Posted: March 3rd, 2013 | Author: Patrick Thornton | Filed under: Main | Tags: Edgerank, Facebook, Nick Bilton, The New York Times | No Comments »
Nick Bilton on the curious case of sharing on Facebook:
Every Sunday morning, I started sharing my weekly column with this newfound entourage. Those garnered a good response. For example, a column about my 2012 New Year’s resolution to take a break from electronics gathered 535 “likes” and 53 “reshares.” Another, about Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, owing me $50 after the company’s public offering, quickly drew 323 likes and 88 reshares.
Since then, my subscribers have grown to number 400,000. Yet now, when I share my column, something different happens. Guess how many people like and reshare the links I post?
If your answer was more than two digits long, you’re wrong.
As a social media manager and researcher and as someone who spends thousands a year on Facebook ads for work, I can confirm that Facebook’s sharing algorithm changes a lot, has been all over the place the past year or so and that paying for ads — even small amounts like $10 — makes a huge difference in engagement and reach. The amounts of engagement that Bilton is seeing normally sounds low, however, and perhaps that is due to his content and not just the algorithm.
You don’t need to study social media to see that pictures, images and memes are what rules Facebook these days. This was not always the case, but in the last few years, sharing links has not gotten the same penetration as sharing photos and other visual content.
I believe this is for two reasons: Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm prioritizes visual content over written, and users prefer visual content or at least are more likely to notice it, click on it, like it and share it. Bilton’s own Facebook page bears this out. He shared a photo of himself with his dog at In-N-Out Burger that received about 30 times the engagement as a recent New York Times story of his. While we can all agree that Bilton’s writing is usually better content than him and his dog eating a cheap burger, Facebook friends and users feel differently, and Facebook’s algorithm prefers his smartphone photos to researched journalism pieces.
We have responded to this changing situation on Facebook by making a push to share more visual content on our Science News Magazine’s Facebook page. We will often share a great photo, image or illustration from a story and then provide a link to it in the caption on Facebook. This does significantly better than just sharing the story alone.
Facebook is always changing its algorithm, and as it currently stands, unless you pay money to sponsor an update that links to a story, you may not be getting great engagement or traffic out of it. The other issue I see with Bilton’s feed is that he doesn’t post that often. Posting daily on Facebook leads to more engagement per post. There is an upper limit to how often you should post to your Facebook page — roughly once every three hours — but Bilton is nowhere near hitting that limit.
Now, as to the paid vs. organic engagement, well that is an issue. This gets to the heart of Facebook versus Twitter. On Twitter, you are normally shown every single tweet from the people you follow in your timeline. On Facebook, you are normally shown only the content that the Facebook algorithm deems the top content in your feed.
The algorithm works as a positive feedback loop. The more often you interact with someone’s content, the more often you see that person’s content and then the more often you will see it again in the future. This has resulted in people seeing updates from a small selection of the people they are friends with on Facebook, and is something that bugs me as I find it too limiting. Facebook users can switch their news feeds to show most recent content instead, similar to a Twitter feed, but this is not the default and few people change this.
I can’t confirm this, but I feel that Facebook switches back this preference for users, as mine always seem to end up back on top stories. In Facebook’s mind, top stories is a great way to show content from strong ties — family and close friends — while drowning out of the noise of some of your weaker ties. I don’t have an issue with prioritizing strong tie content over weak tie content, but I have not liked the mix on Facebook and believe it needs to sprinkle in more random content from my weak tie Facebook friends and pages.
Unfortunately, Facebook followers of journalists is the definition of a very weak tie (it’s not even a two-way tie like a normal Facebook friendship). As long as Facebook shows the top stories algorithm instead of just most recent content like Twitter, people like Bilton are going to continue to see lower engagement than expected.
So, why does paying help this situation? Paying to make sure your content is shown to your followers and friends means that your content will be shown in someone’s news feed even if they have selected top stories and the algorithm would deem you too weak of a tie to show right now. What this is saying to Bilton is that his page is not deemed a top story driver for most of his followers.
Maybe Bilton’s followers would disagree with this and maybe they would prefer a stronger mix of content in their news feeds. I have found my news feed being dominated by a few friends and family with recent changes to the top stories algorithm. The positive feedback loop seems to have run out of control.
I believe that if Bilton started sharing more content and more varied content, with an emphasis on visual content, he would see more engagement per item, even his links to stories. That said, the Facebook algorithm seems to have issues showing variety by focusing too heavily on strong tie content, and I think this hurts journalists and other content creators. I don’t necessarily think this is anything nefarious by Facebook in an attempt to grab cash by encouraging people to pay for ads, and I do agree with the Facebook engineer that he quoted that this is not a good thing for Facebook.
If people want to see Bilton’s content, and they aren’t, that’s not good for anyone.
Posted: January 31st, 2013 | Author: Patrick Thornton | Filed under: Main | Tags: first impressions, long-term reviews, products, reviews, technology, user interfaces | No Comments »
This keyboard is 23-years old. Our long-term review would basically say that this is an awesome keyboard.
We’re beginning a new way to review tech products on this site — long-term reviews.
We’re not going to test drive new products and software; we’re going to live with them. We’re going to do work and see if these products and software can fit into our lives long term.
You can find all kinds of tech reviews where reviewers spend a short period of time with a product and then pass judgement. We’ll be focusing on long-term reviews — products that we have used for a significant amount of time in our daily lives.
How can you accurately gauge the durability of a produce if you only use a tester unit for a day? How can you understand what it’s like to use an operating system if you don’t use it for your daily work for a month or more? How do you know which keyboard you’d really like to use after six months?
This doesn’t mean we won’t give our thoughts on products we haven’t used for awhile; we’ll be terming those as initial impressions. When I use a new cell phone for a week and write about it, I’m writing more about my initial impressions and less about how this product has worked for me in my daily life. Part of using a new smartphone OS is adjusting to that, and I don’t want that adjustment to cloud how I actually think about that new OS.
