The Buzztracker Widget

Craig Mod of the excellent buzztracker news/map visualizer tells me of a new tool he’s created for Mac Tiger users: the buzztracker widget:

The buzztracker widget allows you to add live buzztracker images and data to your desktop using Apple OS X 10.4’s Dashboard.

The widget features hooks into buzztracker.org, allowing you to instantly access the day’s top location data and newest maps.

Here’s what it looks like:

I am very jealous, and quietly hoping a Windows version is in the offing. If you haven’t tried out buzztracker, I suggest you do. It’s a wonderful mind-opener.

A Jef Raskin Interview From A Year Ago

I only just found out that Jef Raskin passed away last month. I thought I would post an email interview I had with him a year ago to illustrate some of his thinking in his last year:

On Mar 9, 2004, at 7:22 AM, Jeremy Wagstaff wrote:

Jef, sounds better if I send the questions by email… I have greatly enjoyed your book, a real eye-opener, although unfortunately time constraints may mean I am not able to digest as thoroughly as I should have. So please forgive any questions below which could be answered by a closer reading of your book! — Would you mind giving a brief elaboration of your comment that ‘I have learned a great deal about interface design, human psychology, and human physiology since creating the Macintosh project a quarter century ago — and even then I wanted to use the mouse far less than the larger role given to it by later workers at Apple’. What have you learned, exactly? Where are we going wrong with the use of the mouse?

To ask what I have learned, exactly, is answered by my book and articles. There is no short answer that fulfills the requested “exactly”. It is now well established (I sent you the latest and best reference) that mouse use should be minimized, and it has been long known (since at least the 1980s) how slow mouse operations are. The problem has been that keyboard-based solutions have been even worse in terms of learnability and memorability. But the mouse (or other pointing device; I prefer tablets for drawing and a good trackball for pointing, but that’s personal preference) is essential for graphics. THE is designed to use both the keyboard and the mouse where they are appropriate and not use them where they are not; and I have found pleasant solutions that make THE both learnable and memorable — as testing has shown.

But the most important things I have learned are those involving how humans learn and work. Applying that research-based knowledge and using the quantitative tools that have been developed facilitate the development of much better interfaces than we now have. – When you say ‘It is still the case that most of what we do with computers (estimates are typically 80% to 85% on a time basis) involves the creation, reading, and editing of text. And for this kind of work, the mouse is usually inappropriate’ could you give examples? Do you mean users should use more keystroke combinations?

Using the rather arbitrary keystroke combinations now available is a finger-twisting exercise that is frustrated by the inconsistent way they are used in different applications. Often there are no keyboard methods for some tasks. The present ad hoc keystroke combinations are pathetic. Users should demand better software, there is no way to use the present interfaces well.

I was going to suggest in my column that users make a better distinction between tasks, i.e. between a) thought flow tasks — writing, mainly — where reaching for the mouse could only distract and disrupt thought, and therefore should be avoided and b) housekeeping tasks, where the visual GUI could be made more use of via the mouse than it is — for example, by dragging things between windows. But perhaps I’m barking up the wrong tree, or confusing people further?

I don’t think that that advice makes sense. For one thing, most housekeeping tasks should also be keyboard-based.

 As an ‘occasional’ RSI sufferer I’m fully with you on the mouse issue, and have recommended on a couple of occasions to cut back on mouse usage. So I worry that with the above recommendation I might be making things worse. But while there are some great programs out there which can significantly cut down on mouse usage to do ‘housekeeping tasks’  — I can’t see any way of avoiding some tasks altogether. Or am I not thinking far ahead enough?

Another question that requires a longer answer than you can possibly use. Sometimes difficult problems don’t have answers that can be put into a pithy paragraph or two. The specs for just the text portions of THE run to over 40 pages, and in those pages are very specific answers to your questions. I don’t know about “ahead” but you are only beginning to think outside the restrictive GUI box. It’s hard to understand a new world when you’ve spent years in the old.

 Finally, leading on from that, what will the interface of the near future look like? What can people expect, and how can they help make that day arrive sooner? Are there any specific tips you could offer users who don’t want to wait for changes in their GUI?

In the near future, people will use today’s GUIs. Taking a longer term view, I hope that developers will read books, of which mine is but one example, about how people really interact with computers and other similar products instead of using the present half-facts or outright false beliefs about what makes an interface work. If I find the support and/or sufficient volunteers, I will get THE out into the world, and people will gradually move to it because it is significantly better.

I can’t help current GUI users; I search through my Windows for Dummies and Macs for Dummies type books and try to learn how to use them effectively, but they are so wrong from the getgo that there’s only so much a user can do to make them better.

