May, 2006

May 06


Over in Sam’s blog, Kathy put up a video of Sam’s first word, “Hi!” As she notes, it’s a great one. For me, it brings to mind the phrase: “When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Sam’s a total crackup — generally he knows exactly when to use “hi” — when I walk in the door, when he sees us in the morning, when he meets someone new. (When he meets everyone, actually, new or old, and even some stuffed animals and birds outside.)

But the funniest thing is that sometimes we’ll be playing or having dinner, and he’ll start talking in his babbling mode. Actually, it’s not really babbling, but more intentional word formation (he’s really working on “b” words at the moment, including, but not limited to: bird, bath, bottle, ball, baby, bye-bye). So he’ll say something to you that sounds more or less like a sentence, and you’ll say “what??,” and he’ll say something again, and you’ll go “huh?”. And then he’ll say “hi!” And pretty much he’ll get what he wants. “Hi” is his hammer of the moment, and it’s a pretty good one.

May 06

user experience

I’m at an industry meeting today about AJAX — basically the collection of technologies on the client and the server (but generally thought of mostly as DHTML & Javascript) that most web companies are building out richer applications mostly delivered via web browser. Google’s GMail started this trend in earnest (you can quibble here), but today there’s a ton of interactivity in web applications that just wasn’t there a year or two ago. Mozilla generally and Firefox specifically have had a big impact here, as the development (and especially debugging) experience on Firefox for AJAX-style applications is significantly better than with any other browser, at least for the moment.

Anyway. The first thing I’ll say is that we’re in this awesome building pretty close to where the Giants play in San Francisco — used to be the Macromedia building but is now, of course, the Adobe building. It’s really a terrific building: old brick, exposed timbers & beams — pretty much vintage SF Web 1.0 Bubble. 🙂 ***But*** there’s no friggin’ open wireless network. What the heck? Are we back in 2004 or something? Ugh. So.

But what I really wanted to post about in this particular missive is how much things have changed, truly, and how much technology, for all its foibles, is incredibly more user-centered than it was when I was at Stanford, or Trilogy, or even Apple, really. Back in 1990, Mitch Kapor wrote something called A Software Design Manifesto (I’ll link to the article sometime when I can connect). What he basically asserted is that the software industry (which had just witnessed the release of Windows 3.0 — craptastic!! Now, improved with LanMan!) needed a new role that was analogous to a building architect (or urban planner, some others posited) — someone to think about human use of software products. This was an important thought, and his essay was the first one that I read when I embarked on my work in HCI.

[Hmm. Gartner guy just noted an issue with Firefox displaying GMail. Uh oh. Everyone in the room swiveled their heads to look at me. Hi, I’m the Firefox guy. In the orange shirt. Hard to miss.]

[Aside: this talk is veering pretty wildly back & forth between enterprise & consumer applications, and can I just say this: Oh my god. Enterprise is sleep inducing. I can’t believe I’ve spent half my career to date working on enterprise. Thank goodness for the other half — the consumer half. I’m glad that I understand how to operate in both worlds, but man. Yawn.]

Anyway, even 5 years after Mitch wrote that essay, when I went to Trilogy, HCI was considered a slightly wacky discipline. I managed to convince Joe (our CEO) that HCI mattered for Trilogy. (Probably true. Hard to say. Long, but boring story, as the aside above suggests.) I spent time working on it at Apple. And occasionally companies would hire us to help them with it at Reactivity. But it was always a bit of a hard sell, and I think most people viewed it as a discipline that was somehow separate from the technology or business activities that companies were working on.

Now, though, it’s different. With both consumer and enterprise software, it seems to me that everyone talks about the user experience, about how getting it right is crucial to application adoption, and application adoption is the thing that matters, either in getting a return on your investment in the enterprise or in getting consumers to use your service. It’s an interesting, and fundamental shift, seems to me. We’re getting to the point now where technology is still a little wonky, but at least the conversations mostly include at least putative normal human beings and ideas about how they’re going to use our work. That’s a great step forward.

