Meet Felix

Doing a photo shoot can be tricky. Setting up the location, finding the props, getting the lighting right, etc, can be time consuming and sometimes expensive. If you want a specific picture of an object in a particular setting, you usually need to get that object, set it up, light it, and photograph it.

So I’m finding a new beta from Adobe quite interesting. Called Project Felix, it lets you assemble 3D objects and render them into a Photoshop file. I’ve been having a play with it and it’s pretty simple to use, and has lots of potential.  Just drag objects from the library into the canvas, use the move, zoom and rotate tools to assemble the scene just the way you like it, then render as a finished image. Export that image into Photoshop as a PSD file and keep working on it.  Lots of possibilities.

Check the minimum system requirements though… the rendering process can be pretty computationally intensive. Rendering even a relatively simple image on my MacBook Air with an i7 processor took quite a l-o-n-g time. Still, it got there in the end.

Check it out at http://www.adobe.com/au/products/project-felix.html

The Software Conundrum

Many people I know struggle with technology. They bumble by, more-or-less managing to make their computer do what they want it to do, but often without that real sense of confidence that comes from feeling fluent with the software they are interacting with.  And let’s face it, when we talk about “technology”, we mostly mean “software”. Sure, there are some hard-to-use hardware devices but by and large when I watch someone struggling to feel comfortable using “technology”, it’s usually because they are out of their depth with the software they are trying to use, not the hardware.

It might not seem like it when you’re so frustrated you just want to throw your laptop out the nearest window, but companies who build software try really hard to make their tools easy to use. Of course, not all software is actually easy to use, but I do believe that all software designers really do try to make their software as easy to use as possible. It’s not easy… some of the things we expect software to do are incredibly complex, and designing software that does complex stuff while also making it easy to use, is really hard to do well!  But the next time you are struggling to use a piece of software, remind yourself that someone, somewhere, probably spent a great deal of time and energy trying to make it as easy as they could. And no matter how much it might feel like it, the software designer’s goal was not to confuse and frustrate you.

Because writing software is so hard, it takes a special kind of person to do it. Software developers are usually incredibly intelligent people because you really do need to be fairly smart to write software. Most developers also have very systematic and methodical minds, because, again, that’s just the sort of mind you need to write software. It’s this combination of high intelligence and methodical thinking we sometimes call an “engineer’s mindset”, and while you need it to write good software, it’s really not the way the majority of us think.

And that’s part of the problem of why there is so much “hard to use” software. The people who create it are often on a completely different planet to the people who use it.  For a super smart software engineer, the term “easy to use” might mean something entirely different.  Because most “dumb users” find it difficult to think the way engineers think, and many engineers are unable to put themselves in the shoes of the average end user, there is often a huge mismatch between the two groups that ends up making software seem much harder to use than it should be. (You might like to read The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper for a really good insight into this problem) Thankfully, software has gotten much, much better over the last few years thanks to much better development environments and more flexible programming frameworks, a greater emphasis on end-user usability testing, a greater acceptance of the idea of a “public beta”, and also the “appification” of complicated software in small, app-sized chunks on easy to use mobile devices.

So thankfully, things are improving.  But if software is getting better, and companies really DO try hard to make their software as easy to learn and use as possible, why do so many people still seem to find it so damn hard to use?

So here’s a few tips for becoming a much better, more confident and more fluent user of modern desktop software…

Mix it up!

This was one of the most powerful things I ever did to become a more fluent software user… I deliberately started using software that was different to what I was used to. If you use a software tool to do a particular task, find out what other software tools do a similar thing, and try them.

For example, if all your word processing is done in Microsoft Word, try using some other word processing tools for a change. Libre Office Writer, Google Docs, Zoho Writer, WriteRoom, Scrivener, AbiWord… the list is long if you look. There is something incredibly liberating about trying a different tool than the one you’re used to. It forces you to see things more conceptually – to understand the concepts of formatting text, rather than simply remembering where the Bold button is located. As you move between multiple tools that do the same task, you start to see the commonalities and the differences between them.

You realise that all tools in this category have certain core features, but you also see how different tools implement some of those features better or worse than others. You start to think in terms of function rather than form. You develop a better ability to scan your eyes over the interface quickly, spotting the buttons you recognise, even though they might look a little different.  You realise that the design of software is far more consistent and predictable than you maybe imagined it was. You start to see the ways that different programs handle the same common file formats.

