Thursday, November 17, 2005

MIT's $100 laptop for kids in developing countries

photo of $100 laptopMIT created a laptop for kids in developing countries that they're selling to governments and charitable donors for $100 a pop. The best part of the design (the form factor was designed by Design Continuum, based in West Newton, MA) is that it's powered by a hand-crank -- so simple, it's ingenious. It runs Linux (MIT turned down Steve Jobs's offer to donate OS X for the machines because OS X isn't open-source), and it's wi-fi enabled and can create mesh networks with other laptops. Nifty.
"The $100 laptop is inspiring in many respects", said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "It is an impressive technical achievement, able to do almost everything that larger, more expensive computers can do. It holds the promise of major advances in economic and social development..."
Read the full Seattle Times article.
    From what I can tell, I'd buy one of these computers if I could. Maybe MIT could sell them retail for $200 a pop, so that each retail sale could pay for a whole donated computer. But more importantly, is this the kind of help that could help level the so-called digital divide between developing and developed countries, or is this the wrong way to spend charitable monies?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

What Would Raskin Do?

Apple introduces a multi-button mouse. (Mighty Mouse? Apple brand names are often cheesy, but rarely this campy.) Jef Raskin, one of the forefathers of the Macintosh, was both lauded and derided for his insistence on the one-button mouse. But he might not be too upset about Apple's “innovation”. In Raskin's brilliant book The Humane Interface he wrote:
A better mouse might have two buttons, marked Select and Activate, on top and on the side, a button activated by a squeezing action of the thumb. This last button would be marked Grab. Some mice at present have a wheel on top that is used primarily for scrolling. Better still would be a small trackball in that location. (Raskin, The Humane Interface, Addison Wesley 2000, p. 209)
Looks like Mighty could be Raskin's posthumous vindication.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Feed me, see more

Publishing notifications via feeds has become ever more popular, and it's finally starting to become really practical. Bloglines, the most popular web-based feed aggregator, recently introduced package tracking for UPS, FedEx and USPS. But what blew me away is seeing RSS integrated into the redesign of my local public library's website.
    It looks like RSS has finally hit the big-time. Now I can get notifications on overdue books. I've been checking out CDs and DVDs from the library; now I can even subscribe to feeds about the library's latest CD and DVD acquisitions. Handy dandy. Generally, we're taken by how the interweb connects us with people thousands of miles away, but this is a great example of technology that ties us more closely to the community in which we already live. That's pretty nifty. Kudos to the Ann Arbor District Library and their web team.
    So, what's next? RSS notifications to let you know it's time to pick up the dry cleaning, take your car in for an oil change, get a refill on your asthma medication...What else?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The missing killer calendar app

WebDAV + iCalendar + RSSSurely I'm not the only person who could use a calendaring Web app that can host my desktop calendar (iCal) for sharing, allow me subscribe to it via my desktop app, and that can publish an RSS feed so I can get updates to the calendar (particularly for group calendars when someone other than me updates it). This killer calendar app would have to have:
  1. a Web interface to manipulate the calendar from anywhere, by anyone who's authorized
  2. WebDAV support for hosting my desktop calendar file
  3. open-standard iCalendar publishing support
  4. RSS publishing (ideally sliced and diced by user or date range)
Seems plain enough — and useful to tons of people: families, small businesses, etc. And yet I can't seem to find any such app. Is this what Backpack (more here) will be, in part?
    RSSCalendar is part way there, but it's missing the WebDAV and iCalendar publishing components. Big boys like Yahoo should have this built in to their calendars, but they don't. (Yahoo doesn't provide iCalendar publishing or RSS, and they opt for a third-party tool for calendar synching. iCalendar is the open format — third-party sync tools seem out of touch with Yahoo's push towards open standards, like RSS for MyYahoo.) Maybe they're working on it — or they're fixin' to buy someone else who already built what they need.
    What about you — do you find your calendaring tools lacking, too?

