Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Google and the end of SMS: by design flaw or design strategy?

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

I’ve been using Android 4.4 KitKat for a few weeks now and the only part of it I don’t particularly like is how Hangouts tries to combine SMS with what was previously Google Talk. There’s also several functional parts of the UI that really frustrate me.

The “swipe” gesture to archive a Hangout is fine… but more than once I’ve accidentally archived Hangouts trying to swipe to the list of recent hangouts. This is a hit area problem: if you don’t swipe accurately enough, you start deleting, er, “archiving” Hangouts. And if you don’t hit undo immediately, they then seem gone forever.

Hangouts on Android

But the real problem with Hangouts is the seemingly inconsistent searching of contacts between the phone app and Hangouts. Yesterday I watched my wife almost go crazy trying to send an SMS to her sister in law. When she searched for her name in the phone app, it was there no problem: but nothing came up when she searched in Hangout except for Google+ people. And tapping on any contact in the phone app simply calls them. There is no long hold interaction which seems very strange. After both of us fiddling around with the Nexus 5 we finally worked out if you tap on the contact photo and NOT the contact name, you then get more detail and the option of sending an SMS to that number.

Again, why there isn’t a long hold here really baffles me: surely that’s a very natural interaction for getting more details within an contact context?

Of course when I tried to replicate this contact issue with the same person on my Nexus, our sister in law came up no problem on my Hangouts (with phone number). But I found the identical problem with another contact:

Hangouts in Android 4.4

The same contact appears in both the phone and Hangouts app, but Hangouts doesn’t give me an option to send an SMS — only a Hangout chat.

The inconsistency here really interests me. Is this genuinely a design flaw, or are Google doing their utmost to try and push Hangout chats over traditional SMS? It would make sense for Google to be pushing Hangouts over SMS, and as an end user with a data plan I then wouldn’t have to worry about SMS costs (especially when it comes to messaging people abroad). And with the news today of Facebook buying WhatsApp, Google trying to catch up with Hangouts would obviously be strategic.

So the question still remains: is this confusing and inconsistent contact searching on Android 4.4 on purpose or is it just bad UI design? Knowing Google, I suspect it’s probably the latter.

The terrible design of Sainsbury’s self-checkout

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

“Mate, your fiver is down there” I say to the stranger in front of me using the self-checkout machine at Sainsbury’s.

I was waiting to buy my lunch while the man in front of me was confounded by the self-checkout machine he had just fed £10 into. His change was somewhere — but where? The machine beeped at him and the screen and the spooky automated voice of a detached actress both prompted him to collect his change.

Part of my job is observing people trying to use systems and interfaces. I was sliding into this “observation mode” when I realised this wasn’t a test at all, it was a real life situation where someone was confused by the system at hand. So that’s when I spoke up and showed him the money (literally).

Yesterday I assisted someone in a similar situation in the same Sainsbury’s: they had actually walked away from the self-check with £10 still in the change dispenser. When I realised he’d forgotten it I rushed over to him and tapped him on the shoulder, pointing to his money saying “Excuse me, I think you’ve left your change”. He gratefully retrieved his money and thanked me.

But even that wasn’t the first time in the exact same Sainbury’s this had happened: A few weeks back I inherited a £5 from exactly the same machine where someone had forgotten their change and had long gone. Good for me, bad for them.

Self-checkouts have been much-maligned, but as someone who pays almost exclusively with card, I find them quite good. But if you’re paying cash it soon becomes apparently they are a truly awful system.

Consider this photo of the Sainsbury’s self-checkout:

Sainsbury's self-checkout
Says it all really. Was this ever actually tested with real users?

13 Hilariously Funny and Amusing Bitstrips Cartoons You Must See

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine you’ve seen an influx of Bitstrips lately.

Based on my experience of using Bitstrip, here’s thirteen Bitstrips you must see (eat your heart out, Buzzfeed).


Bletchley Park: the UK’s first tech start up?

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

Sharon O’Dea made this interesting point last night on Twitter regarding Bletchley Park (with my reply beneath):

But seriously, was Bletchley Park that different from a start-up?


I late 1938 “Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party” arrived at the Bletchley Park mansion to investigate its suitability for code-breaking. They returned at the start of the war in 1939 and by January 1945 (the peak of its operation) 9,000 people worked there — and over 12,000 worked there throughout the war.

Innovation and technology

Alan Turing’s Bombe ticks that box — along with many other vital computing and mathematical breakthroughs made at Bletchley by Turing and others.