Our long-term reviews will generally be of products that we have actually been able to use for a sustained period of time. If we can’t stand to use a product for more than a few weeks, it’s not worthy of a long-term review. We’ll give you our initial impressions and tell you that we won’t be looking into it further.
There are other reasons to focus on long-term reviews as well. Durability and longevity are certainly concerns, but so is the lifecycle of a product. An operating system should get updates that help make it more stable, secure and enjoyable to use. If that doesn’t happen that’s an issue, or if these patches make the OS much better to use, we need to relay that to people. ChromeOS and Chromebooks come to mind, where the early builds of ChromeOS were rough, and the OS lacked a lot of polish, but two years later, ChromeOS is much better.
A Chromebook that was purchased a year ago is a much better machine today than it was then. And maybe our initial impressions will be contradicted a bit by our long-term reviews. That’s okay.
I personally try a lot of new software. Some of it excites me a lot, but what’s really important is what I stick with. There is a honeymoon period with technology, software and user interfaces. We want to get beyond that.
Posted: January 13th, 2013 | Author: Patrick Thornton | Filed under: Main | Tags: Gary Heiting, hiDPI displays, iPad, Jakob Nielsen, pixel density, readability, Retina Display, text | 3 Comments »
Text on a non-Retina iPad versus a Retina iPad. Sharper text is much easier on the eye and much more pleasurable for reading.
The Retina iPad doesn’t just look aesthetically better — it works better.
The ultimate expression of design is how something works, and by that measure the Retina iPad is much better designed than older ones, despite looking identical when turned off. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen said in an interview that the Retina iPad’s display will cause people to use the device more because it’s a more enjoyable user experience, particularly for reading text.
Nielsen highlighted the crispness of typography on the Retina iPad. He said the higher resolution display really impacts both reading speed and eyestrain, two issues that plague other consumer-grade computer monitors. Two issues that also have caused people to shy away from reading longer-form content on computers.
“All commercially available computer screens have all had bad typography,” he said. “For the entire history of computers we’ve always suffered under reduced reading speed and increased eyestrain compared to print.”
Retina Displays are Apple’s term for hiDPI displays (dots per inch). These are displays with significantly more pixels per inch than displays had just a few years ago. First smartphones received more pixels and more than 300 DPI is fairly common in flagship smartphones. In 2012 we saw tablets get significantly more pixels, sometimes four times or more pixels than models from just a year earlier. We’re beginning to see hiDPI displays make it up into laptop computers, and we’re not far away from desktop displays getting hiDPI displays.
Gary Heiting, OD, and associate editor of AllAboutVision.com said in an email that eyestrain is a primary component of computer vision syndrome. Heiting said eyestrain and computer vision syndrome symptoms include burning, stinging eyes; red eyes; dry eyes and/or watery eyes; increased sensitivity to light; intermittent or constant blurred vision or double vision (that resolves after resting the eyes); difficulty changing focus (from your computer screen to across the room, or even from the computer to printed material or other objects on your desk); seeing “afterimages” or color fringes around objects when looking away from your computer screen; and (frequently) headache.
Nielsen explained that traditional computer displays don’t have enough pixels per inch to properly display text, resulting in coarser typography where character shapes and forms don’t differentiate and stand out enough. Serifs and curves are not as clean as they are supposed to be (or how print typography looks). Because the shapes and forms of the individual letters are harder to make out than printed text, this causes us to spend more time on each letter and word, slowing us down and causing eye fatigue.
Our eyes have to work harder to read text on a computer monitor than they do a newspaper. Even if we don’t perceive it while we are reading, we feel it in fatigue eyes and a lack of desire to read long text on computer monitors.
Many people print out long articles rather than read them on a computer monitor, Nielsen said. The Retina iPad and some of the other hiDPI tablets that have been released are finally changing that.
“This is the first time in history we’ve had a computer that actually provides the same word-for-word readability as print,” Nielsen said. “That’s unprecedented.”
Heiting said the focusing demands on the eyes are lessened by the Retina iPad, more closely approximating the experience of reading a printed book.
“Because of its high resolution display, the iPad reduces or eliminates the eye’s perception of light/dark borders between pixels, which is the cause of focusing (accommodative) fatigue — a major (arguable the major) cause of computer eye strain,” Heiting said.
The Retina iPad features 264 pixels per inch (list of display PPIs here). The first two iPads were 132 PPI. Apple’s best-selling laptop, the 13-inch Macbook Air, is 128 PPI. The standard 15-inch Macbook Pro is 110 PPI, and the 27-inch iMac is 109 PPI. The new 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro is 220 PPI.
It’s important to note that the farther away you sit from a device, the less PPI that is required. Your HDTV most likely has a PPI well under 100, but it looks great from 10 feet away on your couch (here is a PPI calculator to figure out what the PPI is of your computer monitors and TVs). The mark of whether or not a display is “Retina” quality is whether or not you can make out individual pixels from a normal operating distance.
Apple considers both the Retina iPad and the iPhone 4/4S/5 Retina Displays, despite the fact that the iPhones have a higher PPI at 326. While a 27-inch monitor that you sit two feet or so away from doesn’t need the same PPI as a tablet or a smartphone to look good, it does need significantly better than 109 PPI to come close to the crispness of typography on the Retina iPad or the kind of crispness that is easier on the eyes. A 27-inch monitor would most likely need more than 200 DPI to be Retina class, which would require a considerable amount of computing power to run — beyond what even most higher-end laptops and desktops ship with.
Heiting mentioned the work of Bryan Jones, Ph.D and retinal neuroscientist at the University of Utah. He investigated and evaluated Apple’s claim that the new iPhones and iPad are Retina Displays and found those claims to be accurate. At a viewing distance of approximately 15-18 inches, which is the recommended distance for use of a tablet computer, around 240 PPI would hit the resolution limit for someone with 20/20 vision.
Up to 50 percent of computer workers experience eye strain during or after work, Heiting said. With smartphones, tablets and computers at home and at the office, we’re staring at computer screens more than ever.
