Designed in 2 Minutes?

Friday, October 29, 2004


The BBC are running a news article at about 'robotiquette' rules. The idea is to lay down guidelines for how a robot should interact with a human - to "treat humans as human beings, and not like other robots".

At the moment robotics, and indeed generic computer interfaces, haven't yet reached the sort of complexity to be a 'companion' to a human. Rather they are still seen as tools more than anything else. This is changing though with the production of 'toy' (ie. gimmick!) robots such as Robosapien ( and the Aibo dog ( which are designed purely for entertainment and, sad as it sounds, companionship.

Therefore this set of guidelines is being drawn up to help develop a code of social behaviour should a robot find itself in a socially-sensitive situation. Imagine, for example, a babysitter robot which adjusts its behaviour to be polite, respectful, and submissive in terms of language used and even tone of 'voice' when dealing with the parents of a child, but can switch to becoming authoritative and dominant, yet playful when interacting with the child, as any good human babysitter does.

An important example the BBC report gives is that of understanding different cultural backgrounds. Anyone who has seen the HSBC ("Your local bank") adverts on TV will understand how different cultures interpret different actions and body lanugage, and why it is desirable for a robot to take this into account.

Robots will also have to be trained to interact successfully with groups of people, and potentially even with other robots in a group setting.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Laptop fans

My laptop, an HP Pavilion, has an appallingly badly-designed fan system. The air intake for the fan is on the bottom of the case, exactly where my left knee would be should I be using the laptop on my lap! Therefore no air gets through, and the whole thing soon becomes too hot to actually use on my lap.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Revolting Doors

I really don't like revolving doors! And yet they seem to be everywhere on campus - the Main Library, University Centre, Arts Building, the Guild, etc. etc.

They are supposed to facilitate efficient entry/exit to/from the building, and stop draughts, but more often than not they just generate queues and near-accidents.

It may just be my inadeptness but twice now I've entered the doors (hesitantly due to the fact that they move so fast and you have to get the timing perfect!) and got my foot or my rucksack jammed in the door. Aside from the embarrassment, the end effect is actually somewhat amusing - everyone else inside the door at the time simultaneously hits the glass in front of them with a dull 'thud' as the door stops dead. And maybe it's just me but the thought of squeezing through a 3-foot-wide gap as a sheet of glass and metal swings towards me at high speed, then trying to walk at precisely the right speed to match the rate of rotation, is quite off-putting.

After watching people using these doors (yes I'm that sort of sadistic person) I suspect I'm not the only one to have these sorts of hesitations!

What's most galling about these doors, though, is the fact that due to disability requirements the building must provide 'standard' opening doors at the same entry/exit point (imagine trying to get a wheelchair through a revolving door).

So why bother wasting the extra wallspace and inconveniencing everyone with a dangerous revolving door, when there is at least one perfectly useable normal door right next to it!

File handling - the Proper Way

Following on from the previous post about confusing file handling under Microsoft Windows, I feel it's a good time to make my next RISC OS comparison.

RISC OS has an object-based file system. Everything is done from the Filer; there are no file explorers, no File -> Open dialogue boxes to navigate, and no Insert menus. The analogy of drag-and-drop is the key.

To view an image file you drag the file from the Filer onto the iconbar (or just double-click) and RISC OS loads the file into the preferred image viewer.

To insert a picture into a word processor you drag the file from the Filer into the document at the position you want it displayed. RISC OS loads the image into memory and passes it directly to the document processor, which displays it as requested.

In addition to loading files, RISC OS also saves files using drag-and-drop. Open your Filer window to the required directory if it wasn't already open from when you loaded your document (which it most likely would be), click on the save icon in your document, and up pops up a Save Box. Enter the filename and drag the save icon from the Save Box directly to the Filer window. The file then appears in the Filer.

One of the more impressive features is saving of files *between* applications. So if your image was an editable file which you'd modified since loading, it would not have to be saved to temporary storage and then inserted from inside the document processor using a tedious Insert menu (as an aside, these menus are particularly useless under Windows etc. if your Filer window is already open right next to the document, as the user is then expected to navigate inside the tiny file 'browser' to find a file which they can already see on the disc in the Filer!).