Disrupting an existing market

Cracking the entire Germany military’s communication network? That’s pretty disruptive.

Initial public offering

Well, maybe not this one… Bletchley Park’s work wasn’t declassified until the 1970′s, around 25 years after the war finished (when the product was at it’s hottest!)

But all this aside… if Bletchy Park was a start-up now, what would it look like?

Check out (another project brought to you from the I’ve-got-too-much-time-on-my-hands department).

UX Scotland Round-up

Monday, July 1st, 2013

It’s been almost a week now since the inaugural UX Scotland up in sunny Edinburgh. Here’s my round-up of what I saw and what themes came up during the two days of talks and discussions.

Overall I think the most interesting theme I took from the conference was that of context. A lot of this started on day one after a goldfish discussion on the future of broadcasting and was cemented by Giles Colborne’s keynote on day two which looked exactly at context and what it means for user experience.

Context is a great challenge for user experience designers: getting the context right for a user is a wonderful experience. But getting context wrong and it the experience is awful. Getting context right is the real challenge.

UX Scotland

Day one

After a quick intro from the organisers (Software Acumen) Jeff Gothelf kicked off the talks with the first keynote: “Better Product Definition with Lean UX & Design Thinking“. This was a great reminder of how products can (and will) fail if you simply make assumptions about your users. The demise of Plancast is a stark reminder of how not really considering your users can lead to disaster.

I was lucky enough to be talking next: my debut presentation of Play & Engage: Practical Ways to Gamify Your Content. (There’s also a fairly comprehensive blog post of my key points available too). Unfortunately on at the same time was Graham Odds talking about data visualisation, which I really wanted to see — you should check out his slides if only to admire some masterful and beautiful CSS3.

Next up: Martin Belam took a look at “Designing ‘The Bottom Half of the Internet“. He took us through the love-it-or-hate-it world of comments and demonstrated some truly staggering douchebaggery in the form of comments left on Holly Brockwell’s blog after her open letter to Hyundai regarding their awful ‘suicide ad’. A key lesson for anyone involved in moderation: comment often. It seems most commenters are not unlike five year old children (are you really surprised?) and some grown up presence seems to help them behave.

Then I sat in for a double-feature of internationalisation and user experience: Chui-Chui Tan gave us some great insight into how different cultures use technology with Your Mobile Experience Is Not Theirs. Chris Rourke followed this up with Cross Cultural UX Research – Best Practices for International Insights that gave some valuable insight into working internationally (and user testing remotely to boot).

After this was a real highlight: the goldfish discussion on broadcasting in a multi-device world. Rhys Nealon from STV kicked off the discussion with several industry figures — and it soon went from being a panel discussion into a general group discussion which was fantastic. Pretty much everyone attending contributed: it’s amazing how everyone has an opinion on consuming television content.

But the overriding challenge in this multidevice world soon emerged as context. How can Netflix (or any other product) differentiate between me watching Games of Thrones and then my children watching Sesame Street — without a myriad of different logins? How can we balance discovery with curation? Not many answers from this discussion but some very exciting questions.

To end the day Sam Nixon from RBS took us through a look at the future of money and specifically digital money services. How can we make online banking more useful? He provided some great insights into how useless breaking down your ‘monthly’ spend is and instead proposed easier and smarter payment systems (such as Barclay’s Pingit) will be the real future of digital money (along with a few mentions of — of course — Bitcoin).

That’s was the end of day one: time to head over to the Voodoo Rooms for some hard earned drinks (and some very fine curry).

Day Two

As I’ve already touched on, Giles Colborne added nicely to the context theme with his in-depth talk looking at all facets of context and how it affects user experience.

Following this was an immensely fun and very useful look at “How to Make Your First UX Comic or Storyboard” with Bonny Colville-Hyde. I’ve been sketching here and there for my whole life but this certainly gave me some inspiration to take it much further.

UX Comic
Look! I made a comic!

After another wonderful lunch over looking the Salisbury Crags, Ian Fenn took us through his experience in “Getting UX Done” which had a nice element of humour in amongst practical advice on dealing with all manner of challenges. Immediately after Mike Atherton took a look at “Brand-Driven Design“. A glass of whiskey and some cigar smoke would’ve nicely rounded off his look at advertising from the 60s and how brand is a fundamental part of any experience.

The final presentation of the day came from Cathy Wang. In “The Future in Designing for the Sex(es)” she explored what future implications the blurring of gender might have for experience design.

