Monthly Archives: November 2011

Connect the Digital World with the Physical World

How “human” can your mobile phone be? If you are thinking Siri as an example, check this TED talk out, it will surprise you.

This short video made me smile: I will definitely spend more time with my mobile phone if it is that sweet! The whole idea of improving hand held device nowadays is not only making them more reliable, faster, or smaller, but making them more user-friendly. So ultimately, how friendly can a device be? This TED talk pointed out a very good direction for us: bring digital experience more close to our physical experience. Just like you can now speak to Siri than just navigate through pushing some buttons, or you could flip over pages when you are reading books on iPad. Though the ideas in this talk are not so practical or necessary in some peoples’ eyes, I believe it is a right direction for UI designers to pursue: making the interactions with technology more intuitive.

However, another question we need to address at the same time is, to what degree should the digital world resembles the physical world in order to not be considered as “backwardness”? As we’ve adapted ourselves with the button “language” of digital world, even we’ve been enjoying the “high-class” sensation when we use the superb multi-touch screen, do we really want the feeling of the thickness of the books back?

I guess there is a lot of user research need to be done before any fancy new designs being carried out. Overall, making the technology more intuitive, more “human”, and more considerate in a clever way is definitely the future of digital tech design.


A Brilliant Way to Access the Historical Trend

I came across this interesting talk on TED today. Some Harvard and Google researchers used the data from Google Books to pull out 500 million words from 5 million books across the centuries, created an online interactive tool. Using this tool, you could take a glance of the trend of human culture history. They gave some really interesting examples with wise interpretations in this talk.

I love the idea of being able to grasp the trend of certain topic quickly. This inspiring me of making similar application using data from different area. For example, if data is pulled out from major social media, we probably could see Steven Jobs appeared with higher frequency among Oct. 5th, 2011, with a positive correlation of appearance of iPhone 4S. If data is pulled out from some major forum and blogs of interaction design, trends of using/referring of certain usability methods could be gained.

RAA: A Practical Open Card Sorting Study

RAA stands for: Research Article Analysis

Paper discussed:

Lewis, K. M., & Hepburn, P. (2010). Open card sorting and factor analysis: a usability case study. Electronic Library, The, 28(3), 401-416. doi:10.1108/02640471011051981

1. Purpose of the research:

This paper describes the process, analysis, results, and implications of a card sorting usability study conducted for redesigning the library Website of University of Illinois at Chicago.

2. Methods:

Totally 18 participants were recruited and 15 were completed the task at the end. Among these 15 participants, 7 are undergraduate students, 7 are graduate students, and 1 is faculty member.

The open card sorting was done individually with each participant.

  • The researchers created 93 numbered index cards. Label on each card was one of the existing or potential content from the library website.
  • The participants were allowed to create anything missing or duplicate cards where they felt the cards belonged to multiple categories, using blank index cards.
  • The participants were also allowed to discard cards that they felt redundant or named a category with “other”  or “general” for cards seems necessary but not fit into any other categories.
  • Speak aloud protocol was carried out to gain the participants’ rational for sorting decisions.
  • The researchers didn’t answer any question to define the label terminology or indicate which category should a card go.

Post-analysis using “factor analysis” was done to indicate the association of a card with a category.
3. Main Findings:

Using the methods above, the researchers got the final result of sorting these 93 cards into 11 categories, with 27 cards not sorted into any categories. Besides the final sorting result, the researchers also concluded some qualitative findings as follows:

  • Participants tend to group together cards that have the same words on them.
  • Participants were sorting not only by format but by processes or tasks.
  • The 27 cards that were not associated to any categories were due to different reasons: should be piled to themselves; redundancy; vague meaning; meaninglessness.

4. Analysis:

I found this paper particularly interesting because the up coming card sorting project. This 2010 paper not only described the project process and findings, but also did a good job reviewing previous card sorting study done by several university libraries. The qualitative findings of this paper reminds me of some essentials of designing card sorting experiment, mentioned by Gergle & Wood (2002), such as “listen to other comments about the content” and “include a brief description on each card”. Overall, it is a well-written paper with considerable details and discussions, which could be used as a good reference to our project. What I am going to dig deeper is their statistical method to combine the results. This seems to make much more sense than just eyeballing the results. I will write about different methods of combining card sorting results in a future post.



Gergle & Wood (2002), Usability for the Web: Designing Websites that Work. Morgan Kaufman.

Travel with Flexible Dates: Flight Search Should Help You

The more I browse other flight booking websites, the more I like StudentUniverse.

