Sunday, November 11, 2012

Designed to Annoy

After writing about Design for Assembly, Design for Usability, Design for Accessibility, I thought of writing about a design that I found very annoying.  

I recently rented a Toyota Yaris.  It is a sub-compact car and hence has a small windshield.  What struck me was the design of the windshield wiper.  The Toyota designers used a single 4-bar mechanism to incorporate the windshield wiper.  The design is so bad and the wiper arms are so huge that it obstructs the view of the driver more than the passenger.  Not that anything should obstruct the view of the passenger riding along with the driver.  This is what the driver sees while driving in the rain.

For a tiny windshield, there was no need to use such high gauge sheet to create the arms.  At the very least, the pivot could have been on the passenger side so that the driver saw just the swing of the arm.  Or, have a single arm pivoted in the center and not use a 4-bar mechanism at all.  There are so many ways to make this design unobtrusive and much more streamlined so that it doesn't distract the driver.  Sure, at high speed, it is barely visible, but at lower speeds, it is glaringly visible.  A few moments after I started driving the car, this was the first thing that I noticed.  It is so annoying that I had to take a pic and write about it!

This got me thinking about what constitutes good design.  Here is what I came up with, in no particular order:
  • A good design should be innovative
  • A good design should be intuitive
  • A good design should be simple
  • A good design should be aesthetically pleasing (especially consumer products)
  • A good design should be unobtrusive.  The user shouldn't even know it exists, unless one of its purpose is to make itself known
  • A good design should be minimalistic
  • A good design should be functional and useful
  • A good design should be green (environmentally friendly)
  • A good design should be durable
Designs that live by these principles will always be classic and admirable designs.  And this wiper design barely follows any of these principles.

Friday, November 9, 2012

RIP Rosetta Stone?

Microsoft Research has done it again.  Check out this video on how their research software recognizes spoken English and transcribes it.  And then, translates it into Mandarin text arranged in the correct order.  In the end, the software translates his spoken English into spoken Mandarin in his own voice and tone! 

All in real time!  Amazing.

Incorporate this into your cell phones and all you need to know is one language to be a global citizen!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Gamification in life

Amazing talk by Carnegie Mellon University professor of Entertainment and Technology, Jesse Schell.

Monday, October 22, 2012

BYOD dilemma

 Of late, I have been seeing a lot of personal devices at work.  People are bringing their own mobile devices to work in order to enhance their productivity.  This phenomenon has been termed BYOD (Bring Your Own Device).  The tech-savvy, always-on and super-connected people are the first ones to BYOD.  

 It is interesting to see people carrying tablets to meetings, but is it really helping them be more productive?  There is the other question of 'need' versus 'want'.  Today it is a 'want', but tomorrow it is going to turn into a 'need', just as we saw with the mobile phones.  This phenomenon is affecting how IT manages the networks and the additional personal devices on them.

Many CIOs are fighting to keep the personal devices away, while some are embracing the phenomenon and helping drive organizational productivity and effectiveness.  As the BYOD trend accelerates, CIOs should think of 'how' to support and enable them effectively (with corporate security as well as employee privacy in mind) rather than 'whether' to allow them in the first place. 

Let's take a step back in time to an era when Internet was becoming popular.  Majority of what you could find on the Internet was not very useful.  It was either personal opinion or entertainment.  At that time, most companies banned the use of Internet by employees at work since they felt that it was a productivity killer.  But, then, as the Internet matured and became an information super highway, and the material on the Internet became more useful, corporations opened up the gates since everyone saw the benefits.  Nowadays, one cannot live without the Internet.  All the user manuals are on the Internet.  All the company SEC filings (like 10k) are on the Internet.  All trade publications are online.  There is no need to walk to the library anymore.

Coming closer to when the iPhone was introduced, the same cycle repeated.  Everything that was initially available on the iPhone was for entertainment and consumption.  So, naturally, corporate thought that it would be a time sink to provide employees with an iPhone.  As the Eco-system matured for smart phones, everyone realized the value it can bring to the table: employees checking and responding to emails from anywhere, sales people checking their accounts and closing sales on their phone, looking for information on the Internet, accessing and viewing documents from anywhere and so on.  Now, we are at a point where not having a smart phone is seen as counter-productive.

