An interesting project request came to me today — we need to build an interactive booth. Just one (a “show piece” if you will) for the time being. Now, much as I did a lot of design for these types of systems back when I was studying HCI, I haven’t ever actually built one.

So, friends and colleagues out there in the blogosphere, I need your help! Any ideas on good software, operating system, technical config and so on for interactive booths?

Notes: I’m willing to consider anything, but of course open source is always a winner. The ability to design kickass user interaction is a must, but I’m not particularly beholden to touchscreen vs mouse-driven, for instance. Any ideas, please share in the comments, whether it’s something to go for or something to shy away from!

Eating your own dog food is a strategy often proposed to help companies produce better products. Using your own software exposes you to flaws that you might not otherwise find — intensive, day-to-day usage can highlight annoyances and bugs that even the most robust test scripts cannot. This makes a strategy of internal use particularly powerful to identify usability issues.

I think that what is being missed is what an opportunity eating your own dog food can be for accessibility as well. Web application developers should take a day a month, switch off all Javascript, possibly even swap into Lynx (or similar “no frills” browser) and try using their applications as normal. One could do the same from a mobile browser or different OSes.

Before, when testing was a big effort before pushing the product out the door, brief testing in each different environment was an OK (but not fantastic) strategy. With incremental development and frequent releases becoming the most popular software engineering model, kneeling and eating our own dog food should become an integral part of all our development and testing strategies.

I’ve just had my second laptop hard-drive die on me in about 6 months. After much hassle, I am finally back with access to MOST of my data (down to a nice little auto-incremental backup tool I use).

The only thing that went smoothly was restoring Firefox — those guys really are getting ahead of the industry in terms of install/reinstall usability now. I literally just downloaded the install, ran it, used MozBackup to restore my profile (which I had rushed to save as soon as the laptop starting making grinding noises…) and now I’m back. With all my (many thousands of) bookmarks, saved logins and even my plugins loaded for me. No effort whatsoever.

It got me thinking though — lots of people get very worried about their stuff being hosted. I’ve heard people who object to Flickr because “the servers might go down and I’d lose EVERYTHING!”. I suppose they have a point, especially when their data is being encrypted away from them (not the case with Flickr, but there are some offenders).

The other side of the argument is this though: do you really think that your hardware and backup regimen is BETTER than that of the company you are concerned about?

When my harddrive started making sounds like it was trying to grind sand into powder, I was suddenly very happy that so much of my life was online. The really important bookmarks? Largely on delicious and this blog. The photos? Flickr. OK, so my document management is a little haphazard — I imagine I can fix that.

I’m quite enjoying relying on other people to keep systems up and running, to make sure backups are happening of my stuff on the web. They seem to be a lot better at it than I want to have to be 😉

The first day of SXSWi this year was a little overwhelming. Perhaps I was still recovering from the Geeks with Guns episode; perhaps there were just that many more people here this year. Nevertheless, it was great to see so many folks coming together. There also seemed to be fewer people attached to their laptops this year — although I was an exception to this rule. For the record though, I don’t even have wireless so I really was just taking notes!

Knitting Tag Clouds for Grandma — Beyond Folksonomies

The official site for this panel can be found here and my full notes are here

Key Thoughts:

  • FOLKSONOMY — bottom-up way for organising information, more general than a taxonomy
  • TAXONOMY — formal, top-down, specific way of organising information
  • Lot of talk about taking folksonomies to the next level and developing into something more generally useful. The chaps on the panel seemed to think this needed technological innovation; the ladies disagreed
  • Eventual consensus was that we really need to expand the use of tagging/folksonomies beyond the geek community and into the general public for the next level to be reached
  • Barrier is usability problems with current tagging implementations — everyone is focusing on growing their own tagging systems, without enough standardization or improvement


  • “I’m Liz Lawley and my blog is not my identity!”
  • “This will be more an exploration than an exposition”

Dan Gilbert: How to do Precisely the Right Thing at All Possible Times

This guy was fantastic and I took a lot of notes — you can find them here.

  • Expected Happiness = (odds of gain) x (value of gain)
  • This formula is all you need to work out how to do precisely the right thing at all possible times — but our brains aren’t wired to do this well.
  • People are prone to errors in the calculation of odds, because we decide how LIKELY something is based on how easily we can ENVISION it
  • We are also prone to miscalculating the value of gain, because we are basically built to detect CHANGE — we compare with the past (how much did it use to cost?) rather than the possible (what else could I do with this money?)
  • We also make mistakes when there is greater variety (more options increases the chance of not making a decision at all!) or when things are further away (in space or time)
  • Basically our brains have evolved a long way, but not enough to deal with the new world :: “We are not stupid, but we are ancient”
  • Application of science is what can help us make the right logical decision

Cyberplace: Online in Offline Places

This was essentially a ubicomp panel, although not billed as such. It was definitely a lot more practically focused than many ubicomp discussions I’ve seen. The key point was that we need to be able to tie information (online) to location (offline).