Are you a PowerPoint user? Why not try Keynote, Google Presentations, SlideRocket, Libre Office Impress, Prezi or 280 Slides?

What do you use to edit video? Whatever you use now, take a look through some of the alternatives from iMovie, Windows Live MovieMaker, Pinnacle Studio, Sony Vegas, Adobe Premiere Pro or Premiere Elements, Final Cut Pro X.  As you might imagine, if you actually did try all these different video editing tools, you wouldn’t just know how to use a bunch of video editing tools, you would truly understand the core idea of what it means to edit video.

There is great alternative software in most of the major categories. Just go to Google and search for [alternatives to X] where X is the software you use now, and see what you can find. Much of it is free to try, if not completely free to use.  Using lots of different software tools that do more-or-less the same job makes you a far more flexible and adaptable user. You don’t have to permanently switch from your old faithful tool if you don’t want to (although you might be surprised at how good some of the others are!) Switching to a new tool is not the point of the exercise. But by trying lots of new tools you will develop a far deeper understanding of what software is all about, and your technological fluency will take a supercharged leap forward.

Trust me on this.

Check out your options

Whenever you work with a new piece of software, take a moment to explore the options or preferences.  On most Windows software you’ll find it under the Tools > Options menu, and on the Mac its in the application menu under Preferences.

Whenever I get my hands on a new piece of software, I go straight to the prefs or options and spend a few minutes looking through them. Those few minutes are always paid back in greater productivity through having a better sense of what the software is all about, plus I can usually find lots of little tweaks that make the software work the way i want it to work.

It astounds me how often I see people struggling (sometimes for years!) with some annoying behaviour in their software that can be easily changed simply by unticking a checkbox in the preferences. Don’t be one of those people.

What’s on the menu?

The other thing I will always do with any new piece of software is just take a moment to look through all the dropdown menus to see what’s there. Many of them will be immediately recognisable – obvious ones like cut, copy, paste, select all, etc – through to those that will give you some clues as to what the software might be able to do.

Seeing choices like Arrange, Group, Align, etc immediately tell you things about what the software can do.  The View menu often lets you change the way you see the software by accessing fullscreen mode, changing zoom levels, and so on. If you’re observant you can also pick up some great keyboard shortcuts as well.

Look for menu items than you don’t recognise too. For example, if you’re usually an Internet Explorer user you might be intrigued by options such as Chrome’s Incognito Window. Click it. See what it does. It’s software, you can’t really break it, so go explore!

Don’t be afraid to call for help

Every piece of software I’ve ever used has a Help menu. Someone, somewhere, went to a lot of time and trouble to document this software and explain what it does, how to use it, and how to get the best out of it. Why would you not use it?

And yet, whenever I see someone struggling with a piece of software, I can almost guarantee that the answer to “have you checked the Help menu?” is no. C’mon! Just use it… Look it up if you have a problem, or just glance through it to pick up some useful tips. Don’t be so helpless.

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve showed someone some ridiculously simple time-saving tip that has totally changed the way they work, only to have them ask “How do you find this stuff??!”

Easy. I once got stuck on the exact same problem as you, and I looked in the Help menu to work out how to solve it. Just like you can.

If you really don’t want to use the Help menu (“It’s so complicated!”) then just Google your problem. Just type in something like [how do i merge 2 tracks in audacity]. Believe it or not, you won’t be the first person to ever ask that question. Someone has already solved it. Learn from their experience.

Putting this into action with your students

A task I’ve had my Computing Applications students to do several times now is to create a user manual, either in text or screencast format, for a piece of software they’ve never seen before. It’s not hard to find obscure software tools that most students have never heard of, so pick a few for them to choose from and get them to create a user manual for one of them. Not only do they need to learn a completely new piece of software, they also need to figure out how to clearly explain it’s features in a way that non-users can easily understand. They can’t do that unless they understand it themselves.

They’ll need to learn quickly, communicate clearly, have empathy with end users, and also learn new presentation skills. Try also to get them to run some real usability testing with other people using the training resources they’ve created in order to see how well they have communicated their understanding. Everytime I’ve done this, my students have found it a useful and worthwhile task.

Got any other tips for learning new software quickly? I’d love to hear them.  And if you’re a fluent software user, add a comment and tell us what the “penny dropping” moment was for you, when software started to make sense.

