Archive for October, 2011

Claims and patterns in HCI

October 27, 2011 1 comment

I gave a claims-centered talk to a small discussion group last week–including four researchers with over 100 years of combined experience in the field of human-computer interaction. The question about the difference between claims and patterns question came up, with the following distinction reached. Claims are hypothetical, intended to be debated and changed based on the context. They are smaller than patterns, and many (most!) lack the rigor that are found in established patterns libraries—but those traits also make them easier to process and change as well. Patterns purport to be the truth, meant to capture things that have been decided after a great many instantiations and studies and experiments and such. There’s typically a collection of people who work toward maintaining the library, with additions and changes to it occurring rarely and with careful deliberation.

For a discipline like HCI, in which changes in context have great influence over the way a user interface should look and act, it seems that claims often would be the better choice. Does that mean claims are good and patterns are bad? Not at all…but it does mean that great care should be exhibited in choosing which to use for a given design problem. Patterns seem well-suited for domains like web development, in which there’s an assumption that a typical individual working alone at a desktop or laptop machine is seeking to accomplish a task. By “typical”, I mean, e.g., that the person has close to 20/20 vision (perhaps corrected), cognitive skills sufficient to process a fairly complex screen of information, motor skills sufficient to use a mouse and keyboard, and some experience using a web browser. But as soon as those typical traits are violated in your target user population, or as soon as you start designing for noisy or busy or mobile situations, or when you’re seeking to do something very different with your interface, it’s necessary to question the truths—which seems to be a strength of claims.

These lessons were underscored in one of my current projects—designing work support interfaces for young people with moderate to severe cognitive disabilities. So many of the mobile interface claims just don’t hold when designing for people with cognitive disabilities: button sizes have to be bigger (sometimes with only a single “button”), the number of choices have to be limited (to two or at most three!), and single-switch scanning should redundantly be employed to communicate on-screen text. In addition, the experiences have to be tailored differently: repetition in experience and questioning is often more important than reflection, and great care must be taken in the use of appropriate symbol sets. An expert at mobile interface design would almost have to “start over”, throwing away (or, at a minimum, reconsidering) all knowledge about how to design the interface.

A lot of so-called “truth” in interface design goes away when the context changes. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to capture design truths, just that they should be treated with scientific skepticism when encountered in a new design problem. Capabilities of humans can differ depending on user population characteristics, as can the situations in which an interface will be used. My current thought is to use claims in this way: making it clear in design activities that they are meant to be challenged and questioned, not taken at face value. It’s there that I think the greatest value for claims (and the distinguishing value from other knowledge capture approaches) can be realized.

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Coleman conference recap

October 15, 2011 Leave a comment

On October 13 I attended the Coleman Institute National Conference on Cognitive Disability and Technology, a.k.a the Coleman Conference, in nearby Westminster CO. The conference is in its 11th year, with over 200 people in attendance on the day I went (the primary day out of the 3-day event). It provided me with a great opportunity to connect with people in the field, given my growing interest in mobile technologies for people with cognitive disabilities. And with the conference close by and free of charge to all attendees, it was an easy decision for me to attend.

Cognitive disabilities are manifested in a wide variety of ways, and as such there’s no one set of symptoms even for a given cognitive disability; e.g., someone recovering from a stroke may exhibit memory loss, an inability to understand things they see, reduced capability to speak, or other symptoms–and that’s just one of many types of cognitive disabilities. Given these differences, it’s tough to come up with an agenda that speaks to everyone. The folks in charge of the conference did an admirable job, and I’ll touch on some of the highlights for me (and put forth a “wish list” for future conferences, from the perspective of a first-time attendee).

The morning sessions focused on the national- and state-level economic issues that affect (and often dictate) the direction of cognitive disability research and development. With the economy in a bit of a tailspin, this session was, as you might expect, a bit dismal. It was great to have some of the numbers and statistics available—it’s certainly something that I expect to use in writing proposals and papers—but I wish it had been covered in less time.

The poster and demo sessions (there was a morning one and an afternoon one) were both great. They were dominated by projects from the University of Colorado schools, and it was good to see the work that’s been going on around here. It was also great to connect with the companies in the area who are working to improve technological solutions to problems of people with cognitive disabilities. In particular, I got to talk extensively with people at AbleLink Technologies and Imagine Smart Home. It was also helpful for me as a first-timer that there were posters highlighting prior conferences from the last 3-4 years.

Lunch was held as a set of hosted roundtables, with an impressive list of hosts. I was a bit lost trying to find the best match to sit in on–the list of roundtables was not available on the website, so I couldn’t plan ahead of time. And the tables had the leaders’ names on them, but not the topic! I was able to sit at a table on dispersing technology with Rodney Bell, which was pretty on-topic for me–but after hearing the panels in the afternoon there were a few that I might have chosen to attend instead. If I could change one thing, I’d switch the panels to earlier in the day to provide a preview of the roundtable leaders to the attendees.

