Recently, my partner mentioned that he wanted to let his daughter download Apps from iTunes by letting her sign-in with his account. I suggested that he buy an App Gift Card instead so that she could sign-in using her own account. "Why? Isn't that just more work?" was the quick reply. For techies, the answer and it's value are obvious: because you should, generally, never sign-in with someone else's ID. For non-techies, however, detailed explanations of why this is true often offer little real immediate value. Yes, I could come up with a dozen scenarios where having your daughter have access to your iTunes account is a bad thing, but they are all in the FUTURE. Accepted computing "best practices" often impose immediate pain, with little immediate gain.

Much like good actions and Karma however, best practices do occassionally provide immediate benefits! Today, I decided that I would organize the Launchpad (OS X Lion) area on my Mac because, by default, it just contains pages of icons representing all the programs on your computer, in no particular order. To organize them, much like I organize the many Apps on my iPhone, I created folders that grouped the Apps functionally. The act of categorizing all my Apps (something that could be considered a "best practice") however, had unintended consequences. It pointed out the many Apps that I had installed at one time but no longer use, and which could safely be removed. Apparently, one of these silent unused Apps was slowing down my system quite a bit, because after removing about 8 apps and restarting, my Mac is running MUCH faster, but I couldn't have known that before I started!*

What's my point? Until we can find a way to reward users IMMEDIATELY for following best practices, they'll usually have better things to worry about than what's best for their computer!

* Your milage may vary, I'm not recommending people just randomly delete things from their computers!

There's Facebook, with a 2 choice drop-down:

Facebook Gender choice

Then there's Google+, they're a little more flexible, with 2 defined choices plus "Other":

Google+ Gender choice

And then there's Diaspora... a free-form TEXT FIELD!

Diaspora Gender choice

Can you guess which platform is most concerned with the requirements of advertisers?

OK, so I'm not the only one! I primarily use my iPhone with one hand and I often find that the phone suddenly handles like a stick of butter whenever I have to use my thumb to access something on the opposite corner of the display (i.e., when trying to reach the top right corner with my thumb while holding the phone in my left hand, and vice versa).

Space is a a premium when you design mobile applications, so I understand why buttons are placed near the corners. That said, I believe this particular design problem may be the result of not testing designs on an actual phone early enough in the design process. There are plenty of tools that will let you quickly test a design on an actual phone (Prototypes is one), but I think a good rule of thumb (get it?!) is: never place buttons for primary app functions in the top left or top right of your application. At least not unless you want to make your app significantly less mobile!

I recently read an article on some interesting research regarding how our brains react when our expectations about what we're looking at aren't met. Researchers found that test subjects had typical reactions when viewing robots that act like robots and when viewing people that act like people. So far, so good. However, when viewing robots that act like people (so called, "androids"), our brains have to work much harder to make sense of the situation.

It occurs to me that the same principle is at play when we interact with automated telephone systems which are based on voice recognition, rather than numeric menu navigation. I overheard a coworker recently attempt to interact with a telephone system based on voice recognition and, at one point, he was laughing because the system clearly wasn't understanding his request. That laughter, was his brain's response to the incongrous situation of being forced to verbally communicate with something that clearly didn't understand him.

Designing telephone systems, or IVRs, isn't easy. I know from personal experience. However, using the latest and greatest technology isn't always the best choice. I believe that "old-fashioned" systems based on numeric input are still better in most circumstances because:

  • They match user's mental model of the experience: user's aren't forced to talk to a machine as if it was a human.
  • They're unambiguous: you know what input is expected from you, rather than having to guess what the system can or can't understand.

None of this is to say that voice recognition doesn't have a useful role to play in modern telephone systems, just that it should be used sparingly, rather than forming the basis for the whole system. At least not until they can really understand what their  users are saying!

The section "Your Stuff" in Google Reader contains three items: "Shared Items", "Notes" and "Trends". I'd like to see a fourth one added called "Read History". This item would link to a view of recent posts that you have scrolled past, sorted in reverse chronological order. To distinguish between an article that I actually read and one that I just zoomed by with the mouse wheel, the view should only include articles that were visible in the browser for more than X seconds (X to be determined by user testing).

I often find myself trying to find posts that you can't search for easily (such as posts that only contain an image or video) but that I know I looked at sometime yesterday. This view would help in finding those posts.

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