So What Should We Be Amazed By?

I wrote a blog post a little while back called This is Not Amazing, and the basic thrust of it was that, after more than 30 years since “the personal computer revolution”, more than 10 years of living in a post-Google World, and now almost a full decade into the 21st century, that we should stop being so amazed at things which are simply just part of our normal world.  The post gave a few examples of things that are, quite frankly, pretty average tasks that can be accomplished on a personal computer and it relayed the story of how I had a day where I kept getting told how “amazing” these rather mundane tasks were, by people that were, in my estimation, too easily impressed.  I tried to tie that all together by observing that we probably do our students a great disservice by being easily impressed by technologically ordinary things, since this is pretty much just the world they live in. I think when we ‘ooh and ahh’ over things that are simply just a regular part of our kids’ worlds we make it all too obvious that we are a little out of touch.

The comments on that post were a very interesting collection of responses; from those people who nodded their heads in total agreement, to some who felt I was being a bit condescending and impatient.  That certainly wasn’t my intention.  I must apologise for not responding to some of the comments at the time… It was the end of the school year, I had a few personal things happening at the time, and I got sidetracked in moved the blog to a new server shortly afterwards. In all of that, I didn’t properly follow up on the ideas raised in that post, and I feel I really missed the opportunity to engage in more discussion about it.

For reasons that I’ll tell you about later, I’m interested in pursuing a further response that blog post.  In particular, I’m wondering what sort of things you think SHOULD be “amazing”?  For the record, I truly believe that the world is a wonderful place with lots of incredible things going on in it, and that we should most definitely retain a childlike sense of wonder, curiosity and awe when we see things that amaze us.  I just think we need to be careful about being too awestruck by things that, really, are now just a standard part of our digital landscape.

I’m trying to build a better understanding of what people think deserves to be “amazing” (and maybe what doesn’t).  If you wouldn’t mind, could you drop a comment here about anything you’ve done with your students that you think really does fall into the “That’s amazing!” category.  I would really appreciate it.  Thanks!

Image: ‘Crowdsource
http://www.flickr.com/photos/38307206@N02/3649959327

A Fascination with Migration Information

Warning! Geek talk ahead.  If you aren’t into the techie stuff, you may want to skip this post…

A few people asked me about what themes, widgets and plugins I decided to use on the new blog site, so I thought I’d just give a quick rundown of what I’m using, bearing in mind that it’s only been a few days and it’s almost inevitable I’m likely to continue changing my mind about a few more things. One the whole though, I think I’ve got the blog running mostly the way I want. For now anyway.

The site is running the latest version of WordPress (currently 2.9.1) and PHP5.  It’s hosted with GoDaddy using their Hosted WordPress plan running on a Linux server.  The domain name www.chrisbetcher.com is managing the actual DNS records for the site, but there are other domain names such as www.betchablog.com and www.betchablog.net that simply forward to it.  The benefit of that is that there are several paths to get to the real site.  These domain addresses used to point to the old Edublogs page, but I’ve just redirected them all to the new page.

The RSS feeds for both posts and comments have been created using Feedburner. The FD Feedburner Plugin was used to map all the hardcoded WordPress RSS feed links to the Google-hosted Feedburner feeds.  The beauty of this system is that I just need to go to Feedburner and change the real feed URL for the new site and Feedburner remaps all the feeds to their correct location. This means that anyone who subscribed to the old site using Feedburner (which should have been pretty much everyone, since I set it up quite a while ago) will get an uninterrupted flow of RSS feeds from the new site. That was important to me, and one of the things that I was very conscious of getting right in the move to a new server.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve tried to make every decision about the new site in light of providing the best user experience for readers.  As well as trying to keep things simple and easy to navigate, I’ve also tried to choose plugin features that help improve functionality and make it easier to interact with the content.

