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Paper prototyping: A primer

Credit: Flickr user Samuel Mann

Credit: Flickr user Samuel Mann

Many great designs, products, websites and projects begin with paper.

And your ideas should begin with paper too.

Yes, it’s nice to start building a website or multimedia project and just see where it goes, but starting with rapid prototyping can help weed out bad ideas or help improve good ideas that are hampered by poor implementation. With paper prototyping, a rapid prototyping tool, anyone can make a prototype of an interactive design.

If a project can’t survive the paper prototyping stage, it almost assuredly would not be a good product once built. Paper prototyping saves money and time. And paper prototyping, as opposed to just making static mockups with paper or Photoshop, allows real users to test your website long before you get to the Photoshop and eventual programming stages.

Paper prototyping is also a way that non-designers and non-technical people can be involved in the design and development process. A lot of people have great ideas, but they can’t build the final product. But not everyone needs to be able to build the final product.

Bringing more people into the design and development process leads to better products. Innovation should not be the province of a small group of people, and paper prototyping can help democratize design, development and R&D.

A little background: Paper prototyping is a popular tool in the human-computer interaction field and became popular when major tech companies began adopting the technique. Now it is a tool you see throughout companies of all different sizes.

Paper prototyping is a user-centered design method. User-centered design involves users in the design process and can help lead to products that users prefer. User-centered design, however, is not about asking users what they want and expecting them to be designers, but rather it is about involving them in the design process and getting feedback.

Henry Ford is quoted as saying, probably apocryphally, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” People at that time didn’t know they wanted an automobile; they just knew they wanted faster and easier ways to get around.

That’s the essence of user-centered design and usability testing. We observe people using our designs, interview them, give them surveys and use our expertise to figure out designs that meet those needs. We’re not asking people to design their own products.

Fast, cheap and early user testing

You can never do enough user testing, and user testing gets more expensive the later in the design and development process. User testing is best done throughout the entire design and development process, but you should get started early. Getting users in early can help avoid major mistakes that take a lot of time and money to fix later. Or, worse, major mistakes that never get fixed that mar a product forever.

Wait until your new website is built to test it with users? User testing will take time and cost a lot of money and it may be difficult to make substantive changes. If you wait that long you may build in serious usability issues that may never get fixed.

Imagine you spent months building a new website and you are already over budget once the website launches. You didn’t do any user testing before it launched. Well, where is the money going to come from to make fixes to the website? Building in user testing from the beginning will save you money and ensure that major mistakes are avoided. Start with paper prototyping.

Conducting user testing with paper costs very little money and can lead to changes that make the final product much better. Need to totally rethink your website navigation system? It’s a lot easier to do that with paper than with a live website with complex code to rework.

The biggest thing you are testing with a paper prototype is interaction design. What happens when a user clicks on that button on your website? How does a user find and buy a book on your online bookstore? How does a person sign up for your newsletter?

Wait, how can paper simulate interaction design?

How do you simulate the experience of using a website with paper? There is no keyboard, mouse or trackpad. One of the designers of a paper prototype serves as the computer and responds to user taps. Below you’ll see some videos where people are acting as the computer during a paper prototype usability test.

A user taps a link with her finger, and computer person places a new piece of paper to simulate navigating to a new part of the website. This can also be used to simulate JavaScript popovers.

The video below shows a paper prototype for a blood testing kiosk. Paper prototyping doesn’t just have to be used for websites and multimedia features, but that is the way most of you will end up using paper prototyping. The test below shows how several people used this prototype and includes an interview portion at the end with users about their experiences.

I like that the testers even gave the test takers a credit card to use to further make this prototype seem realistic. You’ll notice that several users were tested for this prototype, and it’s highly recommended that designers test their prototypes with several potential users. How many tests is enough?

If the first usability test with a user shows a show-stopping bug, stop testing and fix that with your paper prototype first.  There is no sense in testing an obviously broken design again. But let’s say your prototype generally works and you’re looking for ways to improve and iterate your design. I’d go with at least three users.

You might be thinking, why not 10, 20 or more? This should not be the only time you are testing your design. You’ll want to save some of those users for future iterations of your prototype, especially as you work your way up to medium and high fidelity prototypes. If you have a large pool of testers for every phase of your design, going with 5-10 each time would most likely be more illuminating.

This video shows the most impressive paper prototype I have ever seen. It’s a paper prototype for, a Web mail service. Paper can simulate fairly complex user interfaces and interaction methods.