“Increased screen resolutions — not just for smart phones and tablets — could have a very significant impact,” he said.
Nielsen expects that one day all consumer computer monitors will have higher pixel densities. Smartphones and now tablets are leading that charge because of their smaller displays, but Apple has begun shipping hiDPI monitors in their MacBook Pro line. In the next few years, we’ll see hiDPI monitors at larger, desktop resolutions.
Nielsen doesn’t expect big monitors to get high pixel densities for a few years, perhaps up to five more. Not only is it more expensive to ship larger displays with lots of pixels, it takes more CPU and GPU computing power to power the displays.
It’s not just reading that is affected by having a better display. Anything that is done on a computer would be affected.
“With a high resolution screen you can get more work done,” Nielsen said. “It’s not just for reading, it’s also for analyzing spreadsheets and any office work. For any kind of knowledge work it really pays off in increased productivity for employers by giving their employees better tools.”
The Retina iPad and future higher resolution displays offer exciting possibilities for news producers. People will be reading more.
“Better hardware leads to simply more words being consumed, which means more engagement with the content,” Nielsen said.
Chris Mueller, art director for Vanity Fair, said that the Retina Display really improves text and images on the Vanity Fair iPad app.
“The type is much more crisp, which helps legibility for smaller elements and improves the reading experience greatly,” he said. “Photos now have an HD quality with incredible detail and radiant color. The overall difference is notable and it really enhances the way the magazine looks on a device.”
The display on the Retina iPad has been compared to glossy magazine print. Journalism can look really good on it, in a way that journalism doesn’t look in other tablets and computers.
“The Retina Display means everything is sharper and easier to read,” said Greg Clayman, publisher of The Daily. “The overall high-quality of the display looks more like crisp paper – it’s a pleasure to look at for long periods of time.”
Posted: January 12th, 2013 | Author: Patrick Thornton | Filed under: Main | Tags: USA Today, usability study | 1 Comment »
This Fall I conducted a usability study of USA Today’s new website (at the time it was still in beta). I developed a task list for participants to complete and observed them attempting the tasks, which were designed to test different parts and functionality of the USA Today website. I wrote down observations while users were completing the tasks and asked them a series of questions about their experiences once the tasks were completed. Surveys were also conducted before and after the study. Below is part of the report that I created, focusing on comments and recommendations:
Participants’ successes and struggles were observed and recorded, and users provided insight during post-test questionnaires and interviews.
Design comments: Users found the site to be clean, easy to navigate, airy and well laid out. One participant compared the design to CNN.com, a website she goes to frequently and said USA Today’s website was “well organized,” and added, “It doesn’t seem like the same content would be repurposed into multiple sections. It was clean. CNN is better than it used to be, but USA Today didn’t have the cluttered look that others have with ads. If the ads were there, it was subtle. The space was airy. They weren’t afraid of requiring a scroll. CNN is very much in the above-the-fold mindset. This felt like they didn’t fear people scrolling.”
Another user found USA Today’s new website to be much better than other news websites she uses on a regular basis. She was very impressed and said she may become a regular user of the website, “I might start looking at this; it’s pretty user friendly.”
This user compared USA Today’s new website to her most-used news website, Cleveland.com: “Unlike USA Today, there is no rhyme or reason of what [Cleveland.com] is putting on the top of the website. They have way too many ads. It’s horrible. It’s not setup so that you can easily find things. A lot of times I give up and just stop using it.”
Unclear wording and labeling: All of the participants were able to quickly find the most popular stories but none were quite sure which was supposed to be the most popular. Some thought it was the story in the top left, while others thought it was in the top right. The site isn’t clear as to what users should assume are the most popular of the most popular stories, and there isn’t a numerical ranking of top stories similar to what other sites have.
One subject said, “I don’t understand this page at all,” and then thought maybe the different sized blue orbs/moons were meant to symbolize which stories were the most popular. She eventually assumed the stories with the more colored in orbs/moons were the more popular ones (Users weren’t quite sure what this iconography was supposed to be. A ball, a moon, an orb?). Note: This unclear iconography has since been removed from the site.
Labeling issues carried over to other areas. One user struggled finding the homepage because USA Today doesn’t have a navigation linked called “home,” unlike a lot of websites. He couldn’t figure out how to get to the homepage without hitting the back button. USA Today does, however, have a logo that takes users back to the homepage, a common website paradigm.
USA Today also puts a X in the right-hand corner of story pages, allowing users to click on it to get back to the previous page. If a user clicked on a story from the homepage, clicking the X would take that user back to the homepage, but if she clicked on a story from the sports page, for instance, clicking on the X would take her back to the sports page.
None of the users noticed the X, and none made use of it. When I asked one user about the X on story pages, she said, “I don’t care about the X, because it’s just an option. Maybe it’s something that I’d realize later was there, but just because there is a feature there that I don’t use doesn’t mean it’s not worth having.”
The X on story pages may be one of those features that users need to be educated about. Once they learn how this feature works, they may begin to like it. All the users I studied, however, were not used to this concept on a website.
Search engine issues: Two users were not able to discern that the magnifying glass icon at the top of the website was meant to be clicked on to pop up a search box. They were looking around for a big search box that most websites offer. When they couldn’t find it, they were lost with how to search.
One participant said, “Almost every website I go to has a box, and that’s what I use.” That participant also found issues with the search engine. When he was trying to find out how to subscribe to the paper for a year, his first instinct was to use the search engine. The search engine did not index this information, and wasn’t helpful for find this information. For users accustomed to using search, the new USA Today website has a lot of information still to index.
The search icon in question. Users have to click it for a search box to appear. Users were used to see a search box, often with the word “search” in the middle of it.
The USA Today search engine does a good job of indexing stories, and is fairly straightforward, but it appears to mainly index news stories and not the other areas of the website.
After assuring two participants that there was a search engine on the site and that all tasks could be performed, they were able to discover the search engine. One said, “I just wasn’t looking for an icon; I was looking for a box that says search. I then realized that if I clicked on the icon that I could search.”
