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Humanized > Weblog: Commentary
Commentary

Monday
4 Feb 2008

Luxury Computing

Commentary

So I bought a Mac in early December because my new job at Mozilla involves making cross-platform software for Macs, Windows, and Linux.

Intel-based Macs are pretty much the best choice for this at the moment—almost everyone at Mozilla uses one—because you can use OS X natively, and Windows and Linux through virtualization software like VMWare Fusion.

My opinion on the whole Macs vs. PCs debate could best be described as “complex”. Let’s not go into how much I want to punch the Mac guy in the face.

In a nutshell, though, I had always assumed that Macs were only marginally easier to use than PCs. I guess I’ve found over the past two months that in some ways, this holds true—the Mac is essentially an incredibly sexy-looking PC, with the same annoyances and a few polishes that make it a bit more humane to use. In other ways, however, the difference is truly like night and day.

This is a story about such a situation.

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Wednesday
16 Jan 2008

Joining Mozilla

Commentary Our Products

Software is too frustrating. There are a lot of choices in today’s computing world — what’s worse, most of them are too complicated. Hundreds of features, dozens of user preferences, unresponsive programs, inscrutable error messages, crowded toolbars, merciless disrespect for the safety of your data; all of these are problems that plague most of today’s software. We, as Humanized, are dedicated to tackling these problems and to making software effortless.

Mozilla is about making the web (which isn’t just the browser!) useful for, and usable by, everyone. Mozilla is in a unique position — not being beholden to any particular technology or the bottom-line — to push the web forward, past the boundaries of the browser, focusing foremost on people. Which is why I am excited and proud to say that we are joining forces with Mozilla to head up the user experience side of Mozilla Labs. We will be working inside the browser, on the browser, outside the browser, and mixing all three. Enso’s coming too.

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Monday
17 Dec 2007

The Case of the Mysterious Vanishing Amazon Kindle

Commentary Rant

I broke down and ordered a Amazon Kindle a couple days ago. It is definitely a first generation device: not only does it look state-of-the art 1980’s, but it’s main mode of interaction is through a marginally clever hack to get around eInks slow refresh rate. However, the idea of being able to have all five books I’m always invariable a third of the way through, plus an always-on calendar (via it’s browser function and mobile Google calendar), always-on email, always-on maps, always-on Wikipedia, makes it (possibly) worth the price.

So late the other night, when my rationality had been worn down by a days debugging, my “buy” impulse beat out my fiscally responsible genes. I took out my credit card and purchased. Because I’m a previous Amazon customer I entered my email (which I haven’t bothered to update to my new address) and my password, clicked the buy button. It was done.

The next day, I checked up on the order. When was my new toy going to arrive? I logged in and… the order wasn’t there! I frantically clicked on every button I could find to no avail. Had I only imagined ordering the Kindle? I hadn’t been that tired. I checked my bank account and indeed the money had been deducted from my account. So where had my order gone?

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Monday
22 Oct 2007

Undo Made Easy with Ajax (Part 2): Time-Sensitive Actions

Commentary Software Development

This is the second part of the Undo Made Easy with Ajax series. If you are jumping in late, make sure to check out part 1.

Last time we covered the event queue method, an entirely client-side way of implementing a light-weight, multi-level undo. I mentioned a couple of caveats, including that it does not work in multi-user collaborations, and that it doesn’t work for time-sensitive actions like sending emails. I missed a significant caveat that one of my readers, Alexander Botero-Lowry, pointed out: That two tabs, pointed to the same page, could get out of sync. I wrote about how to solve that issue with cookies.

This time, let’s take a look at solving Undo for time-sensitive actions. In the event queue method, we could wait until the “onunload” event to sync the user’s actions from client-side to server-side. For time-sensitive actions like sending emails, we don’t have that luxury. Worse, email is a push technology. Once an email has been released into the wild tubes of the Internet, it cannot be unsent.* For the unfortunate who hits “send” only to realize that they’ve CC’ed their boss on a steamy love letter, the only things left to hope for are power outages and spam filters. Given how often spam slips past my filters, the outlook is not so good.

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Friday
12 Oct 2007

User Interface of the Day #1: Dontclick.it

Commentary Design


This is Humanized’s first “Interface of the Day” weblog posting. Every week, from Monday through Friday, the six of us will share our thoughts on a new example of interface design. For our first “victim,” we’ve chosen dontclick.it, an interface that attempts to completely eliminate the “click” from your usage of the mouse. Dontclick.it’s authors assert that their project improves “total control and quickness” while challenging existing norms and beliefs regarding user interfaces. Is it successful? Read below to find out!

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Friday
5 Oct 2007

Ten Ways to Make More Humane Open Source Software

Commentary Software Development

A lot of bandwidth has been wasted arguing over the lack of usability in open-source software/free software (henceforth “OSS”). The debate continues at this moment on blogs, forums, and Slashdot comment threads. Some people say that bad usability is endemic to the entire OSS world, while others say that OSS usability is great but that the real problem is the closed-minded users who expect every program to clone Microsoft. Some people contend that UI problems are temporary growing pains, while others say that the OSS development model systematically produces bad UI. Some people even argue that the GPL indirectly rewards software that’s difficult to use! (For the record, I disagree.)

