WordPress Two’s “Flash” System

I installed wordpress 2 a few weeks ago, which doesn’t mean much in terms of reading this blog, but much in terms of administering it due to the majorly reworked back end. Anyways, to make a long story short, the admin site has this really great implementation of the “flash” (that is a highlighted element on a web-app page telling you something important/permanent has been executed, as in “your mail has been sent” or “changes saved”).

As flash messages must be, they are a bright, attention-getting color at first, but the innovation in wordpress is that they slowly fade to a color that doesn’t demand attention at all, leaving the user to work with the page without the distraction of a message that was only important for the first few seconds. The effect is so subtle that it took me a little while to notice it, but now that I do, I don’t know why everyone isn’t doing this.

I made a video so you can check it out: wordpress-full.mov

And from the archives, for fun, I mocked up what this must have looked like before DHTML: wordpress-oldtimey.mov

Poor workflow in USAirways self check-in kiosks

I ran into an ugly edge case attempting to use a self check-in kiosk to fly from Boston to Nassau on my UK passport last weekend. It turns out that its not possible – while one can use a self check-in kiosk to fly to the Bahamas on a US passport, or on a UK passport to the UK, it is not possible to use the kiosk to fly to another country using a different country’s passport.

Only the kiosk didn’t tell us that for a while…

After Kristi checked in successfully, we scanned my passport and informed the kiosk I am a UK citizen. At this point, the machine should have told me to see a ticket agent. Only instead, it chose to waste my time and that of the people waiting in line by prompting us to enter my name, passport number etc from a slow on-screen keyboard. Only at the end, after being prompted to enter my emergency contact information did the kiosk tell me to see the ticket agent, who informed me that what I am attempting was actually impossible. Thanks a bunch whoever programmed the kiosk. Great job on designing that interaction.

The kiosk did amuse me by telling me “The FAA requires that you provide emergency contact information” and then asking me do I want to provide contact information. What kind of requirement is that?

Creativity Support Tools

As I mentioned several weeks ago I saw a presentation by Professor Schneiderman of UMD. One of the high level themes of his presentation (and his book, Leonardo’s Laptop) is that programmers should not so much seek to make computers magically find the answers for us (and indeed, many of the “promises” of AI have never come to fruition, but should instead strive to make tools that support human creativity.

How to do that? One great application domain is sifting through mountains of data to spot hidden trends and relationships. If a computer isn’t going to do this well, then it should facilitate the user’s having the “aha” moment. People think with their eyes (indeed, the image is processed quite a bit before getting on the optic nerve) and are amazing at spotting things that don’t “fit” or belong – so show them the data in a way that isn’t row after row of numbers or text, and then let them interactively sort and filter. (and “drill-down” and “roll-up” aren’t adequate info-vis tools).

Two cool tools in this vein were demonstrated- The Hierarchical Clustering Explorer, a prototype out of the HCIL at UMD, the other, Spotfire is a commercial application. Both let you simultaneously view several different “slices” of a mountain of data, and changes you make to one view (filtering for example) are instantly reflected in the other views. One of the cool things about both tools is the capability to effortlessly stretch and shrink axes, to zoom in on subsets of the data – because, as Prof. Schneiderman said well, “A pixel is a terrible thing to waste”.

The HCIL site has a report from a Creativity Support Tools Workshop, and some other really cool work in the area of visualization.

Managing Interruptions

The field of HCI known as Considerate Computing or Interruption Management appears to be taking off, shoving its way into widespread consciousness in the form of a New York Times Magazine article “Meet the Life Hackers” and a follow up segment on NPR’s Day to Day (Thanks to Frank)

One can find a slightly deeper overview of the field of considerate computing in here [Warning: PDF] , published January 2005 in Scientific American.

This is a fascinating area of study (for me at least) and its really just in its infancy – computers have finally gotten so powerful that there are lots of left over cycles to make users come first, and taming the information firehose that was enabled by computers in the first place. The foundational studies of just how much interruptions affect users accomplishing their primary task were published in 2002. One study [(McFarlane, 2002) ](http://www.interruptions.net/literature/McFarlane-HCI02_2.pdf) of a set of users playing an interactive game interrupted by a dialog posing simple questions showed a 36% decrease in accurate game play, and 70% decrease in accurately handling the interrupting dialog.

I wrote a paper surveying some of the basic research in the field, as well as focused on managing person-to-person remote-collaboration interruptions in the spring for my HCI (Comp 171) class at Tufts if you’re interested.

The best resource I know of for material in this area is www.interruptions.org which has PDF available of much of the important research in the field, including the two “foundational sources”, one of which I referenced above.

News Map

Saw Ben Shneiderman present for an hour today at Tufts on information visualization. Will post much more from the notes I took in the coming days. Did see this cool application of Treemaps for representing news articles from (i presume) google news though: http://www.marumushi.com/apps/newsmap/newsmap.cfm
Everyone’s probably seen that already, but I’m always the last to know 🙂
Another news map that isn’t as pretty, but is more interactive is here, and a few other consumer applications of treemapping can be found by the hive group here.