21 May 2015

Some other related activity : AI, Sam Harris and bad thinking about AI

I realize that my activity here has been somewhat lax of late (hmm, last three years, by the look of it), so I thought I'd just quickly point you to my other blog where I've written about AI, Sam Harris, Bostrom, and other people who bring the doomsday scenario in terms of artificial intelligence, and their lack of reason in doing so.


19 March 2015

Doing business right

A lot of my time is spent fixing broken designs, or creating new (and hopefully great) designs, and we do this through many different ways, from expert reviews and user testing to workshops and mentoring and many more.

That's all fine. That's what UX companies do.

But it's kinda wrong.

It's wrong in the sense that what is really on trial here is the business model and how we interact with it. There's no point to a great user interface that doesn't end up in some goal, be it money, or transferred message, or some other reaction. This latter compound of goals is called business objectives; it's the reason we're doing this thing in the first place.

In order to reach those business objectives we create ... a something; user interfaces, communication, a narrative. Maybe we use computers, or phones, or pamphlets, carrier pigeons. Maybe we click a button after ended call. Or we make a call after the bird lands. We have Julie talk to Mark. We have a daily meeting. Or we give out some piece of paper with words on them once dollars enter our coffers. There's a myriad of interconnecting objects, services and events that together *is* your organisation. Whatever you're hoping to achieve, it's done through this cacophony that we call the business model.

The business model is what makes or breaks your organisation, so it's very important to make it as good as possible, or as fit for purpose as we can. But how do we normally make sure it's a good one? Or the right one?

I fear the right answer is that we mostly don't, and when we do, we measure things are are only seemingly related to it, like "do we still get a salary here?" or "what is this year's profit margin?" If the organisation keeps floating, keeps staying alive, the model seems good. If it's struggling, or going under, it's probably bad. You've probably been told about KPI's, and unless you're living under a sponge, they are supposed to indicate that the organisation is, well, performing to certain standards. Key standards.

Internal KPI's are reasonably easy to find and collect (although interpreting them is not so straight forward, although that's a future blog post) To get to external KPI's, we quite often use use user surveys (and some times user group testing) to try to verify some of the basic perimeters of organisations, like brand awareness, product recognition, advertising uptake and so on, and, well, if you don't think too hard about it might give you some valuable feedback for your BI (business intelligence) . This is the bread and butter of marketing people everywhere.

However.

In my years of doing UX, process and semantic modeling, I'm struck by how poor design is reflected in poor business models. And I have a suspicion that poor design comes directly from the models it is supposed to support. And I suspect that changing business models are more important than fixing little cogs here and there, polishing them to look new and shiny when the cogs around them are rusty and old. There's squeaking and creaking in the machinery, and new cogs aren't the answer. The old cogs need replacing before the machinery comes to an unrecoverable halt.

How can we test business models, then? I'll leave the actual organisational change to the side for now (but there's a blog post on that one brewing as well) to focus on testing the model itself. Here's an unadulterated brain-splatter of ideas;

Internal

  • Hold more regular workshops to test your ideas with people who do the actual work
  • Map your current processes (on a whiteboard, and take pictures)
  • Do internal surveys where meetings can't be help
  • Workshop : If you didn't have to worry about current constraints, how would you really do it?
  • Followup workshop : how to remove those constraints


External

  • Do user groups which goes beyond the superficial (for example, what price do people think is right, as opposed to what you think is right?)
  • Do user testing of core interaction points with customers
  • User third-party professionals to conceptualize your business model
  • Have someone re-design something, even the stuff that you think works fine
  • Do user testing on conceptual designs (information architecture, processes, business values, etc.)

The key for me is to sanitize your assumptions. Whatever you already know internally to be a problem, well that's yours to fix (or hire in someone to help you do that). However, are you sure the things "that work" really work? Or are working the best they could? Do you know for certain how many business goals you're missing out on by the simplest modeling snag or, at worst, error?

I wished more organisations would spend their time verifying internal assumptions; that is where the gold is. We put too much faith in people's "gut feelings" and "being savvy". Sure, we might have skills and experience, but the truth is that even the best of people fail the onslaught of all the complexities coming our way.

Test your assumptions. Test your business model. Make sure you're doing the right thing, before some old cog goes ping, gets stuck in some gear, and kills the whole machine.

