Posts about usability

Engineer Your Life

Engineer Your Life is an outreach initiative committed to sharing with college-bound young women the opportunities available to them in the world of engineering. Unfortunately they chose to use flash content and the website fails to follow simple usability guidelines (basic stuff like human readable urls, links that work without javascript…) but there is decent content. The use of flash and failing to pay attention to usability are highly correlated in my experience. The site profiles 12 engineers including Judy Lee:

Judy’s enthusiasm paid off. A few months later, the IKEA engineer asked her to design a children’s play mat. Judy was thrilled and soon found herself in IKEA headquarters in Sweden, where she worked with a team of engineers and product developers. It was at this moment that she realized her ideal job was one that truly offered a balance between creativity and problem solving.

Designing for IKEA
Judy began her new project by thinking about the way kids play. “I realized that kids today play indoors a lot. Maybe because the world seems a little more dangerous and parents are more protective. So I knew that this mat had to incorporate some kind of physical play element.” Rather than a static mat, Judy designed one resembling a giant lazy Susan that kids could spin around on. “Once I had the concept, the mechanical engineer in me took over. I needed something simple. Simplicity is awesome. My mat is basically two injection-molded pieces of plastic that spin on a set of interior wheels.”

Judy will never forget the experience of seeing her mat in an IKEA store. “It was incredible,” she recalls, “and it was such important validation for me that my ideas matter, they’re good, and they’re marketable.”

Dream Job at IDEO
Today, Judy has found her dream job in Palo Alto, California, at a company called IDEO, one of the country’s most innovative design firms. IDEO hires engineers, designers, psychologists, and businesspeople who work in teams to develop cutting-edge products (they created Apple Computer’s first mouse, for example). Judy designs children’s toys, pet products, and packaging for over-the-counter drugs and food. “I feel pretty lucky to have such a creative and interesting job. I’m surrounded by brilliant people. It doesn’t really seem like work. It’s just plain fun!”

Related: Beloit College: Girls and Women in ScienceWomen Choosing Other Fields Over Engineering and MathNASA You Have a ProblemGirls Sweep Top Honors at Siemens Competition in Math, Science and TechnologyWomen Working in Scienceother posts on poor usability

Goldbergian Flash Fits Rube Goldberg Web Site

Intentionally, I hope, the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest web site illustrates how to use needlessly complex engineering to design a tool that fails to follow sensible engineering guidelines. Rather than aiming for well designed usable products, the desire is to produce a machine that sort-of complies with the requirements but in a extremely foolish, convoluted way. Obviously it would be much more sensible to design that web site with html and it would just work simply, easily and quickly for everyone. But flash is the perfect tool to use if you want to promote Goldbergian thinking.

The web site, for example, does display content to a web browser. If that web browser has a flash plugin installed and it is the proper type. And sure the conventions of the web don’t work in this crippled environment but who cares about that when designing Goldbergian web sites. Of course if you actually want to design a good web site such choices would be – lets see, oh yeah, lame. I could link to the contest information – but in good Flash Goldbergian fashion that is not possible with the non-website website they have.

Related: Rube Goldberg Machine ContestRube Goldberg Devices from JapanNASA You Have a Problem340 Years of Royal Society Journals OnlineNSF Engineering Division is ReorganizationHow to Design for the Web

NASA You Have a Problem

Go to NASA’s web site. Use the security settings that are most intelligent to use, the NoScript plugin for Firefox, and NASA makes this bold pointy haired boss statement at the top of every page:

“There’s a problem with your browser or settings.

Your browser or your browser’s settings are not supported. To get the best experience possible, please download a compatible browser. If you know your browser is up to date, you should check to ensure that javascript is enabled.”

Well no, there is no problem with my browser settings. And I am using the latest version of the most popular browser. 0 for 2 phb. What you mean to say is: I am so lame I hired someone who designed our web site so it fails to work properly without javascript enabled.

Jeez, get someone who know how to program a web site that just works. Any marginally competent individual can have your site work for any modern browser and then add in extra features people can take advantage using javascript, or flash or whatever extra things you want. It is amazing that an agency that is suppose to know about technology can do such a lame job of producing a web site. They do manage to provide good content for their web site (probably the content is provided by engineers while some phb decides they know what is best for the web site code).