The same cycle is repeating again with tablets.  When the iPad was introduced, it was seen as a device for entertainment and consumption.  As more tablets are entering the market, companies are developing productivity applications and coming up with all kinds of innovative ways of using them. 
Whether IT wants it or not, tablets are here to stay and their presence will only grow in the workplace. 

So, what can the CIO do about this new phenomenon?

People extensively use smartphones at work.  Some are employer provided and others are personal (BYOD).  People use them to access work related information some of which could be confidential and secure data.  I still see that many companies do not have a well defined policy when it comes to usage of smart phones.  Companies define how they should be used and that they will be wiped if stolen/lost.  But, when it comes to firmware upgrades or OS upgrades, IT is nowhere in the picture.  When it comes to Apps, there are no set policies on what can/cannot be installed.  Everyone is aware of viruses and malware that are rampant on personal computers.  What people do not realize is that the same is becoming true for smart phones (recent report).  If your smart phone is infected (by an App you downloaded, or by some activity), the company data could be compromised.  There are no guidelines on protecting the smart phones.

The same holds good for tablets too.  When an employee brings a personal tablet to the workplace, they are breaching the security of the company.  The employee can access corporate data on the tablet, and they can also install any Apps that they desire.  This can cause serious issues for the IT department from the corporate security perspective. 

Majority of the personal devices are not secure.  Compare it to the company provided computers.  The corporate IT always makes sure that the latest patches to the OS are pushed to all the machines and they are up to date on the anti-virus.  This ensures that there is a commonality amongst all the computers.  IT recognizes the threats and secures the respective patches and applies them.  How many of us regularly apply patches to our mobile phones?  How many of us are even aware that new updates are available to the OS as well as the firmware for our personal mobile devices?  Not many.

The other big issue is the difficulty of keeping track of devices accessing the corporate network.  This can become a nightmare to the IT department.  Plethora of the mobile devices (and the ever changing landscape) also means that there is no standardization of the devices or the OS or the form factor or the applications running on them.  Jail broken devices could enter the fray.  

 One way to circumvent the security issue is to allow connections only through remote desktop.  Do not provide direct access or VPN to the company network.  Employees sign that their device is monitored by company and can be erased in case of misuse.  If you do not agree, do not bring your own device to work.

Benefits are not just the company saving on its costs, but increased employee engagement, organizational productivity and increased innovation.  Employee satisfaction will be high due to the ability to choose their own device, especially in these days of a glut of mobile devices.  Mobile devices are becoming more and more powerful and more enterprise applications are being offered on them.  It is paramount that the CIO and IT decision makers embrace this and capitalize on the opportunity, rather than shun it.  But first, they have to craft a solid policy around all this. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Customer feedback - how not to do it

I recently received an interesting package from American Airlines.  It was a bunch of certificates for recognizing employees for their outstanding service excellence.  I achieved Gold status with them and I assume that is the reason for this package.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that frequent flyers were given the opportunity to recognize outstanding service.  I am all for recognizing great work.  But, what surprised me was the medium chosen for gathering feedback. 

A couple weeks ago was in a situation where I wanted to commend an American Airlines employee who went above and beyond her call of duty to find me something vegetarian to eat.  I passed my appreciation to her and it made her day.  But, I now have this card and am wondering how I could use this.  Based on the instructions on the card, here is what I have to do:
Chances of me following this procedure and commending someone: 0
Chances that someone will follow this procedure: 0 (unless they are related to the AA employee)

Imagine, I have to run to a post office, get an envelope and stick a stamp on it and mail the envelope.  I can't think of the last time I went to the post office.  All for what?  To send feedback!

I don’t know who devised this plan, but in this day and age of technology and connectivity, it is a no brainer to use technology to achieve better results.  Look at the following process, and tell me how many people wouldn't gladly use it to provide feedback (assuming that frequent flyers like myself will have the App and will always be logged into it):
Here is a mockup of what it would look like on an iPhone:

If this process was implemented, I would have gladly utilized it on my plane journey on American Airlines (albeit, I would have had to wait until the plane landed).