Meanwhile, as these arguments swirl, I’ve been quietly relying on OSS to get my work done. As a professional developer, I spend my most of my time interacting with three programs, all of which are free and open source. I chose each out of dozens of alternatives precisely because I think each of them has the most humane interface in its category. Some OSS isn’t just usable, it’s more humane than the closed-source alternatives. One the other-hand, there’s plenty of OSS which is downright painful.

In an effort to understand usability in the OSS world, I’ve researched the stories behind my favorite — and least favorite — OSS programs. I’ve found a fascinating variety of personalities, design philosophies, and project organizations. Although I’ve only scratched the surface, there are already themes that come up again and again. Because everybody loves top-ten lists, I’ve distilled my observations into a top-ten list of OSS “do”s and “don’t”s.

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Tuesday
25 Sep 2007

Information Complexity and the Downfall of the Adventure Game

Commentary

The bedroom of Arthur Dent, one of the 35 rooms in Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from 1984, is an elegantly simple construction. A few years ago, as I played this game along with a slew of other Infocom titles for the first time since my childhood, I quickly realized how much more fun they were than any adventure game I’d played since. They didn’t necessarily have a better story, perhaps, but they involved virtually none of the tedium and frustration I’d often experienced with the newer entries into the genre.

I started wondering why that was, and it occurred to me that the problem was one of usability.

Read more of my article in Issue 116 of The Escapist to learn more about the clash between user interface design and game design.


Wednesday
5 Sep 2007

“Wikipedia” + “Expert” = “Wikspert”

Commentary Fun

I’d like to propose a new portmanteau for inclusion in the English language: “Wikspert“.

A wikspert is someone who is an expert on a topic purely on the basis of having read the Wikipedia article on that topic. In short, “Wikipedia” + “Expert” = “Wikspert”.

Once confined to an exclusive class of in-the-know computeristas, the last couple of years have seen proliferation of “wiksperts” in every level of our society. They’re everywhere. From business-school professors to burger-flippers, everyone now has a quasi-authoritative opinion on, for instance, how much corn is produced in Iowa. These trivia, once the sole purview of academic cocktail parties, have now been liberated for the masses. In fact, every one of us either knows a wikspert or is one ourselves. Personally, some of my best friends are wiksperts, and I know a suspicious amount about liopleurodons, pumas, and the ethnic make-up of Romania in the early 1800’s.

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Thursday
16 Aug 2007

MoonEdit: Redux

Commentary Software Development

Last year, Aza wrote an article about how MoonEdit enabled us Humanized folks to do some painless collaboration. Someone recently posed the question:

[A year] after that posting, do you still make a lot of use of collaborative editing for recording group talk and crystallizing it into more cohesive documents?

The simple answer is: No.

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Friday
13 Jul 2007

Forging The Seal: When beating the game is beating the interface

Commentary

Breaking the
drake’s will was the easy part.

The dragon “Emberstrife” faltered before her, his wings flailing in
the air, struggling to support his massive and broken frame. Ichor
fell from his wounds, sizzling into the water below him in a crimson
torrent.

“Use the orb! Control his mind!” yelled her comrade, the hunter.

It was time. She had to do as the mystic instructed: now that the
dragon’s will was broken, she must use the Orb of Draconic Energy to
claim dominion over his mental faculties, and force him to unleash his
breath on the Unforged Seal of Ascension, heating it in the Flames of
the Black Dragonflight and forging it into the seal that would open
the gates to Upper Blackrock Spire. Only then would she be able to
walk the dangerous path to her final enemy.

With a deep breath, she lay the unforged seal in the water and
activated the Orb.

Suddenly, she could see through the drake’s eyes. Before him was
the unforged seal, and at the bottom of his vision lay the key to all
his powers.

“Blast!” she cried. “It’s a toolbar.”

Continue reading »


Thursday
5 Jul 2007

iPhone and the First Generation Woes

Commentary

The iPhoneFor everybody who was hiding under a Godzilla-sized rock, Apple released the iPhone last weekend. It represents a big step forward in pure humane-ness of mobile devices. Despite the slow network, the poor customer service provided by AT&T, and the lack of an open development environment, I am still on the verge of getting one. Using its interface is a like drinking refreshingly cool water after a crawl over a barren desert made of discarded cell phones.

Instead of singing the praises of the iPhone (which it deserves), I want to describe some of the unpolished corners that escaped Apple’s quality assurance.

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Friday
18 May 2007

Death of the Desktop: The Movie

Commentary

Aza recently gave a talk first at CHI 2007 conference as well as a TechTalk at Google’s main campus. Google kindly videotaped this session so now everyone can see Aza talk about Enso, zooming user interfaces, the death of the desktop metaphor, and how he was carried around in the Mac classic bag instead of a stroller.


