Interface innovations

One upside of being down for the count over a long weekend is that there’s no guilt in eating an entire boxed set of TV all at once.

I sat down (well, lied down) to take in Joss Whedon’s aborted cowboy space-opera, Firefly; and was pleasantly surprised.

It’s no wonder it was cancelled – it takes ages to get going, it’s got a huge cast each of whom “have a secret” and some of the best lines are in Mandarin it seems.

One thing that did strike me about a couple of episodes was how very few ‘screens’ feature in Firefly’s vision of the future – and in general how tangible and situated digital technology seems in that universe.
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Alan Moore, interviewed:

"There’s an awful lot of synasthesia, I mean one of the greatest writers, a lot of the greatest writers, one of my favourites, Vladimir Nabakoff, he was a synasthetic…to him, the letter ‘O’ was white, the word ‘Moscow’ was green flecked with gold…olive green, flecked with gold. I can see that. And it’s a good thing to try and develop. Synasthesia is a great literary tool. You’ll be able to come up with perfect metaphors that are really striking and strange, because they maybe jump from one sense to another – try describing a smell in musical terms.

Actually, it can be quite easy. Also, it’s how we tend to do things anyway. They’ve just proven that – you know when Jilly Gordon gets on a roll on The Food Program and she’s talking about: “’s a kind of buttery, composty, tractory – I’m getting peat, I’m getting burning tyres…”. Now they’ve done tests – those people who describe the flavour and bouquet of wine, they’re not describing the flavour or the bouquet at all – they are synasthetically describing the colour. They’re taking visual cues. They did things where they’d put an odourless and tasteless colour agent into white wine to make it look like red wine, and then they’d note the kind of language the wine-tasters were using. When it was white wine they were using: “…buttery, new-mown hay”…you know, yellow, basically, was what they were saying, whereas when it was red wine they were saying: “…its wonderfully fruity, blackcurranty”…talking about red things. It’s synasthesia. It’s how a lot of our senses…I think synasthesia is probably a lot more common than the sensory aberration that it’s made out to be, and there’s probably a key there, somewhere, to how we sense everything. Synasthesia. There’s something there."

I hope so.

It would be wonderful to harness synasthesia in the UI of mobile devices. Going beyond multimedia output and multimodal interfaces – delivering meaning in Gladwellesque thin-slices of preattentive recognised patterns.

I’ve got about a month of my time in April to look into this at work. I’m thinking of looking at the Mindhackers, Damasio, Hiroshii Ishii, Ben(s) Fry and Schneiderman, and Ambient Devices as a start.

I’m very aware this is far from an exhaustive list; and moreover, it’s only the cognitive science / interface research worlds I’m thinking of so far.

I have a feeling, inspired by Alan Moore’s thoughts,  that looking into other fields of sensory endeavour might also be revealing: sculpture, painting, drama – or ritual, religious or otherwise – ways of constructing feelings and understanding through all our senses.

Ns_sensesIt it looks like we have at least 21 of them to play with…

With recent announcements of the increasing capabilites for new visual possibilites (Flash, SVG in Nokia mobiles) and coincident pronouncements on the constraining nature of the WIMP interface hangover into  the mobile context, I think it’s a good time to look into this.

Anyway – if you have any thoughts or contributions, or want to get in touch about the subject, leave me a comment, trackback or drop me a line to the usual address…

See also, Abe Burmeister’s reflections on the seminal "Interface Culture" some 8 years on from the publication of Johnson’s book.

More ding-dong on the authority of Wikipedia recently, with much of the debate swirling around Many-2-Many.

Clay Shirky posted something that caught my eye there today, which is to side-step the argument with information design.

He proposes a ‘dashboard’ for each entry, allowing the browser to make his or her own mind up to the veracity of the information by making transparent the contributions and changes to that entry over time.

This, to me, was precisely what Martin Wattenburg was exploring with his History Flow project for IBM, but using visualisations to allow one to assess the ‘shape’ of the entry’s evolution quickly.

Teaming this up with Edward Tufte’s Sparklines concept i.e. visualisations of supplementary information inline to the main text led me to mock-up something that gives the user Clay’s “trust profile per item” married with Martin’s visualisation effect to give a quick idea to the user of the entry’s history.: Historyflow sparklines.

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Organizr launches today, which builds on the Flickr API to give photo-management tools approaching those you’d get on a desktop app. It’s very nice indeed, with some lovely info/interaction design touches, although I don’t have enough “in” Flickr to make it worthwhile just yet.