The photo below is a high-fidelity prototype of a mobile news site that I built with HTML, CSS and JavaScript. It started off as a sketch and went on to higher fidelity prototypes along the way. I user tested each step along the way from paper to the high-fidelity prototype. Because of the user testing I’ve done along the way, I feel confident that if it were to launch as a product, it wouldn’t have major usability issues.

That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t need to do additional usability testing, but rather my testing could be focused on improving an already solid design, rather than fixing a troubled one.


 The (basic) tools of paper prototyping

  • White printer paper
  • Pens
  • Markers
  • Glue sticks
  • Clear tape
  • Construction paper
  • Post-it notes (various sizes can be handy, but not required)
  • Tab dividers (make excellent navigation elements)
  • Scissors

These are just the basic tools. You can also print graphics and other interface objects off with a computer, but that isn’t necessary. You can use physical objects as well to help mockup elements.

A lot of people don’t recommend using rulers. I’m not dogmatic about this, but it’s important to keep in mind that you’re not trying for perfection here. You don’t want to slow yourself down by trying to make every line straight. It’s more important to spend your time getting feedback from users than it is to make a low-fidelity design look a little better.

Eventually your design will become higher fidelity, and that’s the appropriate time to care more about making sure the visual aspects look as good as possible.

How to conduct a usability test with a paper prototype

  • Find users —These should not be other people working on the project. People with as little knowledge as possible about your design and work will provide the best feedback.
  • Assign a person to be the computer — If you built the design entirely yourself, you’re the computer that the person interacts with. You’ll want to grab a friend to record the testing sessions so you can watch them later. If you have a team, assign one person to make your prototype respond to user inputs.
  • Record the test — Recording a test is recommended. This doesn’t replace observing the test, as you’ll see below, but there are several reasons to record a usability test. You can refer back to it later, you can show people who didn’t observe the test how it went. If you’re trying to convince someone that a design needs to be changed, showing them a video of users struggling with a design is a great place to start.
  • Conduct the test — Explain what users are supposed to do. Give clear tasks and scenarios. Let’s say we were testing Here is a scenario you could give a user: “You are a big fantasy book fan. You just heard a new illustrated edition of The Hobbit came out in October 2013. Find the book, put it in your shopping cart and buy it.”
  • Think aloud  Have users think aloud while going through your test by speaking what they are doing and thinking. Are they confused? Why are they clicking on this? What do they expect to happen when they do that? This will help you understand what they are thinking while they use your prototype. It will also help you formulate questions to ask them when they are done.
  • Observe — Even though you are asking users to think aloud, they may not say everything you need to know. Users may be struggling with a site but still tell you they think it is relatively easy to use. This can be because users want to appease you or because they don’t want to appear to not be able to work a website. Regardless, observe what is happening. You’ll learn a lot by seeing how well users can complete various tasks with your prototype. Remember, you’re testing your design, not the user. I always make this clear to users.
  • Debrief — Ask users what they thought of the prototype, what they thought went well, what they thought didn’t go well, how they felt using your prototype, etc. If you noticed a user struggling with part of the prototype, specifically ask them about that.
  • Create a list of issues to fix — Based on the feedback that you got from users and what you observed while watching users, create a list of issues to fix. If there are a lot of issues, you may want to modify or create a new paper prototype. If it went fairly smoothly, it’s time to create a higher-fidelity prototype and get additional user feedback later.

Testing early and often saves money and time. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

More resources and videos

Unlocked phones are the way to go


My wife and I got new iPhone 5s(es) this month, an upgrade from the iPhone 4S models we got two years ago. Our contract was up and we certainly could have bled another year out of them, but two things were working to make sure we upgraded. First, we needed more storage thanks to the explosion of baby photos we’ve been taking. Second, the more research I did on carrier practices the more I saw it’s a terrible deal to not upgrade.

This post is about what I found in my research and where the savings are. The tl;dr version is that carrier contracts almost guarantee you’ll upgrade every time you’re eligible if you have any sense, because otherwise you’re just giving these companies free money.

Most of us roughly know what our monthly costs are for cell service, and we’re also used to getting either a free phone at upgrade (if you get an older model) or one with a down payment if it’s a nicer phone. What’s hidden in a contract cell phone bill, though, is the monthly subsidy that’s built into our phone plan price. The subsidy is used to pay the carrier back for the full cost of the phone. What happens when your two-year contract is up and your phone is paid off? One of two things:

  1. You upgrade, starting over the process of down payment and subsidized cell phone plan rates. The only extra cost here is an extra down payment per phone every two years, which seems like something you’d like to avoid until you consider Option 2.
  2. You don’t upgrade, helping you avoid the down payment of $100-$200 but your monthly plan rate doesn’t change. That’s right, you keep paying the phone subsidy even when the phone is paid for. As a matter of perspective, for my wife and I this meant paying $50 more per month than we should have. Eight months of doing this, and you’ve paid the equivalent of a down payment on new phones.