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A better pill bottle: good design is good for your health

Deborah Adler's redesigned pill bottle for TargetNew York Magazine has a nice little article on Deborah Adler's beautiful pill bottle redesign for Target. 29-year-old Adler has done a great job redesigning something that, in retrospect, was in dire need of a redesign. What made Adler take notice? Her grandmother was hospitalized after mistakenly taking her husband's pills. Who knows how many others have been hospitalized or have even died from making a mistake that better design could have prevented?
    Some really thoughtful design moves were the color-coded bottle caps (a different color for each member of the family) and the flat face of the bottle instead of the typical cylinder, so information printed on the label is actually readable without having to rotate the bottle.
    Target, of course, snatched up the rights to the design. Yet again, they're using good design to set themselves apart from the competition — bravo, TargĂ©. No doubt, other drugstores will be following suit before long.
    Surely there are more everyday objects like the pill bottle that could use a good redesign, and could save a life. Can you think of any?
    (As an aside, I was amused to see graphic design god Milton Glaser referenced at the bottom of the article. The author mentions that Adler now works for "graphic designer Milton Glaser" but doesn't even make a nod to the fact that Glaser was also the founder and president of the magazine for which she is writing, New York Magazine.) (Thanks to MR for this link.)

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Why don't browsers have a mute button?

Ever pull up a site with content you wanted to read, but had endure the obnoxious music it was streaming, which was playing over the music you were already playing in iTunes (or whatever your "music jukebox" of choice is, but come on, it's iTunes, isn't it?)? Surely there's a way to mute that unsolicited music even if the site doesn't have a mute button. Browsing the web is all about you being in control, right?

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Grocery Store Layout Maps

I'm the grocery shopper in my family. I actually enjoy shopping for food quite a bit. What I hate is wasting time looking for things, and not getting everything I need on my first pass through the store. Now, I go to the same store over and over, and I still can't remember where they put the capers. What I need is a map of the store, so I can align my grocery list with my actual shopping route . I've been meaning to make my own, but why don't grocery stores provide these for customers? Wouldn't that be a great help for regular shoppers who plan their grocery lists out in advance, and encourage repeat visits? They could have copies available in store and have downloadable PDFs on their websites. Seems like a relatively simple tool to differentiate a store from the competition. Do any stores you know provide these? Would you use them if they did?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Using read status instead of the little red flag for better email management

This isn't a profound discovery, but one that's helped me deal with my email much better. A couple of things had always bothered me about how when I click on a new message in my email app the message immediately switched from the bold unread status to the unbold read status:
  1. I might not have finished reading the message when I had to tend to something else, click on a different message, etc.
  2. I might have finished reading the email but not replied yet, even though the message required a response.
Now when I come back to my inbox, I have no way to know at a glance what balls are in my court and who I just left hanging.
     Most email apps come equipped with a tool to deal with identifying which messages require follow-up: the cute, little red flag (). But I never use that thing—I have to actively choose to call attention to a message rather than choosing not to. I assume that new messages will require some follow-up, so I'd much rather make an active decision to consider a message dealt with than an active decision that something hasn't been still needs to be dealt with. Plus, it's just hard to notice that little flag even if I take the trouble to turn it on:

What good is a flag if it doesn't shout for attention?
     My workaround is pretty simple: forget about the red flags. Instead, turn off the preference to "mark messages as read when displayed in the preview pane" (as Entourage 2004 words it). Now whenever email comes in, the de facto flag (the message appearing bold in the message list, which actually does get my attention) stays set until I choose to turn it off (that is, mark it as read, which in Entourage is as simple as pressing Cmd+T). (I tried to use this trick with my desktop blogreader NetNewsWire, which I use to pick up the sensitive RSS feed from my company's Basecamp site, but, alas, NNW doesn't have the option of turning off the automatic "mark as read". Mozilla's Thunderbird does offer that option, but its handling of RSS feeds is not yet ready for prime time.)
     What are your tricks for dealing with the daily onslaught of email?

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

A Designer's Website that's Usable

Stefan Sagmeister is one of the more important graphic designers of our time. This past weekend he won a Grammy for Best Boxed or Limited Edition Package. Surprisingly -- or actually, maybe not surprisingly at all -- his firm's website is extremely usable. Many designers'/artists' websites provide a less than satisfying experience (brilliant though their work is). Not Sagmeister's. Its big chunky buttons and clear navigation couldn't be easier to use (except, perhaps, if it didn't use Flash so unnecessarily, which oddly crashed my copy of Firefox) -- despite the way they appear in different places and even at different angles on the portfolio pages.
     The buttons are, of course, self-consciously/ironically designed to be really, really, really button-y, but the joke doesn't compromise usability. Usable doesn't have to be boring or dumb.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Better file uploads with drag and drop

Browsers should allow users to drag files from their desktop and plop them into the "browse for file" form element. Do any browsers do this?