Rodney Bell did a good job with his roundtable. As a technology consultant for the Coleman Institute, he was clearly plugged in with the needs and directions of the field. He had a great list of advice, though he touched on one of my pet peeves for the area: he stated that “smartphones and tablets are the future of computing” for cognitive disabilities. I certainly think that they are part of the future, but there’s a lot of need for the key characteristics of a desktop or laptop, as there are things that devices of the form factor of a phone or tablet just can’t (and never will be able to) do very well or at all. Choose a smartphone or tablet when you need the portability or combination of functionalities (e.g., GPS, accelerometer, sensors) that they provide, but sometimes the desktops or laptops that may already be in hand will meet your needs as well or much better.

The two 5-person, 1-moderator panels were the most informative element of the conference. It provided an opportunity to get varying opinions on two key topics for cognitive disabilities: cloud computing and technological integration. Clayton Lewis led the topic on the former, and he had clearly thought a lot about the questions for each panelist. Ann Cameron Caldwell led the other panel, featuring some differing opinions on the roles that technology can and should hold for people with cognitive disabilities (from self-advocacy networks, corporate leaders, and others). I would have been even happier if the panels were longer. And again, I wish I’d heard a bit from each of those people earlier in the day so I could have made a point to approach them or attend their roundtables—perhaps just a lament from a first-time attendee that most didn’t experience.

The last two talks were very engaging as well. Cathy Bodine, the Executive Director of the Assistive Technology Partners Group at UC Denver talked about some of their uses of technology in recovery and rehab—and I got to have a drink with her afterwards and landed an invitation to her open house next week. And Peter Blanck, a University Professor and PhD/JD at Syracuse University talked about his experiences as a lawyer on the side of people with disabilities—wow, what a dynamic and engaging job of integrating stories around the key points of his arguments. He argued that cyberspace is a “place” that should be accessible, just as physical places like stores and offices must be accessible to people with disabilities, and he highlighted key issues to b e resolved in the courts related to cloud computing, cross-country regulations, and more.

So in all, it was definitely a worthwhile experience. I plan to have a couple of posters in next year’s event, and I expect to be better positioned to gain more from the event.

Compendium review

October 7, 2011 8 comments

Compendium is a hypermedia mapping tool created by a consortium of universities and research labs in Europe and the US. It is rooted in Rittel’s wicked problem conceptualization and IBIS approach to design and design rationale capture, building on combined efforts of Al Selvin, Simon Buckingham Shum, Jeff Conklin, and many others. Compendium allows designers to create a node-link graph of interrelated concepts, including questions, ideas, pros and cons, references, and decisions. It’s similar to a lot of the mind map tools that are out there, though its scientific basis makes it

I downloaded Compendium (version 2.0b1) and used it as part of a personal brainstorming session. I wanted to exercise the things that could be done with Compendium, then share my results with a remote group of colleagues–as seems to be the great strength of Compendium. Specifically, I wanted to explore how an app or set of apps on mobile interfaces can be used to encourage physical activity among K-12 students (mainly middle schoolers)–assuming each has a phone with the apps installed. We’ve come up with a small handful of games and activities ourselves, and we’ve been inspired by the process and products from the SICS-Microsoft “Inspirational Bits” effort. What we need is ideas, and that why I turned to Compendium.

It was a bit slow to get started using Compendium–even/especially with the 42-page (!) getting-started manual (though there’s also a 2-page quick reference sheet as well, which was helpful once I had a basic understanding of Compendium). There are the typical “starting-with-a-blank-slate” problems where the initial actions aren’t obvious, full of “aha” moments as I played around with it. The palette of nodes on the left of the screen was helpful–but clicking on them does nothing (aha, you can click-and-drag them onto the screen). I couldn’t quickly figure out how to link elements (aha, it’s not just a click-and-drag motion, that’s for moving nodes, it’s a right-click drag motion for linking). Hitting return when I finish typing a node name pops up a node dialog instead of just naming the node (aha, I can click elsewhere to defer adding node details).

My first pass in using the tool resulted in a single question and around 8-10 ideas that address the question. For better or worse, I then felt compelled to use other nodes–namely, the “pro” and “con” nodes (that are quite similar to the upsides and downsides of claims). I considered using the other nodes, but they didn’t seem as applicable–I didn’t want to “decide” anything, and I didn’t delve deep enough to include any references or videos or web sites. Alternating between ideas and pros/cons worked out well, as thinking about pros/cons typically inspired other ideas, and thinking about new ideas led to new pros and cons. Being a good engineer, I ended up with a four-level tree: a question at the root, four idea categories, a bunch of ideas, and a bunch of pros and cons for each idea.