11 March 2015

I'm getting back in the UX waters ...

Hi there. Been a while.

So, another blob of time has passed. Some time ago I needed a break, and I've tried to intermittently get back into it without feeling the passion as life is more busy than interesting, and the blog suffers.

But, also; there's too much to talk about, and my mind races so much faster than what time and my fingers allow to put to the keyboard, and the blog suffers.

I'm back. I've been working in the UX field now for about a year, a goal I dreamed about some 10 years ago and moved slowly towards until a golden opportunity came last year. I now work for a company called The Fore (based in Wollongong, catering to mostly Sydney, but we have customers all over, including overseas) with a few brilliant minds, doing everything (and more) related to user-interfaces, human psychology and the design that best fits between the two.

My plan for this blog is to talk more about my experiences in this field, but I will definitely weer into the fields of philosophy, science and semantic technologies. See you soon.

3 September 2013

Hi there. Been a while. How are you going?

From the contrast between two fields of noise comes much human understanding. We are pattern-seeking mammals, trying to observe the universe the best we can so that we can survive it. We won't. The universe will in a few billion years reach it's end-point of this grand equilibrium we're part of.

My little life. It's not much to shout about, really, but I enjoy it. I go about it, doing the things I like, trying out new stuff while appreciating what I know, never afraid to admit to failings. Try, and try again. My kids, my dog, my house, my wife. There is much to love and appreciate in that, in between the quarrels and loans and wee on the carpet (mostly the dog). But these patterns of a suburban recluse don't sound very special. However, they are special in that I approved sketching them up, I thought it was the right thing to do. And I still think that.

No, another chapter unfolds, and the family and our lives are about to change. Hopefully this time not so dramatic as we have in the past, but changes there will be. And let's see if we can make them positive.

Because I do believe that; any change can be positive.

And so I shall return this blog to a place of thoughts. Don't know what thoughts yet; my mind is altered, I've taken some different directions in the last couple of years, but all in all, I promise to enjoy it more.


14 November 2012

The most baffling turd : Windows 8

In all my years as a geek and usability efficiendo I've seen a lot of strange stuff, kid, but the weirdest thing I've seen in a very long time is the latest release from Microsoft, their Windows 8 operating system that's, well, kind of like their latest attempt at win back market share of the future of all computers. The thing is that Apple and Google together have now more operating systems in the market than Microsoft and you probably don't even realize how many phones and tablets are out there. It's in the mega-millions, and Microsoft have no share in this market. Zero. Nothing. Zilch.

And, as the threshold between a phone / tablet operating system and a desktop / laptop computer slowly whither away - at least in the more casual "normal person" segment - Microsoft is rather desperate to to get in on the action, also demonstrated by the give-away prices they're offering up for upgrades. Of which I took one.

And it went reasonably smooth to buy online and start the upgrade. Had to free up some space and reinstall a few applications, but nothing noteworthy. And then ... then I was in. I was greeted by the now almost too common start screen.

My home computer is an ASUS all-in-one with touch-screen, and it swished and swooshed cool back and forth, however there was a problem; the screen resolution was ridiculously low and so I hampered away trying to find out how to increase it. Normally I would have gone to Control Panel for such things, but there was no such thing, at least not at first.

I had learned before installing Windows 8 that the functionality now in front of me was to swipe in from left or right to see menus and options, but, um, my computer has a frame around it, meaning that I can't swipe in as much as a flick off the frame and land on the screen far from where Windows 8 classify as a swipe. And so the first dent for me (and I suspect many thousands of people with a similar monitor frame) as a desktop user is that I can't swipe to get to menus.

Okidoki, the mouse, then. But where to swipe? The handy animation shown while installing does a right-to-left swipe motion with some fingers, but that clearly only works with a proper swipe (and fingers!) and not a mouse. After fidgeting around I learned that lower-right hold-the-mouse-there slowly fades in a half-contextual menu (presumably the application currently running in full-screen mode), and that the lower-left hold-the-mouse-there until a box appears and then you click (without moving the mouse into the little box which will remove it) it to return to the start screen. And, er, I'm still trying to work out the top-left hold-or-click-right-mouse-button brings up; it's some twisted version of a application or task switcher, but damn if I can properly work it out.