The youngest participant, however, did not have issues finding the search engine. She knew that the magnifying glass meant search and understood that the new USA Today website relies heavily on iconography. “I knew that the website was using symbols,” she said. “There were icons for all different things, and I realized that’s how you use the site.”
Iconography: This website makes heavy use of iconography. After users became adjusted to this fact, they were better able to make use of the website. One area where two of the participants struggled was setting their local weather.
Users can mouse over the weather and set it via a gear icon, similar to the icon Apple uses on iOS for preferences. Two of the participants were unaware that this icon meant settings or preferences and thought nothing of it. The younger participant was the only one who quickly understood what that icon meant.
USA Today does have a fallback, however, for setting the weather. By clicking on the weather page, users can set their weather on that page. This page, however, also gave users issues. There is no set location button, which confused users as to how to actually set their location.
This page is supposed to work by either the user entering in their city or zip code and then pressing enter. This wasn’t clear to users, and didn’t even work every time when users did try it. This page also begins to pop up suggested cities when users type in where they live, and if they click on the location from a drop-down menu that appears, they can set their weather. This wasn’t immediately clear to users and doesn’t always appear quickly, which confused users.
Two users requested a “set” button, and one said she wouldn’t have had a problem if there was just a button to click after she entered in her location.
Another participant said, “I don’t like the fact that it doesn’t have something to click on.” This participant also found the x button in the enter city box confusing. He clicked on it a few times assuming it was a way to set his location, when in reality it’s a button to clear the data he has entered. “Where the X button is is usually where you would click [a set button],” he said.
Every user was confused by cover view (now called Big Page), USA Today’s new feature that allows users to view the website with one image taking up the entire page with a link to a story at the bottom with a design similar to apps such as Flipboard. One user said of the cover view icon, “That’s a stupid icon. What is it?” and then said, “The weather is obvious. The movie thing is obvious.”
Another participant said, “I would say cover view is pointless.”
As mentioned above, this website relies solely on an icon to alert users to where to search. The younger user, however, understood USA Today’s iconography for search and preferences based on her experience with other websites and operating systems, suggesting that these icons may be better understood by younger audiences.
- Clean layout: Users were able to easily navigate the website and found news stories easy to read. Pages were not weighed down by access chrome and ads, which is an issue that plagues a lot of news websites. Pages also loaded quickly because of their lack of chrome.
- Ads: Users found them unobtrusive and said they didn’t interfere with the ability to enjoy the news content. The ads also fit in with the visual design of the website.
- Big icons at bottom of page: These at the bottom of the page help users find staff info, how to get the newspaper, where to find apps, contact info and more. Many news websites put small links at the bottom of the page for this info, but USA Today uses large icons with text that makes it very easy on users.
- Discoverability of iconography: It takes users awhile to adjust to the iconography of the website, especially the icons that don’t have text with them. Cover view in particular perplexed users.
- Search engine: It doesn’t index all of site and lacks granularity and advanced search parameters, such as the ability to search by date, author, etc. The search engine is hard to find for users due to reliance on iconography over a traditional search box.
- Lack of buttons to click: Several areas of the site would be easier to use if the site had more buttons to click as a fallback for users. Users struggled to set the weather, in particular, and this section of the website seemed to suffer from glitches.
Search box: After watching two of the participants struggle to find how to search USA Today’s website, it became clear that some people are more accustomed to seeing a search box — often with the word search in it — than they are of seeing a magnifying glass. Google.com, for instance, is a large search box with buttons for searching, and that’s the dominant way that people understand search.
This is what an average user thinks search looks like.
USA Today’s current way of presenting search with just a magnifying glass is a succinct way of displaying a search box and visually appealing. The magnifying glass is also recognized as iconography representing searching or finding, but my participants all agreed that the dominant search metaphor was the search box. Without adding a search box, USA Today will need to educate users on what their icons mean
Consistency of buttons: Users are used to clicking buttons to set a preference, perform a search and various other tasks on computers. Searching on USA Today requires a button to be pressed, but setting the weather does not on one of the two areas it can be set. In one area for weather, users are explicitly given a “set” button to set their local weather. In another area, they are not given this button.
Setting the weather was a problem for two of the participants. Two of them did not recognize the gear icon as a way to change settings or preference. Since they missed this, they clicked over to the weather page itself. This page did not have a “set” button. This button would have prevented a lot of frustration for users.
Search improvements: One participant found the search engine lacking. It searches articles fine, but doesn’t search some other parts of the site. This participant was looking for how much it would cost to sign up for the paper for a year. Searching yielded nothing, even though people are used to this way of navigating the Web because of search engines.
There also is no way to do an “advanced search” or to use search parameters. These are common ways that people who are fluent with search engines find information. On a site with so much information, providing some ways to narrow down a search or search by date or author would make searching quicker and easier.
Clarifying design elements: Every user was unclear as to which stories were the most popular on the most popular story page. There was no numbers ranking the stories. There is a blue orb/ball/moon icon that appears to be more full on some stories. Does the fullness of the orb/ball/moon mean the popularity of the story? Many of the most popular stories had completely empty blue orbs/balls/moons. Does this mean that they’re not really popular?
Explain new, divergent features: Cover view is not a common metaphor found on other news websites. All users were confused by it. USA Today needs to find a way to tell users what it is and why they might like it. As it stands now, cover view is just a random icon that a user could press that radically changes how the website looks. USA Today could have a page to explain how to use the site. Even having text pop up as people mouse over icons would be helpful.
Users found USA Today’s new website to be better than most news websites, particularly with regards to design and usability. Users found the site easy to navigate, and all commented how the top navigation bar was easy to follow and that they were comfortable that they would be able to find all sections of the website via the top navigation, despite the navigation bar only having eight broad sections to click on, which is a lot less than many news websites present in their navigation. Users also liked the visual nature of the website, with its focus on graphic design and photos and video. Despite the sites focus on visuals, users did not find the site cluttered.
