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Posts Tagged ‘UI’

Chrome’s sound indicator – a welcomed innovation for lessening embarrasment

February 13, 2014 1 comment

Which tab is playing music? It's easy to tell now

I sat at my desk early in the morning while the office was mostly empty. A coworker arrived, said hello and sat down to work. She put on her headphones and started blasting music. The only problem? Her headphones were unplugged and the music was playing for the whole office to hear.

Accidental noise like this is very embarrassing. I welcome all innovations that make this less likely to occur. I was blown away when I used an iPod for the first time and unplugged the headphones. Unlike the CD players I had used before, the music paused. With the iPod it didn’t make sense to continue to play music without the headphones plugged in, since there was no internal speaker.

I am happy that both iPhone and Android adopted this convention as well. You’re much less likely to embarrass yourself if the sound stops as soon as headphones are removed rather than automatically switching over to the external speakers. I wish that laptops did the same, but alas.

I live most of my work day in a browser. I often end up with a whole slew of tabs. Suddenly I hear some sort of noise – one of the dozen pages I have open is blaring an ad. I usually have to search each tab one by one to try to find the culprit. Chrome recently launched a new feature to visually distinguish which tab is making noise. This is a brilliant innovation, and one I welcome in my quest not to make a fool out of myself in front of others.

Disclaimer: I work at Google. The opinions expressed are my own and do not represent that of my employer.

Categories: iPod, UI Tags: , , , , , ,

OpenTable’s Violation of the Principle of Least Astonishment

September 30, 2013 Leave a comment

I was taking an OpenTable survey about a recent dining experience, when I noticed a poor piece of user interface design.

Screen Shot 2013-09-28 at 9.31.50 AM

The last question asks about the noise of the restaurant.

Quiet
Quiet – reasonable first choice.

Moderate
Moderate – yup, still with you.

Energetic

Energetic! Yes. What could be louder than energetic?

Do not recall

Do not recall.

This is a rather strange (and bad) choice for an option, as it doesn’t follow the convention of the other controls on the page (or that I’ve ever seen on any survey ever). I would wager that more than half of the entries in their database they get for the “Do not recall” entry were intended to be “extremely loud” but the survey participant didn’t even stop to see the text change but instead assumed that the largest value would correspond with the loudest entry.

This design is a clear violation of the Principle of Least Astonishment, since it violates the strong convention that on a survey, lower is to the left and higher is to the right. Furthermore, a ‘do not recall’ answer should either be inferred from not answering the question, or by an alternate control (e.g. a checkbox) that would disable the control with the noise level readings.

Kindle Paperwhite – Touching is good

November 6, 2012 1 comment

When I was in college, one of the students had the original version of the Kindle. It was big, clunky, and slow, but I instantly saw its potential. I’ve since owned three copies of the gray Kindle with keyboard (don’t ask), and that was a huge advance in terms of form factor, speed, and resolution.

I recently bought a Paperwhite to replace my most recently broken Kindle. Here are my initial thoughts after having used it for about 2 weeks.

Video clip of pressing to define

Video clip of dragging to select text

 

Good

  • Refresh rate is noticeably faster
  • Resolution is better – text is very crisp
  • Getting definitions of a word is much easier – takes one long press on the word rather than navigating through the whole page with the directional pad
  • Extremely small; fits easily into a jacket pocket
  • Light works very well and does not strain my eyes
  • UI has improved – navigating through books stored on the cloud vs on the device is very straightforward
  • Highlighting is very intuitive and easy to do
  • High quality virtual keyboard – very responsive
  • All the games I tried have been updated to support virtual keyboard – including the New York Times crossword puzzles
  • Much easier to find the books to borrow in this version – use the same unified Kindle store to search, then if it’s available, will show up as a download/borrow option
  • Nice option to see how much time is left in the chapter vs book – tap in lower left corner or access from the menu
  • Really great walkthrough of the different tap zones and what they do when you first turn on the device

Bad

  • For both the highlight and define gesture, you need to hold your finger on the start word for a fraction of a second longer than I’d like. If you move your finger or remove it before that time, you’ll turn the page. I’ve accidentally turned the page a few times.
  • Since the only way to turn the page is by tapping the screen, it’s easy to accidentally click on a link. When the link is external, it’s easy to undo – hit back on the browser. If it’s internal, to a later chapter, you get dumped later in the book with no way to get back. This is extremely confusing and disorienting. If you only read novels, this is a non-issue, but for tech books it can be a problem.

Ugly

  • Light is uneven at the bottom; more evident in a dark room

Conclusion

This device is amazing, and any negatives I’ve highlighted are far outweighed by the positives. Everyone I’ve shown it to has loved it, and even those who were concerned about a touch screen on an e-reader have appreciated its responsiveness and UI.

This is by far the best e-reader I’ve ever used. Here’s hoping I have better luck with this version than the last three.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , , , ,

Wind Map – a visualization to make Tufte proud

June 9, 2012 2 comments

Wind map picture

Edward Tufte is a noted proponent of designing data rich visualizations. His books, including the seminal The Visual Display of Quantitative Information have influenced countless designers and engineers. When I first saw Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg’s Wind map project via Michael Kleber’s Google+ post, I immediately became entranced with it. After studying it for some time, I feel that the designers must have been intimately familiar with Tufte’s work. Let us examine how this triumph of data visualization succeeds.

Minimalist and data dense

Tufte describes the data density of charts based on the amount of information conveyed per measure of area. There are two ways of increasing data density – increasing the amount of information conveyed, and decreasing the amount of non-essential pixels in the image.

