Touch me there… and there.

You probably know about Single-touch screens.  If you have ever used a SmartBoard, Tablet PC or any other sort of touch sensitive device you will probably have noticed that you can only have a single point of contact.  If you try and draw on a SmartBoard in two places at once, it takes an average of the two locations and draws the line halfway between the two contact points.  Getting used to writing on a SmartBoard without touching the screen is a bit disconcerting at first but most people pretty quickly adapt.

Likewise, the reason that you can’t write on a Tablet PC with just your finger and why it requires a stylus pen is that it’s really the only way to give the screen a single contact point, allowing you to interact with the panel using the stylus tip while having it ignore the rest of your hand resting on the screen while you write.  Basically, most of the touch devices we are familiar with will tolerate a single point of contact only.

So what we really need to move forward is a multi-touch screen.  I was rather impressed when I first saw Steve Jobs introduce the iPhone at the last MacWorld Expo, especially the way he was able to interact with the screen by touching it in more than once place at a time.  The shrink and expand gestures for images were particularly fascinating; the way you can resize an image by stretching or pinching it with your thumb and finger.  Very cool stuff.

Apparently the  multi-touch technology was developed by a guy named Jefferson Y Han.  You can see a video of the touch screen technology being used here… watch it all the way through, as it starts off with just arty farty stuff, but gets into some very interesting deveopments with the image handling…

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Apparently, it seems that Han originally developed the technology and was approached by Apple to go work for them, but he declined.  Seems like Apple managed to licence the technology from him though for use in the new iPhone.  I don’t really know any further details of that deal and I’d only be speculating if I tried, but it certainly seems an interesting development and one which could bring some cool new ideas to the traditional user interface over the next couple of years.

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Life in the Office

I have spent a large chunk of my computing life in Microsoft Office.  As a teacher, I think it’s hard to avoid.  Tools like Word, PowerPoint and Excel form a sizable basis of the sorts of tools we use every day to create and present stuff to our kids.  I even have a few “qualifications” in Office, from a bunch of Brainbench certificates, to an International Computer Driving Licence, and even a few units from the Microsoft Office Specialist certification program.  I mean, if you’re going to spend a lot of time in these apps, you may as well know how to use them properly, right?

I recently had to create a few teaching resources using Microsoft Office 2007.  Office 07 is a fairly radical rethink of the interface for the Office suite.  The trouble with previous versions of Office is that they had so many features and tools that most users never found them.  Many were buried so deep in the interface that the average user simply never stumbled across them.  I even had an semi-heated discussion with a guy at a technology trade show once who was telling me that certain features would be really neat to have in Excel, and when I told him that everything he was wanting was already there, he argued back that I was wrong… these tools simply didn’t exist in Excel.  I showed him, he was amazed that he had overlooked them.  even though he considered himself a “power user”, he had never found some of these must-have features, some of which I thought were pretty obvious.  After I showed him they were there, he was a happy camper again.

So the goal in Office 07 was to bring as many of the available tools right out to the front of the interface.  That’s a big ask, since there are literally hundreds of tools and features in there, and while there will still be people who criticise the new interface for being too cluttered, too different to the previous versions, too whatever, I must say I think they’ve done a pretty good job of taming a rather big animal.  I found the new Office easy to learn (though I will confess to being a power user of Office software to start with) and the new Ribbon UI seemed pretty intuitive to me.  I’m really looking forward to see what they do with the Mac version

The only thing about Office that is irksome is the price.  At around AUD$1150 for a full copy, it’s just way too overpriced, and it  is little wonder that piracy is such a huge problem in the home market.  Fortunately, there is a Student and Teacher edition (which is basically the same as the full version) that can be had for a few hundred dollars, and there is even a promotion happening at the moment over at It’s Not Cheating, where Australian university students can buy a copy for only $75.  Not a bad deal, and probably well worth it for a clear, piracy-free, conscience.  Makes you wonder about the sort of profit margins in the software though when you see these sorts of discounts being offered.  I guess Bill became the worlds richest person for a reason…

