Saturday, February 27, 2016

That's a really cool use of technology...but what's going on behind the curtain?

The next experience with modern technology in the UK was at the Heathrow car park/ parking garage. My father was at the airport to meet us. We came into the new Terminal 2 with a very swish, clean and efficient experience through to baggage claim. We then made our way to the car. I noticed that they have space monitoring (IR-motion sensors over every parking spot). That's pretty standard. We have had the same technology in the Portland, Oregon airport for longer than Heathrow. This allows you instantly know how many spaces are available and where. The sensors have a visible light that glows red when occupied and green when available. Reader boards as you drive in tell you the number of spaces available on each floor.

The difference at Heathrow? They have installed digital cameras pointing at every parking slot, and these are setup to do number plate recognition. Outside the elevator is a little computer kiosk with a sign "Locate your car." Type in your number plate, and the kiosk will find your car, show you a picture and direct you to it!  Pretty cool idea. No idea how well it works, but I overheard people in the car park who were also pretty impressed by the service.

I would seem though that the real reason for the technology is tracking payment. The system can monitors who has paid and not paid digitally. When you go to the pay booth/ kiosk, you enter your license plate, it shows you a picture and you pay for your parking. No need to display a ticket in your window any more. And the system knows when you arrived and when you left. No need to have any poorly paid meter maids or parking enforcement employees. Park and don't pay? The system will use your car's number plate to access your address, and send you a parking fine/ violation in the mail.

I saw this technology in use all over the UK. In other pay and display car parks (Oxford Park & Ride), and the City of London uses license plate recognition to enforce its Congestion Fee, which is assessed on all vehicles going in the center of London during peak hours (mainly day time).

Not sure if any of the public had any concerns about the privacy implications. My first thought was who gets access to this data, and why? The UK is the most digital and CCTV monitored population in the world. And it seems to be getting worse. Austerity measures after the global recession have resulted in huge cuts to government services and programs. There are fewer police to enforce the laws and consequently an ever increasing reliance on technology to do the work. Police departments now have technicians sitting in control centers watching hundreds of video feeds looking for anything that warrents sending a car. If this sounds Orwellian to you, then you are of the same mind as me. Don't know Orwellian? Download "1984" by George Orwell and read it! 

Ultimately the use of number plate reading technology in car parks will become common place where the business can justify the cost, and the cost continues to drop. Unfortunately in this case it means laying off (or reassigning) people checking parking stickers. But there will be an additional administrative cost dealing with customer service complaints and corrections where the technology misses the mark. Where the technology works well, the public will accept it. Of course the converse is also true and leads to public outrage. I will cover a "fail" example next.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Look before you leap...or when implementing new technology, test, test,test!

My recent trip to back to the UK (December 2015) was an interesting technology user experience. I currently live in the USA, on the West Coast in Portland, Oregon. I work in Information Technology, or IT as a Business Technology Manager within the City of Portland. So working in the public sector, I am always on the look out for great and effective uses of technology as I travel around, live, play and work. So my latest trip back to the British Isles, and a side trip over to Paris, France was no exception. The British and American civilizations are very comparable in their use of technology, however there are very interesting differences in their adoption and application.

So the first experience when traveling is the airline check-in, and the industry move to computer kiosks rather than check-in agents. This move has been going on for some time, so the airlines have had plenty of opportunity to field test and make improvements to their online website and physical kiosk check-in. But for some reason for me, traveling internationally causes these to error out pretty much all the time. I think it is the need to have/scan passports, and all the additional information and security that occurs for international travel. And I have a green card which probably the last straw that throws the system. I never have a problem with domestic travel where my credit card and driver's license work just fine. Passports now have chips in them but the airlines either don't have access to them, or need to upgrade all their equipment in order to read the chips.

No real difference here between the US and UK check in other than the fact that UK airport and airline staff don't want to believe that the kiosk check-in doesn't work, almost yelling at me when I try to locate and walk over to a manned desk to get assistance. US staff still seem better trained in customer service and are more helpful when you have problems with the machines.