No chart junk

You’ll immediately notice what’s not in the image – there’s no compass rose, no latitude or longitude lines, or any other grid lines separating the map from the rest of the page. There aren’t even dividing lines between the states. It isn’t a map at all about political boundaries, so this extra information would only detract from the data being conveyed.

More info

This map conveys two variables, wind speed and wind direction, for thousands of points across the United States. A chart conveying the same information would take far more space and the viewer would have no way of seeing the patterns that exist.

Does not abuse color

In the hands of less restrained designers, this map would be awash in color. You see this often in weather maps and elevation maps, as illustrated below:

Snowfall example
Egregious elevation map
Egregious elevation map 2

The problem is that it is difficult to place colors in a meaningful order quickly. Yes, there is the standard ROYGBIV color ordering of the rainbow, but it’s difficult to apply quickly. Quick – what’s ‘bigger’ – orange or mauve? How about pink or green? Yellow or purple?. It is much easier to compare colors based on their saturation or intensity rather than hue. Color is great for categorical differences, but not so great for conveying quantitative information. Stephen Few sums it up nicely in his great PDF “Practical Rules for Using Color in Charts

When using color to encode a sequential range of quantitative values, stick with a single hue (or a small set of closely related hues) and vary intensity from pale colors for low values to increasingly darker and brighter colors for high values

The designers uses five shades of gray, each of which is distinguishable from the others, rather than a rainbow of colors. Five options is a nice tradeoff between granularity and ease of telling the shades apart.

Excellent use of the medium

In a print medium, the shades of gray would have had to suffice to illustrate how fast the wind was moving. In this medium, the designers used animation to illustrate the speed and direction of the wind in a truly mesmerizing way.

Conclusion

This visualization does a lot of things right. In particular, it uses a great deal of restraint in conveying the information. Unlike some of the other examples I showed, it does not have extra chart junk wasting space, it does not abuse color to try to convey quantitative information, and it is absolutely aesthetically pleasing.

Glazed Lists – an essential Java library for lists and tables

May 2, 2012 9 comments

Swing is the built in toolkit for creating user interfaces for Java programs. While these types of standalone desktop applications are becoming less prevalent, perhaps due to increasing functionality of webapps, there are still some industries which are highly reliant on them. If you find yourself creating a Java desktop application, you will probably have to learn Swing, and you will also probably have to learn to display information to the user in list or table form. In standard Java Swing applications, it is difficult, or at least annoying, to do the following three tasks:

  1. Displaying domain specific models
  2. Filtering
  3. Sorting

Glazed Lists is an open source project that makes all three of these tasks trivial. Its primary author, Jesse Wilson, is a current Google employee. Let’s examine each of these aspects in turn.

Provides a simplified API for representing objects within a JTable

Swing uses the Model View Controller paradigm throughout. Thus the table or list merely presents a view for an underlying model data structure. Part of your job in displaying data in a Swing table is to define the TableModel implementation which provides the data for the JTable to display.

Swing provides an AbstractTableModel that does most of the work for you, requiring you only to implement the following methods:

public int getRowCount();
public int getColumnCount();
public Object getValueAt(int row, int column);

Here’s a simple domain model object we might want to visualize in a table:

public class Person {
    int age;
    String name;

    public Person(String name, int age) {
        this.name = name;
        this.age = age;
    }

    public int getAge() { return age; }

    public String getName() { return name; }
}

The logical way of doing that would be two have two columns, one for the age, one for the name. Let’s make a table model for this case:

public class PersonTableModel extends AbstractTableModel {
    private static final String[] columns = {"Name", "Age"};
    private final List people;

    public PersonTableModel(List people) {
        // Make a defensive copy
        this.people = new ArrayList(people);
    }

    public int getRowCount() {
        return people.size();
    }
    public int getColumnCount() {
        return columns.length;
    }
    public Object getValueAt(int row, int column) {
        Person p = people.get(row);
        if (column == 0) {
            return p.getName();
        } else {
            return p.getAge();
        }
    }
}

This certainly works, but it requires a fair bit of boilerplate. Furthermore, the code above does not provide any way of modifying the list of people after it is copied by the TableModel.

Glazed Lists simplifies your life by treating the table not as an arbitrary two dimensional grid, but instead as a collection of rows, where the rows are kept in sync with changes to the domain models that they represent. All you have to do is define how a row is laid out, and Glazed Lists takes care of the rest.

The interface you need to use in order to define how the table looks and which aspects of your model objects are exposed is called [TableFormat][].

The interface is as follows:

  • int getColumnCount() – The number of columns to display.
  • String getColumnName(int column) – Gets the title of the specified column.
  • Object getColumnValue(E baseObject, int column) – Gets the value of the specified field for the specified object.

This should remind you of the TableModel interface presented previously, but note how the getColumnValue method is different – rather than getting a row and column, and forcing you to look up the object corresponding to that row, you are provided the object directly.