As an example: My wife and I had AT&T. We got two 16 GB iPhone 4S models two years ago at a cost of $199 per phone. Over the next 24 months on our contract, we paid about $130 for the two lines with their cheapest calling and data family plan. By the time we were done it broke down to $40 a month or 1 GB of shared data, plus $45 per phone. Now, notice there is no charge for the phone subsidy. It’s built right in. So when our contract expired, I tried both the AT&T Store and calling customer service to ask if they had a cheaper plan for off-contract phones, which is what they were at that point. I was told no.

As I did my research, I realized how crazy this was for AT&T to hold this position. I found a non-contract price for two unlocked iPhones on T-Mobile for $80 a month. We ended up two 1 GB of data split between two phones (500 MB each rather than sharing 1 GB). That’s a difference of $50 a month, and that’s where you’re seeing the true cost of the subsidy built into phone plan prices. If you go with option 2 above and don’t upgrade, yeah you’re saving around $400 in down payments but the downside is much worse. First, you’re going to upgrade eventually, meaning you’re going to pay that down payment eventually. It’s something of a sunk cost and your only real control is when you pay it. Second, every month you stay on an expired contract without upgrading it’s costing you around $40-$50 in money you’re just handing to your carrier for nothing in return.

So we did something I’ve never done. We bought GSM unlocked phones that are usable on any GSM carrier (more on that in a bit). Right now when you get an iPhone from a carrier they are locked so that they’re only usable on that carrier (many carriers will unlock it for you after your contract is up, but the rules vary widely). Instead of a down payment and then subsidy in our bill, we pay for the full cost of the phone. In turn, we are able to shop for a plan without a subsidy and benefit from the price. The chart below is a look at the true cost of an unlocked phone vs. locked phone over two years. That time frame is a good comparison because contracts last two years and you’re locked in on price, so it was useful to compare an unlocked phone cost over that timeframe.

Unlocked vs. Locked iPhone pricing comparison over 24 months

2 Unlocked Phones
2 Carrier Locked Phones
Phone down payment to carrier (32 GB iPhone 5s) $0 $598
Monthly plan $1920 (a) $3,120 (b)
Unlocked phone purchase $1498 (c) $0
Sales taxes at point of purchase $120 (d) $32 (e)
Carrier, local taxes on monthly bill $288 (f) $480 (g)
TOTAL $3826 $4230
Monthly savings for every month past 24 months $50 $0 (h)
(a) Based on T-Mobile Simple Choice price of $50 for the first line and $30 for the second line for a total of $80 a month. At that tier, each line gets 500 MB of data and then the speed is slowed for any overages (but you will not be charged more). The plan includes unlimited talk/text.
(b) Based on AT&T Family Share price of $40 for 1 GB of shared data per month plus unlimited talk/text, plus a cost of $45 per month for each smartphone on the plan. Total monthly cost is $130 for two phones, and price in the above column is based on 24 months (2-year contract). Data overages incur a $15 one-time fee for each instance.
(c) Based on the cost of two iPhone 5s models at $798 each. In our situation, we are paying off that cost in 24 installments over two years thanks to Apple financing, which got us the phones at 0% as long as they’re paid off within 24 months.
(d) Computed from purchase of two unlocked phones at full price.
(e) Computed from the down payment purchase
(f) Based on the average 15% sales tax on the carrier plan of $80/month, multiplied by 24 months
(g) Based on the average 15% sales tax on the carrier plan of $130/month, multiplied by 24 months
(h) One caveat: When your contract is up, it’s possible to get your carrier to unlock your phone and then shop around to a carrier that has Bring Your Own Phone pricing (or switch to a plan with your own carrier that has no subsidy built in). This usually is not automatic.

So you can see a few things here. First, over two years you save $404. Big deal, huh? Yeah, it’s a big deal. With an unlocked phone, every month past two years that I keep my phone I’m saving $50 a month. Going even 7 months past 2 years would yield me enough savings to be able to pay for one upgraded phone in cash. With a carrier locked phone, you do have the option to unlock it and go to another carrier, but you’ll always be playing behind. If you leave it locked and simply upgrade, you pretty much have to do it when your contract expires or you’re losing even more money than you already are. In addition, on our old AT&T plan we were paying for data overages 3-4 months a year, so that’s extra cost right there, whereas with T-Mobile they’ll just slow your data speed.