And thus concluded two days of diverse and very interesting look into UX. Fantastic talks, great venue and awesome people really made it worth the trip up (not that I ever need much of an excuse to go to Edinburgh). It’ll be great to see what UX Scotland 2014 has to offer next year.

How Big (Really) Is the NSA Police State, Really?

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

Philip Bump wrote a really interesting article on The Atlantic Wire today on how big (really) the data storage required for the NSA‘s now infamous PRISM ‘spying’ project would be.

Bump’s calculations are dependant on this hunk of hardware: the HP ProLiant DL580 G7 — currently the ‘highest-density system’ commercially available. You can read the exact calculations in his article, but he puts the estimate storage space of these behemoths at 21 terabytes. Here’s a size and storage comparison with Blu Ray’s and DVD’s:

HP ProLiant DL580 v Blu Ray / DVD

Moving forward, Bump proposes the NSA would need 5,600 boxes to store a single year’s worth of PRISM data (9.7-petabytes: a modest 406,847 25GB Blu Rays). As a data visualisation exercise, this is where things get really interesting: that’s a huge amount of boxes. How big is that in comparison to other “big” things?

Let’s start with the simplest comparison: let’s forget gravity and a host of other physical restrictions and stack these boxes one on top of each other. 5,600 x 17.6 centimetres (6.94 “) is a huge 861 metres (around 2,825 feet). Compare that below to some of the world’s tallest and iconic buildings:

Tallest / iconic buildings

That’s an impressive tower of data. But not particularly practical. Bump mentions stacking the boxes:

If you stack those boxes 5 feet high (eight boxes), we’re talking about a total physical footprint of 2,410 square feet.

2,410 square feet — or (223.9 square metres) — is another big big number. But let’s forget stacking them and consider how much space you’d need if they were laid flat (no stacking). A single HP ProLiant DL580 has an area of 3.63 square feet (0.338 square metres). Now for a year, based on 5,600 boxes, that gives us 20,380 square feet (1,893.36 square metres). That’s around 26 soccer pitches.

Let’s compare it to some actual landmarks, overlaying the area required for PRISM layed flat:

new_timesquareNew York / Times Square

new_trafalgar_squareLondon / Trafalgar Square

new_louvreParis / The Louvre

Now we’ve laid the drives into a square shape, they are far more compact: which shows that “stacking” them up in the air gives quite a skewed representation of how much space we’re actually talking.

This lot of data in a not lot of space — of course with zero provision for cooling systems, electronics etc. So not too worry, the NSA has plenty of space: this year in Utah, the NSA will complete a new data centre with an area of 1 million square feet (92,903 square metres).

Rest assured, the NSA will be stacking these servers — and will have PLENTY of space for operations like PRISM.

(I hope these calculations all work — any errors please let me know!)

Update: (12 June) I made some errors sorting out my area calculations that I’ve updated above. Thanks very much to Dr. Bob Campbell for helping me correct this!

The unsurprisingly connected world

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

On BBC News today there are some lovely visualisations of global flight paths by Michael Markieta.

This reminded me of a visualisation by Facebook by Paul Butler showing global friend networks done several years ago — both in visual appearance and similarity of the data presented.

Here are the two compared:

Flight paths versus Facebook friends

The similarities, of course, are not surprising.

Without comparing the datasets directly, it’s hard to find any definitive insights, but a few things that look interesting:

  1. Social networks with the Hawaiian islands are stronger than the flights (it’s a long flight I guess, but the beaches are good right?)
  2. Chinese mainland connections through Facebook are not as pronounced as the air traffic. But Facebook isn’t as big in China as it is in the West
  3. West Africa has stronger connections through Facebook than through flight paths (again, not surprising)
  4. Western Europe is heavily interconnected in both maps, but moving east this reduces in density… but Moscow is a large hub in both maps
  5. Australia and New Zealand prefer to keep in touch through Facebook rather than flying across the Tasman

I’d love to compare these datasets together along with similar stats from Twitter, Baidu/Weibo in China and VK in Russia/Eastern Europe.

Can anyone else see any other interesting similarities (or differences) in here?

