Undo: One of the Greatest Innovations in Computing

The Undo function — a life-saver.

From “Behavioral issues in the use of interactive systems,” Lance A. Miller and John C. Thomas, International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, Sept. 1977:

A more complex situation, however, occurs … when a user wishes to “undo” the effects of some number of prior commands — as, for example, when a user inadvertently deletes all personal files. Recovery from such situations is handled by most systems by providing “back-up” copies of (all) users’ files, from which a user can get restored the personal files as they were some days previous. While this is perhaps acceptable for catastrophic errors, it would be quite useful to permit users to “take back” at least the immediately preceding command (by issuing some special “undo” command).

Now if they would only invent an Undo button for one’s personal life.

AB — 15 April 2011

How Google Works: Infographic/Flowchart Presentation

This interesting graphic from PPC Blog shows how Google ranks pages, what happens when a user searches, and how ads are incorporated. Useful for anyone who creates content for the Web or uses Google AdWords (click on the image to see it full-size):

How Google Works.

Infographic by PPC Blog

AB — 29 June 2010

Where the Big Green Copier Button Came From

Big green copier buttonRecently I’ve been studying the use of ethnography in large companies for product design and market strategy, which relates to some of the work I’ve done in usability and user experience.

In process of the research, I ran across an interesting anecdote about how the “big green button” on printers came out. I think it illustrates the value of video ethnography in product design, but, on an even more basic level, the value of simply watching how people live and work and use your product.

In a 1999 presentation for WPT Fest, Xerox PARC anthropologist Lucy Suchman described how she helped Xerox engineers understand how hard copiers were to use:

Around this time [1979] a project began at PARC to develop an intelligent, interactive expert system that would provide instructions to users in the operation of a particular photocopier, just put on the market and reported by its intended users to be “too complicated.” With Austin Henderson, I initiated a series of studies aimed first at understanding what made the existing machine difficult to use, and later at seeing just what happened when people engaged in “interactions” with my colleagues’ prototype expert advisor.

Scientists struggling with copierIn order to explore these questions in detail we got a machine ourselves and installed it in our workplace. I then invited others of my co-workers, including some extremely eminent computer scientists, to try using the machine to copy their own papers for colleagues, with the understanding that a video camera would be rolling while they did so. This resulted among other things in what has become something of a cult video that I produced for John Seely Brown for a keynote address to CHI in 1983, titled “When User Hits Machine.” This image, taken from a 3/4″ reel-to-reel video recording made in 1982, shows two of my colleagues using the machine to make two-sided copies of a research paper. The CHI audience would recognize Allen Newell, one of the founding fathers of AI. His PARC colleague is a brilliant computational linguist named Ron Kaplan.

Video ethnographer Susan Faulkner of Intel relates one of the interesting results of Suchman’s video:

The film was shown to researchers and engineers at Xerox, and it led to significant changes in interface design, including the addition of the now ubiquitous large green button that allows users to quickly and easily make a copy.

AB — 2 June 2010

Coming Soon: Tom Cruise’s Computer Interface From ‘Minority Report’

My favorite computer interface has to be the fictional one used by Tom Cruise in the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie Minority Report (based on a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick). In the movie, Cruise plays a time cop who is part of a team that prevents murders by predicting them in advance and arresting the future perpetrators.

What has always fascinated me about the movie is the computer interface the cops use to do their investigations — it’s a huge holographic screen that hangs in the air in front of the user, who interacts with it using virtual-reality gloves. Here’s a screen shot from the movie that will give you an idea:

Computer interface from Minority Report

The exciting news for me comes from a TED Talks video from February 2010 showing a lecture by John Underkoffler of the MIT Tangible Media Group (“John Underkoffler points to the future of UI“), who was science advisor for Minority Report. He and colleagues designed the interfaces that appeared in the film.

Underkoffler has some fascinating things to say about how interfaces are evolving. He tells how the design work was done for Minority Report — the design for the computer interfaces was done as a real R&D project.

But most exciting is that Underkoffler and colleagues are actually developing the real thing — the “spatial operating environment” as he calls it — and he was able to demonstrate it during his talk. Here’s a still of his demo from the video:

John Underkoffler demonstrates UI

During his talk he says:

Much of what we want computers to help us with in the first place is inherently spatial, and the part that isn’t spatial can often be ‘spatialized’ to allow our wetware to make better sense of it.