A Short Essay From Jef Raskin

Further to the previous post, honouring the fact that Jef Raskin passed away last month, I thought I would post a little essay he sent me a year ago to illustrate some of his thinking in his last year:

Genesis and Goals of The Humane Environment

Our increasing knowledge about human behavior and mental processes, as applied to interaction with our artifacts — knowledge based on observation, on testing, and on empirical results in cognitive psychology — leads to the conclusion that the human/machine interfaces of current computers, cell phones, PDAs, automobiles, and much more are often flawed. Their interfaces features often derive from faulty precedents, and on inadequate models of and incorrect informal guesses about human performance. In particular, GUIs (such as Windows) used by hundreds of millions of people reflect these problems in abundance.

A more accurate external model of human mental processing leads to quite different interfaces than those we now have. One approach to applying this knowledge has resulted in “The Humane Environment” project. There is no reason to believe that it is the only approach or the optimal one, I do claim that it is considerably better than current practice or alternatives of which I am aware in terms of speed of learning, productivity, and the feeling of trustworthiness. Not only applications, but programming languages and software development systems are also human-machine interfaces and their design can benefit from developments in cognetics. (Cognetics is the engineering of products to accommodate human mental abilities and limitations; an analog of the better known ergonomics, which guides the design of products to match human physical attributes.)

My background has biased me toward that which is quantitative, deductive, empirical, practical, and humanitarian. Applying these criteria reveals that only a small fraction of books and articles on interface design are applicable to development in any rigorous sense; most are hortatory, few get beyond offering heuristics, many are irrelevant or simply wrong. The quantitative tools that are available in this field are unknown to a majority of practitioners, as I discover nearly every time I give a lecture to audiences of professional or academic HCI practitioners — a situation that I find deplorable. (My evidence comes from asking people at my talks whether they know this or that quantitative method. Usually only a few hands are raised). The HCI research literature is often pathetic, with poor experimental design and overblown conclusions. Very common are studies that compare a particular instance of technique A that is superior to an instance of technique B. They then conclude that technique A is superior to B; ignoring that it may have been a great example of A and a very poorly implemented B: Conclusions that go beyond the premises is a common error in the field.

The weak research and the widespread belief that the way computers are is how computers must be, coupled with the bias toward standard the GUIs built into current operating systems and development environments, has stymied progress. The importance of habituation and of our single locus of attention, for example, have not been widely recognized.

The theoretical reasons for believing that THE is an improvement over current designs are very strong, and equally strong is our experience with the SwyftWare and Canon Cat products that embodied the principles and some of the technology of the text portion of THE (which is inherently usable by the blind). The zooming interface implemented at Apricus Inc. showed the effectiveness of the graphical portion. When theory and user testing meet in this way, and a refactoring of how computers should be used yields a much more compact design while offering users and programmers greater power than present systems, I have considerable confidence in the work. Many people are also intimidated by their fear that any change from the Microsoft Windows way is doomed to failure because of its large installed base. Perhaps they have never heard of Linux, they are not entrepreneurial, they are doomed to nebishhood. Sufficiently better products can penetrate the marketplace.

Considering the millions of person-hours that can be saved, the mental toll of frustration that can be eased, and the physical pain that can be prevented by putting THE into the world, I feel compelled to work on and promote it — and to try to motivate those who can help to do so.

Killing The XP Crash Message

Nothing new here, but I figured worth passing a tip from Annoyances.org for those of you who want to stop Windows XP from asking if you want to send a report to Microsoft whenever a program crashes.

Annoyances.org offers the following:

* Open System in the Control Panel (or right-click on the My Computer icon and select Properties.
* Choose the Advanced tab, and click Error Reporting.
* You can disable error reporting entirely here, or enable it selectively for certain programs. Click Ok when you’re done.

Voila.

Widgets And The Active Desktop

Steve Rubel tells of the imminent launch of Konfabulator for Windows, “a wildly popular OS X application that lets you run little apps called Widgets“. From what I can see Widgets are small applications that sit on your desktop and do things like collect data, tell you the time, inform you of new email, that kind of thing. It looks great, but I have some reservations about how this might work on Windows.

I’ve noticed how there seems to be one fundamental difference between Windows and Macs: Maximising Windows. Most folk using Windows seem to use their programs so they take up the full screen — indeed, that is the default for many programs. Mac software doesn’t think like that. The key is when you double click the bar along the top of a window: In Windows that will toggle between maximising the window; on a Mac it will hide the window. (Another example of this is difference is that there is no maximise button on a Mac window, while there is on Windows.)

