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.

Kathy Sierra has written an interesting response to the 5 things meme that has been floating around recently. Instead of answering the meme, she’s turned it ask her readership some questions. I’m going to answer them here because it gives me more space than in the comments 😉

0) What’s your name and website URL? (optional, of course)
Meri Williams

1) What’s the most fun work you’ve ever done, and why? (two sentences max)
Solving problems with a great team. I find that what I enjoy most is the “flow state”, bouncing ideas off smart people to solve difficult problems.

2) A. Name one thing you did in the past that you no longer do but wish you did? (one sentence max)
Ride my motorbike every day.

B. Name one thing you’ve always wanted to do but keep putting it off? (one sentence max)
Learn to snowboard.

3) A. What two things would you most like to learn or be better at, and why? (two sentences max)
I’d like to get better at coding again — I’m horribly out of practice and feel like I’m losing a valuable skill.
I’d also like to learn more about statistics, because it’s the one area of mathematics I’m really not great at.

B. If you could take a class/workshop/apprentice from anyone in the world living or dead, who would it be and what would you hope to learn? (two more sentences, max)
Nelson Mandela, to learn compassion. Anyone who can sit in prison for 26 years and come out the other end still loving and believing in humanity has a lot to teach.

4) A. What three words might your best friends or family use to describe you?
Confident, clever, pragmatic.

B. Now list two more words you wish described you…
Sociable, talented.

5) What are your top three passions? (can be current or past, work, hobbies, or causes– three sentences max)
Diversity — I passionately believe that you need a mix of different people, cultures and opinions to be successful.
Problem solving — I love fixing things/making them work better.
Guns — I love my guns.

6) (sue me) Write–and answer–one more question that YOU would ask someone (with answer in three sentences max)
Q: What is your favourite movie and why?
A: Addams Family Values, because it is camp, hilarious and a great lesson in how even families that seem really strange from the outside can still be loving.

Over on SvN there’s been some discussion about the ideal mobile phone UI and how it hasn’t really been designed yet.

I imagine the market in the USA may be completely different, but from what I know about the South African and UK mobile phone markets, I think that the lack of progress in simplifying the user interface design of mobile phones may in fact be deliberate.

The reality is that pretty much all brands of mobile phones have their unique brand of user interface. The usability isn’t great in ANY of them — pick up a strange phone and half the time you can’t even work out how to make a call! Some people view this as a real limitation and only really learn how to use a very few functions of their phones. More often, especially amongst younger people, a LOT of time is invested in working out how to use the phone, finding all the hidden little features that are badly (or not at all!) documented. Learning how to use your new phone is almost like a game.

With each successive phone, however, it can get very tedious to learn how to do the bog-standard things (making a call, sending a text) all over again. Even those who like the challenge would prefer to be finding NEW functionality rather than rediscovering the wheel every time they buy a phone. This is what leads to self-imposed brand lockin.

In the UK, there are many people who won’t even consider moving away from the brand of mobile phone that they first bought (and invested the time to learn how to operate). There are Nokia people, Motorola people and Ericsson people, but very few people move brand, unless there is a really distinctive new feature to move across for. One such example was the introduction of the Motorola Razr — the thin shape was so desirable that many people crossed the brand line to try the new phone.

When you consider that the cellphone manufacturers have actually managed to get people to self-impose brand lockin, it’s hardly surprising that they continue to keep the UI divergent and non-intuitive! After all, this has previously been a great strategy in other markets — you can’t tell me that there’s any other reason that usability lock-in to explain the prevalence of Lotus Notes?

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?

Here’s something that’s been bugging me. Why, when I am uploading multiple exhibits of gastronomic delight to Flickr, has no-one been commenting?

Today I worked it out, after uploading a bunch of photos at the weekend. Essentially the problem is this: normally, when I upload things, I first transfer them as “Private”. This is so I can go through, update the titles, descriptions, tags, etc, without the photos appearing multiple times in my photo feed and annoying the hell out of everyone.

At the weekend, however, I accidentally uploaded everything as “Public” and then went through updating the metadata. Suddenly it’s comment city! So I suppose that there is some kind of annoying feed feature in that if you don’t initially publicise your photos, then when you do so later they aren’t included in your feed either.

Frankly, Flickr, that’s a little crap. Isn’t there a middle way?

When Google Talk came out, I have to admit that I wasn’t massively impressed. The IM didn’t seem substantially different (although there are some great little UI details) and it was annoying that noone else seemed to be using it. I liked how well it tied into my Gmail contacts list and so on, but still the benefits didn’t seem overwhelming.

That is to say until the other day, when Elmyra and I needed to talk about something and decided we might as well try to use Google Talk’s call facility.

Firstly, it is seriously intuitive. You literally just click on the call button. That’s it. Secondly, the conversation quality once you’re talking is really amazing. I for one was using a crappy inbuilt laptop microphone and speaker, but with that on my lap the quality was just about as good as when I use my mobile phone. Admittedly, at times there was a little bit of echo, but I imagine had be both been using headsets that would have been mitigated.

The key thing though is that Google have delivered a product that I would happily teach my parents to use. Hell, I’m seriously considering just buying the entire FAMILY headsets for Xmas and giving them a little business card-sized set of instruction as to how to set it up. It’s that simple, I think they would all easily be able to use it, so long as they had the right tech.

The other rather clever thing that is part of the entire Google package is that because I think they’re basically not an evil company, unlike some we could mention, I will happily recommend them. This is because I can trust that it won’t come back to bite me later, when some horrible bit of spyware has ravaged the pc, leaving me spending the entire Xmas vacation reinstalling Windows.

All in all, every new move that Google makes has me thinking they’re just getting smarter and smarter.