Users also liked how story pages were not bogged down with excess chrome — too many ads, social media icons all over the place, side-columns filled with lists of stories from the website, etc. — like many news websites. Users found story pages easy and enjoyable to read with ample white space and focus on the content.
A few quirks remain, however, and the heavy reliance on iconography over better known metaphors confuses some users. The lack of a traditional search box could prove to be a pretty big usability issue. Once users realize that the magnifying glass icon is how you bring up the search box, using the search engine is pretty straightforward, but most users learned what a search engine looks like from Google, and Google has a big search box.
Quirks and frustrations aside, users were generally happy with the site and two users indicted that they may begin to use USA Today’s website more after seeing the new website.
One of the nice things about prototyping with code is that once you get the bones of a website built, it’s easy to make changes and see how those changes impact your design. Someone doesn’t like how a color looks or how thick a border is? Just change the code and show them the results. It’s much more efficient than going back and forth with Photoshop wireframes.
Posted: October 29th, 2012 | Author: Patrick Thornton | Filed under: Main | Tags: A4, A5, A6, Apple, Bob Mansfield, Craig Federighi, Eddy Cue, iOS, John Browett, NeXT, Scott Forstall, SpringBoard, Tim Cook | No Comments »
Did not expect to see this coming.
Well, John Browett I saw coming. His tenure as the head of Apple retail has been very tumultuous and there have been a lot of complaints in the less-than-a-year that he headed it up. He didn’t get what made Apple retail stores unique, and didn’t really have experience running a luxury brand. He tried to turn Apple’s retail stores into a nickle-and-dime operation, when the real allure was in the upscale, laid back experience mixed with great service.
Scott Forstall is much bigger news. He’s been with Steve Jobs and his companies ever since he graduated from Stanford. He started with NeXT and came over when Apple purchased NeXT. He was instrumental in bringing the NeXT core and APIs over to Mac OS and was the person who wanted Apple to adapt OS X for iOS instead of using Linux.
Forstall was Jobs’s right-hand software man. But Steve is no longer with us, and changes are afoot.
The press release doesn’t say one positive thing about Forstall. He was pushed out. Word on the street is that it’s related to Siri and Apple’s new Maps app. Both weren’t overly polished and remain buggy to this day.
Maybe Forstall also left because the company has changed so much in the past five years. Apple is primarily the world’s largest mobile company. But being a mobile company is so much me than just a mobile operating system; it’s also doing Web services, hardware and integration in larger ecosystems.
So what does this mean for Apple?
- Skeuomorphism is out at Apple — Jobs and Forstall were the big skeomorphism guys in Apple. Neither is around anymore. Expect to no longer see user interfaces that try to mimic real-world objects.
- The Jony Ive-ing of Apple’s UI/UX — Apple says that Ive will, “provide leadership and direction for Human Interface (HI) across the company in addition to his role as the leader of Industrial Design.” I’d expect to see the modern, clean lines of Ive’s design aesthetic being applied to iOS and OS X. The mobile OS that fits that description the best is Microsoft’s Windows 8 Metro UI. I expect to see less embellishment, cleaner lines and less faux textures. I also expect to see Apple’s UIs complimenting Apple’s hardware even better. But Ive is a hardware guy, and user experience and user design is really about how something works, not how it looks. But since mobile device design is so much about the marriage between hardware and software, doesn’t it make sense for one guy and his team to head up both?
- Silos being torn down — That seems to be the big message from today’s announcement. In addition to Ive handling hardware and software design, Senior Vice President, Mac Software Engineering Craig Federighi is now in charge of both iOS and OS X. Could this mean that they one day become one OS that works on both touchscreen and mouse and keyboard computing systems? Perhaps. In the short term, I think this means we’ll be seeing iOS and OS X sharing even more technology and looking more similar (which has been the big push with Lion and Mountain Lion). Did it really make sense for two different people to control Apple’s operating systems? It makes sense for one person to have the ultimate say over both and to have both teams work together.
- A more mobile focused company — Bob Mansfield stepped down as senior vice president of hardware engineering, but stayed on as a senior vice president of nothing. Originally the move was announced as a retirement, and maybe it was supposed to be, but Mansfield is staying on as the new senior vice president for technologies, a new group at Apple in charge of all wireless teams across the company, including semiconductor teams. Apple has made a big play with semiconductor technology with the A4 and A5, but the A6 is really a custom piece of hardware that differentiates Apple from competitors.
- iOS will see some big changes — Forstall lead the team that created the best mobile OS in the world. He has laid the foundation for a very successful future for iOS and Apple. But some people feel that iOS has become conservative. iOS has clung to the successful SpringBoard home screen focused on apps since the original iPhone, while competitors have begun integrating more information and services into home screens. Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 and 8 in particular offer home screens that are more flexible and powerful. A lot of people really like the simplicity of SpringBoard, but it was a design for much less powerful devices. It was the original design. The iPhone 5 is many times me powerful than the original iPhone. I think it’s likely we’ll see bigger changes in the jump from iOS 6 to 7 than we saw from iOS 5 to 6. This doesn’t mean that SpringBoard is going away, but iOS 6 was a very iterative change over iOS 5, and this space is so young that there are big gains to still be made.
Posted: October 21st, 2012 | Author: Patrick Thornton | Filed under: Main | Tags: mall, technology, University of Maryland-College Park | No Comments »
Note: One of my human-computer interaction classes is working on a project with an anthropology class and a landscape architecture class on redoing the the University of Maryland, College Park mall (a large green space in the center of campus), which is the largest campus mall in the country. My class is working in teams on proposals to use technology to improve the mall. I attended a session where the anthropology class presented their initial ethnographic findings on how and why students use the mall. This post is my notes and thoughts on the initial findings from that session. I’m working with two other students to propose several technology improvements to the mall, and we done our own ethnographic research into how and why people use the mall. By understanding how and why people do and don’t use the mall, we can better understand how to make the mall a better place that more people will want to use.