Often I get stuck in the Internet Explorer in full-screen mode. I can only assume the idea is to swipe back into some other place in order to stop using the browser, hiding the "complexity" of it all some how. However, what happens is that lots of windows gets opened in the background over time, but you don't realize what's going on because you only see the one window all the time. Where do we need to go to a) see what's going on, and b) do something about it? Why you right-click anywhere in the browser, of course. Of course. Yes, it's so obvious now that I think about it; the context menu of the past is now a contextual kindof page with some functionality. Wtf?

There is a serious mix of metaphors going on here, switching between the neato but limiting Metro full-screen look, to the wanna-be old desktop with task bar but without the Start! menu. What does a right-click mean? Depends. What does a swipe do? Depends. How do I find some application? Depends. How do I? Depends.

In fact, in removing the many pop-up windows and menus they've made it pretty and much clearer how you can't do many things you'd like to do. And, seriously, did you really need to remove the Start! menu from the desktop mode? What a turd of a decision that was. And how about this; I can't run websites which use Flash in the full-screen Metro way, no I have to run them in a window on the desktop. This doesn't even make sense in any way or form, but it's right there in the help files that this is how to do it. I can understand that technically the full-screen Metro browser might be different (or different profile, or different zone, or different ... something) in regards to plugins (especially from third parties, which Flash is) but pull my titties if somehow my decision to trust the plugin in a windowed browser should in any way or form not be honoured because it runs in a non-windowed browser. The technicalities might make geeky sense, but to normal people on Terra Firma it makes no friggin' sense at all. Another turd on your nice, green lawn.

I have to talk a little bit, too, about how all this ties to the new way of the future, the cloud. In order to properly use Windows 8 you need a Microsoft account. I didn't have one (being a Googloid), but my wife did have a Hotmail account. The installation happily accepted this account, but then it wanted us to "trust" our computer (in similar veins as you "trust" devices and computers in iTunes, I suspect). And where would they send this trusted verification? No, not the Hotmail account, but some long forgotten Yahoo account. I can't even begin to figure out where they got that email address from (we're talking about something on the Internet from more than 8 years ago), but the option to send anywhere else was no where to be seen. They hinted that in order to send elsewhere I had to delete that email from my profile, but it's not in there. Wtf? I've mucked about with this nonsense for the last two days; all I want is for my wife's Hotmail (and Microsoft) account to be the account, but I've had to rename her account (probably converting it from Hotmail to Outlook/Microsoft account?), I've tried to delete old stuff (which it have scheduled to do a week from now? Wtf?), renamed stuff, create a new one and link them, all sorts of stuff, but Microsoft won't budge; either we send info to your non-existent Yahoo account, or ... there is no other option. I'm just baffled as to how non-intuitive and turdish this part was. And there is no explanation anywhere as to what piece of information means what in what context. Nothing! I'm just guessing what things might mean. Wtf?

We've had Windows 8 now for a few days, and I'm starting to think that this is worse than I thought. I'm a power-user, a geek, software developer and a usability consultant, and I'm struggling to figure a lot of this out. My wife is telling me to un-install and get that nice Windows 7 back so she at least can do normal stuff, like not guessing what user-interface paradigm works in what context in order to read her friggin' email or write a stern letter to the editor of Windows 8 and tell them what a turd they've created.

Sure, I understand where they're going, why it's done this way, that Microsoft needs to refresh itself and push forward into new markets (as old markets are shifting), I understand why swipes are cool and needed or certain hardware platforms ... but there's something to be said about not being consistent across contexts and alienation in the light of different dichotomies that so easily could be avoided.

Currently, Windows 8 is a turd. A nice-looking, polished turd. And you're not fooling anyone in my family with this nonsense; we want consistency and some coherent logic to how to operate our machine. Even Ubuntu / Linux looks easier and just as nice at this point.

I'll report again in a week or so to see if the torture will get acceptance by habit, or if it is so bad we have to do something more drastic about it.

25 October 2012

ASUS both please and anger me

So, just over a year ago I bought an ASUS Eee pad tablet TF-101, which was both my first tablet and my first ASUS product. And it's not just a normal tablet; it comes with a keyboard dock with extra battery and USB ports. And in short; I love it!