Here is a TableFormat which allows Person objects to be easily visible in a JTable:

public class PersonTableFormat implements TableFormat {

    String[] columnNames = {"Name", "Age"};
    private static final int NAME_INDEX = 0;
    private static final int AGE_INDEX = 1;

    public int getColumnCount() { return columnNames.length; }

    public String getColumnName(int column) { return columnNames[i]; }

    public Object getColumnValue(Person baseObject, int column) {
        switch (column) {
            case NAME_INDEX:
                return baseObject.getName();
            case AGE_INDEX:
                return baseObject.getAge();
            default:
                throw new IllegalArgumentException("Expected column 0 or 1, got " + column);
        }
    }
}

While this isn’t too hard to write, it’s still a lot of boilerplate (and not significantly different from the previous example). Glazed Lists makes it even easier than this. The entire class definition above can be replaced with three lines:

TableFormat personTableFormat = GlazedLists.tableFormat(Person.class,
    // Names of the properties to fetch
    new String[] {"name","age"},
    // Names for the columns
    new String[] {"Name", "Age"});

What’s this doing? And how can it do all that I had previously in one line of code? Well, it requires and takes advantage of JavaBeans naming convention. The static function uses reflection to find the methods mapping to properties named “name” and “age”. In this case, it looks for two methods, getName() and getAge(), both of which it finds. (If I didn’t name my methods appropriately, I would get a runtime exception). The second array defines the strings that should be used to identify the corresponding entry in the properties array. In other words, element 0 in the names column is used to identify the property name at index 0.

This TableFormat class alone is insufficient to display data in a table. To do that, you need a class which fulfills the TableModel interface I described previously. Fortunately, Glazed Lists makes this easy.

The fundamental building block of Glazed Lists is the EventList class. It is similar to the ArrayList class in Java, except that it has support for observers. If you’re not familiar with the Observer/Observable design pattern, it allows objects (observers) to register themselves and receive notifications whenever a different object (the observable) is changed. For instance, when a new item is added to the EventList, the UI element representing it on screen automatically refreshes itself.

The EventTableModel class fulfills the TableModel interface, making use of the EventList and TableFormat we described earlier. The EventList is the data provider, and the TableFormat determines how to extract the data from the EventList and display it in the table.

EventList people = new BasicEventList();
// Add all the elements
for (Person p : getPeople()) {
    personList.add(p);
}
TableFormat personTableFormat = GlazedLists.tableFormat(Person.class,
    // Names of the properties to fetch
    new String[] {"name","age"},
    // Names for the columns
    new String[] {"Name", "Age"});
EventTableModel tableModel = new EventTableModel(people, personTableFormat);
JTable table = new JTable(tableModel);
// Any modifications to the ‘people’ list is automatically reflected in the table

Provides a simplified means of filtering a table or list

Perhaps one of the most important features of any interactive table is the ability to filter out extraneous information. Glazed Lists makes this possible by chaining together EventList transformations; these transformations provide a different view of the underlying data. When the original model is modified, the filtered views automatically pick up the changes and update accordingly.

Say we want to provide the ability to filter the list based on people’s names. We will add a listener to a text field which listens for changes (new letters typed or deleted), and filters the list in real time. Once we have an EventList of some sort, it is easy to create a new “view” of that same list, filtering out entries you don’t want to see. You do this by wrapping the list in a FilterList, and then assigning some sort of filter criterion. Let’s start simple with a filtered list which only shows those users whose names start with the letter ‘A’.

EventList personList = new BasicEventList();
personList.add(new Person("Anthony Hopkins", 74));
personList.add(new Person("Barack Obama", 50));
personList.add(new Person("American McGee", 39));

Matcher personFilter = new Matcher() {
    public boolean matches(Person p) {
        return p.getName().startsWith("A");
    }
};
// Create a filtered list
FilterList filteredList = new FilterList(personList, personFilter);
// Displaying the people in a list as opposed to a table; could also create EventTableModel
// as in the last example.
EventListModel filteredListModel = new EventListModel(personList)
JList list = new JList(filteredListModel);
// At this point, shows Anthony Hopkins and American McGee

The filter I’ve defined above is static – once it’s instantiated, its filter condition never changes. Glazed Lists supports dynamic filters as well, through the MatcherEditor interface. We will see how to use a MatcherEditor instance for a text field, but first we need to tell Glazed Lists which strings to use when filtering for a given object. We do this with the TextFilterator interface.

Picture illustrating a FilterList which accepts only those people whose name starts with 'A'

 

public class PersonTextFilterator imlements TextFilterator {
    // Slightly strange interface, but done for efficiency reasons
    public getFilterStrings(List baseList, Person element) {
        baseList.add(element.getName());
        // Allow users to filter by age as well
        baseList.add(String.valueOf(element.getAge()));
    }
}

The MatcherEditor class to use in our case is TextComponentMatcherEditor. We provide it with the text field that it will use as the filter source, as well as an instance of the PersonTextFilterator class we just defined.

EventList personList = new BasicEventList();
personList.add(new Person("Anthony Hopkins", 74));
personList.add(new Person("Barack Obama", 50));
personList.add(new Person("American McGee", 39));

JTextField filterTextField = new JTextField();
// Add the text field to the UI - add to a JPanel

// Hook the text field up to a filter list
MatcherEditor filter = new TextComponentMatcherEditor(filterTextField, new PersonTextFilterator());

// Create a filtered list
FilterList filteredList = new FilterList(personList, filter);
EventListModel filteredListModel = new EventListModel(filteredList)
JList list = new JList(filteredListModel);
// List automatically updates in response to typing in the text field

Each transformed EventList is itself an EventList, meaning it can also be used as the basis of an EventListModel or EventTableModel. This chaining capability is extremely powerful.

Provides sorting capabilities

Finally, Glazed Lists makes it extremely easy to implement rich sorting capabilities in your tables or lists.

As we saw in the last example, it is possible to wrap a given EventList to provide a different view. In this case, we will have a sorted view of the data, which automatically updates whenever the underlying data changes.