But I think it’s more fundamental than that. In my admittedly mostly homogenous circle of friends (nerds, all of us), the things that people get most excited about anymore are things like videos of Stephen Colbert online or experiences like World of Warcraft or open media like political bloggers or just places to interact like MySpace or Facebook. The technology matters — is critical, in fact — but it’s less often the point of what people are working on. And HCI seems to me to be blending into the fabric of the development & business teams instead of standing as a separate discipline (this is a super-long conversation and it’s more complicated than what I just wrote, but the gist is true.).

[Another side note: most startup guys that I talk with lately have MacBooks — it’s sort of the uniform of the moment here. But in this room, it’s probably more like 60% Windows machines and only 40% MacBooks. I think it’s maybe because a lot of these folks are in enterprise environments.]

May 06

new camera

as you may have noticed, we take a number of pictures in our family, and as a result, we have a fair number of different cameras. we’ve been incredibly happy with kathy’s digital rebel that we’ve had for a couple of years now (over 12,000 pictures on it — no kidding) — it takes beautiful pictures, and we’re collecting enough lenses now that we’ve got what you need for most circumstances. (goes without saying, but kathy’s becoming a pretty incredible photographer (in particular, of kids), and it’s fun to see her evolve. less fun to figure out how to back up 12,000 incredibly important pictures regularly, but oh well.)

before sam was born, we picked up a point & shoot: the sony dsc-t7, which is what i’ve been traveling with lately, and in particular, what i’ve taken pictures of tokyo & paris with. it’s an incredible piece of packaging: super-small, really light — easy to put into your shirt pocket. but we’ve never really been happy with it: the colors always seem a little washed out, and, worse, it was a pretty slow lens, which made it tough to take pictures indoors without flash or really terrible blur. i had to throw away a ton of my pictures taken with the camera because the blur was just too much.

so last week we picked up the new canon sd700is, which has the same image stabilization technology (marketing-wise, i mean) that kathy’s canon zoom lens has. reduces shake in low light, and so far takes fantastically good pictures, which we’re really happy with. i’ll probably post a few side-by-side comparisons as I start to spend more time with the new camera. it’s a little bulkier than the old one — mostly for housing the 4x zoom lens — but i think that there may be a lens size/package size versus photo quality tradeoff that may not ever go away.

anyway, here’s one of the first pics i took with the new camera (sam’s about ready to escape the high chair, so is glaring at me a bit while i screw around with the camera):


May 06

testing flock

just trying out flock again. they’re doing lots and lots of experiments in the user interface of the browser — some of which are working, i think, some of which aren’t. but they’re all interesting.

May 06


I’m exceptionally angry about the revelation today of the NSA program to buy 4.5 years of records from phone companies of every call — more than 200M American citizens. Just about as angry at our government as I’ve ever been. Over the past 5 or 6 years I’ve felt feelings that range the gamut from embarrassment to sadness to helplessness. Over the lies, dumb actions, venal activities, and just incredibly patronizing things that the executive branch (in particular, but not limited to) has done.

Now I’m just angry.

Today’s news means, to me, that personal privacy of American citizens and foreign residents has been systematically and cynically violated, even while the president says, with a straight face, that he protects our privacy rights. Such crap. Complete, obvious lying to the public in such a cynical way.

I read an awful lot of history, and I’m jaded enough to know that the behavior of the United States has never been perfect (and sometimes downright bad), but I’ve also read enough to know that this is a pretty special place, founded on a set of ideals that have been largely beneficial to the world. I believe in the Declaration, and the Constitution, and democracy, even at the large scale of representative democracy that we have here & now.

And so it’s made me sad & embarrassed to lose, as a nation, whatever stature we had in the world as a force for good.

I’ve been unhappy, but marginally willing to live with the restraints on personal freedoms given the world context today. While the Patriot Act is an abhorrent, knee-jerk reaction that mostly undermines the very liberties it’s trying to protect, it’s not so different in kind than Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus or Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts. All regrettable, but fairly predictable reactions to threats (both perceived and real) to American security.

Today I feel like there’s a line that’s been crossed that puts us back into the days of J Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy. Wiretaps, phone logs, surveillance on citizens and residents who’ve done nothing wrong, on the chance that maybe you could discover wrongdoing.

That’s not an idea that America was founded on, or one that has ever served us well. It puts Americans on the opposite side from the Government, and that can’t sustain. Not here.

Of the people, by the people, for the people.

I’m not sure you can get there from here.