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Online maps done right

High quality maps, big viewable areas, seemless Javascript, intelligent address parsing: Google Maps.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Looking to hire good people? Don't look to the job market.

Joel Spolsky of "Joel on Software" book and blog fame makes a good point about why it's so hard to find good people on the typical job posting sites : they're not there.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

I like... big... buttons and I cannot lie.

A great example of taking advantage of Fitts's law: Amazon Prime Sign Up

Direct manipulation Shopping Cart without Flash

Panic, makers of solid Mac software, had already implemented Flash-less drag-and-drop on their home page for downloads, but the implementation on the shopping cart for their new store is even better. (Via Good Experience).

Hostage appears to be toy

You couldn't make this stuff up. (Via

Light petting

Firefox iconAm I the only one who thinks this icon is a little silly? Granted, it's easily identifiable, the colors look nice together, it's got some life to it. But, it's a fox. With its back to us. His tail is on fire -- I guess that's cool. But he's kind of pawing at the earth anemically. Like a limp hand shake.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Scrolling using the new PowerBook G4’s trackpad

Though Apple still hasn't been able to solve the heat sink problem involved in cramming a G5 processor into a PowerBook, it has introduced a nifty innovation to the ubiquitous laptop trackpad: double-fingered dragging for scrolling. (This is the equivalent of the scroll-wheel on a mouse.) From Apple's site:

Scrolling/panning trackpadReady to Scroll

Scrolling through web pages or large documents on a trackpad can challenge even the most nimble fingers. That’s why every PowerBook G4 features a new trackpad with scrolling capability. Just drag two fingers over the trackpad to scroll vertically and horizontally or pan around any active window. Change this feature to suit your needs: Customize your trackpad settings or turn off scrolling completely via System Preferences.

(© 2005 Apple Computer, Inc.)

What's so great about this is that, without changing the hardware (presumably), Apple has opened up a whole new dimension for an existing input device. It's simple to use, and won't get in the way if you don't want to use it. Simple and brilliant. (The animated GIF ain't too shabby, either. Nice little bit of info design.)

Google: search TV shows via close captioning text

The latest thing from Google.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Interviewing as Service

Khoi Vinh has some solid tips for interviewees about how they should prep for an interview with his firm, Behavior. Vinh's suggestions essentially speak to interviewees giving their interviewers good service: look the part, do your homework, be prepared for the worst, and complete the exchange graciously.
     Incidentally, Vinh's award-winning blog, Subtraction, is a gorgeous study in grid-based design, as well-handled as any website I've seen. (Vinh details his process in another entry on his blog.) Monochrome, with strong, understated typrography, and he's designing with Fitts's Law in mind (the nav bar at top has plenty of nice, fat click targets, as mentioned in my first post). Exceptional.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Steve Jobs in 1996: Technology cannot solve the problem with education

Really interesting Wired interview of Steve Jobs back in 1996, prior to his reinstatement as CEO of Apple. He's very candid, and comes across as reflective -- a different side of Jobs than what you see during the Mac trade show keynotes.

Some interesting sound bites:
I used to think that technology could help education. I've probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I've had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What's wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology.
Lincoln did not have a Web site at the log cabin where his parents home-schooled him, and he turned out pretty interesting. Historical precedent shows that we can turn out amazing human beings without technology. Precedent also shows that we can turn out very uninteresting human beings with technology.
It's not as simple as you think when you're in your 20s - that technology's going to change the world. In some ways it will, in some ways it won't.

Smarter browsers

Browsers should be smarter -- allow you to write Post-its on web pages and remember them when you return. For instance, there are two similar products I'm considering purchasing that I've placed in my Shopping Cart. I'd like to write a memo to myself about what's different between the two, so that when I come back I won't have to scratch my head and waste the time to re-figure out the minor feature differences between the two.

Also, when I quit my browser (or worse, when it unexpectedly quits), why do I lose all the sites I was browsing? Why can't the browser remember which sites I was viewing and in which tabs, and pull them back up? If I'm in the middle of reading two articles and I accidentally quit my browser, there's no way for my browser to remember where I was let me pick up where I left off. How hard would that be? (This would also be useful for keeping my Ta-Da lists open all the time, regardless of whether I restart my browser.)