The hilariously epic failure of Orange voice recognition

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

I tried to activate a new Orange pre-paid SIM today by phone. It went a little bit like this (starting from trying to enter my flat number):

Orange robot: “Please say the number of your flat”
Me: “Five”
Orange robot: “I’m sorry. I couldn’t understand that. Please say the number of your flat”
Me: “FIVE”
Orange robot: “Is this correct? Flat eight…”
Me: “No”
Orange robot: “Please say the number of your flat”
Me: “Five”
Orange robot: “I’m sorry. I couldn’t understand that. Please say the number of your flat”
Me: “FIVE”
Orange robot: “Is this correct? Flat eight…”
Me: “No”
Orange robot: “Please say the number of your flat”
Me: “Five”
Orange robot: “I’m sorry. I couldn’t understand that. Please say the number of your flat”
Me: “FIVE”
Orange robot: “Is this correct? Flat eight…”
Me: “No”
Orange robot: “I’m sorry, I’m having problems understanding you. I’ll transfer you to an operator.”

Orange robot: “Sorry, you don’t have enough credit for this operation. Calls to operators are charged at 25p per minute”

(Click, hang up, try again… and yet again I stumble at the same point)

Orange robot: “Please say the number of your flat”
Me: “Fiiivvve”
Orange robot: “I’m sorry. I couldn’t understand that. Please say the number of your flat”
Orange robot: “Is this correct? Flat eight…”
Me: “NO”

(Gives phone to partner, whom speaks better English than me it seems, the address is finally accepted.)

Orange robot: “OK, please say your last name”

(This concerns me. My last name is very simple — just “Offer”. Yet it’s surprising how often people get this wrong. In fact hardly ever do people get it right first off. But I reassure myself: my last name isn’t Muralitharan or anything too tongue-twisting)

Me: “Offer”
Orange robot: “Did you say, ‘Awful’?”
Me: (muffled hysteria)
Orange robot: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t understand that. Is your last name correct?”
Me: NO!
Orange robot: “OK, please say your last name”
Orange robot: “Did you say, ‘Arthur’?”

(Click, hang up and give up)

And this is why I think voice recognition is one of the worst forms of interaction ever — any experience that leaves me wondering if I’m in an episode of Fonejacker is not a good one.

PHP, MySQL and Unicode: correctly display all characters?

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

This is a post born from spending hours trying to squash bugs and zap gremlins.

In an attempt to streamline content re-versioning in different languages, I had created a work flow that went like this:

  1. Create Google spreadsheet for easy collaborative editing
  2. Pull down a Microsoft Excel version of the Google spreadsheet (alas, not CSV as the Google-generated CSV wasn’t playing ball with MySQL)
  3. Import this into MySQL
  4. Generate static HTML with translations inserted where appropriate for each language

The process was fine, but somewhere within all these steps something was going awry. Latin characters with accents weren’t showing up properly and apostrophes were rendering in all different ways — �, `â, ? — anything except what I needed. Furthermore, Cyrillic, Chinese and Arabic weren’t even displaying at all.

I tried many things in PHP — preg_replace, utf8_encode, mb_convert_encoding, and even iconv — but all to no avail.

Finally, I spotted a snippet on the MySQL site from 2006, written by Lorenz Pressler:

after mysql_connect() , and mysql_select_db() add this lines:
mysql_query(“SET NAMES utf8″);

…and that was all I needed. In fact I didn’t even need to convert anything into UTF-8 in PHP. Once MySQL was outputting UTF-8 correctly, everything was fine. The database was encoded in UTF-8, so I assumed too much in thinking that meant it would automatically output it in that way.

So, if ever you have problems with MySQL and UTF characters not displaying, try SET NAMES and hopefully that’l fix the issue.

Apple, iOS and how screenshots help build experiences

Monday, November 28th, 2011

I’m an Android user. My HTC Hero is looking a bit worse for wear these days and I’ll probably upgrade it soon. The iPhone is a great phone and all, but rarely do I feel Apple envy: except for when I was try to take screenshots on my Android for a previous blog post. In fact, I resurrected my old iPod touch from the depths of my ‘gadget box’ — and it performed the task splendidly.

Apart from this being inconvenient, it struck me that being able to take screenshots — and more importantly sharing them — really adds a lot to the experience of a device.

Damn You Autocorrect! is a perfect example of this: people collecting examples of the iPhone’s quirky autocorrect and sharing them.

On Facebook many of my friends share screenshots. I often do as well when I see something worth sharing. For instance, last week I saw this bizarre image on the Malaysian Airways website and put it up on Facebook:

Oh, men! Yes we’re so trying, but you women still love us!

Had I not been on my desktop, I would not have been able to share this given the capabilities of my Android phone.