The first thing that happened about a month in was that the cable stopped working. It's a short and flimsy USB to ASUS 40-ish-pin connector cable, asking for replacement after some wear and tear. However, you won't find it in the shops, and back then not even online. I had to send it back to ASUS support in Sydney to get back a new one, a dance that lasted just over a week and had me in tears from the lack of tablet (no other way to really charge it, except slow trickle the keyboard/battery pack through USB which gave me roughly a half battery charge worth over a 24 hour charge session), but I soon forgot my pain as the new cable came.

I was otherwise so happy with my ASUS that since the family was about to update their main computer, I chose an ASUS all-in-one delicious touchscreen-driven, which has been nothing but a delight, and which still run smooth as butter and keeps the family happy.

Then followed a blissful 3 month period until ASUS said that there were some yummy Ice Cream Sandwich update for us. This was in line with ASUS promises to be proactive, brave and good to its customers ... had only the update not been such a disaster. What followed was a 6 month nightmare of the tablet crashing, restarting, draining the battery, applications not working, on and on it went, with no option given to downgrade to the safe and solid previous version. The pain kinda ended with a "no deep sleep" widget tool and the last upgrade (which now is 3 months old) where the tablet turned ... hmm, usable? It's still the occasional reboot, but once or twice a month rather than every day or more.

And then ... then my boy played it one evening, and the cable broke again. These cables truly are a pain, but by this time the cables were easily accessible online and cheap, so instead of the stupid "send to Sydney" dance I just ordered one online, and it arrive a couple of days later.

And then ... then my backlight went. It started with a slight buzzing sound from the insides of it, which grew in volume until the backlight was completely dead. Everything with the tablet still worked (use a strong light to shine on it, and you can see the LCD graphics working fine), including using the HDMI output.

I contacted ASUS about this. I knew the tablet had just gone out of warranty (1 year) but I wanted to know if fixing it was going to so expensive I might as well sell the scraps and invest in a new model. However, I've been given nothing but canned responses that don't really answer my questions at all ("in order to fix it, you need to send it in", and yeah, I kinda got that, but that wasn't my question). I begged and pleaded to at least tell me if this is something I can deal with myself, can I get components, is there any help to get at all?

No. There's no help to get at all. Just canned responses.

So, I've scourged Google in search of answers, and interacted with other tablet users (which I hadn't done since the ICS disaster), and after some to and fro and searching on eBay, there's a few things I can do;

  • Send it to ASUS, and hope they a) can repair it, and b) that the cost isn't more than buying a new one
  • I can find spare parts on eBay (the part costs anything from 50$ to 140AUD, and I'm not sure if it's the same priced ridiculous, or small differences I need to be aware of), and do it myself

Given that ASUS is the producer of the latest Google tablets I was thinking they would be better at dealing with customers than this, because I've found them less than helpful. I can appreciate that they're a big company now and more things are happening, and I don't even have a problem with things braking - that's just the nature of sensitive hardware, but there needs to be easier ways of fixing stuff that do, better processes for us geeks to slot into in order to restore our inner turmoil. I chose ASUS because they seemed more geek friendly, but I'm suspecting I was wrong.

And despite my woes, I still love the tablet itself! I'm lost and alone without it, and I think I'll risk eBay and do it myself, unless anyone has any better advice out there.

Ah, I feel better now. Until I want my tablet again.

13 August 2012

Ponderings, Part 1

[Part 1]

I haven't posted much of late, much to the disappointment of my hoards of readers, I can only assume. Much of the reason is that my mind has been experiencing a series of subtle epiphanies, and I've found it hard to convey in writing how it sounds in my head, found it hard to write as fast as my mind race.

I had a job interview a few weeks ago for a job I kinda didn't want to get, but I had been asked to pursue it, and I did out of interest of things new and the lure of being wanted and to do good, to grow professionally and have a stab at new problems and meet new interesting people. Oh, and the pay was better, too.

But I digress. In the interview I presented myself as an ideas person, and was asked straight back, "What was some of your best ideas?"

How could I possibly answer that question? I have ideas all the time, several times a day, meaning each year I have hundreds if not thousand(s), add up with 40 years of life ... you get the idea. How do I pick a few of those in order to prove that I enjoy working in a place that takes ideas seriously? Should I tell him about my idea for fresh water plants using buoys and solar power? Or the philosophical construct of scaling computer systems based on human attributes of compassion? Or should I push my ideas on semantic operability and digital persistent identity across abstract human computer systems? Or should I venture down the way of educational methods? About teaching kids modelled after evolutionary psychological models? Or how about a better way to pickle cucumbers? Or my idea for self-sufficient wind-driven electricity built into housing materials? Or the opposite way of mapping political ideas and individual opinions against a zeitgeist-like model of social interaction as a means to govern?