The mall is a central part of campus surrounded by academic buildings, one of the school’s libraries and the administration building. Because of this, there is a lot of through traffic from people crossing campus getting from one location to another. The anthropology students noted that the mall was a popular place to disseminate information: sidewalk chalk, information tables, information fairs, canvassers on the mall and more.
The mall is also somewhat popular for social activities (depending on your definition of popular for a public space, but at least in terms of University of Maryland public space popular, it is fairly popular). The center of the mall features a long fountain that students enjoy gathering around. The anthropology students witnessed the usual studying and people meeting around the fountain, but they also witnessed some more unique activities happening around the mall, particularly during off hours and on weekends.
They witnessed people swimming in the fountain after drinking. One person that was interviewed said it was sort of a freshmen tradition to come back to the mall and the fountain to meet up after going out for the night. The fountain is not particularly lit up at night, nor does it provide any sort of show to attract people, which some fountains have. Despite this, it’s a popular social attraction at night.
The fountain reigned big in the mind of interviewees. One of the groups of anthropology students noted that when they asked people to draw the mall for them, they made the fountain disproportionately big. Some of these drawings had the fountain almost taking up half of the drawing, despite the fountain being a relatively small fraction of the mall.
The fountain is an obvious attraction on the mall, but the anthropology students noted some issues with that part of the mall. One issue interviewees brought up was that they didn’t find the metal benches that ring the fountain to be comfortable. The benches get hot to the touch when it is hot out and they lack backs, making the benches uncomfortable even when the weather is nice.
The reason for not putting backs on the benches is that backless benches allow for people to face multiple directions. Some students can face the fountain, while others can face out to the rest of the mall for people watching. Another benefit of backless benches is that people can sit on both sides of the bench, allowing for more seating. This is popular in more dense, urban settings, but no one witnessed people sitting on benches back to back.
Instead, the anthropology students witnessed either pairs of people or solitary people on the benches. Because the benches lack backs and big arm rests, students took to using their backpacks as makeshift backrests.
The anthropology students witnessed other, more physical activities, such as capoeira, frisbee games, Quidditch, touch football, juggling and other athletic endeavors. The mall doesn’t really provide a lot of uninterrupted green space for a full-fledged soccer or football game, but it does have enough uninterrupted green space to allow for frisbee, Quidditch, smaller football games and other athletic activities.
The mall is a central location on campus, and an easy place to meet up for a quick game. The Quidditch team (yes, the game from Harry Potter) said they liked practicing on the mall because it gave them visibility and allowed them to recruit new people to the team. Other students appeared to use the mall as a public theater. Anthropology students noted guitar players, jugglers and other public performances.
While the anthropology students witnessed a lot of people using smartphones and other portable electronics, they did not witness a lot of people using laptops on the mall. Students surveyed about this complained of a lack of electrical outlets (there are none), and the bright light on the mall. Except for the allés ringing the mall, the mall has no shade, making it a difficult place to view a laptop screen.
The mall also doesn’t have tables with chairs on it, making it difficult for someone to spread out and use a laptop. Conversely, McKeldin Library, which sits on the mall, is filled with people on laptops.
The mall is an open, exposed place with little shelter from the sun and other elements, except on the outskirts where they are trees but no other form of shelter. On rainy days, the anthropology students witnessed few meetings or people stopping. There is real place to stop outdoors that is still covered, and the mall was mostly empty during classes on rainy days.
People both liked and disliked the formal, natural setting of the mall. One of the anthropology students said, “It’s one of the quasi-natural spaces on campus, and people find it relaxing.”
One of the students interviewed, however, said “the mall is simply aesthetic,” and that he didn’t find it to be the center of campus. The theme of the mall being the center of campus was brought up by several students that were interviewed by the anthropology class.
Some felt that the mall was indeed the center of campus, while others felt it was more the middle of campus, but not the true center. This second sentiment is because the mall is closer to humanities buildings and far away from some of the science buildings. If you’re a humanities student, you’re by the mall frequently, and it may indeed by the center of campus for you; if you’re in another type of major, you may not frequent the mall very often, especially since there is very little programming on the mall.
One of the areas that the anthology students seemed to differ in their findings from my classes findings was safety on the mall. The mall has diffuse moonlighting that is significantly different and less bright than traditional street lights for walking. My class found a lot of people who found the mall unsafe at night and thus didn’t want to spend time there after the sun went down. The anthropology students did not note the same degree of fear of the mall at night.
This appears to be because my class mostly interviewed people during the day time about their perceptions of the mall at night, while the anthropology class interviewed people who were out on the mall at night. The people who do make it out to the mall at night don’t find it unsafe, but a lot of students have the perception that it is unsafe, so they don’t come out at night.
Safety and lighting appear to be two areas that technology really could help bring more vitality to the mall. But just getting more people to the mall will raise the perception of its safety.
The anthropology students did not witness a lot of people using technology on the mall, and neither did my group when we were doing our own research. But technology and public spaces goes far beyond personal technology. How can we use technology to get more people engaged with the mall? And what kinds of technology make sense for a public space?
Ultimately, like my team’s findings, the anthropology students noted a lot of people crossing through the mall and not stopping. The mall is used by a lot of students as a convenient way to cross campus. But many of those people aren’t stopping to make further use of the mall.
I work in Washington, DC, and have quick access to several public spaces. Despite these spaces being much smaller than the mall on UMD’s campus, they are much more heavily used. It’s common to see someone passing through one of them and then decide to stop.
My group is trying to figure out how do we get more people to stop and use the mall. With our three classes combined, we are looking at ways to alter the built environment, programming, landscaping and technology of the mall to make it a more inviting place to stop and use.
Posted: October 7th, 2012 | Author: Patrick Thornton | Filed under: Main | Tags: Apple Extended Keyboard, iPad 3, Magic Mouse, Magic Trackpad, Retina MacBook Pro | No Comments »
This is my new computer setup now that I’ve ditched the Mac Mini and dual 22-inch monitor setup. New setup is a 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, 22-inch monitor, iPad 3, Magic Mouse and a nice 22-year-old Apple Extended Keyboard.