The other interesting development in the Office space is Google’s recent announcement to add a presentation module to the already existing word processor and spreadsheet modules in Google Docs.  Sure, it won’t have all the bells and whistles that MS Office has, but like I said, most users never use the more advanced features anyway.  For the majority of users, if they can type and format a document, calculate some numbers or keep a list in a spreadsheet, and do a basic presentation for an audience, that’s most of their computing needs right there.  Add in the Gmail and Google calendar features, and Google Docs is starting to look like an interesting proposition.  It also has two nice extra features… it can enable online collaboration on documents, and of course it is free.  Free is good.  Free is hard to beat.  At school, we just renewed our Microsoft licensing agreement for the year and it cost us about $18,000.  That’s every year.  As I say, free is good, and Google Docs is starting to look very attractive, especially now you can even brand it with your own domain name using Google Apps for your Domain.  I’m sure Open Office and some of the other open source office stuff is also worth a more serious look these days.

The downside of Google Docs of course is that it requires a user to be online all the time, with a fairly fast connection if it is to be at all usable.  But that’s becoming more the norm, and is probably not a big issue.  The flip side of that is that it makes all your documents available online, anywhere, anytime, which can certainly be a good thing in a Web 2.0 world.

For me, I will keep using Office for now because I do tend to regularly tap into many of its more advanced features.  But I can see a day in the not too distant future where even I might start to seriously rethink my attitude to the alternatives.

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Design Flaws

In the cult classic radio play, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams talked about a fictitious technology company called the Sirius Cybernetics Coorporation, a company who products were so bad that…

“One is blinded to the fundamental uselessness of their products by the sense of achievement one feels in getting them to work at all. In other words, their fundamental design flaws are completely hidden by their superficial design flaws.

Does that sound familiar?  Ever tried to do battle with a substandard software application?  Or a fundamentally flawed Operating System? Or some new gadget that was designed by geeky engineers but is incomprehensibly difficult to operate for the average user?  And yet why do we just accept these devices and this software? …”One is blinded to the fundamental uselessness of their products by the sense of achievement one feels in getting them to work at all”.  Such a poignant statement!

By the way, it’s quite astounding when you really look at how Douglas Adams wrote so casually about things that were so far ahead of their time – compare the way he describes the hypertext nature of The Guide itself to the way the World Wide Web works for example… then remind yourself that Douglas wrote this some 15 years before Tim Berners-Lee published the first webpage back on August 6, 1991!

The Kaizen of Blogging

Ah, I love this stuff… Edublogs just keeps getting better and better, thanks to the efforts of James Farmer.

First we had a server upgrade a few weeks back and we got all sorts of extra goodies included for adding media files to posts – stuff like Youtube, Flash, Flickr and even video players. We also got a bunch of cool extras like the synthetic voice podcasting plugin from Talkr, and a new backend interface with many more options. The static pages can now be nested to form a hierarchical site structure as well as the regular blog structure, which could be very useful. Then 2 weeks ago James added a bunch of new CSS templates to the list of possible look’n’feel options, all with much tighter integration for the new plugins.

Now, I log on to find yet more new goodies in here… a poll option! I’ve been having a play with the poll tool – appropriately called Democracy – and as you can see on the left, it works just fine. It’s a pretty naff question right now, but I’m excited by the possibilities of being able to conduct polls.

Thanks again Mr Farmer! I think you’ve pushed Edublogs way beyond what’s offered with WordPress itself, and this really has evolved into the best blogging space I’ve seen.  The need to know how to create a webpage using the traditional HTML methods has all but vanished…

I do hope these new tools all find their way into Learnerblogs too!

The 90-9-1 Rule

I’ve always been a great believer in the Pareto Principle, sometimes more commonly referred to as the 80/20 rule. This principle basically suggests that in any group or organisation there will usually be 20% of the people who produce 80% of the results. This observation generally holds quite true, be it a club, a group, a classroom or even a family… there is always a minority of the people who produce a majority of the results. It may not always be exactly an 80/20 split, but you can pretty much guarantee that the work done by any group will almost never be spread evenly among the workers.

