computers

All posts tagged computers

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.

When I was a sophomore in college, I got a chance to get a new computer. I wanted the Mac SE/30 for the Motorola 68030 32-bit clean CPU and the expansion slot. (secretly known as the “SEx”—the “x” was for eXpandable, along the lines of “IIx,” and “IIcx”, but Apple Marketing decided to sheepishly steer away from that moniker. At least that’s what I was told by a rep. and I had no reason to doubt him.)

Instead my father, who was financing this upgrade decided an SE and a Laserwriter II SC was a better choice. The bill was around $4.5K. I didn’t like that I was overruled since I knew that means I would eventually be unable to run the latest Mac OS, but it was his money. I appreciated it even though I didn’t get exactly what I wanted. Being an Assembly programmer that made some of the first image rasterizing firmware and software, he knew the value of raster laser accurate printing. He told me about Optical drive platters in the late 70s or early 80s before there were any consumer optical disks (y’all know them as “CDs”), so I didn’t doubt him. Around 1983 he also predicted that in the future we would have storage technology thousands of times larger and computers in our pockets within his lifetime. At the time, I hadn’t heard of Moore’s law, but it is a good guide to the speed and storage of future generations.

In the long run, the SE and LaserWriter were a much better choice because it added a new capability, pretty much no other people in my demographic had. It came in very handy, and I used it for reports that put other student’s reports to shame the same way my 128K Mac and ImageWriter printed reports in high school put other students’ typed and handwritten reports to shame. I started playing around with graphics and printing because 300dpi (even in black and white) was very cool. I learned how to manipulate angle and density of the line screens for getting different visual effects, etc. This “playing” with what I had access to led to printing up things for fun: stickers and other things, and eventually a newsletter or two.

Okay,

Quickly: This month has been a “lurning [sic] experience.” I am juggling multiple projects which are all related only by the fact that they’re simply making me a better designer. New tricks are being learned, etc. Sites are going up and being moved, and I’ll be updating everything and essentially leveraging what I learn in one place and using it in another.

I finally figured out I needed to buy more RAM for my laptop: sometimes there is less than 16MB of free RAM and over 700K page-outs in a few days of heavy use. The thing would slow to glacial pace during heavy loads. It’s really been holding me back. Who knew 4GB wasn’t enough!?!? So, I broke down and ordered a few more gigs. Luckily, installing is a piece of cake on my MBP. I was in and out of a friend’s machine in less than 15 minutes without cutting any safety corners. I also need to get another HD and replace the optical drive. OR I can just breakdown and backup over WiFi and offload some files. But I like the idea of having everything with me.

Another, non-web, but information related project is advancing slowly, but it is way too soon to even talk about. I am still researching to decide the best approach. Some of my closest friends know about it, and I think about it all the time. It is currently possible: all the building blocks are there, but no one has put them together yet. I should probably stop spouting off about it to people who work for huge computer companies though. But for all I know someone has already patented it? I dunno, I heard if you research a patent it is worse if you get sued. :

Anyway, my plan is to release it under a non-commercial open licensing scheme, so that pizza fueled one man ops can use it freely, and large corps that can pay may license it. But as I said, someone might have already patented the pieces, but I think this would probably fall under derivative works. I’m not sure because I am not a patent lawyer. It sucks that I have to keep the cards close to my vest because copyright: originally designed to encourage innovation, is now a club that large corporations use on each other daily. Recently I read about a patent lawsuit about emoticons in a pull down menu on Ars, It seems silly to anyone, but that’s how whacked patent law is. The funny thing is, within my circle of friends I probably have all the people I would need to start developing this thing in earnest, but first I’ll go in sideways with build-up projects.

A big thanks to those people with everything from bachelors to PhD degrees in CS and related fields that I have the greatest conversations with. I learn something new every time I get a chance to pick one of these people’s brains.

Apologies about any incorrect punctuation marks or typos. I’m typing this on the fly before heading off somewhere. Cheers!

The tablet wars have yet to be decided, but so far every iPad killer has ultimately met with failure. Even in the smartphone space, despite Android’s lead, every study found that iTMS’s AppStore collects more money than competing digital stores. About the only thing you can say with certainty is that UNIX derived mobile operating systems (mOSes) have won the first battle in the mobile space. Why is this? Taking a glance at the history of mobile computing tablets gives us some clues…

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Recently a small business owner came to me asking me what I’d recommend for printers. After talking to him about his needs, I recommended the HP CP2025dn because he wanted to go with HP and Color Lasers are significantly cheaper than they used to be.

I also looked at Lexmark’s C544dw which has a few features, such as wireless printing and the ability to be directly connected to the USB bus if needed. Personally I would have gone with the Lexmark since it also features a superior 1200×1200 DPI resolution. But he likes HP’s service. The Xerox 6280DN looked good too though but the wireless printing option was $200 on top of the $450 price tag putting it above the $300-$500 target price I gave him.

He asked about inkjets, but he’s printing a few hundred pages a week, meaning his consumable costs are significant. Besides that fact, he’s running a small business and color laser looks so much more professional than inkjet unless you print on expensive paper.

All in all I gave him the option of going with Lexmark — I wouldn’t have felt right not mentioning what I consider a superior product for only $100 more.