Tag Archives: Graphical user interface

What Your Product Does You Might Not Know About

Vodka

Empty vodka bottles used for selling petrol, Bali

Tools often serve purposes the designers didn’t necessarily intend — increasing their stickiness for users but in a way not clearly understood by the creator.

Take the System Tray in Windows for example (and in the bar, whatever it’s called, in Macs.) And this array currently sitting in my overburdened laptop:

Systray

These icons usually either notify the user if something happens, by changing color, animating itself or popping up some balloon message, or they will be quick launch icons: double click or right click to launch the program, or some function within it. Or they can be both. Or, sometimes neither, sitting there like lame ducks taking up screen real estate. (These ones should, like all lame ducks, be shot.)

Skype-tickBut the thing is that for users these icons actually sometimes do something else, acting as useful sources of more important information. I’ve noticed, for example, a lot of people — including myself — use the Skype icon (left) as the best, most visible way of telling whether their computer is connected.

First off, Skype is better and quicker at establishing a connection than most other connection-based programs with icons in the system tray. Secondly, the icon is a uncomplicated but appealing green, with tick in it — an obvious and intuitive signal to even the most untutored user. (It helps that the Skype icon is a dull gray when there’s no connection — once again, intuitive to most users.) When the Skype button turns green, users know they’re good to go.

Za-tray2Another good example of this is the Zone Alarm icon which alternates between the Zone Alarm logo and a gauge, red on the left and green on the right, to indicate traffic going in and out (see left). Another useful tool to see whether your computer is actually connected, and like the Skype icon, much more visible and obvious than the regular Windows connectivity icon — with the two computer screens flashing blue. I’ve gotten so used to having the Zone Alarm icon tell me what’s going on I have not been able to switch to other firewall programs, or Windows own, because they don’t have the same abundance of visual information to offer.

Za-logo3ZA-iconI’m not convinced that Zone Alarm’s new owners CheckPoint get this: They have dropped the disctinctive yellow and red ZA logo in the system tray for a bland and easily missable Z (left). The ZA icon  was an easy and prominent way to know your firewall was working and they’d be smart to resurrect it.

What does all this mean? Well, Skype have been smart to create a simple icon that not only does things like tell you your online status (available, away) but has also become a tool to help folk know whether they’re online or not — not always clear in this world of WiFi and 3G connectivity. In fact, for many users I’m guessing the green tick is more recognisable a Skype logo than the blue S Skype logo itself.

I don’t know whether Skype knows this, or whether the Zone Alarm guys realise their icon and gauge are much more useful to users as a data transfer measure than Windows’ own. But it’s a lesson to other software developers that the system tray icon could do a whole lot more than it presently does, with a bit of forethought. And if it can’t justify its existence, just sitting there saying, then maybe it shouldn’t be there?

Beyond that, we’d be smart to keep an eye out for how folk use our products, and to build on the opportunities that offers.

The Rise of the “How To” Movie

Screencasting goes commercial?

I’m a huge fan of screencasting — short “movies”, most often of what you’re doing on your PC as a easier way of explaining how to use a piece of software — and I think it has huge potential. (Here’s a loose wire directory of screencasting stuff.) So it’s not much of a surprise that folk are going to try to make money from it. One of the first out of the traps is Tubetorial, which offers a bunch of “how to” screencasts supported by ads.

Initial reactions are mixed. Lee Odden of Web Pro News interviews the guy behind Tubetorial, Brian Clark of Copyblogger, who says he’s hoping viewers will submit their own screencasts. Darren Rowse of problogger wonders whether it’s going to be possible to maintain quality and whether video lends itself to the kind of audience they’re after. Martin Neumann of ePublishingDaily.com wonders at the mismatch between the (wet floor Web 2.0) glitz of the site, and the rather less polished videos themselves.

My tupennies’ worth? These kinds of things, like podcasts, can vary in quality wildly. It’s easy enough to do a screencast, just as it’s easier enough to do a podcast. But to raise the quality to a professional, or semi-professional level, requires a lot of post-production work. I would expect to see more of the latter in something like this, if the user is expected to view it as a ‘commercial product’, with what we Brits call commercials tagged on the end.

Secondly, delivery is important. A huge amount of blog inches is dedicated to making blog posts zing, and yet a lot of people making podcasts and videocasts and screencasts don’t seem to apply the same rules. The script should be tight, entertaining and informative. The delivery should also be, and, if video is involved, so too should that. If you’re talking to camera, as presenters on tubetorials do, look good, rehearsed and at the camera.

That said, I think screencasts as a way of conveying information are the way to go, and these guys are definitely worth watching.

How to Send Screenshots to Flickr

Here’s a cool plug in which allows you to capture and post screenshots directly to Flickr: SnagIt Profile for Flickr

Uploading a capture to Flickr, and then sharing a link to that image, is much easier and more universal than sharing image files as attachments. Using the SnagIt to Flickr profiles, you get the best of both tools – SnagIt’s high-quality screen captures with the ease of sharing on Flickr.

SnagIt is made by the same folks who make Camtasia, one of the better screencasting programs. So it’s not surprising there’s a screencast of how it works too. (Here’s a directory of screencasting tools in case you missed it.)

Directory of Screencasting Resources

Updated Nov 13 2006: added a piece on screencasting in Linux which looks helpful, albeit complicated.

This week’s WSJ.com column, out Friday, is about screencasting (you can find all my columns here; subscription only, I’m afraid):

Screencasts are really simple to grasp. And in some ways they’re not new. But I, and a few thousand other people, think they represent a great way to leverage the computer to train, educate, entertain, preach and otherwise engage other people in a very simple way. Something the Internet and computers have so far largely failed to do.

