I noticed my posts have beat around this huge unaddressed important distinction of UI design that pretty much no company and very few active designers today seems to completely understand, judging from the latest and “greatest” products that are just as confusing for experienced users as they are for newbies.

While, we all seem to inherently understand some form of graphic design language, few aside from UI designers are conscious of it. And even fewer of the professionals understand this graphic design language has rules and conventions based on solid interaction principles. They seem to take for granted, that this control is a certain way without question, and either they use it improperly or worse, they break the convention. Both of these problems are caused because the UI designer does not know the reason behind the convention. I am sure many UI designers will rebuff me — and know the reasons behind certain choices, but not all. The problem is, if the designer has read literature or learned UI from someone else that omitted the explanations and reasoning behind the conventions, they only have half an education.

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I got a ton of flack from people on Ars when I commented that CD quality audio lost a lot of information that greatly affected a listener’s perception, and MP3 and other compressed audio formats simply made a bad situation worse.

I over-simplified my argument to keep it approachable, and had some wannabe audio experts quoting the Shannon-Nyquist theorem. They must have read ahead or did not understand the geek-speak for what needs to be true for the theorem to be valid. I figure they didn’t even read the prerequisites needed, and do not understand music enough to know that pretty much no music falls into the prerequisite category — having a constant frequency.

Apparently, Neil Young agrees. I was unaware that his hatred of MP3s is probably greater than mine until he announced Pono. Young has been on the road showing off and evangelizing better quality audio. There has been a lot of buzz about it — not just because he is such an iconic figure in music, but because the 3 big music companies (Warner, Sony and Universal) will sign up to support the better quality format.

In my post: 44kHz is not enough. I decided that a good compromise between file size and quality would be 24bit, 128kHz. But Young has decided that the studio quality digital audio woule be supported which is typically 192kHz/32bit. (Apple’s ALAC actually supports up to twice the sample rate, but it is probably future-proofing the format.) My hope is that this will not be yet another failed better quality audio format. The reasoning is two-fold:

  1. I want higher quality audio than what is currently available.
  2. I want the influx of bandwidth consumption to wake up consumers, and have them apply pressure to the communications companies* to increase speeds so that even a slow connection could stream 1–2MB/s.

See http://techland.time.com/2012/10/01/pono-neil-young/ for an article and video of Young and Letterman talking about Pono. So all in all, this is good news.

Update: I have since found bandcamp for the lossless CD quality audio, which will have to do until more albums from artists I follow are available on HDtracks.

*The telecoms monopolized our internet access landscape about a decade ago, after G.W. Bush overturned the laws that prevented de-facto monopolies. The laws that were repealed forced the telecoms to open up their lines (the cost of installation was funded by the government in many cases) thereby flattening the bandwidth speed increase curve. This lead to many smaller ISPs dying and fewer jobs in every region of the country. In turn, since there was little to no real competition, there was little-to-no incentive to increase internet speeds. The same 6Mbps connection has been offered for $40 or more the last half decade. But that is another topic.

I was initially very hesitant to start a blog. Who the hell cares about what I think or what I do? The only people that might care, I talk to in person or via IM, regularly. But a funny thing happened since I established my first blog years ago: I realize that things obvious to me regarding technology and its proper use and abuse, were not so clear cut to others.

I have always seen over the next hill when others are staring at the road, and a few are looking at the top of the hill as far as where tech is going. I know the ultimate purpose of technology that practically everyone seems to forget. I know that all the current mainstream interfaces will eventually be replaced by things that are only in laboratories now. And I recognize that even those could be superseded by more refined technologies that would look like magic to anyone not paying attention.

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I just saw the mini post it notes today on ThinkGeek (https://www.thinkgeek.com/homeoffice/supplies/ba1d/). I wish I had thought of a few of those sayings. Oh wait! I did…

An old CDT friend loved these so much he stuck them on his walls.

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I am absolutely wowed by the quality of Kisa’s artwork. She’s been kind enough to let me use it in promoting the game in the past. If you haven’t checked out her sketch book, scroll down for the link and check out her work. It’s really great.

BTW, If you’re a friend and an artist of any type (Musician, Painter|Drawer, Sculptor, etc.) and have a site let me know. I love linking friends sites. Especially if you have a weblog.