I bought an Airport Express this week. They’ve been around for a while now, and I’m sure they’re probably going to end up being refreshed in the near future, but I couldn’t hold off any longer. For various reasons, it made no sense to put it off any longer.

So far, I’ve been really impressed with it. Not so much what it does; it does exactly what I ask of it, which is exactly what the site said it will do. What’s impressive is the way it does it. The experience of owning it, of using it, has been excellent.

Wireless networking is complicated. It’s not designed to be user friendly. It’s not too hard to get a router/modem up and running and sharing around a nice, public, stealable connection, but fine-tuning and configuring it is a total pain for most users. The terminology is complex and unintuitive.

To make matters worse, almost every router (wireless or otherwise) has a miniature webserver in it running an administration interface. This sounds like a good idea for most users: the controls and interactions are familiar, and no special software is required. But in practice, it’s a disaster.

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Appealing UX at tourfilter

03 January 2007

I was, partly in jest, invited to join tourfilter by a friend today. What started as an elaborate social-networking joke turned into a really positive piece of user-experience I wanted to document.

What I wanted to share was the sign-up process. Normally, with social-networking sites, you have to endure some form of semi-elaborate sign-up before you’re allowed in… and then you start having to ram content in. Tourfilter neatly turns that on its head.

Tourfilter is a site that scrapes listings pages for information about your favourite bands, generating emails, RSS, or iCalendar files to keep you up-to-date. It’s a really simple, single-minded site that gives music fans personalised listings.

For a new user, there’s a form on the left of the homepage with a large textarea, in which you write the names of bands you like. I entered one band name… and via Ajax, a huge list appeared to the right of the field, of other bands I might like. Of course, I did, so I started clicking on some of them to add them to my form… and the process slowly became addictive. Pretty soon, I had a long list of bands I’d be potentially interested in seeing in London. The Ajax made it very compelling, and pretty quick. And, of course, the more bands I added, the more useful the fly-out Ajax list was, because it had better data to compare against.

Underneath the text box are three fields: username, password, and email address. Once you’ve filled them out, all you have to is click the submit button… and your brand new account is created, with all the information you’ve just filled out.

So tourfilter reverse the customary process: you add your initial data first, and only then create the account. Once you’ve done that, everything’s ready to go. I really enjoyed this experience: the Ajax element quickly showed the value of the site, which only increased the likelihood of me signing up.

I think tourfilter still has a little way to go – sometimes its scraping leaves something to be desired – but still felt its compelling sign-up process was worth commending.

Around a year or more ago, I had an interview for a job (which I was offered, and which for various reasons I had to turn down). There were two great questions in it:

Give me an example of design you love,” and “Give me an example of design you hate“.

The first was tricky. I needed something I not only loved but that I could explain why loved it (and not sound too cliché at the same time). In the end, I went with the Nintendo Wavebird, for its use of technology (the wireless), texture and shape (both of which vary across all buttons).

It was much easier to find something I hated, though. I’ve always hated – with a real passion – the automatic loos on trains, such as those on Virgin. They drive me absolutely mad.

They have three buttons inside: open, close and lock. When you step inside one, the “close” button flashes, indicating you should press it. Fine. Once you press it, the door shuts, and the “lock” button flashes, indicating you should lock it. Again, fine; you push lock and hear a clunk. What frustrates me is that then the open button flashes and so, obviously, you push it, and the door wanders open, leaving you frantically hammering “close” to stop looking like a wally who can’t work the doors. It’s not just me, either; I’ve seen lots of people do it!

I was asked how I could improve this design.

I think the problem comes in the use of three buttons. Open and close as two seperate buttons I can take, but lock isn’t really a button – it’s a toggle; you need to be able to see both locked and unlocked states. So I suggested keeping two buttons for open and close, and implementing a lever for locked/unlocked. Ideally, the lever should be horizontal, to indicate the locking motion, and to distinguish itself from the two vertical buttons.

It’s a design problem I run into quite a lot, usually on the web, where a collection of radio buttons are used not to switch between several states of one condition, but to represent several unrelated ideas.

Train toilet controlsSo imagine my surprise when, on the train home this morning, I found that the First Great Western toilets have been substantially modified (see left). At the top, open and close – and then a flick left/right switch for locking, with a red light for ‘lock’ and green for ‘unlocked’.

Much better. I didn’t make a mistake, and was confident that the door was locked (or unlocked) thanks to the visual indication of a lever. It makes me wonder if someone from FGW was sitting in on that job interview…

I’ve been thinking about tagging a lot recently. One particular thing came to my attention yesterday, and I think it’s worth noting in public.

Users use tags to hack the UI. Tagging isn’t just metadata; it’s metadata you can use.

To wit: a friend mentioned that one of the problems he had with Flickr was that you couldn’t see al the photos from a particular date. Oh, but you can, I said, and showed him the Archives page which does exactly that – it lets you trawl through photographs by date. It’s a really nice piece of design, in fact, so if you’ve never looked at them, go and check them out.

Of course Flickr lets you see things by date – it’s one of the key pieces of data it associates with every picture. Yes, there’s some confusion between “date uploaded” and “date taken on” but that’s dealt with – Flickr lets you view by both.

My friend hadn’t found this supposed lack in functionality a hinrdance, though. Instead, he’s just tagged his photos with a tag for the year (eg ‘2006’) and, sometimes, a tag for the month (‘September’). He’s not the only one – hunt around Flickr for the preponderance of tags like ‘200506’ or ‘20031224’. Lots of people do it.

Why do they do it? Two reasons. Firstly, they’re adding data that they either don’t think is there or that they can’t find. Even though Flickr stores date information, and they can see that at the bottom right of each picture, if they can’t manipulate that data – if they can’t pivot around it – then they store the data in a way they can use it – they stick it in a tag field. And that leads to the second reason: they’re making something to click on.

Making a tag is like making a shortcut button. One click on “2006” shows me all my pictures from 2006. So does the “archives” function but it’s not quite as fast, to be honest, and not as immediately intuitive.

This is true of all tagging systems – tagging makes links, that’s they way it works. So as well as using tags to store data, tags get used to extend and build upon the user interface. As a developer, this has an unexpected bonus. If you see lots of tags emerging storing data you already track (such as dates), consider that the method for accessing data by date might not be obvious (or simple) enough. And if you see enough data of identical format being tracked – often in the form of machine-readable tags, such as geotags, then perhaps it’s time to consider adding a new feature. Tags are a great way to track how uses actually make use of your service.