To create the SortedList, you need to make your domain object implement Comparable, or create a Comparator. For instance,

public class PersonNameComparator implements Comparator {
    public int compare(Person p1, Person p2) {
        return p1.getName().compareTo(p2.getName());
    }
}
EventList personList = new BasicEventList();
personList.add(new Person("Anthony Hopkins", 74));
personList.add(new Person("Barack Obama", 50));
personList.add(new Person("American McGee", 39));

Comparator nameComparator = new PersonNameComparator();
// Create a sorted list decorator
SortedList sortedList = new SortedList(personList, nameComparator);
EventListModel sortedListModel = new EventListModel(sortedList)
JList list = new JList(filteredListModel);

A SortedList, wrapping a standard EventList

While the above example works for JLists, it’s nice to be able to sort a JTable as well. This is not too hard, either, as long as you have set up a TableFormat instance as described in the first section of this post. In essence, the TableFormat defines the type of each column, which is then used to sort the table whenever the corresponding column header is clicked. This behavior is defined in the TableComparatorChooser class, which exposes a static method to perform the installation on the target JTable. Here’s an example:

Comparator nameComparator = new PersonNameComparator();
// Create a sorted list decorator
SortedList sortedList = new SortedList(personList, nameComparator);
EventTableModel peopleTableModel = new EventTableModel(sortedList, new PersonTableFormat());
JTable peopleTable = new JTable(peopleTableModel);

// Use MULTIPLE_COLUMN_MOUSE to allow sorting by multiple columns, or SINGLE_COLUMN
// to sort by just a single column
TableComparatorChooser tableSorter = TableComparatorChooser.install(
    peopleTable, sortedList, TableComparatorChooser.MULTIPLE_COLUMN_MOUSE);

// At this point, clicking on the table headers will sort by this column

As the more detailed Glazed Lists tutorial warns,

By default, TableComparatorChooser sorts by casting column values to Comparable. If your column’s values are not Comparable, you’ll have to manually remove the default Comparator using TableComparatorChooser.getComparatorsForColumn(column).clear().

As long as your columns are represented by Comparable classes such as Number or String, you shouldn’t have to worry about this caveat.

Conclusion

Glazed Lists is one of the best Java Swing libraries I’ve ever used. It simplifies life for the programmer as well as the end user of the software project, since tables that allow sorting and filtering are far more useful than those which do not. If you do any sort of Swing programming, you owe it to yourself to try this library out. You can find much more information, including the aforementioned tutorial, on the Glazed List website.

 

Chaining together multiple list transformations makes it easy to create powerful programs

An interview with William Wilson, self-taught developer of Fret Tester and more

March 13, 2012 2 comments

I recently had the opportunity to speak with William Wilson, the man behind Fret Tester, the best guitar fretboard learning application available for iOS, and one of the nicest designed apps I’ve used. I wrote about its great UI features in my previous post, The Best iPhone Guitar Fretboard App: Usability Lessons Learned. I wanted to pick the designer’s brain to see what lessons he could impart about designing usable applications. Here’s what he had to say.


Please tell me a little about your background. Do you design mobile applications for a living or as a hobby?

Guitar Hero Pullquote

I’m actually a professional guitarist. I make my living teaching and performing classical and Spanish guitar in San Diego. I’ve always loved programming, starting with Basic, then HyperCard, Java, Flash, and eventually C. I started designing apps for my guitar students as a way to compete with Guitar Hero. I got tired of hearing: “Sorry Mr. Wilson, I didn’t practice, but I played Guitar Hero, does that count?” My first attempts were in Java, and were really awful. I’ve since done about 15 flash games (on my site guitargames.net) and 4 iOS apps. I’ve mostly learned from books and online tutorials. Right now it’s a hobby, but I’d love to do more of it.


As a musician first and foremost, what were the deficiencies you saw in the other published guitar apps and how did you aim to address them?

Traditionally when learning the neck students start with the natural (not sharp and flat) notes. That way they establish landmarks on the neck. I didn’t see this feature being a big part of any app. For me having the iPhone version just display the natural notes made sense (with a button to shift into sharps). Plus it’s tough to fit 12 buttons on the screen without clutter.

One of the biggest challenges I saw was how to zoom in on the neck. With many of the apps, I tried I lost a sense of where I was on the neck. But if the whole neck was shown it was too small. I decided to have my app zoom to the area that was being tested, but to allow sufficient area on either side so the user had a sense for where they were. Plus I included the option to zoom all the way out should the user prefer it. Related to this, I thought many of the apps lacked reinforcement. When you pushed the correct answer your finger covered it. I added the key style buttons so users could see what note the pushed and thus reinforce the correct answer.

Fret Tester screenshot

Fret Tester screenshot - note that only the natural keys are shown and that the incorrect answer that was pressed pops up above the obstructing finger


How have your students received your work? Have you seen a measurable improvement in their progress?

I wish I could say that the app was a runaway success with my students… Unfortunately there is a mindset out there that you aren’t practicing unless you have a guitar in your hand. Mental practice is too often neglected, both with note naming and music theory. For the students who have taken my advice and used the app I’ve seen good things. I think separating the mental and physical complexities of the guitar is the way to go.


What advice would you offer to other people who are not programmers by trade but have an idea for a program or application that could simplify or improve some aspect of their everyday life? What resources have you found that were useful in turning your dream into reality?

There are tons of great resources out there. I always recommend http://masters-of-the-void.com/ as a first step. Also Steven Kochan’s Programming in Objective C is great for learning to write for iOS.