Immigration and border control still have the all too familiar long lines/ queues, and have relied on 'real' immigrant officers. Though recently, I have seen the move to technology in this area. The UK has some unmanned immigration stations for British passport holders who have chip enabled passports. You place your passport on a 'reader' and then look into a camera. First time I used it, I stood for ages before it let me through. It had me worried for a bit. I can only assume that it was creating an entry for me in the 'digital' tracking database, and possibly doing face recognition and confirmation with my stored image. Your travel group all needs to have the upgraded passports to use this, so since I do not travel alone very much, I have not used it much.

The US has begun to use kiosk technology for immigration. I have seen a couple of 'voluntary' and 'fast pass' kiosks in recent years, obviously doing some early testing. On our last trip through Vancouver BC (which has a US immigration presence for flights to the US), we used kiosks that collect the same information as you provide on a US Landing Card, and you use the machine as a family unit. This seemed to be a pilot installation and there were staff helping people use the machines. My wife and daughter were successful, but I was rejected after three attempts. The flash on the camera was incorrectly adjusted, and over-exposing everyone's faces. The machine was obviously trying to do face recognition but it was failing due to the poor photo quality. Successful people collected a receipt from the machine (in place of your landing card), but either way you were still interviewed by an immigration officer. Whilst it was frustrating dealing with the pilot kiosks, I applaud the US immigration for testing the technology out, and getting feedback, rather than rushing to implement fully unmanned immigration processing. The US continues to use more biometrics on Resident Aliens and tourist visitors collecting finger prints and a photo at immigration.

More to come on my travels. Up next,
"That's a really cool use of technology...but what's going on behind the curtain?"

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The pitfall of modern, mobile technology, undermining human connection and local communities

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE technology. I am interested in the successful and appropriate use and implementation rather than just having the latest gizmo, gadget, or mobile app. I am interested in usability, accessibility, ethical, privacy/security of technology. Especially as the world becomes more and more digitally dependent and connected. Few people seem to be asking why, not because they don't want or need the new technology, but whether we are actually better off with it. And what is the human cost of having the new function or capability. Companies will always tout the benefits in order to get us to buy their products. But they very rarely point out the downsides unless there is a large public safety concern like texting and driving. 

I ride the bus to work every day, and have done for about 20 years. Back in the 90s, people on the bus would be reading newspapers and books, and would be listening to music on their Walkman or iPod. but even with this technology, people would be talking amongst themselves, with their friends or coworkers, or would strike up conversations about the news or the book that they were reading. Fast forward to today (in the 10s), and everyone has their heads down on their mobile devices. Conversations are rare...the bus is eerily quiet. Go to a restaurant today, and friends and families are face down in their mobile phones and not conversing over the dinner table. Mobile technology that connects us over distance seems to be disconnecting us face-to-face. 

I am not the only person to notice this. In fact more and more people seem to be pointing it out, though it's amuzing to me that they report it like it is some amazing discovery. There certainly seems to be an addictive nature to mobile, at-your-fingertips information and communication. People acknowledge it, and the potential impact, but keep right on doing it. The original tech addiction was the Crack-berry, people addicted to their Blackberry phone with text and email delivered instantly, and all the time. The younger generation are often singled out as the addicted generation, but I have seen all generations doing it. Save the senior citizens who probably never experienced or saw a need for mobile data. But I predict that if they were shown it and allow to immerse themselves, many would succumb. And of course, there are those in any generation, that don't see the need and actively avoid the mobile technology. Probably fewer in the younger/ teen generation as there is so much peer pressure there. 

The concern as I see it is the impact on human relationships, and the ability to reach out and relate to the human beings around us. To learn human relationships through social media, and online media, provides an often warped perspective, open to extreme and negative assumptions about others. This leads to rigid beliefs, judgement, name calling and isolation (HATE). When you get to meet people face to face, understand them and relate to them, there is the possibility of empathy, affinity and community (LOVE). Which would you prefer for the human race? So next time you are on the bus, or having dinner, put down the mobile technology, look around you, and reach out to someone you don't know, or reconnect to someone you do. It may be difficult at first. You may go into some level of tech withdrawal, and feel a bit awkward. Hang in there! You will work it through, and you will be surprised how much better you will feel. 