I have used the example of QR codes here, but that could be replaced by any other technology (like NFC, for instance).  

In another incident, I was at a local Home Depot and all of us know they suck in customer service.  You go to an aisle looking for the things you want, and if you don’t find it, you look around for a HD rep and cannot find any!  After walking around for some time you find a rep who tells you that he does not work in the area!  Duh.  After all these frustrating visits, I finally met one salesperson who was extremely enthusiastic to help everyone.  He would be in plumbing, but if you asked a question about electric switches, he would gladly walk over to that department and help you.  On the way, he would talk to any customer who seemed lost.  He was proactively helping out every customer with a smiling face.  That was quite a change and I passed my appreciation to him and told him how helpful (and different from everyone else) he was.  He immediately whipped out his business card, wrote the email ID of the HD CEO and passed it to me with a simple request: "Could you please send an email to my boss with the exact words you told me?  I would really appreciate that".  I was glad to do that, and hopefully, his boss recognized his outstanding service.  It was as simple as that.  An email.

But, if HD had an app that I could use, it would have been even better.  

Simple systems and simple processes guarantee results.  When you design a system, make it as simple and brain dead as possible.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Steve Jobs speech from 1983

Here is an amazing speech by Steve Jobs from 1983 (before Macintosh).  It is great to listen how well he articulates his ideas and drives his point home.  A must listen.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Clay modeling on the computer

There has been tremendous advance in computing power and computer technology but not a lot has changed with the way we interact with the computing devices.  Lots of companies have created Natural User Interfaces and tried to make our interactions with the computer seamless.  I have played with 3D mice and haptic devices like Phantom.  But, none of them have really replaced the mouse. 

Recently, LEAP Motion introduced a new device called Leap.  Leap is like Kinect but in a much smaller scale.  Microsoft has plans of bringing Kinect interface to the laptop, but LEAP Motion beat them to it.  This is very exciting technology and based on the claims Leap is going to be very sensitive and able to capture minute gestures.  This is a breakthrough in natural user interfaces in many areas. 

I have used 3D mice in the past and they are good for controlling a cursor in 3D (duh), but can be clumsy.  They are great for traversing 3D spaces and for CAD modeling, but do not provide any haptic feedback.  What I like about the Phantom is the haptic feedback, which is invaluable when you are modeling art in 3D or when you are simulating a surgery.  Phantom simulates a pen in a 3D space.  The only dis-advantage of the Phantom is that it just simulates one point in space.  This is where Kinetc/Leap comes in.  It can detect multiple input points and hence can detect your whole hand and all its fingers.  What is lacking, though is the haptic feedback.

Imagine building a clay sculpture on your computer.  You can do it with Leap using your hands just the way you would in real life.  I have done it with Phantom, but it is not natural.  You don't use a pen to sculpt in clay.  You do use some tools, but most of the modeling is done with bare hands.  But, Phantom does offer awesome feedback. 

Wii controllers provided some tactile feedback (vibration) whereas Kinect [controller] provides none.  I have played with both the controllers and since the feedback from Wii is not realistic, I don't miss it in the Kinect at all.  So, we will get used to natural user interfaces which provide no tactile feedback and Kinect/Leap may become second nature.

Leap is exciting technology with unlimited uses in a variety of areas.  I have already pre-ordered (at $60, it is a no brainer) the Leap and cannot wait to get my hands on it.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Android TouchPad

I was one of the lucky few to bag a TouchPad during the fire sale, thanks to a friend at HP.  I have installed a few of the available apps for WebOS and have been playing with it on and off.  Not as much as I play with my iPad though.  The limited app availability made me wonder if I should continue to keep the TouchPad, especially with the advent of the shiny new Android tablets.  But, the new tablets have a smaller form factor and I was not too keen on getting a tablet the size of my Kindle.

So, I decided to keep my TouchPad and breath new life into it.