Obvious pullquote

Outside “traditional” programming there were three books that greatly influenced me. One is The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams, it will help you design a decent looking app. Second is Dave Woolridge’s Business of iPhone App Development, make sure you can sell one or two before you spend a year creating an app. And finally Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug, a guide for good UI principles.

Also I would say make sure to beta test often. I had about 8 people test Fret Tester and learned something from everyone. I like to hand someone my phone and say, try this. You’d be amazed at how they struggle to find something you thought was obvious.


You mentioned making sure that you can sell a product before you invest too much time in producing it. How do you recommend that app developers do this? Do you create a bare bones v 0.0 prototype and put it on the app store to gauge interest? Or do you have an alternative technique for market research?

Wife nuts pullquote

First I look around and see if there are similar apps already out there. If there are a ton, and they’re good, I move on. If there are none I also move on, since there probably isn’t a market for what I’m designing, I want to at least see things that are similar. My goal is to design an app that reaches an already existing need. Not that I’m always successful in it. After reading Woolridge’s book, as well as listening to Seth Godin’s Purple Cow (Audio Book) I’ve improved in this area. I also just talk to people about my idea. If my wife looks at me like I’m nuts (which happens frequently) I try to rethink things.


Are you working on any new projects currently? Or do you have ideas for the next thing you want to work on?

Yes, I’ve been playing around with Adobe’s new Stage 3D and the Starling Framework. It seems promising. I’m hoping to release my first game using it soon. It is called Tab Warrior and is kind of a cross between Fret Tester and Space Invaders. Also, I’m going to try my hand at an Android app this year.


Great to hear. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Do you have any parting thoughts for the readers?

80% pullquote

One thing I read in Apple’s docs was to only include features in an app that 80% of users will use. That totally changed my approach. If you look at Apple’s success I think its largely the result of keeping things simple and easy to use, and gearing products for the average user. Take the same approach in your apps.


Thank you to Mr. William Wilson for granting me this interview. You can find more about him on his website, WilliamWilson.com. See my Google+ album for more screenshots of Fret Tester.

Closing a subset of tabs in Google Chrome

March 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Do you use Google Chrome? Do you sometimes want to close multiple tabs at once? Here are three ways to do that, two of which are not immediately obvious.

Close Tabs to the Right

This is the standard way I’ve been using to close tabs. You right click on a tab, choose “Close Tabs to the Right”, and all tabs to the right of that tab are closed. This works well for two reasons:

  1. When you manually create a new tab, it opens on the far right
  2. When you open links in a new tab, it will open immediately to the right of the tab you’re currently in.

Thus if you have opened a few tangentially related tabs from a main article, you can click on the main article’s tabs, choose Close Tabs to the Right, and all of those newly opened tabs will go away.

Ctrl/Meta click tabs

You can add tabs to the current selection by holding control (Windows/Linux) or command (OSX) while clicking on additional tabs. This is exactly the same behavior as when you are selecting multiple files from the desktop GUI. Once you have the tabs you want to close selected, you can right click on any one of the selected tabs and choose “Close Tabs.” This approach works better than the “Close Tabs to the Right” approach when the tabs you want to close are not all next to each other.

Control click example

Why might you want to do this rather than clicking the X in each tab individually? I can think of two main reasons.

The first is that it provides you with a much larger click target for each tab. With this method, you can click almost the entire tab to add it to the selection, then right click almost the entire area of any of these tabs to bring up the context menu to close tabs. The X button itself, by contrast, has a small clickable area that requires more dexterity. (See the Wikipedia article on Fitt’s Law for more information on the relationship between accurate navigation to a UI element and the size of that UI element)

The second reason you might use this method is that it allows you to make your selections all at once before closing any one of them. If you close them one at a time, the tabs move around to take up the empty space. The Chrome team has done an amazing team with the UI design of the standard close tab functionality (e.g. the close button will always stay under your mouse cursor as the tabs reshuffle, and they only will change size once your cursor leaves the tab bar), but it might still be more intuitive to select them all at once while their location is fixed rather than finding them in the changing tab bar as each consecutive tab is closed.

See this excellent blog post by Basil Safwat for more on the Chrome tab close behavior.

Shift click tabs

Finally, you can extend the selection of tabs by shift clicking on any other tab. In other words, the currently opened tab is one endpoint of the selection, you shift click on any other tab (either to the left or right), and that becomes the other endpoint in the selection interval. Here is an illustration of the process:

Shift click example

Once you have your selection, you can right click on any of them and choose Close Tabs as mentioned earlier. This approach is best when you have a contiguous span of tabs you want to close, but there are some tabs to the right that you want to keep open.

Conclusion

I hope you found this brief foray into the ways of closing multiple tabs in Chrome as interesting. I think most Chrome users know of the Close Tabs to the Right option, but I would guess most people don’t know about about the shift click and ctrl/command click ways of selecting tabs.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , , , ,

CAPTCHAs must die

February 25, 2012 1 comment

Image

 

I just tried to leave a post on a site which uses a CAPTCHA to prevent bots from leaving spam comments.  I must be a bot, because I failed the test – not once, not twice… not even three times.  I tried over ten times in a row and it kept rejecting me after offering a new option each time.  I assume this is a software glitch, and I gave up.

 

For the purposes of validating comments, I find CAPTCHAs completely unnecessary.  There’s a better solution – it’s called machine learning.  I use Akismet in WordPress as my spam filter and it performs incredibly well.