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Can mobile computer users live without QWERTY?

I was following an interesting discussion on the OnTheRun with Tablet PCs show #28 podcast about whether Tablet PC users can live without a keyboard. This issues is increasingly cropping up as people consider the tablet and UMPC models over the traditional laptop (folding screen and keyboard). Apparently there are a lot of apprehensive laptop PC users about there who think that they will suffer keyboard withdrawal symptoms if they switch to a non-QWERTY keyboard, mobile PC platform. This demonstrates the usual problem that new technology faces...the fear of change.

I vaguely remember all the knashing of teeth that occured when the WIMP (windows, icons, menus and pointers) desktop replaced the terminal interfaces (UNIX, DOS). Apple did it first (oh, those eccentric Mac users) and then Microsoft followed (didn't they steal the idea...or perhaps Apple stole it from Xerox). Of course, today people think you are crazy if you are not using a windowed environment (and all the lawsuits finally went away). But, at the time, computer users could imagine a world without a terminal interface. And guess what, it is still there for those people who cannot be without it.

Picture of Typewriter
(from Wikipedia)

I am convinced that mobile computing will not become a true reality until we get away from the aged, QWERTY, typewriter based method of text input. Forcing people to hunch over their laptops in airline seats, perched on a wall or bench, or the floor at many events I attend, is just plain crazy! Or perhaps it demonstrates to what lengths we will go and what we will tolerate not to do things differently.

The obvious solution from human-computer interaction experts is that we will talk, poke and scrawl on our computers. They have been researching and predicting this for quite some time. I remember using MacInTalk on the Mac 10 years ago. However, even with the numerous new versions of speech recognition engines, we are still limited to quiet environments, one person at a time, and "no non-native American English speakers please!" As for handwriting recognition, you still have to write like my daughter is learning to in her 1st grade class (nice well formed letters), which is not very practical or fast. Increasing speed and writing cursive results in an instant drop in recognition accuracy. Picture of a Twiddler keyer

Picture of a Twiddler keyer
(from Wikipedia)

My Newton MessagePad was capable of this level of recognition 10 years ago! The other ironic fact is that handwriting is vast becoming a dying art in the age of computer laptops and word-processing anyway.

So what are the other options? Well, the wearable computing geeks have been trying out all sorts of mobile chording keyboards and keyers. These have certainly been great prototypes of how to do data entry using one hand and on-the-go, however they have never received wide attention or adoption. This has been in part due to the fact that the hardware is tricky to setup and learn, but also because most users feel comfortable with the familiar QWERTY keyboard and using a computer while sitting at a desk.

Picture of an EkaPad in use

An exciting new option for the road warrior is the EkaPad (, a 12-key, handheld pocket USB keyboard. This keyboard requires no flat desk surface and fits the hand in its naturally relaxed position. What is lost in two-handed typing speed is more than made up for in its ergonomics and ability for ubiquitous use by requiring only one hand, e.g., while walking a warehouse floor, operating machinery and automobiles. And this keyboard is simply plug 'n play (no drivers required) since it appears to the computer as a standard IBM or Mac USB keyboard.

see earlier blog, Cool Road Warrior Mobile PC Platform, 8/31/06.