A spatialized interaction model, he believes, improves our computing experience, as it aligns better with the way our brains work.

During the talk, Underkoffler demonstrates a logistics application his team is developing that combines structured data with 3D geographical mapping. He also shows how a spatial operating environment might be used for media manipulation and editing.

Very soon, Underkoffler says, “this stuff will be built into the bezel of every display, it’ll be built into architecture.”

At the end of the presentation, the host asks the big question: “When? … In your mind, five years’ time, someone can buy this as part of a standard computer interface?”

Underkoffler replies, “I think in five years’ time, when you buy a computer, you’ll get this.”

The fist “killer app” for the spatial operating environment? “At the moment, our early adopter customers — and these systems are deployed out in the real world — do all the big data-heavy, data-intensive problems with it. So, if it’s logistics in supply chain management, or natural gas and resource extraction, financial services, pharmaceuticals, bioinformatics — those are the topics right now. But that’s not the killer app!”

He leaves us hanging at that point, recognizing perhaps that the most interesting applications are impossible to foresee.

Here’s the video in its entirety, with lots of fascinating demonstration footage:

AB — 1 June 2010

Daylife: System for creating just-in-time content portals

Daylife cover exampleI read today in John Blossom’s ContentBlogger about Daylife, provider of content-development and -management applications that allow a publisher to create instant content portals — see “Life With Daylife: On-Demand Feature Content Development Grows Up.”

Blossom says Daylife permits a publisher to quickly put together content, marketing, and advertising resources from both internal and external sources. He believes this kind of toolset can allow publishers to duplicate the Huffington Post‘s successful integration of marketing elements and editorial content.

Daylife describes its management interface as simple and intuitive, designed for non-technical editorial personnel for point-and-click interaction.

It seems to me that the Daylife model offers a useful option for news organizations that are struggling to find a new and workable business model. Blossom says,

[A] service like Daylife cannot replace all of the editorial value of a traditional newsroom and more robust editorial content development platforms, but when it can provide most of the robust functionality that people expect from an online publication today along with access to deep and high-quality content, it’s time for publishers to think more actively about how they can use tools such as Daylife to enable their content to succeed in any number of topic-specific “instant portals” and other efficiently managed content presences far more actively.

AB — 21 July 2009

New wristwatch uses a linear rather than circular clock face

Just yesterday I read on The Watchismo Times (a blog dedicated to unusual timepieces) about a new mechanical wristwatch designed with a linear time display rather than the traditional circular clock face. (See “Urwerk King Cobra CC1 Reintrepretation of 1958 Patek Philippe Cobra Prototype – Cylindrical Retrograde Linear Jumping Hour Display.”)

This design is thought-provoking: We normally conceive of time as a line, and yet for centuries the standard timepiece interface has been a circle. The author of the Watchismo site explains why this is:

Why do we think of time as travelling in a straight line yet display it rotating around a circle? The answer is straightforward: mechanisms that continually rotate are much simpler to produce than those that trace a straight line then return to zero. In fact, the latter is so difficult that, until now, nobody has ever managed to develop a production wristwatch with true retrograde linear displays.

It makes me think about how I conceive time personally. In the big picture, I think I do see time as a straight line going infinitely to the left and right.

In spite of the more linear design of the calendars I use, I believe I conceive of the calendar as a circle, as if the year were superimposed on a standard clock face. However, in my mind, the calendar runs counterclockwise with January at approximately the 11:00 position. I think my circular conception of the calendar comes from the periodic nature of the solar year. Why the year goes counterclockwise in my mind I don’t know.

When it comes to my conception of days, though, I see some ambiguities. I do conceive of them on some level as a circle of 24 hours, but on reflection I think that conception is at least partly based on the circular clock faces we use to keep time, as well as on the collective 24-hour standard we use to keep our society synchronized.

Certainly the new Urwerk King Cobra CC1 provides food for thought about how we think about time and about the user interfaces of the devices we use to keep track of it. Below is a link to Watchismo’s picture of the watch. Watchismo also provides many fascinating details about how the watch is designed and constructed.

Urwerk linear wristwatch
Urwerk linear wristwatch

AB — 10 July 2009