 

Image

 

Let the computers do the hard work of spam filtering.  Don’t frustrate and slow down legitimate users by making them fill out these things unnecessarily.  

The Best iPhone Guitar Fretboard App: Usability Lessons Learned

February 16, 2012 23 comments

In my search for an app which would help me learn the frets of the guitar, I learned some general lessons on mobile apps and user interface design.

I have been playing guitar for about 3 years but have never mastered the fretboard. Now that I’m paying for lessons, there’s an economic incentive to learn – the faster I can locate notes on the fretboard, the less time and money I waste in my lesson.

At one point I toyed with writing an application myself, but I thought I’d look and see what was out there first before spending my time and effort. I’m glad I did, because there are some excellent offerings. I found five apps that fit the bill: Guitar Trainer HDx, Electric Guitar Fretboard Addict, Fretboard Warrior, Fretronome, and Fret Tester. Here’s the bottom line:

Developers:

  • Aesthetics matter
  • Design for fat fingers and not a mouse – touch targets must be large and separated
  • What’s most convenient for the programmer is not necessarily best for the user
  • Focus on the core functionality and and usability rather than extraneous features
  • Do not make me accidentally click the ‘buy’ button – I can guarantee I will not complete the transaction
  • Think twice about animation

Consumers:

  • Don’t be cheap! The difference in quality between free and even a $2 app can be enormous

Guitar anatomy

To those unfamiliar with the guitar anatomy, I’d recommend reading the Wikipedia article. For the purposes of this post, all you have to know is that a real guitar neck is typically about two inches wide, about 25 inches long, has 6 strings, and about 20 frets. By pressing on a fret, you shorten the string and produce a higher note when the string vibrates. Each fret raises the pitch of the note by half a step.

Mastering the fretboard involves learning the correspondence between frets and note names. This can be tested in two directions – given a fret, name the note, and given a note and a string, identifying the corresponding fret.

UI challenges

As previously mentioned, an actual guitar neck is much, much larger than a mobile device’s screen. (By way of reference, my iPhone 4s screen is approximately 3.5 inches diagonal). How then can the app present an interactive fretboard when the strings are so close together on the physical screen?

Of the apps I tested, they took two approaches. Either they displayed the entire fretboard (usually only 12 frets, since that’s all you need to represent a full octave), or they displayed a zoomed in view of a few frets. Here are some of the pros and cons of each approach:

Global view (zoomed out)

Pros

  • Better simulates what you see while actually playing guitar
  • Provides global picture – easier to see relationship between notes and where frets fall in absolute and relative terms

Cons

  • Frets and strings can be very close together and hard to distinguish

Zoomed in view (partial fretboard)

Pros

  • Able to provide much more separation between strings, providing larger touch targets

Cons

  • Hard to get a sense of where notes are relative to one another
  • Does not simulate reality, unless you play guitar with blinders on with your nose an inch or two from the fretboard

The apps

Now that we’re acquainted with the fundamental UI challenge of a fretboard teaching/testing app, let us examine the competition.

Guitar Trainer HDx

Guitar Trainer HDx

I tried the free version; a paid version is available for $2.99.

This app takes the zoomed in approach to the fretboard, only showing approximately 4 frets at a time. While this gives a great amount of separation between the strings, it feels wrong. It uses the familiar inertial scroll pane that most iPhone apps do, but it seems ill-suited to the task. The view is so zoomed in that it’s very hard to get any sense of where you are in absolute terms.

Guitar Trainer HDx cramped

An additional problem is that the app presents far too much information by default. The names of each note are displayed in a large font, as well as the number of each fret. On a real guitar, there are dots which indicate certain fret landmarks (3, 5, 7, 9, 12, 15, 17, on my guitar), and these crutches that the game provides will not force you to learn them. You can turn them off in the settings, but due to the cramped, zoomed in nature, it is hard to figure out where you are.

In training mode, the app presents you with random notes and you must identify them by name. The app supports both landscape and portrait modes, but there is something very off in its determination of your orientation. When the view switches, the fretboard stays static; the only thing that moves is the buttons at the bottom of the screen with the names of the potential notes. Often you will be holding it in one orientation and the notes suddenly shift 180 degrees as if it thinks you are holding the phone upside down. It’s supremely annoying.

Guitar Trainer HDx upside down

Don’t even bother trying to play the game in portrait/vertical mode; the buttons are so small and close together that you will often hit the wrong one. Even more annoying is the “Unlock Guitar for $2.99” button that resides approximately 10 pixels beneath the bottom row of buttons. I cannot tell you how many times I accidentally hit the button while trying to test it out.

Guitar Trainer HDx buy

There is a training mode and then a testing/game mode in which you must identify a certain number of notes in the allotted amount of time. Throughout these modes, the app tracks the number of correct notes, misses, hit percentage, and total time. Additionally, there is an option to view the portion of the fretboard that you’ve mastered. This is one of the best parts of the app.

Guitar Trainer HDx progress

Aside from the previous annoyances, the game feels extremely sluggish. This is due in large part to the extraneous animation that occurs each and every time you identify a note. It’s as if you are watching someone who is learning PowerPoint for the first time and adds flying transitions to every slide – it might look OK the first time, but waiting a good 2 seconds each and every time gets old fast.

Finally, the game gives you one chance to identify the note. If you misidentify it (most likely due to the problems of the button size/placement I mentioned), it immediately flags it wrong and moves on. This is problematic as a pedagogical device because it does not give you a chance to correct your mistake before moving on. As you will see later, other apps handle this better.