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Saturday
24 Feb 2007

Command Line for the Common Man: The Command Line Comeback

Commentary

Web 2.0 Style Command Prompt
Command line interfaces are bell-bottom out-of-fashion in the current Web 2.0 boom: I have yet to see an Ajax-enabled glass-reflected command prompt. Let’s face it, command line interfaces are extinct to the masses. The GUI dealt the first blow, and now the Web has nailed to coffin on the old style text interface, and it seems to have been a boon for the user. I don’t know if I can set up a printer on the command line, but I do know that I don’t want to try.

But maybe that isn’t the fault of command line interfaces in general. Maybe it’s just the command lines we’re used to. The hard part of learning Unix is memorizing command names as unfathomable as Stonehenge’s origin. And even if I do remember the command name, remembering its options is like bobbing for apples in a cement mixer. I still have to ask my co-workers what flags are needed for untaring a gzipped file. “tar -xfvz”. How could I forget?

If commands were memorable and their syntax forgiving, perhaps the command line wouldn’t be going the way of the punch card. And perhaps they aren’t. Perhaps, command lines are staged for a comeback.

Continue reading »


Tuesday
20 Feb 2007

CHI2007 with Firefox Co-inventor, SxSW, and Phishing

Commentary

Firefox LogoEven while we were busy working on Enso, Aza has found time these last couple months to prepare talks for some upcoming shows, and to write a just-published chapter for a book.

Aza will be giving a talk with Blake Ross, the co-inventor of Firefox, at CHI2007, on Thursday, May 3rd. Both Aza and Blake are working towards the abolition of desktop applications, although from different directions: Aza with his work on Enso, and Blake with Parakey. Parakey is some sort of Firefox-based portmanteau that blurs the edges of desktop/internet and features/applications. Joe Hewitt, the creator of Firebug, co-founded Parakey with Blake, and those two minds on any project makes it worth watching.

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Wednesday
15 Nov 2006

Battling Spam and the Ring of Gyges

Commentary Rant

Humanized is currently fighting a battle against spam on the comments section of this weblog. Automated spambots have been posting hundreds of “comments” a day, which are content-free posts under fake names containing links to dubious merchandise. They are often obscene and sometimes more offensive than dead-baby jokes.

There are four strategies we could use to keep spam comments off of our page.

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Monday
6 Nov 2006

Web 2.0: Is Converging Towards the Desktop Good?

Commentary

I recently had the pleasure of talking at the Ajax Experience in Boston. You can view my power-point-free slides here.

This conference was particularly exciting for Humanized because it was the first time we’ve let Enso outside the office. I think it’s fair to say that the floor required some jaw-scraping after I demonstrated Enso.

But while I met some amazing people at the Ajax Experience and had a exhilarating time, I also discovered a worrying trend: interface design on the web is slowly migrating back towards inhumane desktop paradigms. More and more, people are reimplementing windows, dialog boxes, and tree-list controls instead of brainstorming more humane solutions.

I’m going to make an odd claim: interface toolkits on the web are starting to discourage innovation. In harnessing underlying web technologies in (admittedly) ingenious ways, these toolkits make it too convenient for us to fall back onto the desktop paradigms we know, simply because we aren’t prompted by technical constraints to think of something different.

Continue reading »


Tuesday
31 Oct 2006

Comments are Moderated

Commentary

Our apologies to all those who comment on our site and who enjoy the feedback others leave. We have found it necessary to disable comments until we setup a system to block spam. Over the last few weeks, spam comments have risen to an incredible level. The tip of the iceberg that makes it through our filters is sufficiently unacceptable in content that we cannot allow it any longer.

This is a temporary workaround. The comment fields will still exist, but will temporarily not work. Again, our apologies. Expect to hear more from us on this issue soon.

Update: All comments are now moderated, that is, they are not published until someone at Humanized makes sure they aren’t spam.


Thursday
28 Sep 2006

The Desktop: Going, Going, Gone

Commentary

We are all familiar with the ubiquitous metaphor of the desktop on the computer. We take it for granted – that’s the way computers work. But how much work do we get done on the desktop? None. Time spent in the desktop is entirely wasted in navigating to the application in which we can finally do our work.

In late October, our president Aza is giving a talk at the Ajax Experience, about the death of the desktop and what is rising from the ashes.

What lessons can we learn from designing interfaces without the desktop? What can we take from—and apply to—designing interfaces on the Web? In answering these questions, Aza will discuss human cognitive needs and frailties, the problem with applications, and the rise of mini apps and services.

The talk will also be the first time that Humanized’s product line, Enso, will be demonstrated in public. So come to Boston, and take part in the death of the desktop.


Tuesday
15 Aug 2006

The Mac and the Whole of the Mac

Commentary

In his excellent recent article Confidence Game about Apple and Microsoft, John Gruber made a statement I take issue with:

“Apple’s Macintosh business is built around selling computer hardware; their competitors in this market are companies like Dell and HP and Sony.”

Apple does not base its business on selling computer hardware. It bases its business on selling computers. Complete products. An Apple Macintosh “off the shelf” is, in the words of Terry Pratchett, “the thing and the whole of the thing”. It works as-is, for all basic computer functions. Computers made by Dell, HP, and Sony don’t even come close to this standard.

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