This setup is a bit different than I predicted a few months ago, because of the Retina MacBook Pro. I had predicted that a Macbook Air would be at the heart of my new setup. Once I saw and used the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, I was hooked. Yes, it’s a bit heavier, but the screen is gorgeous and the speed has really come in handy.
I have also not gotten a 27-inch Thunderbolt Display, and I’m still on the fence about it. I’m not sure if I want to drop $1000 a monitor that has a much lower pixel density than my laptop monitor. If I had purchased a MacBook Air, the Thunderbolt display would have been a no-brainer, but all of this thinking was in a pre-Retina Display world. My 22-inch monitor is several years old and not particularly good (it’s not an IPS display), but it works fine as a second monitor to drop stuff on when I need it.
Apple will eventually release Retina Thuderbolt Displays. I don’t believe my laptop will have enough GPU power to power a display with as many pixels as a 27-inch Thunderbolt Display. Perhaps Apple will come out with a smaller Thuderbolt Display that has less pixels. I am interested in the idea of a high resolution external display that has a dock on the back of that. My setup would certainly benefit from that.
Apple could put a GPU in the display itself, allowing for more machines to power a hypothetical 27-inch Thunderbolt Display. This idea, however, has not been done in the consumer space, and I’m not sure how the latency would work out. This idea does give us the ability for small and light machines to be able to work with really high resolution large monitors.
I’m not that high on the Magic Mouse, because it frequently does things that I don’t want it to do. It’s hard to get used to a mouse that has a touch surface, and after a few years of use, I still make inadvertent touch gestures. I may pick up a Magic Trackpad and use the Magic Mouse without touch mode for those times that a mouse would really come in handy.
My computer setup is always in flux, but I’m pretty happy with this one. I really like the Macbook Pro. I’m not sure why I decided to go without a personal laptop before. That’s just not a wise decision in 2012.
Posted: September 16th, 2012 | Author: Patrick Thornton | Filed under: Main | Tags: background APIs, iOS 6, iPhone 5, smartphones | 1 Comment »
1. The most compelling reason to upgrade to the iPhone 5 is the camera. I think this is true for anyone looking to upgrade from an older smartphone. The camera technology on the top-tier smartphones has really taken off in the last few years, and the iPhone 5 should be at the top for camera quality. My iPhone 4 is the No. 1 camera in my life, despite not being as good as I’d like. While I really like the photos I get from my DSLR, the convience of having a camera with me at all times trumps the camera quality from a DSLR. The iPhone 4S was a big upgrade over the iPhone 4 in terms of camera quality, and I hope the iPhone 5 takes a bit better photos still, particularly in low light situations where smartphone cameras have traditionally struggled. There is no such thing as a camera that takes too good of photos. I don’t see a device supplanting smartphone for photo taking anytime soon, and as long as that is the case, we need much better smartphone cameras. These are devices we are using to document our lives, and these photos need to stand the test of time. If I get a new smartphone this year it will because I want to be able to better capture the important moments in my life, the spontaneous moments in life and the quirky moments I never want to forget.
2. The screen is bigger. I’ve been someone who has argued against the need for bigger and bigger smartphone screens, especially since the reason for bigger screens originally began as a way to fit larger LTE chips into phones (and the larger batteries needed to support the power draw). A lot of people have smaller hands. Older people have less dexterity and a phone that is smaller is easier to operate as a touchscreen. I’m very curios to see how the iPhone 4 screen is to use. Is it still in the usability sweet spot or has it begun to creep into the two-big range. Apple didn’t make the screen any wider, just taller, unlike other manufactures. Apple claims that just making the phone taller keeps it comfortable and easy to use because it is width that makes phones too hard to use one handed. I’ve found many of the larger screen smartphones to be uncomfrotable to reach all areas of the screen (and I’m a 6’1 adult male). Will not making the screen wider keep this phone comfortable and easy to use? A 4 inch screen isn’t that much bigger than the 3.5 inch screen in the iPhone 4S. Maybe Apple has found the upper limits of a bigger screen that remains comfortable.
3. I hope Apple keeps around 3.5-inch screens for years to come. My hunch is that 3.5-inch screens will still remain easier to use for children, people with smaller hands and people with less dexterity and motor skills. In addition, the smaller screen allows for smaller and cheaper devices. Perhaps 3.5-inch iPhones could target the lower ends of the market. Apple is keeping around the 3.5-inch iPhone 4 and 4S, but I hope they continue to develop feature iPhones that have both the new larger screen and the older 3.5-inch screen.
4. What is the Apple A6 based on? On this week’s podcast I speculated that it’s either an upclocked ARM A9 Cortex (the CPU base used in Apple’s A5) or the new ARM A15. Anand Tech is saying that it could be Apple’s own ARM core design. Apple has been making their own SoC for two years, but developing their own ARM core would be a big step forward in creating custom silicon that only Apple has access to. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. If this CPU is twice as fast as the A5 in the iPhone 4S, while allowing for better battery life, that’s all that matters. What matters is how responsive the OS is, how well apps and games run and the total user experience.
5. A metal back is most welcome, even though the iPhone 4 and 4S are stunning devices. It’s a timeless design. But metal, especially unibody metal, is much more rugged than glass, even the Gorilla variety. The iPhone 5 should prove much harder to break than the iPhone 5. And while this metal back may be easier to scratch than the outgoing glass back, I find that metal that gets scratched up acquires a bit of a patina. It shows that you’re using your device. It shows that your device has been around and is surviving. But the metal holds up and stays strong despite the imperfections.
