Innovation where tech meets design

Friday 12th September, 2008

I’ve recently discovered the work of Jonathan Feinburg, father, drummer, and IBM Researcher. His projects include Wordle and the Alphabet Synthesis Machine.

Wordle is an app that takes a passage of text and creates a word cloud based on your design sensibilities. The Alphabet Synthesis Machine takes a similar approach to designing characters for a fictional alphabet, taking a seed drawing and evolving that according to your constraints.

A word cloud create from the text of this post

A word cloud create from the text of this post

It’s really comforting to know that there are people out there who can create interesting technology that’s easy to just pick up and play with. My over-arching experience using these tools is one of discovery, and enjoyment.

Even though I have no practical use for his creations, I’ll go back and play with them because they’re beautiful.

I think there’s a lesson in there for those of us who are involved in the creation of user interfaces in the commercial world.

More Outlook Insanity

Thursday 7th August, 2008

A real gem from Outlook this morning. It’s been sending automated emails (SVN commit notices if you’re interested) from people in the office to my junk mail folder.

Marking those emails as “not junk” seemed to have no effect whatsoever, other than popping up a dialogue box which promised to move the email to my inbox (it didn’t). Subsequent emails still went to my junk mail folder.

Naively I thought I’d add the addresses of my colleagues to my “safe senders list” so that they didn’t go to the junk folder.

You’d think that’d just add the sender to my safe senders list, right? Wrong :o)

Apparently the sender is from within my organisation, so I can’t add them to my safe senders list. Instead I’ll have to spend more of my life working around Outlook’s bad design. Today it made three mistakes that got in the way of my productivity:

  1. Sending useful email (that I’ve set up rules to filter) to the junk folder
  2. Failing to mark them as not junk despite explicit commands
  3. Putting up a comedy alert message instead of adding those users to my safe senders list

I don’t mean to pick on Outlook, it’s just that I have to use it all the time, and it gets in the way so often and for such daft reasons that I feel compelled to verbalise it. I’m sure the Outlook team are nice guys.

The User Experience of DVDs

Wednesday 23rd April, 2008

I’m a big film fan. I have a fairly substantial collection of DVDs. Some of them I watch once and then leave to gather dust, some of them I watch obsessively, again and again, like a child that’s just discovered the word “poo” and thinks it’s so hilarious it’s worth repeating until puberty.

Some things about the DVD format I love.

  • You get better quality than VHS
  • Control over audio and subtitles
  • You can fit more on a shelf than with VHS
  • Sometimes (sometimes) the special features are actually worthwhile

But I also have some gripes with DVDs, mostly caused by the way publishers assert what they consider to be their interests as being more important than my User Experience (UX).


The film industry collectively decided at the birth of DVDs to split the world into regions. These regions are individually marketed to, meaning different pricing and release dates. With regular consumer hardware you cannot play DVDs from other regions. This means that if I go on a business trip and see a film I like, I probably wont be able to play it when I get home. This is probably the worst User Experience imaginable.

Country selection

Once I’ve bought a DVD for the correct region, you’d think I’d be able to sit down and enjoy my DVD. Not yet. Quite often the first thing you see is a menu asking you to select a country. Okay, it makes sense for me to select my language. What doesn’t make sense is that for a DVD I bought in the UK (Region 2) I have to navigate my way through pages and pages of countries that aren’t even in Region 2 in order to select my country. It’s nuts.


I’ve got the right region DVD, and selected my country. What often happens next is that I’m confronted by one or more, often noisy, adverts telling me that copyright is theft (not technically true). After the first few hundred times this is quite annoying and I reach for the remote to skip forward… only to find that functionality disabled.

I can understand why publishers might want to disuade young minds from copyright infringement, but once someone has made an active decision to skip past that message preventing them from doing so will just make them angry or frustrated. They will be less willing to listen to your message. This is a poor User Experience.


Some people like trailers, some don’t. Most DVDs let you skip them. My copy of Finding Nemo for example does not. It’s a great film, but the publisher decided to make you watch three or four trailers, with skip and fast forward disabled. This is a poor User Experience.

Scratched or worn out disks

If you were buying a DVD as an object to own outright you’d be able to make backups legally in case you scratched a disc. This is not how it works.

If you were buying a licence to watch the content on the DVD, you’d be able to send it back and get a replacement if you scratched the disc. It doesn’t work like this either.

When you buy a DVD you’re not buying an object that you own outright, and you’re not buying a licence to watch the film, you’re buying the most restrictive aspects of both. You can’t make a backup because the publisher owns the copyright, but if you scratch the disc then you have to buy another one because you bought an object not a licence.

This is a poor User Experience.

How should it work?

It’s not complicated. There should be no regioning (I believe this is the case for Blu-Ray). It should not be possible for publishers to override the regular operation of my player. Fast forward should always work. I should be able to either make backups, or send back scratched disks and pay a minimal charge.

Alternatively I could catch the Cluetrain and give up my addiction to one-way, read-only media.