The layout aspects of Compendium are a major weakness of this tool. There’s an automatic layout feature, but it seems to use a poor layout algorithm…thus there’s no way the Compendium graphical representation could support a large node set (beyond 20-30 nodes) that would emerge from many brainstorming sessions.
For example, my 25-node graph, created in a few hours of thinking about, interconnecting, and evaluating ideas–couldn’t fit on the screen either horizontally or vertically in a readable manner. The zoom isn’t very smart, simply shrinking the nodes and thus losing the context that goes with them (rather than, say, keeping the icons visible and/or 1-2 keywords readable) and it doesn’t seem to be possible to zoom down only a portion of the graph. There are so many great graph layout algorithms, and so many ways to lay out and zoom graphs (e.g., radial, fisheye, hyperbolic), that it feels very limiting not to have them available in this tool.

The computer-supported features of Compendium are what I feel makes it worthwhile. When I “lost” a list that I created, I was able to search for it to locate the node where I stored it. You can limit search just to the visible nodes or extend it to embedded lists, notes, etc. The search also extends to deleted nodes, so as a project ages I could have found ideas from weeks or months before. There seems to be some sort of back/forward buttons and history bar which (I assume) allow you to revert back to previous versions of the page–but I couldn’t get this to work. A well-implemented history feature seems like one of those things that would really be worthwhile; e.g., to view what transpired between the beginning and end of last week’s meeting, or to revert back to the state of inquiry from the start of the meeting. But a well-implemented history also seems hard to implement!

After completing a Compendium graph, I sent it to my six remote colleagues, both in HTML form (which can be viewed by any web browser) and in XML form (which could be loaded if you install Compendium). Two of the colleagues responded back, both of whom seemed to look at the HMTL version but not the XML version. There were positive comments about the ideas that emerged, though little specific. One of the two seemed interested in using it in a design session on her end, so I may update this paragraph with more details (and if there are comments from the other collaborators).

Any sort of design tool has overhead associated with it. At times I suspect a paper version of Compendium might be better, at least from a usability standpoint. When leading a design session, I want to get ideas up there quickly, I want to move them around quickly, I want to stack them and move them around and hand them to breakout groups to flesh out themselves. Those sorts of things seem to go faster with Post-Its than with Compendium. And I don’t think it’s the fault of Compendium–I noticed the same sort of thing with PIC-UP (from our lab) whereby the richer and more communicative interactions occurred with paper versions of cards. Of course, those were short one-off sessions, and I suspect the real value of tools like Compendium lies in its use over long periods of time.

Compendium has been widely used, and there are tons of comments on their web site. Compendium’s heydey seems to be the 2003-2007 time frame, when there was an annual meeting on it, and there were lots of case studies and papers emerging about it. It’s certainly still active–the beta version that I tried was released earlier this year–but much of the web site seems dated, and there’s currently no formal support for the tool (though there’s a somewhat active online forum for reporting bugs). It’s hard to judge how large and active the user community is right now, but historically there’s been a fair amount of use.

So is this a good tool? I think it can be great for the right type of situation–when you want to save and revisit and search a collection of ideas, and when you need some encouragement to balance questions, ideas, pros and cons, and associated rationale. The tool really guides you to do these things, and if you’ve got a task that could benefit from it then it can really be worthwhile. And a final note: Compendium seems to be one of those “all-or-nothing” tools–if you buy into its philosophy, there can be great value…but you have to buy into it. The project leader must decide that Compendium will be used, and the team members must agree to use it during their design. If you’ve just got a small portion of the team using it, then the results won’t be nearly as meaningful. But if everyone is on board, it can be a great repository for design.

Book review: The Worst Hard Time

October 6, 2011 1 comment

The town of Louisville CO (and the surrounding towns) named Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time as the area’s common book.  Each participating town agreed to host events relating to the book, and it was prominently featured at farmers markets, town fairs, and the like.  The book blended news history and personal anecdotes into a bleak picture of the dust bowl era midwest–farmers who went all in (and more) on their farms, and the towns and businesses that failed with them in the face of the Great Depression and the frequent dust storms.

Dave Ferrell led the reading group I attended.  He’d read the book, along with other books and videos on the topic.  He did a good job of drawing out stories from the people in attendance.  Even though this part of Colorado wasn’t part of the dust bowl, there were lots of parent and grandparent stories about surviving that situation–some reflected the gravity from the stories of the book, some claimed it was not so bad.  Dave and others did a great job drawing parallels between those times and now, things like farm subsidies, government support, FEMA.

It was an older crowd, average age among the 30 attendees was probably 65; I was probably the youngest in the room by 5-10 years.  There was an agronomist, Gary, who lamented that there weren’t more young people in attendance.  Lots of potential reasons for that: timing, promotion methods, lack of kid-friendly events, no social media connection, no prescence in K-12 schools, or other factors.  Or maybe I’m just part of the me generation that hasn’t suffered through this type of tiime (yet).

Overall, it was an enjoyable book–one of those new-age histories penned by a journalist with a knack for telling a story.  And it’s great to see a decent crowd come together in town for the discussion.  I see great value in common books–I’ve led several book groups for various organizations–and I’m hopeful that this one will lead to some learning and sharing and healing and community-building.

Categories: Book reviews