I installed Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, to be precise.  Until the beginning of the year, only Gingerbread was available for the tablet, but then the CyanogenMod team released CyanogenMod 9 (CM9) built on Ice Cream Sandwich and I knew it was time to jump ship.  There are several sites that take you through the process of installing Android 4.0 on the TouchPad and I won't go through the details here.  The installation can be tricky from what I hear, but mine went smooth but for some starting trouble.

The only issue I had was with the Universal Novacom Installer.  I was installing it on my Win 7 64-bit machine and it would just hang trying to initialize the installer.  Then, I found out that you can download the webosdoctor file from Palm (found here) and point the installer to use this file instead.  From here onwards, the installation went flawlessly.

I now have an Android tablet with all my favorite apps installed on it.  I didn't delete WebOS so I actually have a dual boot.  I can switch over to WebOS whenever I want with just a reboot.  The only dis-advantage of installing CM9 is that it renders the camera useless.  If you want to use the camera, you will have to boot the tablet to WebOS.  I am waiting for the build with a fix to the camera so I can use Skype on the tablet.

If you are one of those people wondering what to do with the TouchPad, this is a great alternative which will open up the app world for you.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

User Interface

This is what I call beautiful, simple and intuitive user interface design.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Future of presentations?

Marco does a great job of choreographing this presentation. I assume he is using gestures to 'trigger' certain prerecorded sequences. But still, it is an impressive presentation. Couple this with what we see at Ignite (controlled timing and synchronization) and you have a perfect presentation from the future.

Waiting to see when I can use this technology for my presentations and get rid of PowerPoint.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Google Android Market or Amazon Appstore

I recently worked on an app ( as part of Seattle StartupWeekend. We developed a web site, an iOS app as well as an Android app. When it came time to publish our Android app, we had to make a choice of where to publish it? Google Android market or Amazon Appstore or both? We finally ended up publishing on Google Market. We are planning on publishing the app on Amazon Appstore at a later time. Here is the reasoning behind the decision:

We had to get our app out on time because our release date was inflexible. SR520 tolling had started, and the commuters were going to hit it as the new year (2012) rolled in. We wanted to be there to help the commuters make an informed choice when they had to cross lake Washington.
Google market promised to publish the app instantly as long as we adhered to their ToS. And, our app did.
I had heard that Amazon market took about a week (or more) to review and approve the app. [We were having the same issue with our iPhone app. It was the first one out of the dev gate, but had stalled in the iTunes approval process. Thanks to the holiday season and all.]
Timing-wise, it made a lot of sense to go with Google market.

We wanted the users to have easy access to the app, and wanted a seamless install process.
All the Android devices (phones) I have seen come with the Google Market app installed on them. As for the Amazon Appstore app, one has to install it manually. I am sure the Kindle Fire will come installed with it, but we were targeting all the Droid phone owners.

Based on all the apps I have installed from the Amazon Appstore, they seem to suffer from the 'ET phone home' syndrome. I for one, do not log into the store all the time. So, the apps stop working when they cannot call home. I understand that some of the paid apps are licensed on the server, and they connect to the mother ship to verify the license. But, what about free apps? Why do they have to connect? Download new ads? We didn't want our users to go through this.

Android dev license fee is one time $25. Amazon AppStore subscription is $99/yr. But, Amazon waives the first year fee, to lure new developers. So, cost was not a driver in this decision.

Google Market can publish apps around the world.
Amazon Appstore only allows publishing within the US.
This really didn't matter for us since we were hyper-local (Puget sound only). But, our Droid carrying friends in India and other countries could not have enjoyed (tested) the app if we were on Amazon.

I do know that Amazon Appstore has other advantages: Ability to use Amazon account to pay (1-click). Ability to purchase once and use on multiple devices using the same credentials. Amazon does market the apps by offering them free for a day. You need to be lucky to be picked, though. This has its own pros and cons.

Of course, with the Kindle Fire, there is only one place to buy your apps - Amazon Appstore. So, if you want your app on the Fire, then you better publish on Appstore.