Less is Mo'

Just checked out Keb' Mo's album Keep it Simple from the library. I nominate the title track to be the anthem of interaction designers. A verse:

I called my doctor on the telephone
The lines were open, but there was nobody home
Press 1, press 2, press #, press 3
Why can't somebody just pick up the phone
And just talk to me

(© 2003 Kebnote Music)

Hansson to eBay: try honesty

David Heinemeier Hansson, the genius developer behind Basecamp and the Rails framework for Ruby, has a nice little post slamming eBay on not having the "balls" to be honest in their PR (unlike the Basecamp crew, whose announcement about their price hikes at the start of the year came off as sincere and warranted).

Writes Hansson, "eBay would do well by replacing the archetypical PR drone with something resembling a human being." Reminiscent of the Cluetrain Manifesto.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Noted without comment

Overheard at Borders Bookstore:
"Do you have Jesus calendars?"
"Yeah -- they should be next to the Mary-Kate and Ashley calendars." registration: free and required? Yipee!

The header on the registration page touts its required registration as if it's a feature:


Customer service over the phone hits a Wal

I call Wal-Mart to ask about a vacuum, and the woman who answers mumbles. She forwards my call to "domestics" (strange name, probably internal terminology?). The man who picks up in "domestics" greets me with: "Hello?" Hello? I ask if he can tell me about whether a specific vacuum is in stock, but before I get to tell him the name of the vacuum he says, "Hmm, hold on...." I'm on hold. I hear clicks. I'm disconnected.

Call back. Mumbling woman answers the phone.
"I just called about the vacuum...."
"Oh, did domestics pick up?"
"Yeah, but they hung up on me."
"Oh, let me try again."
"Well, domestics isn't picking up. They might be out to lunch. We're a little short-staffed." They might be out to lunch?

Ari Weinzweig, in his nifty little handbook "Zingerman's Guide to Giving Great Service", points out that being short-staffed falls squarely into the category of the business's problems, not the customer's.

I ask about getting inventory information from someone outside of "domestics" but I'm told that only managers have access to store-wide inventory. So where's the manager on duty? Out to lunch.

How does the episode conclude? Ms. Mumbles asks me if I can call her back. She should have taken my number and called me back when she's ready.

Of course, this is Wal-Mart. What can I expect? Better. Is it impossible to motivate a huge workforce like the front-lines at Wal-Mart? To have a culture of quality service, even at their price point? But money talks, especially at the Wal. Couldn't they do even better business if they did? How would such an influence affect communities surrounding these stores? Rather than resorting to publishing open letters and setting up a PR website to defend Wal-Mart's spotty reputation as an employer and corporate citizen, CEO H. Lee Scott, Jr. could let a positive culture of service speak for itself.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Horseshoes, hand grenades & Entourage 2004

Just upgraded from Microsoft Entourage X to Entourage 2004. (Entourage is the Mac counterpart of Outlook.) The most noticeable change to the interface is the three-column layout for email. The new layout is great because it's a better use of space, but perhaps more importantly, it affords an interaction improvement.

Whereas Entourage X displayed the email message list as a single, long line, 2004 shows the same info as a shorter, 2-line item. The number of clickable pixels remains the same, but instead of having to position my mouse in a target 12 pixels tall (which requires considerable hand-eye coordination), I can aim it at one 30 pixels tall. Fatter rectangles beat long, skinny ones. (Bruce Tognazzini has a nice overview of a related principle, Fitts's Law, and an excellent quiz that should be required reading for any interaction designer.)

Easier click targets allow me to focus on getting my work done instead of getting my mouse in the right target. I'll swallow hard and say it: Nice job, Microsoft. (Could it be that my potential really is your passion? Nah.)

Interesting to note: looks like 37Signals's excellent Basecamp took a slight step backwards on this issue. Prior to some January updates, on the Messages page within a project, you could click on a category by mousing over the name of the category or the space to the right of it. That is, you didn't need to mouse over the words themselves. Now you do. The benefit of the old way is, of course, bigger click areas, but also a consistent click area regardless of the length of the words. (The former implementation could have been improved by hinting at the bigger click area by adding faint rules between the links.) My guess for why they got rid of this: it stuck out like a sore thumb from how they usually handle lists of links. (Why they don't usually do this, I don't know.) Yes, I feel a little silly critiquing the gold-standard of web-application interfaces, but someone has to do it.