Instead, the user simply 'saves' the image as earlier by dragging its save icon, but this time directly to the document processor rather than the Filer. As expected intuitively, the image then appears in the document in the same way as if it had been dragged in from the Filer window.

Oh, it's not very revolutionary by the way - RISC OS first appeared with this feature in 1989.

Desktop inconsistencies in loading files

Working on the Computing Helpdesk this morning I noticed a fascinating inconsistency in the way Microsoft Windows and its apps work, and have worked for the past decade.

One of the users had become confused about how to insert a picture into Microsoft Word. To be more precise, she wanted to view the picture from her CD first to verify it was the right one, then try inserting it into her document.

When she came to the helpdesk she told me that 'Word can't see the picture, it's asking me if I want to load it as Rich Text Format'. On attending her PC, I found my initial suspicion was correct - she'd attempted to use Word's File -> Open menu to view the file.

Now whilst, to a seasoned user, this seems like a silly thing to try and do, to a new user it's perfectly understandable.

Why should someone have to use one method to view a file (Open My Computer -> CD drive -> double-click on the image) and another totally different method to use the file (Open Word -> Insert -> Picture)?

As far as she was concerned, she was working in Word and she knew Word could manipulate graphics files. Therefore she expected, quite reasonably, that Word could also allow her to view the image beforehand.

Friday, October 22, 2004

ATM cards

A very useful and well-thought-out feature of most bank machines these days is that they wait for you to take your card out of the machine before dispensing the money.

This very simple feature makes it much harder for people in a hurry to forget to take their card from the machine! Otherwise people would collect the cash and walk away, forgetting the card completely (which would be an obvious security risk if anyone could get access to your PIN, not to mention being an inconveniece).

The only downside is that when you're exceptionally tired or stupid or in a hurry you can make a bit of a disaster out of the feature by taking your card when requested and then walking away before the machine has dispensed your money! (Yes I've done it before but thankfully there was someone in the queue behind me honest enough to point out my mistake).

Media player skins

Media players are becoming more and more commonplace on the average user's desktop as digital media becomes mainstream. WinAMP, XMMS, iTunes, RealOne, Windows Media Player... the list goes on.

I honestly don't know who thought of the idea first, but for some reason way back in history, someone decided to go completely against all pre-written style guides and implement totally different user interfaces for media players. The analogy chosen is most commonly something resembling a personal CD player, with stylised buttons for the different commands (play, stop, rewind, etc).

With the unusual interface also came the idea of 'skinning' - putting a fancy wrapper on the application to make it look different compared to the rest of the desktop. Although this again goes completely against all desktop style guides, it's become the norm now and people would probably be quite unimpressed by a bland grey window with a pull-down menu for accessing the commands to play your CD.

The trouble with skinning is that, in order to make them more visually appealing, designers often model the skins on real-world objects, for example a car stereo or a home Hi-fi system. Many skins like this contain lots of design 'features' (dials, knobs and buttons) which look like they should be buttons, but then the user can often sit there looking bewildered, clicking on random inactive parts of the player expecting an action to be performed.

Therefore it's important that skins are designed to be functional first, with no confusing extra bits to the design, and to look good second.

The Amazing Springing Document concept

Computer desktops centre around variations on the format pioneered by Xerox decades ago, using the analogy of a physical desk with documents displayed in 'windows' representing pieces of paper, and other files stored in filing cabinets.

So can someone explain to me why most windowing systems these days cause the current document to spring to the top of the pile on your desktop when you start working on it? It hardly follows the analogy of a desktop - when you write a note on a piece of paper it doesn't jump up and obscure the book you had resting on top of it, covering all your pens and pencils in the process.

Windows popping to the front as soon as they become active is a feature which regularly causes me to tear my hair out in frustration. The reason for this is that I'm used to an operating system which has a very different way of working, whereby a window only comes to the top of the stack when it's told to.