All in all I cannot recommend this app, even for free.

Rating: 2 stars

Electric Guitar Fretboard Addict v1.4.3

Products by Michael Rylee
App store

Once again, I tested the free version; a paid version is available for $4.99

This app provides a photograph of a guitar neck rather than the vector graphics of some other apps. This is problematic because the photo suffers from perspective distortion – the bottom of the fretboard is much wider than the top of the fretboard, meaning the touch targets for the top notes are impossibly close together. The tab bar at the bottom of the screen wastes additional screen real estate, as does the large (approximately 1/4 of the screen width) bar on the right indicating which note to touch.

This app aims to teach you the fretboard in a much more regimented way. There are a total of 133 Rounds (approximately 30 are available in the free version) moving down the fretboard. Sometimes a note is presented and you must choose which string on the given fret matches it; sometimes a fret is highlighted and you must pick from the available notes on the right side of the screen. In a third mode, the note is represented not as its name but by its position on the musical staff.

EG note

The touch targets for identifying the note names are fairly large, but identifying which string corresponds to the given note is a harder feat, given the small amount of separation between the touch areas.

While I prefer the zoomed out view that this app provides, in general, the aesthetics are lacking. The logo looks like bad clipart and the app is littered with tiny, illegible thumbnails advertising his other products. The developer’s tagline says “Now you can practice anywhere you have a Mac, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, PC, or Windows Mobile Device!”, and unfortunately it shows. The look and feel is just not up to par with standard iOS apps.

EG fugly

I admire the different ways in which the app tests you (note -> fret, fret -> note, note on staff -> fret), though I want less of a methodical walk through the fretboard and more of a drill to test my knowledge. The paid version is very highly rated but I did not get hooked on the free version enough to warrant a purchase.

Rating: 3 stars

Fretboard Warrior

App store

Fretboard Warrior is an extremely minimalist app for testing your knowledge of the fretboard. You pick a duration of either 1, 2, 5, or 10 minutes and try to identify as many note names for the given fret as possible.

As I prefer, the app uses a zoomed out view of the fretboard to display the first twelve frets. Furthermore, since you are not touching the individual notes themselves, the fact that the strings are close together is not an issue. The issue comes from the fact that the buttons at the bottom of the screen are absolutely tiny. There’s really no reason the buttons need to be so small – there is an enormous amount of wasted vertical space on either side of the guitar neck, as well as on the top. If more vertical space were taken up, then the accidental notes could be moved out of line from the rest of the natural keys to provide more separation among the notes.

Fretboard Warrior small buttons

While I do appreciate minimalism, a little more functionality would be nice. For instance, it would be useful to be able to limit the range of frets and/or strings that are tested for students that are just starting out. If you already know the whole fretboard and are looking for a way to drill yourself and speed up your ability to identify the notes, then this app might do you well.

Rating: 3 stars

Fretronome

App store link

Free

Ahhh. Using Fretronome after some of these other products is like night and day – this is how an iOS app should look.

It provides a beautiful vector based graphic of the neck, which is slightly distorted in order to provide better separation between the strings. Unlike Fretboard Warrior, this allows you to restrict your practice to a string of your choice (though not a range of frets).

Fretronome single string

I really admire the developer of Fretronome for doing something ballsy and completely different than all the other developers. Rather than providing a list of buttons (with all the problems previously mentioned), he provides a single enormous button for revealing the hidden note name. Another tap of the button hides the note and queues up a new note to identify.

Fretronome hide Fretronome reveal

Since you never indicate the note, the app cannot automatically keep track of whether you got the note right or wrong. Nevertheless, it provides a great flashcard approach to learning the fretboard.

The app features an Intervals mode in which two frets are indicated and you must identify (again, in your head) what the musical interval is between them. It’s a great feature that I’m sure I will use more after I learn the rudiments of the fretboard.

Fretronome interval

Rating: 4 stars

Fret Tester

$1.99 App store link

I decided to try a paid app to see how it differs from these free ones. I’m glad I did – I use it exclusively now.

This app gives a horizontal view of the fretboard, defaulting to a zoomed in view of 6 of the frets, but optionally zooming out to show 12. Unlike Guitar Trainer HDx, the fretboard does not scroll in the zoomed in view; rather only the region of interest is displayed. Like Fretronome, the fretboard is rendered as an idealized graphical form rather than as a photograph. This ensures that there is no distortion of the fretboard. The aesthetics are excellent.

There are four modes – Name Note, Find Note, Notation, and Notes on Staff.

Name Note

Name Note is the standard mode which all of these apps provide. Unlike Fretboard Warrior, it does not try to cram twelve notes into the bottom of the screen. Instead, the names of the 7 natural notes are displayed as large touch targets on the bottom of the screen (A, B, C, D, E, F, G). The accidentals (sharps and flats) are hidden and only revealed when the sharp key is pressed. When in that mode, the A turns to A#, C to C#, and so on and so forth.

This is a great design choice for two reasons. First, the natural notes are more common (7 out of 12 possible notes) so it makes sense that they should be more readily accessible. Second, by restricting the choices to 7 as opposed to 12, as many of the other apps do, the touch targets can be much bigger with more separation between them. This makes a huge difference in the usability of the app, as you will rarely, if ever, click the wrong button on accident.

When you misidentify a note twice in a row, the correct answer will be highlighted green, but you must still make the correct choice before the next note is displayed. This is a good feature, as you must always get the right answer to move on, even if the app helps. In contrast, and as discussed earlier, Guitar Trainer HDx immediately flags your answer as “WRONG!” and automatically moves you to the next note.