One niggling thing I’d suggest is that the “sets” that you build get a larger ‘stack’ icon, the more images you place in them.

This isn’t that important as a cue (you’d go click on the set entitled “my best naked pictures of celebrities ever” regardless of the size of the icon, if you pardon the double-entendre) but it would be a nice-to-have nonetheless, fitting in with a UI-style that it big on visual cues, humour and ease-of-use.

One of the best touches are the size-bars that are shown under the dates on the timeline interface of Organizr, indicating the number of pictures uploaded that day.


Of course, Organizr is built on the Flickr API, so if I had a ounce of talent I could do it myself, but alas it’s not the case.

Anyway, hearty congratulations to the Ludicorp crew – now go lie down somewhere and relax for a while!

Nice to see a few people excited by the “airtexting” feature of the active-cover enhancement to the new Nokia 3220. It seems though that they’ve missed* what, for me, is the feature with the most potential: the motion-detecting accelerometer.

Aside for how much fun it is to play games using your body as an interface, it could open up possibilities of gestural interfaces and tangible interaction to a mass audience.

In the near-future, combined with geolocation and touch interactions, starts to create a platform for situated, contextual interfaces to digital services, and some awesome opportunites for mixed-reality games.

Be Mario in Manchester, leaping Le-Parkour-style for the power-ups that only your phone tells you are there; or get on the bus and be Solid Snake in Salford, sneaking around the specialist pasta aisle of the Safeway, avoiding the tracking lasers coming from the old lady’s hats.

UPDATE: Tom Hume gets it. “Backwards-Tron”. Brilliant.

FURTHER UPDATE: Jens got there first…

Edward Tufte descibes a form of word-sized, inline infoburst he calls a “sparkline”:


A hyperlinked Sparkline would make webpages like superdense, fractal, layered, zoomable resources, and make the top-level of each topic look vital and organic like a terrarium of squirming data.

The next step would be to see Sparklines in the street, not just delivering data, but harvesting it – being it.

Crawling up lamposts as electricity consumption spikes during the ad-break of Coronation Street. Or infesting the wounds of a pigeon flattened by a delivery truck, updating the national epidemiological database and the air pollution record for that borough based upon trace metal readings in the carcass.

Tufte’s aiming to create bumps in the visual texture of the page that we can run our eyes over and just know. Lowering the load on our understanding not in reductive manner of many usability methodologies but trying to transform ways in which information is transferred to create a richer substrate for understanding.

» Ask E.T.: Sparklines [via Scoble]

Via John Battelle’s SearchBlog, the chief of Amazon’s A9 search engine Udi Manber declares:

“Think about how the Web has changed your life in the last 10 years. Now, try to extrapolate 10 years forward and you should feel dizzy. We’re still in day one of developing and innovating in search. There’s still a lot of exciting discoveries to be made,”

In his keynote to the WWW Conference in NYC, he goes on to say:

“For most users, they expect it to be as simple as possible and that’s a barrier. If music was invented 20 years ago, we’d all be playing one-string instruments,”

which struck me at first as a statement that would make a crowd of developers chuckle, but otherwise isn’t particularly helpful.

First up: if music was invented 20 years ago then there wouldn’t be much differentiation in expertise between players and the listeners. They would probably be very happy with the one-stringed instruments, grinning like loons, thinking that this new ‘music’ stuff was where it was at.

Secondly: complaining that your ‘users’ are holding you back is not a argument most users have a lot of sympathy with, cf. Boo.

However, if one interprets it as a comment on the medium – on the difficulty in communicating with computers and through digital interfaces – then perhaps it makes sense.

If A9 and Amazon commit their resources to understanding how to play a few more strings and still get their audience humming along with them, then the search engine wars won’t be over till the fat lady sings.

Or something.

From Matthew Thomas’ post “Why Free Software usability tends to suck”:

“The practice of releasing early, releasing often frequently causes severe damage to the interface. When a feature is incomplete, buggy, or slow, people get used to the incompleteness, or introduce preferences to cope with the bugginess or slowness. Then when the feature is finished, people complain about the completeness or try to retain the preferences. Similarly, when something has an inefficient design, people get used to the inefficiency, and complain when it becomes efficient. As a result, more user preferences get added, making the interface worse.”

[Found via Phil]


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