Here’s a list of some the other plugins I’m using and a short rundown of what they do…

  • Akismet is the industry standard for managing comment spam.  It matches blog comments against a massive database of known spammers and pretty accurately targets any comments that look spam-like. I used to moderate all comments, but I expect that Akismet will do a good enough job of looking after spam that I’ve removed comment moderation to provide a better experience for users.
  • Blubrry PowerPress is an advanced podcasting tool for WordPress.  It allows media files to be added to any post, either as standalone media inclusions or as part of a proper podcast feed.  It integrates directly with iTunes and other podcasting libraries, and does a great job of integrating media into a blog.  You’ll find the occasional Best of Betchablog post with an audio version delivered by this plugin.
  • Comment Ratings adds the ability of all blog users to rate any blog comment using simple like/dislike buttons.  At the end of every comment are little thumbs-up or thumbs-down icons where participants can have their say and vote for what constitutes a good (or bad) comment.
  • Creative Commons Configurator adds a text block containing the relevant CC information at the end of every post, as well as to the RSS feed.  It also adds the necessary machine readable code to the blog headers so that search engines can clearly identify the blog content as being licensed under Creative Commons.  I really like this one.
  • Flickr Widget adds a widget for including an RSS feed of my latest Flickr photos.  I’m in two minds about this one, and whether I should actually leave it there or not. It doesn’t look all that elegant, and really, does anyone other than me care whether I have my photos on the page or not.  I may take it off…  I haven’t decided yet.
  • Google XML Sitemap optimises the code for the blog by adding XML sitemap data to make it easier for search engines to find the site content and keep it regularly spidered.  Users will never see any obvious evidence of this one, but the site should get picked up in searches much more reliably.
  • PageLinksTo adds a blog feature I’ve wanted for a while. I was after a page menu tab on the blog which would take you to my wiki hosted at Wikispaces, but a standard WordPress blog can only have page tabs that point to internal pages. By adding this plugin, the page menu tabs can now point to any URL, including external ones.
  • Popularity Contest generates the list in the sidebar that ranks the popularity of content, creating a list of the top posts. It uses a definable scoring system to rank content and can take into account the number of page views, number of comments, number of permalinks and trackbacks, etc to determine overall popularity.  It also give a ton of useful statistics in the dashboard.
  • Search Everything modifies the code behind the standard WordPress search tool, making it more accurate and letting me decide what gets searched and what doesn’t.  It makes the search work much better.
  • Sociable adds a row of user-definable icons at the end of each post to provide one-click access to social services like Delicious, Digg, Diigo, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and so on, as well as some more standard functions like Print, Email and PDF.  It helps people share things they enjoyed reading.
  • Subscribe to Comments adds the ability for a visitor to subscribe to a particular comment feed so they can monitor the activity in any threads they take part in.
  • Ultimate Google Analytics adds Google Analytics to the site.  It tracks it all in the background, so that I can get all sorts of interesting usage statistics without inflicted it on readers.  I did include a few basic stats in the main sidebar using Clustmaps, Sitemeter and some basic subscription and Twitter stats, but these are well below the fold and much less intrusive than they were at the last site. I do like looking at the stats and find them quite fascinating. You can’t get much more detail than what Analytics offers!
  • WP Favicon is just a nice simple way to add a custom favicon to a WordPress blog.  You’ll notice it in front of the URL in the address bar.  It also get included in any tabs in the browser, making it easier to identify the site from amongst a series of inactive browser tabs.
  • WPTouch adds code to a WordPress site that helps it be identified by mobile devices. If a mobile browser is detected trying to access the site, this plugin will deliver a mobile-optimised version of the blog. The site now looks really functional, readable and usable on a mobile device… just try loading the blog in Safari on an iPhone.  It looks pretty good I think!
  • YARPP, or Yet Another Related Posts Plugin, adds a list of related blogposts to the end of each post.  It’s helpful if you’ve read something and want to see other stuff I’ve written that may be related to it. I’m still fine tuning how it arrives at its recommendations, but it’s a nice way to encourage people to discover older content that’s been buried over time.

Hopefully, this combination will work nicely together to help make it a better overall experience for readers.

Finally, the theme I’ve chosen is a nice simple one called Librio.  It’s got a bit of a Mac-ish look to it, and it adds a very obvious search bar and RSS link right at the top of the page.  It’s possibly a bit plain, but I think it has a very clean appearance.  Perhaps I’m just really fussy, but I looked at many, many themes for the new blog and although they all had some nice features, I found it incredibly difficult finding a theme that had everything I liked.  Some would have a wrong font (I really don’t like serif-based fonts online), or the text was too small, or the spacing of the text in the widgets was too big or too small, or the graphics were too garish, or not garish enough.  It was harder than you might expect trying to find a theme that had a relatively wide main text area – so many WP blog themes have a too-narrow column for the main text, making it hard to include graphics the way I like to include them. There were other considerations too, such as how comments were displayed, how colour was used in repeating elemants, and so on.