The move to laptops challenged people to unchaining themselves from their desks, but not from the QWERTY keyboard. The move to tablets and PDA-sized computers is now challenging users to unchain themselves from QWERTY keyboards. It has to happen. It will happen...eventually.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Cool Mobile PC platform for the Road Warrior

The Samsung Q1 and EkaTetra EkaPad

View of Q1 and EkaPad from the front, users perspective
The UMPC (ultra mobile personal computer) is a new platform most easily described as a half-tablet PC configuration, about the size of my old paper Filofax and Newton PDA (more below). I am evaluating the Samsung Q1 which is the only model I can currently find that is shipping from resellers ( It runs Windows XP Tablet Edition that adds voice and handwriting recognition capability. Mouse input is replaced by a touch screen and stylus. It has been compared to the Newton MessagePad 2000 which it certainly reminds me of, however this is no solid state device. It packs a 40GB hard drive, 512MB RAM and a high-res, bright color screen. This of course is its achilles heel since the battery life is no longer than your typical laptop (2-3 hours intensive use). A far cry from the MP2000's 8-10h capability. For more in depth reviews, check out,
I am excited about the new UMPC platform mainly for the drop in bulk (& weight) I have been waiting for. This is mostly due to the removal of the built-in keyboard, in favor of hand & voice recognition. Of course neither of these technologies is still ready for prime time. Even though the Dragon NaturallySpeaking and XP Voice claim 95-99% efficiency this is still limited to a "quiet office" environment. Add some background noise or a second person to the mix, and goodbye useful voice recognition. Handwriting recognition still suffers from the fact that in reality most people are atrocius at handwriting, and it is ironically getting worse as handwriting becomes less and less used or practiced in the digital age.

I have been beta testing the Q1 with the new Ekatetra ( one-handed, USB keypad, called the EkaPad. This 12-key, handheld, chording keypad is an exciting development in the art and science of text and data entry that finally captures the needs of on-the-go text
entry in a device that is only slightly larger than a business card. It emulates both standard Mac or Windows full-size keyboards, and is therefore completely plug n' play on USB systems. The EkaPad can be used in either hand (no handedness in the design), and in any physical position, e.g., standing up, sitting down, lying on your back, etc. Obviously operating a chording keyboard is different to a QWERTY keyboard, but the EkaPad is easy to set up and learn using the variety of tools supplied and online support available. And you can practice as you go by placing a handy reference card called the "cheat sheet" on your computer's screen.
The Q1 and the EkaPad complement one another perfectly. You can key-in text to the UMPC with one hand comfortably by your side rather than both pronated on a desktop. Or you can use the EkaPad in one hand and the stylus or a USB mouse in the other. The EkaPad is held in the hand by the use of a thumbstrap called the EkaHand, which despite its size and simplicity actually took over two years to develop. But once installed correctly and comfortably, it works like a charm.

View of Q1 and EkaPad from the side, device depth perspective
Alternatively, the EkaPad can be attached anywhere using the EkaHand strap or a strip of DuoLock™. So I was actually able to mount the keypad to the back of the Q1, and then enter text while holding the Q1 in both hands. The only thing missing was a thumb joystick for my right hand (something to give the UMPC developers to think about!). The sky is the limit with this keyboard. I am already imagining be able to perform text-entry while walking/jogging though I doubt I will be able to Web browse with this screen since due to it's fine resolution/pitch. But a larger external screen mounted could make it as easy to read as news/magazine print.

So be honest, when was the last time you where able to open your laptop in a coach airplane seat, use a laptop while seated in the car, or curl up on the sofa with a good laptop? This is a really cool mobile computer & keyboard combination that allows you to comfortably enter text into your computer in more unconventional, relaxed and informal settings.

I have to agree that the battery life is a major downside of the Q1 since most ambulatory computer users need at least 8 hours to pull a shift or a day's work. But on the whole the UMPC is a step in the right direction, and the Ekapad is a great little mobile keypad.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Good UX Designers know it when they see it

Thoughts on Jared Spool's WV Keynote "The Dawning of the Age of Experience" (podcast)

I was again delighted to hear Jared Spool speak at the WebVisions 2006 keynote on July 21. Like all good speakers, he spins a good yarn around an interesting this case, "usable design" and his premise that you either intuitively get good design or you don't.

Jared started with a number of examples of killer products; the iPod and NetFlix. In each case, competitors who had a better product or brand failed to make a dent in their market dominance. The iPod experience and culture, that go beyond just the device, has engrained it as a cultural icon. The NetFlix experience and social network has kept it on top with a miniscule advertising budget (1/20 of Blockbuster's).