The panelists essentially just discussed the various products they had created or worked on and the positives and negatives of the experience. The inability of cellphones to really pinpoint their own locations was a frequent bitch. The value of tying online information to offline places was obvious — although personally I’m not sure how you’d distinguish between the “plaque” style of info and the graffiti … or accommodate the people who sometimes WANT to look at the graffiti!

My full notes can be found here.


  • “Although it seems really stupid from a safety perspective, the first thing that people do is to tag their houses: “I live here!”” — Michael
  • “Dodgeball makes me sad because I’m usually at home and all my friends seem to be out leading these interesting lives” — Heath

Designing for Global & Local Social Play — the Secret Identity game

Most of the session time was taken up with the Secret Identity game — everyone had to think of a secret and then we all went around the room trading secrets with people. The intent was that you treated each new secret as your own. At the end, people wrote their secrets on a big green sticker and stuck it on thier backs. There was a very interesting shuffle around the room, whilst everyone tried to see everyone else’s backs!

My full notes are here.

  • The dynamic of global and local is interesting — the web is global, but often we are more interested in local concepts : connecting to people we already know, finding out about the places we live in
  • Play doesn’t just mean gaming — it can mean “trying things on”, identity play and so on
  • New situations are a good opportunity for play. When you move to a new location, approaching finding out about your new surroundings as play means that you can safely explore
  • Interesting concept of “Collapsing Context” — more likely to find people you know in your online communities too. Analogous to “small world”, I suppose. Specific example is of Liz playing World of Warcraft alongside her kids


  • You have permission to push back on things because it is play — danah
  • “Packing and unpacking is a process of renewal” — Irina
  • Im not a grad student Im a professor and have tenure, so I didnt do ANY research before turning up! — Liz
  • “Your son is acting inappropriately in the guild right now — can you please logon and sort him out?” — Liz

WMP Annoyance

Originally uploaded by meriwilliams.

This is my bad design showcase for the day. I originally noticed this months ago and took the screenshot — I quite honestly haven’t used Windows Media Player since then, just because it annoyed me so much.

What is the problem, I hear you ask? Well, if you look at the screenshot, you’re seeing the top right-hand corner of my screen. There’s a Firefox window in the background, with a Windows Media Player window in front (the blue bit).

The issue is that the WMP window’s close icon is not in the right place when it is in default mode. “Just maximise it!”, I hear you shout! I think the point is that unlike other applications, WMP when unmaximised takes up a strange amount of the screen — it’s toolbar is close to the top, but not in the normal position.

The net effect is that every time I try to close down WMP, I in fact hit whatever is behind it! With Firefox I at least usually have a hundred tabs open, so it warns me that I’m closing them all and so isn’t too disastrous, but often enough it’s been something important.

What designs really annoy you?

It has just occurred to me than the real value of projects like Greasemonkey and even very quick-to-prototype languages like Python and Ruby is that they let you fix things that bug you really really quickly and with relatively little effort.

There are so many things that people put up with, just because they figure “Well, it’s just this once”. Doing it manually THIS TIME is better than spending the time making a generic tool that can fix the problem every time. Abstractions are a bit of a bitch, after all. There are different levels of this, largely depending on computer ability: CS students are more likely to write a quick script to automate ordering pizza than for instance management students (who would set up a committee to discuss the possibility of getting an assistant to do their pizza ordering).

With scripting languages, you can get a quick-and-dirty one-off solution in a very short amount of time. No need to generalise and a lot of time saved overall.

Yesterday I ended up with a Firefox window within which all the tabs were new or nearly new web apps. I figured I’d do a quick round-up of funky stuff that had appeared in the last year or so, that I think is particularly cool:

  • Gmail — this has seriously revolutionised my use of email. Massive storage, great features, nice UI, all add up to a great user experience. I absolutely hate going back to the desktop email software we use at work. Favourite feature: conversation grouping
  • Bloglines — web-based feed reader. Brings together all the website updates you want to know about in one place. Great way of keeping up with things, but can be difficult to manage the information overload if you oversubscribe. Favourite feature: ability to “keep new”
  • Writeboard — online document collaboration. Haven’t been able to use this extensively yet, but planning it!
  • 43 Everything: first 43 Things, then 43 Places and now 43 People. I think MJ said it best:

    “One login. One id. Multiple obsessive todo/tovisit/tomeet lists.
    Your OCD in me is pleased. “

  • Flickr! — this has changed not only the way I share photos, but how much I use my phone. Thanks to Nat for eventually convincing me!