Why is this important? Well, assuming I’m right on this (I’m no Mac expert, and I certainly don’t know the history behind maximising windows on Macs), the desktop (your screen, basically) is a more valuable place for Mac users. It’s unlikely a Mac desktop will be smothered by open programs, because of this lack of maximising. For Windows users, it’s much less likely this is true. For most users, having one or more programs open will usually mean their desktop is hidden from view. The only way to alter that is to reduce the size of open programs, minimize them, or to right click on the Windows taskbar and choose ‘Show Desktop’.

This is why the System Tray — the thing at the right-bottom corner of the screen — is so important in Windows. It serves as a place to collect stuff and to offer at least some information to the user. I’m not going to get into which is the better design here, but to me this is one clear reason why Microsoft’s Active Desktop — the closest forebear to Konfabulation’s Widgets, I’d suggest — never took off. Active Desktop offered a screen alive with information and little widgets keeping you informed of, er, the time, new email arriving and other data. But it never really worked. After all, what’s the point of an active desktop if you can’t see it?

I wish Konfabulation luck, and perhaps they’ve got a way around this problem. I can imagine that if you allow the widgets to sit above existing windows, this argument might be moot. But, once again, I don’t believe many Windows users enjoy having stuff overlapping or sitting atop active windows, which may explain why great products like Klips have only a limited audience. Probably, in the end, it comes down to Microsoft figuring out that as screen sizes grow, the old default maximising approach no longer makes sense.

A New Search Toolbar — from Copernic


This from the folks at Copernic, who produced a wonderful search engine called, er, Copernic, that has, perhaps, been overtaken by Google: introducing Copernic Meta, “completely new search software that can search multiple search engines in under a second directly from the Windows desktop bar or an IE browser”.

The file is a tad over a megabyte, and installs both into Internet Explorer and your taskbar (the bit at the bottom of the Windows 98/XP screen). Type a phrase in there and it will search nearly every search engine, and throw up a melange of results familiar to anyone who’s used Copernic the program. It’s elegant, configurable — and free.

Software: Google’s New Deskbar

 If you’re not a big user of Internet Explorer, Microsoft’s browser — and therefore no fan of Google’s Toolbar — you may be interested in their new Deskbar.
 
 
It sits in the bar at the bottom of your (Windows) screen, wherein you can type ordinary searches, image searches, even definitions and movie reviews. The answers pop up in a mini window.

Mail: More On Searching

 First off, apologies for the silence the past couple of days: I was downed by ‘flu. Anyway, here’s some mail from a reader and fellow blogger, David Brake, Internet consultant & journalist, who runs http://davidbrake.org/ and http://blog.org/ on the subject of Searching.
I just tried out x1 and while like you I like the idea of a free local file search tool (remember Altavista used to do one?) the lack of Acrobat support in its basic version is a serious weakness, IMHO. In your discussion of various local search tools I think you under-state the importance of the fact that x1 is the only free version out there so far. This surely is a market Google should get into!
 
Since you are clearly interested in search might I suggest you write about “Dave’s Quick Search Taskbar Toolbar Deskbar” 
which gives the functionality of the Google toolbar but lots more besides – a single search interface into dozens of translation, conversion and other utility websites. I also recommend Powermarks – for fast, easy to use and portable bookmark management – I now have > 5,000 bookmarks indexed and it still responds quickly.
 
Lastly (obplug) I have just finished a book for Dorling Kindersley – Managing E-mail – which was designed to be a simple non-technical guide, inexpensive enough to give to everyone in an organization ($7), that would nonetheless introduce workers at all levels to many of the key techniques they can use to manage email more effectively and the key security and legal issues they may face. There is also a companion website I have just created which I hope you will take a look at and (if you are so moved) comment on. Ditto my weblog.
Thanks, David. I understand from the folks at X1 that Acrobat support is in their next version. You’re right, the free element is important, but I’ve found I’d rather pay for something as important as searching your hard-drive. Enfish went with free for a while, and it just made me nervous.
 

Software: Lots of Desktops

From the Hasn’t This Sort of Thing Been Around a While? Dept, please welcome ManageDesk. This program manages multiple virtual desktops from the Windows taskbar with ManageDesk. You can choose a different background for each desktop and run different applications on different desktops. ManageDesk has simple drag & drop interface that allows windows to easily be moved from one virtual desktop to another.

I’m pretty sure this kind of thing is not new, but maybe ManageDesk (not a name that slips off the tongue, guys) does it better. It could be useful if you usually have many windows open at a time, or are a messy eater, or something. Hell, I may try it.