One of the benefits of unlocked phone other than the obvious financial benefits is you have freedom to choose when you upgrade. This is a big deal to me. Smartphones are getting better each generation, but the pace of improvement is more around the internal hardware these days. With the first iPhones, upgrading after 2 years was something of a no-brainer due to the camera and chip improvements, not to mention upgrades such as 3G to LTE. Now, though, I can see it being useful to go 3-4 years if possible between upgrades. The pace just isn’t quick enough anymore to justify a new phone every two years.

By the way, this doesn’t just apply to iPhones 5s models. The iPhone 5c also has an unlocked model for a cheaper price, and many Android phones are available as unlocked. My favorite affordable Android phone is the Nexus 4; I got one of those for my Multimedia course for about $350 and it was unlocked for any GSM carrier. Using the chart above, we would have paid off two Nexus 4 phones in just over a year. (UPDATE: Google just announced the Nexus 5. An unlocked version is available for $349 for a 16 GB model and $399 for a 32 GB model – usable on Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T, so you have some carrier choice if you go with a big carrier that has a Bring Your Own price (without subsidy) or go with a Wal-Mart Straight Talk option).

Your leverage is that the savings are a sliding scale, and it works along two factors: (1) upfront cost for the phone, and (2) number of devices on your plan.

  1. Go with a cheaper model like the iPhone 5c or a Nexus 4, and you pay it off faster, giving your more months in that 24-month period by which to accrue savings via the cheaper plan.
  2. The more handsets you have on your plan, generally the greater the savings. If I was on an individual plan going from AT&T to T-Mobile, I’d save $20 a month; with two people, we’re saving about $50 a month.

So is the switch useful for you to think about? Here are some of the major things you’re going to want to research.

1. Price it out

You can use the table above as a guide. I priced it out for two people. Do the math for however many handsets you have. From my own looking around, the more handsets you have the more stark the savings can be. Consider starting out by carrier unlocking your phones and switching to a cheaper plan to give yourself some savings cash to pay for those phones up front.

Consider the sunk cost of paying for phones up front, but ask about financing options. T-Mobile will let you break the payments up over 24 months if you buy the unlocked phone from them. We got ours direct from Apple, which offered 0% financing over 24 months. We essentially are paying a subsidy for two years, but that’s a financed cost that goes away when it’s paid off.

2. Know your protocols

In the United States, phones work on two different wireless protocols: GSM and CDMA. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM (as do most countries around the globe, making it a very attractive phone for people who travel) whereas Sprint and Verizon use CDMA. What you should know is that Apple right now is not selling an unlocked CDMA phone, but Verizon in particularly is good about letting you unlock a phone when the contract is up. Once a CDMA phone is unlocked, the past two iPhone models have been usable on either CDMA or GSM networks because it is a true world phone (I don’t know of any Android phone that does this), but you can’t buy a true universal unlocked phone as of yet. An unlocked GSM phone, which is all you can buy from Apple, will not work on CDMA at all.

Short version: Verizon is great once it’s unlocked, but you have to go through the contract first. If you want the bigger savings, you’ll need to switch to a GSM carrier so you can buy an unlocked phone upfront.

3. Look beyond the Big 4

All four carriers rent network space to smaller carriers. You may have heard of Wal-Mart’s Straight Talk plan, or Cricket Wireless, or AIO (and this is just scratching the surface). None of these companies built their own network. They’re renting space. But a lot of them will welcome your unlocked phone and all you need to do is buy a SIM card. The upshot is you get the benefits of a big carrier’s coverage map but you don’t pay subsidy prices. The downside to these are that they don’t have storefronts, and so when something goes wrong the customer service isn’t great. Most of the problems seem to be around porting your phone number to the new carrier. When a Big 4 carrier loses it, they can work with you. When one of the smaller carriers loses it, the complaints I read mostly centered around the difficulty in even reaching someone to help solve the issue. Additionally, while they might advertise LTE speeds for data it’s not guaranteed. Look for “up to LTE” verbiage as your tipoff.

Still, the smaller carriers have good pricing. Straight Talk was a flat $45 per phone rate for unlimited everything, and you can use them on Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T. AIO was about $40 a month, and they just got bought by AT&T so hopefully that means the carrier is planning a non-subsidy option somewhere. The things to research with smaller carriers are the price (obviously), talk/text prices, data cost (unlimited with throttling or do they charge for overages) and whether you are able to port your phone number. But even bigger, look at their coverage map and what network they’re on. If they’re a CDMA network you’re going to need the right phone.