Once you understand and accept this fact, a lot of the frustration and annoyance of life starts to go away as you stop worrying about how you’re going to get the majority of the people to do more than the minimal amount that the Pareto Principle says they will do. The fact is, they never will. Those people will never do more than the miminum, no matter how we cajole, threaten, or incentivise them. Like gravity and taxes, some things are the way they are because they just are… Live with it.

So I was interested to see this report from Jakob Nielsen, one of the world’s most respected human interface analysts. Nielsen studies human interaction with computer systems and tries to get designers to make systems that work with people, not against them. He tries to identify what you might call “human nature” and encourages designers to create systems that adapt to people rather than the other way around as is usually the case.

From one of his recent studies, he observes that in most online systems, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.

From my own experience with online systems (discussion forums, blogs, email lists, etc) as well as real organisations (committees, clubs, etc) I would have to agree with Nielsen. There is always a bulk of the work/traffic/discussion/effort/ideas that is actively done by a relatively small percentage of the users/participants/workers. I wish it weren’t that way, but I’ve always found that it is.

So, how do you interpret this principle in your classroom? What implications does it have?

The UI Paradox

As a power user on the Windows platform and a quick learner on the Mac platform, there is something about the difference between the two that has always intriuged me. I’ve noticed it in many forms over the years, but I was reminded of it when I read this rather silly report on the TUAW site… I’m sure the fellow who wrote it had his tongue firmly in his cheek, but if you browse through the comments under the main article you’ll find a very interesting thread of discussion has emerged relating to the Mac’s little green zoom button. Seems the zoom button is not without its fair share of controversy and a rather passionate, yet civil, debate is raging there about the differences between the way windows (with a small ‘w’) behave on Windows (with a big ‘W’) versus the way they behave on the Mac.

The basic gist of the discussion is about the subtle difference between the user interfaces of both platforms and the author tries to draw an assertion that the UIs actually cause people to work in quite different ways, and he even goes so far as to suggest that the differences in UI design actually attract different personality types. Not too sure about that one…

But it has always intruiged me that PCs – the machines with the DOS heritage, the machines that started life with nothing more than a simple black-on-white command line interface – are these days operated by the vast majority of users almost exclusively with only a mouse. It’s interesting to contrast this with the Mac, a machine born of a GUI heritage. The Mac is the machine that revolutioned the world with a point-and-click interface. Yet, in my experience, Mac users are far more likely to be the ones who know all the fancy keyboard shortcuts for tasks. Ask any reasonably competent Mac user how to perform a task on their Mac and in a majority of cases they will answer you with a keyboard shortcut. I just think it’s interesting that the machine with the GUI heritage is the one that seems to spawn the user base with the greatest knowledge of keyboard shortcuts – some of which really are quite arcane. The average Windows user on the other hand, drives his or her PC almost exclusively with the mouse. Maybe it’s just that there really are so many average (and below) users on the PC platform that they just don’t bother to learn these shortcuts… I don’t know.

The other paradox, as was mentioned in the comment thread on the TUAW article, is that most Windows users operate in full screen mode nearly all of the time, whereas most Mac users are far more competent and skilled at managing multiple open applications – they have to be because of the Macs UI design – and therefore more skilled at actually using the whole windowing concept. (The commenters to the TUAW article look to blame this behaviour on the controversial zoom button.) I find it mildly amusing that the operating system actually named ‘Windows’ seems to have a far lower percentage of users that CAN actually deal with multiple open windows.

Does this actually say anything about the types of users each platform attracts? Are Mac users better multitaskers? Or is it more to do with the fact that Windows users have a larger user base, and therefore a larger percentage of clueless users? Or is the average Mac user generally more competent at finding their way around the operating system than the average Windows user? Do the navigational quirks of each operating system in fact encourage a totally different approach to learning and using them? Is the Zoom button a flawed idea or a great idea?

I don’t have any answers… I just find the paradox of it quite amusing.