Related: Astronaut and EarthUsability Failures at the Royal Society Web SiteNSF Usability FailureWebcasts by Chemistry and Physics Nobel Laureates

Great Self Portrait

photo of astronaut's faceplate reflecting earth

Photo by, and of, Astronaut Clay Anderson, Expedition 15 flight engineer. He used a digital camera to expose a photo of his helmet visor during the mission’s third planned session of extravehicular activity (EVA) on the International Space Station (15 August 2007). Also visible in the reflections in the visor are various components of the station and a blue and white portion of Earth. During the 5-hour, 28-minute spacewalk, Anderson and astronaut Rick Mastracchio (out of frame), STS-118 mission specialist, relocated the S-Band Antenna Sub-Assembly from Port 6 (P6) to Port 1 (P1) truss, installed a new transponder on P1 and retrieved the P6 transponder.

NASA provides their content, photos etc. online in an open access spirit. When linking to content (especially images) it is best to provide context (and with the internet the easiest way to do is so is relevant links). You can find many low resolution pictures of the image above around the internet. Trying to find the context around the image is not so easy – it took me quite awhile to do so. I try to provide the context and links. Lately some more sites will link to some original sources but this is still done far to infrequently.

There are also still far too many pointy haired bosses (PHB) making decisions to break the web by killing pages: web pages must live forever. Those PHB’s decisions do reduce the great benefit of linking but it is still worth doing for those cases where web sites are managed by people with the knowledge and ability to manage an internet resource properly.

Photo: NASA – high resolution version

Related: Van Gogh self portraitMars Rovers Getting Ready for Another AdventureNASA Robotics Academy

Inventor TV Shows

I caught some of Everyday Edisons the other day, which looked promising (though I would prefer less fluff and more focus on the process of designing and marketing the products. American Inventor season two premiers tonight on ABC. I saw some of American Inventor last year and it was interesting (though it didn’t grab me enough to get me to watch often). Still compared to the usual TV fair they look interesting and do actually provide some insight into turning ideas into products.

One minor point I find funny and a bit lame. On the Everyday Edisons web site they show a photo with 10 people and then have an image underneath it with text (yes image text like a myspace page – obviously whoever is responsible for this website doesn’t follow the advice of the web usability experts – this image text is just one example, another is that every time you go the home page it starts playing a video with audio – it is annoying to have web sites with so little idea of good web design practices) that states something like “I thought there were 14 inventors, I only see seven. What’s up?” The image actually shows 10 people – not 7, what is up with someone that only sees 7?

Related: Engineering Education Reality TV (which I also note web usability failings) – Help Choose the New PBS Science ProgramJapan Project X: Innovators Documentaries
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340 Years of Royal Society Journals Online

The complete archive (from 1665) of the Royal Society journals, is freely available electronically for two months. You can try using the Journal archive – it sure does have spectacular content, if only you can unearth it:

The archive contains seminal research papers including accounts of Michael Faraday’s groundbreaking series of electrical experiments, Isaac Newton’s invention of the reflecting telescope, and the first research paper published by Stephen Hawking.

Note to anyone with scientific content of high value that decides to allow internet access. Please contact Google and have them help you make it available online. They don’t have any official program to do so, but for collections of enough merit I can’t imagine you would have any trouble getting some Google engineer to take on the project.
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NSF Engineering Division is Reorganization

Read about the reorganization of NSF’s Engineering Division in their adobe acrobat (pdf) document (the only format in which they provide the document). How does an organization, in this day and age, post a scanned image online instead of posting a text readable document (for a present day document that obviously could just be printed to pdf format and retain text.

In addition to the obvious lameness of such a move when a federal government agency does it (like NSF) they violate the “section 508” regulations put in place to provide adequate access to government documents for those with disabilities.

Hopefully someone will get them to correct their failure soon. NSF does great things, but this failure to provide even the most basic web usability is an embarrassment.

Update – they did correct this, I don’t know when as it is months later when I am updating this but still I am glad they did.