Using this system (a British OS known as RISC OS which runs on ARM processors) I feel much more in control of my work in the GUI. Windows can be brought to the front by clicking on their titlebars and sent to the back using a dedicated icon next to the close icon. At all other times, the active window remains where it is in the stack even once you start typing into it. Windows can also be dragged around the desktop whilst maintaing their current depth in the stack.

This feature means that, for example, I can have a word processor window in the background filling most of my desktop and, just like on a real desktop, lay my reference material (websites or emails etc) on top of the WP's window. I can read from the website and type notes in the WP without it popping to the front and obscuring the website, thus ruining my train of thought.

RISC OS isn't the only desktop to do this; KDE for Unix/Linux has configuration options to allow this behaviour but it's not the default way of working, and the implementation is far from being as intuitive and smooth as the RISC OS one.

In future posts I'll probably be referring to RISC OS quite a lot as it has an exceptionally well thought-out user interface and provides a good grounding for general HCI discussion.

RISC OS features

Thursday, October 14, 2004

'Intelligent' menus

One of Windows 2000/XP's Amazing New Features(TM) is the automatic tidying-up of menus in applications. The idea is simple - Windows monitors all your mouse clicks on menus (potential for some dodgy spyware there?) and counts them up, deciding which ones you use regularly and which ones you use very infrequently.

The infrequently-used ones are then given a flag to say they are 'hidden', meaning that they don't appear when the menu is next opened. Instead, a small arrow is drawn to allow the user to toggle the menu to show all the options including the hidden ones.

"What a marvellous, logical, convenient, time-saving idea!" I hear you all mutter. Unfortunately, this feature is none of these.

The human mind works very much in a visual and physical way. Touch-typists will be very much aware of this, for example the keys on their keyboard always produce a letter 'F' on the left index finger (under QWERTY at least).

Here's an experiment to try on an unwitting lecturer or fellow student: swap all the keys on their keyboard around, and in software alter the keyboard mapping to match. Your poor colleague will have much difficulty typing, as none of the keys are where they expect them to be, through months of learning and practising what finger movements to make in order to enter the required characters. You generally don't have to watch what you're typing, you just know that certain movements of the finger (often only a few mm) will cause you to hit a different key. And usually, you get it right - because you're used to it.

The aforementioned feature in Windows works in very much the same way - arbitrarily and seemingly at random Windows will suddenly hide a menu option on one of its menus. You may never have used that option, but suddenly your menu will be one item - or more - shorter. Other items on the menu are no longer where you expected them to be. 'Print' may now be in the top third of the menu rather than 'just below the middle'. Your mind has to stop and think now, as the layout of the menu is unfamiliar. And just when your mind gets used to the new shape and layout of the menu, Windows goes and changes it again.

Not a well-thought-out feature.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Desktop organisers

I love those little plastic desktop organisers - the kind with vertical tubes for your pens, arranged around a central pot for paperclips etc.

The thought and time gone into their design is pretty impressive. The tubes are each different heights to accommodate different size pens and pencils, and the central pot is shallow and wide, with a curved base to make it easy to extract troublesome paperclips from the bottom.

Aesthetically they're pleasing, too - made in a shiny, usually slightly see-through, strong plastic they are strong enough to resist breaking when falling, fully-loaded, from a desk, and if you're the sort of person that only has a couple of pens, get an organiser anyway! The tubes can be filled with water and flowers stood in them for an attractive, modernistic display (ok I haven't seen this done in practice but I'm sure it would look great).

The one thing I might change in their design is to allow for some sort of fastening device or maybe building in a weighted base. When fully loaded with pens and/or flowers, it's all too easy to knock the thing to the floor, making a mockery of all your hard work in organising the pens (or just spilling water all over your power sockets if you were using it for a flower display).

Take away bags

Whilst walking around Birmingham earlier today trying to find the Carling Academy and munching on my KFC Zinger Tower burger, my thoughts were firmly on HCI (as they always should be of course) - which might explain why it took us half an hour to find the Academy.

