Press Here for Earthquakes?

I had a Doctor appointment on Monday. It was my first time at this clinic, and as I was riding in the elevator, I saw something I hadn’t seen before:

An elevator button that says Earthquake

I was simultaneously curious and terrified as to what that button might do. It was isolated from all of the other buttons in the elevator, so I couldn’t help but stare. Maybe these are more common in earthquake-prone areas (Californians?) but this was the first one I’ve seen in Seattle.

WikiAnswers has the scoop on the Earthquake button: “The button is used to allow the elevator doors to be open in a safe way and allow the building security etc. to know you are there and need rescue. “

Google Uses Non-Functional UI Element. World Freaks Out.

You’d think it’s the title of an Onion article, but in fact, it’s true. Over the past 24 hours, I’ve seen an image displaying the mysterious “GMail gray box” make the Digg homepage, followed up by a TechCrunchIT article, and an open solicitation for possible explanations.

Really, I find this fascinating. Google has established such a strong brand around their minimalist design style, that something as small as this is (a) considered newsworthy, and (b) warrants an “official Google response” (according to the TechCrunchIT article).

This leads to an interesting task for the non-Googlers in the audience. Take this news back to your company, and ask: Is our design philosophy so firmly ingrained in the minds of our customers, that straying from it is newsworthy? Maybe being newsworthy isn’t the goal, but it says something about how solid your design is if your customers can recognize what does and doesn’t belong.

How Safari Distinguishes Tabs

I always keep my eyes open for interesting designs or interactions, but I find the subtle touches to be the most interesting, even if they are the hardest to spot, or the least appreciated.

Take how Safari handles tabbing. As part of an early draft of my portfolio redesign, I was considering including a brief blurb from my latest blog entry, so I was researching how to make an RSS feed reader in PHP. I referenced a 2-part article from Scratch Projects (Part 1, Part 2).

If you check each of the articles, you’ll notice that their titles are largely the same; only the part number distinguishes them. In fact, they’re both open right now in Firefox, and I can’t tell the tabs apart.

Someone working on Safari must have considered this case. With only one article open, it looks like you would expect:

A screen shot of Safari tabs, showing the title of the first part of the article

But with both articles open, it cuts out the redundant information, only showing what you need to tell them apart:

A screen shot with both parts open; the titles on the tab read Part 1 and Part 2 to distinguish them.

Very nice…

Form Factors and Tactile Feedback

When Listerine began marketing their pocket breath sprays, I was really taken by the shape of the product.

Listerines pocket breath spray

The rounded edges combined with the hole at the top made it look and feel completely different to anything else that I keep in my pockets or desk drawers. To this day, I can grab my Listerine out of the center console of my car in short order without looking – the form is that unique. I imagine the same is true for purses (ladies?).

That’s why I was so mortified when I saw another, very different product cash in on that same form factor…

Read more…

RSS Readers Boring? MSNBC has the Answer

Last night, while I was watching Countdown, I saw a brief ad for some new web content on the MSNBC website. It flashed by so quickly that all I caught were the colors. But after doing a bit of digging, I found what they were pushing.

A couple of things caught my eye. First are the Snood and Breakout games that they’ve included. Nothing new, until you see the news headlines flash across the screen. It’s an interesting way to pass the time without wasting it – at least you’re keeping up with the latest headlines.

A game similar to Snood, with headlines that drop down as you play

More interesting is their new Spectra Visual Newsreader, covered yesterday at UX Magazine. Essentially, you pick your favorite news stories and they swirl about you, waiting for you to flick through them.

A cloud of news stories in the Spectra Visual Newsreader.

My only complaint is that, despite the fluid collection of news stories, you’re forced to flip through them one at a time, in order. I kept clicking on random stories trying to grab something different out of the cloud.

But really, I think MSNBC should work on fully immersive environments. How cool would it be to have news stories swarming around you!

Future Bits, Past Bits

It’s been a while since my last update, but some pretty substantial stuff has been going on in the interim. First and foremost, I’m changing things up professionally (again): Starting the day after Memorial Day, I’ll be returning to Microsoft’s Developer Division to continue my usability research work.