If I was better at CSS I could just take something close and hack it to suit but I really didn’t have the inclination for that at the moment.  Maybe something to play with later.  For now, this one will do.  It errs on the plain side, I know, but it makes it easy to see what’s what.

Anyway, that, it for now.  I’m sure I haven’t finished with it, but it’s functional, reasonably sharp looking and it does what I want.  The goal was to make it a better user experience, both at the actual website, via the RSS feeds and on mobile, and I think it does that,

OK, geekfest over.  We will now resume normal programming…

Image: ‘Stereotyping
http://www.flickr.com/photos/23701579@N00/1347052621

PS: Technorati, this is for you. 7PDMG5YASHWK

Less is More

Sometimes it’s good to stop and take stock. To think about getting rid of some of the clutter that we allow to build up.

You may recall that I was thinking about shifting my blog to a new server and running a self hosted WordPress blog. Well, I had intended to think about it a little before I did anything drastic (I think that’s called procrastination), but once you get started on these things it all begins to snowball so you may as well just get on with it.  So here we are… the new online home for Betchablog.

If you’re reading this in an RSS reader then you probably won’t even notice a change (at least I hope not! Moving the old RSS feeds across to a new server was something that always put me off making the move, but I think I worked it out). I used Google Forms to ask for some feedback about the old blog and 41 people took the time to respond with some really useful comments. (That Google Forms is just so darn useful!)  It’s good to occasionally stop and take stock of some of the things we do – and although I’ve never really been one for focus groups or being led by the popular vote, it was good to get some feedback from others and see things from their perspective.

The results of the survey were interesting and essentially confirmed some of what I had been thinking myself… the previous site was ok, but it was a bit bland, the sidebars were a bit cluttered and it was confusing to find stuff. Regarding the look of the last site, survey respondents used words like “ugly”, “unneccesary”, “visual clutter”, “text-book-look”, “convoluted”, “a bit loud” and so on, but the best one of all was “the sidebars represent Web 2.0 gone crazy!”

Somewhat more encouraging were the number of people who remarked that they enjoyed the quality of the writing and the content and confirmed this as the real reason they were interested in the blog in the first place.  One commenter said “I come for the content, not all the bells and whistles”, and I thought to myself “Good point! I should be blogging for the content and not all the bells and whistles!”

It’s funny how we can often do things, not because we particularly need them, but just because we can.  Most of the widgets and visual clutter on the old blog was there because… well, because they could be!  The great architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe probably said it best with his famous phrase “Less is More”. In the same way that music needs rests and pages need whitespace, sometimes the things we do can be more effective by what we don’t include. From my own web browsing experience, I know how annoying it can be when you arrive on a site and it takes several minutes just to work out were the actual content is. So that was the first goal for the new site; to simplify it a bit and get rid of some of the stuff that really didn’t need to be there.

The second thing that mattered to me was improving the site functionality.  The last site had just grown organically, and although it helped me learn a lot about blogs and feeds and user interface issues and writing and layout and so on, I wanted to take some of those lessons and use them in the new blog.  I wanted the new blog to provide better functionality for anyone who came to it, with a simple navigation and easy access to features like better search tools, improved RSS feeds, a mobile version of the site, and clearer ways to actually find what’s worth reading here.

And thirdly, there is a whole lot of interesting stuff that can be done with WordPress when you have control over the server. Actually, it becomes an exercise in restraint… there are thousands of plugins and widgets and themes and things that can be added to WordPress, but I think the trick is to find those things that focus on improving the user experience and to resist the temptation to add them simply “because I can”.  I can definitely do more cool stuff on the new server than I could on the old server, but ironically, I’ve tried to exercise more restraint about what gets included. When I was thinking about moving to my own site I had all these ideas about what I might include, addition features, funky graphics and so on… but really, I think it’s better if it’s kept simple. It’s just so easy to get carried away!

And although it’s just a blog, it’s actually been a bit of a life lesson.

Anyway, I hope you like the new site.  If you have any thoughts on it just drop them in the comments. If you’re more of an RSS type and rarely ever visit the actual site, I’d love to know that the feeds are working for you. I plan to write another post soon with a bit of technical info about the sorts of plugins and options I have used, just in case you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Image: ‘stones
http://www.flickr.com/photos/24532907@N06/3251916229