Screencasts are basically little movies you create on your computer. In most cases, they are movies of your computer. You use special software to capture what keystrokes and mouse clicks you make on your screen – demonstrating how to use Google, say (the screen bit of screencasting — and then, once you’ve edited and added a voiceover, upload it to your Web site and let everyone else watch it (the casting bit.) It’s as simple as that.

Here are some links that may help. Not everyone calls what they do screencasting, but most do. There’s tons more stuff out there, but most of these sites will take you there too.

Introductions

Software

Screencasts

Uses of screencasts

How to Split Your Screen Down the Middle

Here’s something for the directory of monitor extenders — stuff that increases the size, scope or general bendiness of your screen — SplitView , from the guys who brought you DiskView:

SplitView increases productivity by making it easy to work with two applications side by side. It helps make full use of your high resolution monitor and gives the benefit of dual-monitors without their associated cost.

Given it costs $19, that statement is indeed true. The problem is simple. Having two monitors is great — if you haven’t done it yet, you haven’t lived — but it’s also neat because you can pretty much keep them separate, a bit like having two desks to play with. That’s because Windows treats the two screens as one for some functions – moving windows and whatnot — but as two for functions like maximising programs etc. Very useful if you’re moving between two documents, or dragging and dropping text using the mouse.

But what happens if you have one supersized monitor, with high resolution? You have all that real estate, but not the same duality, if you get my drift. This is where SplitView jumps in. A small program that incorporates itself into the pull-down resize menu on the left-hand top corner (right clicking on its icon in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen has the same effect), SplitView lets you make the program take up half the screen on either the left or right in one move (or via keyboard shortcuts).  So now you have two monitors in one:

I can imagine this would also be useful for those of us used to dual monitors but forced into single screendom when on the road. Now your laptop can be split in two, making it easy to drag and drop and stuff. Its author, Rohan, says he wrote it “as a ‘me-ware’ – something i needed myself, and then productized it.” Good productizing, Rohan.

More Widgets, This Time from Google

This whole widget thing seems to be taking off. Opera has released a preview version with widgets built in, and now Google have offered something. The new beta of the Google Desktop includes what aren’t being called widgets but should be, as described by Mihai Ionescu, one of the engineers behind the Desktop : 

As a Sidebar user, you can now customize and view personalized information anywhere on the the desktop by clicking and dragging your favorite panels wherever you like. Furthermore, you can now easily share information from your Sidebar panels with your contacts by sending it to them through email, chat or directly to their Sidebar. As an added bonus you and your contacts can also play online games through the Sidebar.

I haven’t checked this out yet, but I will.

Opera Gets Widgetized

The Opera browser continues to impress, even as it becomes less and less relevant in the face of the mighty Firefox. This week Opera’s preview puts widgets on stage according to CNET :

Opera Software on Tuesday plans to release a second preview version of Opera 9, the next version of its namesake Web browser. For the first time, the new version will include support for so-called widgets, Opera representative Thomas Ford said. Widgets are essentially small browser windows that display information taken from the Internet on a user’s desktop. The notion is similar in concept to the widget idea that Apple Computer uses in the Dashboard feature of Mac OS X.

“It is really a big jump for us into Web applications,” Ford said. “They give people the information they want right on the desktop. Even if it is a Web page, people don’t have to go to the browser to see it.”

Actually Windows users have had access to widgets for a while, via Klips and Konfabulator, now bought and rebranded by the folks at Yahoo! as straight Widgets. I’m a big fan of widgets but I find I don’t use them as much as I should. It’ll be interesting to see how Opera handles it. The preview version also includes support for BitTorrent, the file distribution protocol.

Extending Del.icio.us

Del.icio.us has come up with a new Firefox extension which includes toolbar buttons, a menu, context menus and search engine:

Delext

Pretty neat, although for some reason my Firefox is behaving and won’t tolerate some popups. More on some alternatives to this in a future post.

Yahoo! Follows Loose Wire Advice, Buys Konfabulator

You probably knew this, but the Blessing of Loose Wire strikes again: Yahoo! buys Konfabulator, a widget manufacturer I wrote about in a recent column:

Yahoo! has bought Konfabulator, the software that brought widgets to the Mac and latterly to Windows.

Apple has since developed its own widget environment, Dashboard, and integrated it into the latest version of OS X. It was assumed that Konfabulator would quietly die; instead the developers brought out a Windows version good enough to attract the attention of the Internet search giant.

Widgets are small, floating applications that give access to specific information or tools, and provide easy and quick access to Web-based data without needing to resort to a browser. Popular widgets include weather and stock trackers and a yellow pages search.

Yahoo! are expected to use the technology to make it easier to access its services and, like Apple, is keen for developers to build their own widgets.

‘We are lowering the bar and letting people do a lot more with our material,’ said Toni Schneider, vice president of the company’s developer network.

Avid readers (hi, Mum!) may recall that as soon as I wrote a column about oddPost it was bought by Yahoo!. Then, shortly after I wrote about the email program Bloomba, they bought that. If they like I can suggest some other purchases…

The Firefox Del.icio.us Toolbar

The guys at del.icio.us have launched a “very preliminary del.icio.us firefox toolbar at http://del.icio.us/toolbar/ :

The button icons are placeholders and a product of Joshua’s creative fury. If you bring up the ‘customize’ toolbar palette in firefox, you can rearrange, remove or place the buttons on on any other customizable firefox toolbar.

The icons are very basic, but somewhat charming. There’s not an awful lot going on, but the ‘about’ button is a useful addition, listing all the other people who have tagged the page you’re viewing.