Take home message 1: Good user experiences create the killer apps.

On the flip side were some examples of major corporations pouring huge sums of money down the Web drain. A large big box retailer spent $100M on a Web site redesign and saw a 20% drop in revenues. A 1700 employee law firm almost caused a mutiny when they switched their intranet to a CMS (Content Management System). A highly visited information site saw a 40% drop in Web activity and associated advertising revenue after a Web site redesign. All examples of how fouling up the user experience can be huge embarassment, not to mention a costly experience for the business!

Take home message 2: Bad user experiences create Web SNAFUs.

What was most interesting about Jared's talk was the fact that he seemed to be poking fun at himself during the talk. He recounted how he spent 2.5y doing extensive, and I daresay expensive, research for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Web site. And then he went to the AIGA's conference in Santa Fe where one guy had overhauled the WSJ Web site as a 'pet project', and had nailed it with no research...intuitively. Apparently, he had just sat down and thought about it!!

There are a number of professions that are or have been very intuitive in nature. Jared's examples were chicken sexing (chick sexers), estimating baby weight (midwives), WWII enemy plane spotters (watching the English Channel) and sushi chefs. All these professionals cannot be taught or described, they have to be learned by watching "an expert" and "trial and error". In the same way, user experience (UX) designers cannot explain it. You just have to watch them to learn.

Take home message 3: Good UXD (user experience design) is an art, not a science.

NetFlix never talks about their technology, their Web site, but it is key to their UXD. A cool use of Ajax to provided more detailed movie information. A cool use of social networking, so built in you do not even notice you are using it. It's simply invisible. All they talk about is the movies (the content!)

Take home message 4: Good UXD is not noticed. When you see it, it is a problem!

Next Jared tackled the SEP (Somebody Else's Problem) effect in design. He encountered a problem trying to make a car rental reservation at Seattle airport. Hertz apparently serves 3 SeaTac locations: Western Australia, Wanganui and Seattle! Travelocity's flights to Spokane, WA gives two options, Spokane (GEG) (main airport) or Spokane (SFS) (private airfield). Unfortunately, some irrelevant data leaked into the user experience. The DBA probably has never heard of UXD, but his actions and responsibilities have a profound effect on it.

Making your own online flight reservations has become a pretty standard practice. Yet you would not think this looking at the fllight booking agreements offered up by USAir and United. Exhausting list of terms and conditions, written in CAPS and making absolutely no sense to anyone other than a travel agent. Fortunately SWAir figured it out offering T&Cs in a simple bullet layout and plain English. Not surprising really that SWAir has one of the highest customer service ratings of all US Airlines.

UXD involves information design, information architecture, usability practices. visual design, interaction design, editing, copy writing, fast iteration management, etc. With a small team of folks, you will need people with broad sets of experiences. It's not just about being a Web Wiz anymore.

Jared then went on to demonstrate the importance of an interdisciplinary approach with some examples of visual communication. An example of good visual communication design was an image of brain anurisym at Mayo Clinic ( The medical illustrator created a phenomenal image communicating a ton of stuff to a lay person better than any health care professional could hope to describe. They were not just good at drawing pictures, but good at visual information design.

Image from Presentation Zen (it has since been removed from the FEMA website!)
Conversely, an example of bad visual communication was brought to the attention of Jared on The Daily Show and concerned a diagram depicting how FEMA works.

"What should FEMA have done? Perhaps the answer can be found on their website. Well you'll find, we're not lying, this chart, clearly depicting the agencies responsibility in the event of a disaster. Notice, and this is their actual chart, it begins with their response to a disaster, leads to recovery, mitigation, risk reduction, prevention and preparedness and ends up... back in disaster. That is their chart. In truth, FEMA did exactly what they said they were going to do." — Jon Stewart

Take home message 5: Successful UXD involves everyone (it is multidisciplinary) and depends on everyone (it is interdisciplinary).

Last updated: 8/28/06