Some of my ideas are successful, others are abstract delusions of grandeur, and yet more just outright bad ones. But what makes me an ideas person isn't the successful ones that I suspect was the wanted answer; it is the combination of them all, the fact that I constantly think about these ideas, forever nurturing, pruning and sowing new ideas, never stopping. I often also call it creativity. And there's nothing too special about this; many people out there are also constantly thinking about stuff. But from what I can tell, there's more of those who don't.

I've never understood that, of course. I don't really know what it's like to not have a million solutions to problems not even yours racing through your mind, distracting me from doing stuff that those others people seem to do so well, like sending signals of assurance and disarmament through audiovisual bodily compositioning, and stuff like that. Not my thing, ok? I'm into the problem, not the theatre of spectacle. Some of you have already identified this disease; being a geek.

Geek is far removed from dork or nerd. I'm not socially nor physically challenged, I'm rather the opposite, I can be part of friendly banter and serious cavorting when I so choose to, and have done to great success (to a variety of definitions of 'success'). A geek is focused on stuff that's less generic than the generic stereotype allows, both in terms of topic at hand or the time consumed with it. Spending hours at the pub watching a game with friends is apparently ok, but spending hours researching and taking pictures of local igneous geographical structures and working out beach evolution to understand them, is not, no matter how many friends I drag with me to do it. There's something wrong when value of a past-time is determined by the category for generalized popular activities, as if its inherit value is linked to the number of participants who's even heard about the activity rather than the knowledge or the activity itself.

I'm getting older now. I'm increasingly tired of human social automation as some assumed important part of our identity. I'm constantly finding a lot of my ideas are rooted in fundaments of conformity and that other dreadful word, 'applicability.' I hate it. I hate that I as a purported free man are not free to do the things I want to be doing, simply because my value system isn't shared by the majority. One can understand the logic of it if your views were regarded as hostile, racist, vile, cruel or otherwise derelict (and there's easy measures one could take in order to find out if your ideas and views are bordering on the politically correct, or even going over them), but ideas are ideas - abstract concepts in our minds - and test those ideas against real life, I am not suggesting that ideas are fine when they cross ethical lines or even political sharp edges, not at all. What I am saying is that the norms of our society is not only a measure of where political lines and human ethical sketches are drawn, but that they are often constraints on new ideas no matter their ethical possible outcome.

There's nothing new about these poor ramblings of a middle-aged bitter twisted liberal-centrist man, married, living in the suburbs with wife, kids, dog and a piano, pining for the fjords on the wrong side of the world, wishing all his ideas we applicable rather than abstract, and character-building rather than character assassinating.

From this venture point it is clear; the future is coming, and I'm dedicated to rush towards it rather than wait for it. Even the status quo is forever changing.

11 August 2012

KYME - Debut concert



KYME - Kiama Young Musicians Ensemble (http://kyme.net) perform their first ever concert in Kiama Anglican Church (Kiama, NSW, Australia) on July 22, 2012.

--- Program ---

"Clocks" : Christine Myers

"Autumn - Allegro" : Antonio Vivaldi

"Metal Road" : Anthony Marks

"Mattachins" : Arbeau

"Falling leaves"
Nigel Scaife

--- Intermission ---

"Pretorius Dances" : Antonin Dvorak
solo Oscar Stanis

"Nagato Yuki" : Keigo Hoashi
arr. Jacob Foster
solo Simon Wallace-Pannell

"Ghost ship" : Stephan Chin
arr. Shaun Stewart
solo Grace Johannesen

"Mozart Mix" : Wolfgang Mozart
arr. John O'Reilly

--- Director ---
Shaun Stewart

--- Players ---
Lilje Johannesen -- violin
James Huet - violin
Matej Nolan - violin
Jenny Smith -- clarinet
Wynter Smith -- double bass
Oscar Stanis -- oboe
Grace Johannesen -- violin
Jacob Foster -- violin
Simon Wallace-Pannell -- cello