It was a tough, but exciting, decision to make. Following along with this year’s MIX Conference clinched it for me; I realized how much fun DevDiv was having without me! Plus, you really can’t beat Ux team at DevDiv, and while being the lone soldier had a lot of benefits, it will be nice to be back with that team, doing what I love to do.

Read more…

The Criticality of Content

This will likely be fixed in no time, but the irony was too much to ignore.

Jakob Nielsen released his Alertbox just a few moments ago, implying in the summary that, of all the bad design decisions a company can make, those around content are the most costly:

Bad content, bad links, bad navigation, bad category pages… which is worst for business? In these examples, bad content takes the prize for costing the company the most money.

Intrigued, I followed the link, only to find this:

A screen grab of the latest Alerbox, only access is Forbidden!

So not being able to even see the content… does that fall anywhere near the “bad content” end of the spectrum?

A bit of investigation reveals that the entire Alertbox subdomain is somehow restricted in its access. Hopefully this issue isn’t too costly for him.

What Happened to Stikipad?

In general, I’m not a fan of wikis. I appreciate them as a collaboration tool, but I think their usability leaves something to be desired. However, six months ago, I decided that I needed a place online to keep notes, elaborate on ideas, and keep track of to do lists on my various side projects. A wiki was an obvious choice, so I set out on trying to find a choice that was at least semi-usable.

I stumbled upon Stikipad, and I was impressed. The design was simple, the markup commands easily accessible, and it didn’t require any complicated setup. From that day six months ago, if anyone asked me about setting up a wiki, I recommended Stikipad as the most usable alternative.

Yesterday, I was distraught to find that I couldn’t access my wiki. Every time I tried to sign in, I was redirected back to the sign in page. No errors – my password was correct – it just wouldn’t pull up my account!

Once I learned it was happening to a friend also, I decided to check out their help page to see if there was anything about this issue. The page is, itself, a wiki, and it turns out it was edited 15 days ago; likely, with that bold message at the top (posted here in case Stikipad comes to their senses):

A warning on stikipads help page telling users to stay away.

Conclusion? Stikipad must be dead. I can’t imagine a legitimate business functioning for two weeks with such an inflammatory message on the landing page of its help site.

Really, it’s a shame. I thought Stikipad had a lot of potential. I guess it goes to show the extreme importance on having bulletproof customer service when you’re in the web industry (especially if you’re asking people to pay you): It seems like customers will put up with occasional bugs, as long as the company is responsive. But dropping off the radar entirely is simply unforgivable.

Getting Spaces to Behave Slightly Better Using Mozilla Prism

At the end of my review of Spaces yesterday, I mentioned an article over at 37signals. Like me, David identified the need to open separate application windows on different spaces, without being torn from one space to another.

I followed his link to Mac OS X hints, and adjusted the Dock accordingly. But even with that fix, I ended up being so frustrated that I turned off Spaces all together last night. Why? Because the “fix” ended up breaking Alt+Tab.

I still maintain that the best way for Spaces to be effective is to maintain truly separate Desktops; including, separate files on each Desktop, separate Docks for each Desktop, etc. However, that isn’t how Spaces operates today. Accepting this fact, I still find myself determined to reap the potential productivity benefits.

After the jump, I discuss why I’m obsessed with Alt+Tab, how Spaces is breaking Alt+Tab, and how I’m using Mozilla Prism to make Spaces meet my needs a little bit better.

Read more…

Leopard Chronicles Part 4: App-Centric Spaces

I’ve been excited about the prospect of Spaces for quite some time. Perfect for someone who wants to multi-task: I can have one space for email and chatting, another for blogging and photos, and still another (or two or three) for side projects. Brilliant!

In some cases, applications will be nicely confined to one space. IM clients, for example: I will only chat in one space to prevent from being distracted in others.

Web browsers are another story. I need them everywhere. For email. For blogging. For arranging photos on Flickr. For researching that tricky programming issue that has me pulling my hair out. But I don’t want email on my programming space. That’s the point of separating it out – I don’t want to be distracted by something that isn’t contributing to the task on that space.

So let’s take a simple scenario, and explore how Spaces supports it.

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