The key to making this cost-effective for you is to reduce that monthly plan cost as much as possible. That’s the beauty of unlocked phones, so leverage it to the degree you’re comfortable. The major downside differences, as I said before, compared to the Big 4 are customer service and data speeds.

OK, so you’re ready to go. Here’s what I’d do:

  1. When your contract is up, call your carrier and ask if they’ll unlock your current phone. Even if they charge a small fee, it’s worth it. From there, you can shop around to a cheaper unsubsidized plan and keep your phone (and then you’re saving right away), or you can still do an upgrade as outlined below and still have a backup phone in case you lose your new one. We did this with our 4S models so we have some peace of mind. But if your contract is up, it’s a no-brainer to get them unlocked and keep the phone if you’re happy with it, because you can shop for non-subsidy pricing and save right away, allowing you to bank money for an unlocked phone down the road. (Side note: Right now, T-Mobile is really attractive to switch to with either an unlocked phone fresh of contract or a new unlocked phone because they’re making the pricing no-nonsense and they just offered free text/data in 100 overseas countries. The one thing you’ll want to check is coverage maps because they aren’t great in rural areas. But the plans with the most savings as of this writing are either in non-Big-4 carriers or on T-Mobile.)
  2. Pick your unlocked phone model. Make sure to note whether it’s GSM or CDMA so you know your switching options.
  3. Price it out on your network as well as others that are allowed by that phone model. Look at smaller carriers. Ask your current carrier if they have a “bring your own phone” price that is cheaper than plans where you get a phone from the carrier. Double check their price against online prices that get you a subsidized phone and do the math over the life of the contract – you’d be surprised how often they’ll mislead you. But if they do have a cheaper option (as of this writing, only T-Mobile does) then you can save a bundle without having to go through the pain of switching.
  4. Check with your carrier to make sure they will support your chosen phone. Even if it’s got the right protocol, the phone might not connect. The 4S, for example, doesn’t work on T-Mobile – only the 5, 5c, and 5s.
  5. Pick your network. Find out what kind of SIM card is needed for the protocol (GSM/CDMA) it uses and be absolutely certain your chosen phone will work on that protocol.
  6. Buy your phone.
  7. Buy your SIM card and activate it. Tell them you want to move your current phone number on to the new plan you’re setting up. Do not call your carrier and cancel your plan before this is all set up, as you could lose your number.
  8. Once your phone is working on the new network, find out if you have to call and cancel on your old carrier. With AT&T it was automatic once the number was ported, but be sure to check within a few days to be sure. But either way, be sure to be certain everything is working well with the new carrier.
  9. I recommend doing what we’re doing: bank the savings into an unlocked phone fund. Sit on it until upgrade time. Wash, rinse, repeat and you’ll never have to borrow money for a phone again.

That’s it, lots of info there. I may update this as we go along. I can tell you we just switched from AT&T to T-Mobile and it’s been flawless. We unlocked our 4S models before switching, and they are usable on something like Straight Talk if we need a backup. Moreover, if T-Mobile’s service ends up being bad we aren’t bound to them by a contract.

Our current plan is to keep these phones three years. That would be $1000 in savings by the end of the third year, which is about two-thirds the cost of new iPhones. If we did another 3-year cycle, the cash savings would then pay for both phones. After that, we’re not paying for phones and we’re saving extra money every month that can be spent on other things.

Some of you might be wondering about the early-upgrade plans carriers are offering. Those are an even worse deal than contracts, for the most part. Unless you’re a Sprint customer, forget about it.

The curious case of sharing on Facebook (sometimes it comes with a price)

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.


Long-term reviews

This keyboard is 23-years old. Our long-term review would basically say that this is an awesome keyboard.

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.


Retina/HiDPI displays will reduce eyestrain and should lead to more reading


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 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.”

USA Today usability study: Better than most news websites but could use some iterating

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.

Key observations:

Design comments: Users found the site to be clean, easy to navigate, airy and well laid out. One participant compared the design to, 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, “Unlike USA Today, there is no rhyme or reason of what [] 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.

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.

System strengths

  • 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.

System weaknesses

  • 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.

Suggested improvements

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., 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.

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.

From low-fidelity paper design to high-fidelity prototype

I’ve been working on a new mobile design prototype for Science News for Kids. I started with a sketch book and a pen and ended up with a high-fidelity prototype using HTML, CSS and Javascript. Along the way I made high-fidelity wireframes with graphics editing program Pixelmater, created my initial prototype with code, did a usability study, iterated and this is a near final version of the prototype.

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.

Analysis: Scott Forstall and retail chief John Browett out at Apple


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.

How people use the University of Maryland, College Park mall

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.


My new computer setup

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.