People always have the chance to travel with flexible dates: say, you have a 7-day Spring break, you aren’t really strict about which day to depart and which day to return; rather, the flight cost often plays a big role in helping you to decide the traveling date, since it varies depending on different dates.

When searching for flights, if you check the “my travel dates are flexible” box, StudentUniverse wisely offers a 7×7 metrics of prices, corresponding to different combinations of departure and return days that are within 3 days of your pre-set dates. In this metrics, pre-set departure and return date combination is in the middle, highlighted with dark blue color; and the cheapest prices are also highlighted with light blue color, trying to catch attention. With this metrics, you could easily decide which combination fits you the best, in terms of both price and schedule.

StudentUniverse: Search Results of Flexible Dates

Compared to StudentUniverse, other traveling agents’ websites are not so considerate over the flexible traveling needs. They only provide the results of exact dates you offered in the search engine. Want to check adjacent dates to see if there are cheaper options? You really need to work hard: each cell in the above metrics means one round of search(change departing and/or returning dates and search again), plus needs to jot down search history so that you don’t forget after so many rounds. User-centered design is small, but it is everywhere.

Search Result from other Websites

Looking Forward to the Big Trend: Mobile First Responsive Web Design

Thanks to Dr. V.‘s recommendation, I was exposed to an interesting article talking about the process of designing a mobile responsive website written by Elaine Simpson. I appreciated a lot Elaine’s insights from practical design process and also the intense discussions below it. I then linked to a very fruitful post, which is more like a “review” article to introduce mobile-first design philosophy, responsive web design strategy, and related resources. I love this post a lot, because it opens my eye to the emerging trend of designing for different devices and platforms. If you are interested in designing web product in the future, you must take a look at it.


Gmail’s New Look: How Do You Like it?

Earlier yesterday, I updated my Gmail to the new look. I personally like it because those new functions actually show the sincerity of Gmail group’s efforts of making more clean user interface and more fluent user experience. You probably have seen this video when you update the account, but it does no harm to review it again to remind yourself of all these well-designed features:

To summarize, we have these NEW FEATURES IN GMAIL:

  • Enable customization of the sidebar
  • Redesign the conversation (with profile pictures)
  • Set high-resolution background image
  • Advanced Search
  • Control the display density (comfortable, cozy, and compact)

Among all these features, I could see one common trend — returning more control back to the users in a smooth way. For example, you could now customize the left-hand side bar according to your preferences, which allows me to accomplish more tasks within the first screen by hiding those rarely used tags and moving chatting window up:

New Sidebar Design                 Old Sidebar Design

A wise bonus gained through these kind of “customization” designs might be the enhancement of users’ sense of control and sense of identity, which then leads to a good impression and experience towards Gmail.

If you are about to say “cheers!” to Gmail group, save it for a little bit longer.

Since I want to compare the two versions, I switched my Gmail back and forth between the two (before the old version is totally shut down!) to play with it. Below are some comments I wanted to make.

1. Design of Grouping and Hierarchy

Compared the basic themes under both versions:

See the arrows pointing to the headings called “Starred” and “Everything else”? I really appreciate the old version providing me darker blue color with bold fonts to make them stand out. However, in the new version, these headings are being put quietly in the background color (white), it took me a while to realize there are still different sections. This task will be even harder if you are scrolling the window up and down quickly and trying to scan through items.

2. Visibility of System Status

Now look at the circled “Inbox”. In the old version, they gave it a strip like background to indicate its activation. In the new version, strategy is changed to adapt to the new visual design style, thus it is highlighted through bolding. I would say the old version is more “eye-catchy” because it is more distinguished from other inactivated options. If you think it looks still Ok in the new version, try other themes like this one:

New Gmail

Isn’t it much challenged to find bolded “Inbox” (and also all other texts) in this theme under the new version? But the old version is performing reliable, with not that fancy design. I was using this theme under the old version, after switching, I had to change it to the basic theme in order to ease my eyes.

3. Duplicated Functions

As the carrier of most of the new features, the new setting option is really helpful:

However, with two identical function logos in the upper right corner, it is a little bit confusing and annoying. Since the upper one is inherited from the old version, it carries some functions that overlapped with the new setting button. That means you could get things done (e.g., change email signatures, change themes, and add filters) through either way — then don’t make users think which one they should choose! I would definitely say the newly added one is better, since it pulls out frequently used functions.

Overall, brilliant design of the new Gmail! Very thoughtful new features to fulfill the needs that users even didn’t see. Also very interesting to compare between different versions when they are both available. Play with it and tell me how do you like the new one?:)