The thought which had popped into my head was regarding the brown paper 'take away' bag my meal was sold in. KFC aren't the only guilty ones - McDonald's, Burger King, you name it, they all have the same problem with their take away bags.

The problem is simple: when walking and eating, the bag is just large enough to comfortably hold enough food to feed a hungry student. But the top of the bag is too small to comfortably get your hand inside, fumble around for a handful of chips or chunk of burger, and withdraw it safely without spilling everything out of the bag (or maybe it's just me). Plus you either have to balance the bag on your hand, squash it (and the food contained inside) under your arm, or grip the top of the bag - often leading to unfortunate ripping accidents.

One of the useful things about the bag's design is that it's stored flat and opens up in an instant - useful for busy till staff, and ideal for storeroom managers who need to cram in as many thousands of bags as possible. With those features in mind, I believe a more useful take away container would be a pop-up cardboard box/tray which would therefore be sturdy (so less prone to ripping), easy to access due to the extra width and less depth involved, and also provide a useful tray for in-car dining.

Before anyone says "Happy Meal boxes", don't: they're just about the worst possible shape (cubical) and even rocket scientists struggle to correctly close the box (you put your thumbs *in* at the middle and rotate the top *outwards*!)

Before any American mega-corporation tries to patent my ideas, I claim prior art :-)

Stairways on campus

Whilst the stairways dotted around campus range from very attractive (eg. the dual splitting steps from the Law building down to the road opposite Sports Science) to very-much-an-eyesore (the steps from next to Chemical Engineering leading down towards Mechanical Engineering) they all have one thing in common - it's rather difficult to wheel a bike up or down them. Or a wheelchair for that matter.

Take for example the long, shallow stairway from Sports Science to Mechanical Engineering (the one where the edges of the steps are painted yellow). There are about 40-50 steps at my estimate, split across three shorter flights, yet the incline of the slope is barely enough to warrant having any steps there at all.

On the other hand, ramps are wonderful :-)

Qwerty v Dvorak

  The keyboard is undoubtedly the most basic and essential form of input to a computer these days, so you would have thought that a decent amount of thought would have gone into its layout, wouldn't you? Well, you'd be sort of right - the Qwerty keyboard was thrown together so that common letters would be as far apart as possible, making it difficult to jam hammers on a typewriter, but that's about as far as it went. Comfort and speed were secondary issues at best.

  The jamming problem was soon no longer an issue, and a Mr August Dvorak produced the result of years of research into letter frequency and groupings in the English language - the Simplified Keyboard, later to be called simply "the Dvorak keyboard". Unfortunately, people were so used to Qwerty by this time that few switched. The Dvorak layout is far from forgotten, though, as a few individuals speak out against the vastly inferior yet bizarrely popular Qwerty layout.

  I finally gave up on the Qwerty layout on the 9th January 2002 in favour of Dvorak, and have most definitely never looked back. I can still type on Qwerty, of course, but do not enjoy it, and avoid it wherever possible. Dvorak is wonderfully easy to learn, contrary to popular belief, and new hardware is not necessary. A perfect and very sad example of clearly superior technology being pushed aside in favour of an alternative that people are more accustomed to.

   Marcus Brooks's website about Dvorak
   Wikipedia - The Simplified Keyboard

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

HCI blog - first post!

Ok the members of this blog are as follows:

Mark Rowan (myself) - ug82msr
Paul Dann - ug39pgd
Francis Noumbi - ug32hft
Lucie Young - ug88ley
Natalie Cryan - ug22nrc

Sorry for the unimaginative blog title, maybe we can change it later if you want to!
I've noticed that in the browser the date/time is somewhat incorrect - I think it's currently on a non-BST timezone. Until any of us come up with a way to fix this, please make sure you have the correct time selected below the compose window.

Paul: if you want to hand-edit the HTML of your postings there's a little tab to the top-right of the compose window to do just this. Not sure about XHTML 1.0 though :-)