6. LTE isn’t something that most people will care that much about, at least in the U.S. The U.S. is a very suburban country. Most smartphones users find themselves on wifi a lot because of their living, work and transportation habits. If you drive to work and live in the suburbs, you’ll most likely be on wifi at home and wifi at work. But if you take public transportation and find yourself going out of a lot (people who live in urban areas tend to stay home less because they trade larger personal living arraignments for access to third places) LTE will be a welcome change. LTE can deliver wifi-like speeds and better. LTE development is still in the nascent stages. As LTE is deployed wider and its speeds get faster, it’ll be harder to settle for 3G speeds. But I think tablets and personal computers will benefit more from LTE than smartphones.
7. Personal hotspot just got a lot more useful. The biggest advantage of LTE is that users can now have a really fast connection for when they’re using the personal hotspot feature to share their Internet with other devices. If you’re someone who relies heavily on using your smartphone data plan to send Internet to your laptop to do work on the go, getting wifi-caliber speeds will be a big help. 3G isn’t bad, and in some situations it can be pretty fast, but there are times when you need a lot of speed.
8. The smartphone market is reaching adulthood. The iPhone 5 looks to be a great computing device, but it’s not some huge revolutionary leap over older iPhones or other smartphones. It’s just a better phone. It’s faster, has a bigger screen, has a better camera, has next generation networking and other features, all while being lighter. It’s just a better device than the iPhone 4S. Looks at how much better it is than the original iPhone from five years ago. Each new years won’t bring smartphones that totally blow away the years before, but when you look back over multiple years, you’ll see how far the market has come.
9. Smartphones will continue to improve year-over-year, just as personal computers have, but the real gains in the coming years will be from software. New APIs and features in smartphones OSes will allow smartphones to do new things and enable apps to become more powerful. iOS 6 still lacks background APIs and syncing that could really benefit third party apps. Third party apps in iOS also can’t really share data with one another. These under-the-hood enhancements are needed in iOS, and will eventually come to the platform as it continues to mature. Next year’s iPhone will be faster, have new features, etc. etc. etc. but the real gains will be in iOS 7. Smartphone OSes have a lot more maturing to do than smartphone hardware.
10. I’m glad Apple didn’t change the design of the iPhone that much. I know some tech pundits get bored using similar looking and feeling phones and want to see something radical, but the iPhone 4/4S design is a classic design. It’s incredible looking. It feels great. It makes for a very beautiful and usable product. The iPhone 5 keeps much of the same design language as the previous two iPhones, but uses more aluminum to strengthen and lighten the phone. This looks like another classic design.
Posted: September 8th, 2012 | Author: Patrick Thornton | Filed under: Main | Tags: academic reading, books, college, graduate school, Instapaper, iPad, novels, online journals, smartphones, tablets, textbooks | 2 Comments »
How much longer do textbooks have in the classroom?
There has been a big push to digitize textbooks, add in more interactivity and make them available in new ways. But is the concept of the textbook itself fading?
I’m taking two courses currently in graduate school. One has a standard textbook that is only available in paper format. The other has no textbooks and all the readings are either websites or PDFs. We’re clearly in a transitory phase, but I think the future is clear: packaged textbooks are on the way out.
Class readings, however, on a desktop or even a laptop don’t present a good user experience. We’re used to and enjoy the experience of reading books and textbooks. We’re used to the crisp typography. People can get lost in books for hours.
How many people really enjoy reading a 30-page PDF on their computer? A paper textbook wins that contest every time, even if the content is identical. You can’t just lay back and enjoy reading on a laptop like you can with a paper textbook, and most laptops are much harder on the eyes than print. We can’t underestimate how much harsher traditional computing displays are on the human eye than print is.
But we now have better options than our computing forefathers. I do my course readings on my iPad. It’s high pixel density display looks very similar to print, and is easy on the eyes. It’s a pleasure to use for long-form reading, and I can carry many textbooks worth of information in a small package.
Using an app like Instapaper, I can save the Web and journal articles to read later and throw them into a folder to keep them all together. I also have a device that allows me to look up further information while I’m reading. If I come across something in a paper textbook that I don’t understand, there isn’t much I can do. On my iPad, I can get out of my readings and search the Web for answers.
Journal articles are increasingly found online, professors and researchers are starting blogs and websites and academic-focused projects are popping up all over the Web. Where once textbooks were required for learning in most subjects, the Web and the Internet give us access to information from all over the world, across disciplines and cultures.
Professors can mix and match journal articles, blog posts, podcasts, news stories, etc. to form an up-to-date curriculum. They can easily add in new readings during the semester if something comes up. The idea of a textbook being out of date doesn’t apply in a world where professors can pick and choose from the best of the Web.
As education becomes more expensive, we can’t forget the savings to students. The textbook industry is a racket that sees students pay hundreds of dollars per semester on books and get back tens of dollars after the semester is over.
The Web is full of great free resources. It’s easier for a professor to start a Website than it is to write a textbook. It’s also a lot easier to get feedback and iterate with a website than it is with a textbook.
Tablets and smartphones are helping to make this a reality in a way that wasn’t possible five years ago. Laptops aren’t good enough. They’re not great for long-form reading. The iPad with Retina Display is, and we’ll see more high pixel density displays on the horizon that help make reading on computing devices a lot more pleasurable.
One of the things that I really like about using Web readings for teaching is these readings allow students to interact with authors. A professor who makes blog posts instead of book chapters can allow people to comment on his work. Students can poke and prod and the professor can respond. Textbooks will never offer that experience.
Now imagine a student asked to read five different blog posts from five different professors from around the world. In one week, a student has the ability to interact with five different experts. Blogs, websites and social media allow for a kind of free-flowing interactivity that can bring vigor to the learning experience.
We needed better, more portable and more readable devices to make this happen. Now that we are finally starting to see them, I believe we’ll see a lot more professors and teachers assigning students Web readings. As students take to this kind of reading, we’ll see more professors writing blog posts instead of book chapters.
Maybe the next step to taking the Web reading experience to the next level is for someone to make an app that allows students to group Web readings and journal articles together by g\class and project, while also allowing for easy social annotations. The biggest thing missing from Web readings is that Web browsers don’t allow for notes and highlighting. Let’s make this happen.