Unlike some of the other apps, there is no timed mode. I don’t mind this, as I find a ticking clock stressful and distracting. It does give you a measure of your speed by displaying a ‘beats per minute’ value (the rate at which you are identifying notes/frets), as well as a graphical representation (turtle, hare, car, rocket ship). I like the simplicity of the icons and prefer this way of measuring speed to a time trial.

Fret Tester main screen

Playing with this app provides a much more fluid experience and helps me enter the flow state much more than the others. I struggled to determine why that was until I noticed two main differences.

The first is that there is no extraneous animation between the identification of one note and the display of the next. For instance, Guitar Trainer HDx hides all the other answers after you’ve made the correct choice, and displays a huge CORRECT! on the screen which rotates around and leaves the screen. I’m all for positive reinforcement, but I don’t need that much, and I don’t need the second or two pause between the identification of one note and the display of the next. This app moves on to the next note with no hesitation, allowing you to drill yourself as fast as you can think.

The second difference is more technical. To explain it, first some background. What we think of as a mouse click (or tap on the mobile world) is really two separate actions – the mouse button is pressed and subsequently released. In most cases the time between these two actions is so tiny that we can treat the two as the same. The distinction between the press and release is important. Why? Try this test – press and hold the mouse over the following link. Now drag the mouse out of the url and release the mouse. Note that you have effectively canceled the navigation. The same is true of most button implementations – the action does not occur until the mouse is released within the button area. This pattern of having actions occur on mouse release is, in general, a great thing – it allows you to rethink your decision before commiting to it.

Instead of doing what is standard, Fret Tester uses the press on the note button, rather than release, to trigger the action. This means that by the time your finger has come off the screen the hit has already been registered and the next note displayed. This contributes to the feeling of speed. Since there are no real negative consequences for making a wrong note choice (it’s not like you’re going to delete an important document, for instance), the extra speed increase is worth the lack of a safety net. It’s a very subtle touch but it makes a big difference.

In terms of features, this mode goes beyond all the others I tried. The options allow you to focus on the areas you need to improve. For instance, you can restrict the range of the fretboard tested (e.g. frets 3-6) as well as the specific string or strings (the B string is a weak area for me personally). You can also choose whether to test accidentals (sharps or flats) or only the natural notes. I personally choose to play on the natural note mode since it works so well with the seven large notes displayed at the bottom of the screen. I find this combination of options extremely appealing as it allows you to focus just on the weak areas rather than wasting your time with what you have already mastered.

Fret Tester options

You can track your progress by means of a graphical representation of your mastery of each fret, accessible via the Stats menu. I have one minor complaint about this display – the level of mastery is mapped to seemingly arbitrary colors. In my opinion, this should have been a linear interpolation between two colors (e.g. white to black) in order to more easily determine which frets were strongest and which were weakest, without having to continually consult the color code. Nevertheless, it is very compelling to track your progress and try to turn all of the frets black.

Fret Tester progress 1 Fret Tester progress 2

Other modes

Find Note

Find Note is a rarer mode; only Electric Guitar Fretboard Addict had this feature. In this mode, you are given a note name and four consecutive dots on a string and must choose the correct fret. The touch targets are big and well-spaced in the zoomed in mode. When zoomed out, it’s ocasionally hard to select the correct fret, but the fact that the choices are limited to one string (rather than adjacent strings) obviates most of the annoyance.

Notation

In notation, a note on the staff appears and you must touch the corresponding fret. I haven’t used this mode much yet, but it’s a nice bonus.

Notes on Staff

Similar to Notation, this mode has you name a note on the staff rather than find its place on the fretboard. I have many years of experience reading sheet music, but it’s also been awhile, so this is a nice refresher.

Conclusion

This app is just about perfect. The core Find Note experience is by far the best out of all the apps I tried, in large part due to the care put into the user interface concerns. Even if you never touch the other modes and features (e.g. bass, mandolin, 5 string bass, left handed mode, alternate tunings), $2 is a steal for the core Find Notes drill.

Rating: 4.5 stars

Conclusion

This post explored five different applications’ approaches to the user interface challenge of representing a large physical guitar fretboard on a small mobile screen. We saw that certain applications did not pay enough attention to the separation needed between adjacent touch targets, or to the size of each target. We also saw how the ubiquitous scroll pane works well for standard apps but does not work well for a task where global positioning and spatial relationships are important.

Fret Tester was the clear winner of the contest, due to its great aesthetics, usability, and design. Its modes eschewed flash and animation for a fast, accurate, responsive testing environment. There is no ticking clock to exert pressure on you, but there are clear visual indications of progress (both in terms of speed, accuracy, and overall progression on the fretboard).

While this post focused on guitar fretboard applications, many of these user interface lessons can be applied to any mobile endeavor.

Comparison chart

Please see the Google doc summarizing the various featured of the tested products.

What makes Google maps easier to read than its competitors?

May 24, 2011 2 comments

This isn’t a new link but one I’ve been meaning to bring to my readers’ attention for awhile now.  Justin O’Beirne has posted an excellent analysis of how Google’s use of white outlines, label sizes, and label font weight enhance a user’s ability to find information on a Google map.

Just one of the informative graphics from the article

Interestingly enough, Bing changed its mapping visual style to respond to some of the complaints against it.  See O’Beirne’s post on the updates they made.

The entire 41latitude website is excellent, but these articles in particular piqued my interest.  Hopefully you find them similarly enlightening