Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Usability in practice

Last week I attended a three day intensive camp called "Usability in Practice." This was run by the world-renowned Nielsen Norman Group, a consultancy who work in the field of usability - making tools which are easy for people to use to accomplish their desired task. The group is made up of people who have been working on product design and thinking about the whole user experience for decades, and has the philosophy "to help companies enter the age of the consumer, designing human-centered products and services." That's AlertMe!

I've previously met Don Norman (co-founder of the group) at Intelligent Environments, a Microsoft Research event. He's a really inspiring guy, with a huge range of design and psychology expertise, as well as technical experience (amongst many other things, he was Vice President of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple). Norman recommends companies design the Total User Experience, going beyond just a few nifty features and good engineering to make a product, and we've followed that best practice whilst designing the AlertMe system.

The camp focussed on how to design and test for usability, which is something which has been critical to AlertMe from day one. It was great to build on my previous experience with some more detailed study at the camp, and I'm now planning the next round of user testing for our system.

Jakob Nielsen ran some of the sessions; he's one of the foremost advocates of easy to use websites and a top usability guru. He also founded the "discount usability engineering" movement for fast and cheap improvements of user interfaces. This kind of rapid, responsive technique to create a highly usable, functional and fun-to-use system is at the heart of AlertMe's development.

I'm going to be looking for participants to help AlertMe refine our user interface and website during the summer. If you'd like to be considered, send me an email at usability @ alertme.com or sign up for more information at www.alertme.com. This is a great opportunity to help us make using the AlertMe system a truly straightforward and enjoyable experience.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Long weekend #4 - The morning after

Again, absolutely true experience - I really am not making this up.

Ah it was nice to be back home. I love the cosy feel of our little English terrace house.

I woke up the morning after we got back, refreshed and ready to get back to work. Except, why was the house so cold this morning?

I wander downstairs for my usual glass of Ovaltine (the good stuff we bring over from the States.) I notice it's even colder down here. Ah, I see why!

The front door is wide open!

Apparently it has been wide open all night. The Yale lock must not have latched properly when we closed it, then the wind must have blown it back open. It does that sometimes. This is why I'm always wondering if I closed the front door. See, there is a perfectly good reason for my paranoia!

Um, wait a sec, the front door was wide open all night!

We live on fairly busy street, just off a major road through town. It's a mixed part of town, generally very nice, but some rough characters bumming around pretty often, too. Uh, oh.

Rush into the front room for a quick look around: yep, there is my laptop, my iPod, my wallet, my keys, my wife's purse, and all our passports, right there where we dropped them after the France trip.

I am very, very, very relieved no one wandered in last night.

We really do need to get one of them high tech new home monitoring systems....

Long weekend #3 - The Return Home

The following is absolutely true. Sometimes life just hands you material.

Coming back from the ZigBee conference in Paris, I had the usual mild worries:
  • Did the cleaner come while we were gone?
  • Did we leave the heating on for five days with no one home?
  • And generally, was the house ok?
Interestingly, these worries increase the closer we get to home, which is compounded by the fact that the trains get exponentially slower as we approach home:
  • Paris to London - no stops - 2 hours 40 minutes - 280 miles - average 105 mph
  • London to Cambridge - 28 stops - 4 hours 20 minutes - 60 miles - average 14 mph
At last, we're home!

The house is still there, not a smoking pile of bricks!
The front is closed, not hanging off it's hinges!
The front door is locked, but we can't open it!

Err... apparently the cleaner did come, and she locked an extra deadbolt on the door, one for which I don't have a key. Whoops. Now what?

Time to break in to my own home!

Wife watches me vault the locked gate to the back alley, easy enough, this is kind of fun!
Slip around the neighbours', into our back garden.
Test the french doors to see if they're locked - yes, good, we remembered to lock them when we left. Now what?

Tug a bit harder on the back door... hmm... it seems to have a little play in it... I wonder.
Sharp yank on the handle of the french doors, and voila, quiet splintering and I'm in!
  • Locked out to broken in - 1 stop - 2 minutes - 40 yards - average 0.7 mph
That was really easy. Quick and quiet. No one saw me.

We'll need to fix the door though.

And perhaps we should get some sort of high tech home monitoring system....

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Long weekend #2 - ZigBee in Paris

The ZigBee Alliance held a conference and open house at the Hyatt by Charles De Gaulle Airport last week. It was an international event, with attendees coming from at least four continents.

Interesting to see the booths - a lot of developers and platforms and chipsets and everyone had some green circuit boards on display. What I didn't see was many consumer applications of the technology. It still seems very rooted in the industrial world. The technology is ready and solid, but we'll be one of the first to deploy it for a really cool home usage.

Even Eaton's presentation was about their electrical and automotive bits, not their geek-next-door home products. It just feels like this isn't the focus for their company.

The best customer oriented product was Control4 and they had a nice demo of their kit - we'd love to have a chat with them about the security aspects sometime. We also enjoyed the TSC Systems display.

It was great to see our friends from Ember and PRI.

All in all, a very interesting event, but it'll get better when we are ready to show our stuff!

Long weekend #1

Wednesday last week, we left home for a long weekend in France. A conference in Paris requires some extra time on holiday. (Note to our Directors: this was not a boondoggle. Really.)

As always, I had to go back twenty steps from the front door, just to make sure it was closed tightly. I had a touch more worry than usual, after all we were going to be gone for five days. The neighbours were gone also (to Bristol, almost as glamourous.)

Worse, we had to put the trash bins out in front of the house two days early because we were going to miss the collection day otherwise. They only collect every two weeks here, which means if you miss once, it's an entire month of rubbish to stomp into the small bin, sort of a very sad man's grape stomping. But I digress. The non-political issue with the bins was that leaving them in front for five days on a semi-busy street seems to be a clear sign of "Nobody's Home - Come on in!" They even have the house number spraypainted on, just so your slower crook doesn't get confused about which house is empty. Sigh. My paranoia needs little encouragement.

The trains were fine: Cambridge to King's Cross, King's Cross to Leicester Square, Leicester Square to Waterloo, Waterloo to Gare Du Nord, enough trains already, taxi to hotel.

Ah, Paris in the spring. If you must know, the weather was absolutely perfect -- warm but not hot, blue sky sunny, with a cool, light breeze -- all day on Thursday. Of course, I spent the entire day in a windowless convention room in an airport hotel, but more about the ZigBee Open House in the next post....

(To Be Continued.)