Monthly Archives: April 2009

Microsoft’s Home & Work XUI concept videos

At the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) 2009 conference early this month in April, an interesting video series titled “Home, Work and Play” was produced for and showcased on behalf of a mysterious and never-seen-before group at Microsoft called Volume Studios. It’s purpose, inspiration in nature, was aimed to “explore in a poetic narrative way how certain developing technologies could begin to blend and augment our daily lives”.

The first two of the series, “home” and “work” were recently published and words fail to describe it.

XUI, which stands for experience-user-interface in theory is the next evolution of computer-human interaction from natural user interfaces (NUI) like Microsoft Surface which itself is an evolution from graphics user interfaces (GUI) like Windows.

Its creators, interactive design firm INVIVIA, explains, “the hyper-real phenomenon portrayed focuses on an ability to instantly personalize space as well as inject/reveal hidden properties of daily objects. The emphasis both in concept and execution was to remove the digital influence inherent to computing and focus on its repercussions. Analog devices behave in extraordinary ways in tangent with, or sometimes the complete absence of, complicated computing systems. The actual filming of the video also reflects this approach, lighting and placement of real objects to appear rendered and rendered objects to appear real.”

To say the video thinks outside the square would be both a pun and an understatement.

(Thanks to the tip by Kip from LiveSide.net)

Microsoft training video reveals older prototype of Windows 7 “superbar”

win7superbar_old1

I’m glad at least someone is paying attention to the French. A couple of days ago Pinnula.fr noticed some interesting screenshots from a presentation at the Microsoft France training event “TechDays 09” of what appeared to be a different user-interface for Windows 7. However contrary to his speculation that this was to be the speculated theme refresh under wraps for Windows 7, it is in fact a screenshot of an old “superbar” prototype.

In this version of the superbar (presumably by default) labels are still enabled. Unlike the labels in the version of Windows 7 today which just feature an application window’s title in a single line, it appears to be a multi-line label separating the name of the application and a subtitle indicating the contents of the current window.

This is an interesting concept because still to this day, the label that appears in the taskbar is a duplicate of the title of the Window it represents, not the application. For example, your Windows Live Messenger windows are labeled by the username of your conversations, not “Windows Live Messenger”.

Obviously Microsoft has since dropped this idea, but it’s worth noting this may have provided an interesting method for applications to provide always-visible short snippets of information on the taskbar. For example, a Twitter application could have indicated in the subtitle “4 unread, 3 replies”, and Outlook “3 unread messages”. Of course, the cost of this idea would adds significant size to the taskbar buttons if they are to be wide enough to relay any useful information.

On a similar topic, personally I have found in Windows 7 the default view of the superbar very difficult to adjust to (large icons, no labels). How is everyone else finding the superbar?

Go test drive Windows 7 RC (7100) today

Windows 7 RC

If you’re like me and watched from a distance leaked builds of Windows 7 fly past like water balloons in a water balloon fight, then the time to join the fun is now. The highly anticipated release candidate (RC) build of Windows 7 has been leaked and its authenticity is entirely undisputed. First looks reveal nothing significantly new or different, but if you’ve been wanting to get a vibe of how far Windows 7 has come since the public beta, especially performance, this is the build to get.

For those of you who want to play along at home, pay your favorite “content hub” a visit. The full build string is “7100.0.090421-1700” and the x86 (32-bit) ISO coming in at a easily manageable 2.35GB (2,530,975,744 bytes). Furthermore to check if your file has been tampered with, you can easily compare the file hash of your x86 (32-bit) ISO file with HashTab against the following.

CRC32: E8A1C394
MD5: 8867C13330F56A93944BCD46DCD73590
SHA-1: 7D1F486CA569EFFFFB719CFB48355BB7BF499712

Tip: Those who have a portable USB hard drive can follow my simple guide to making a super-handy bootable USB Windows 7 install drive. With this, I installed Windows 7 RC in around 10 minutes.

Update: If you’re not feeling that adventurous, prepare to grab this RC build on May 5 when it’ll be publically available. Or if you’re lucky enough to have a MSDN/TechNet subscription, from April 30. In the meantime you can get yourself a legitimate Windows 7 Beta CD-Key (which is valid for RC) from the Microsoft website if you don’t have one already.

CTRL+F and Outlook 2010: will Microsoft follow Google into design by engineers

Outlook 2010 CTRL+F

As an exclusive user of webmail, my experiences with Office Outlook has been limited to the once per quarterly checkup of my ISP-provided email. For this reason, I’ve been entirely oblivious to a small legacy problem that has apparently been frustrating users for much of the past couple years – the problem of the keyboard shortcut CTRL+F and its unexpected behavior to forward email rather than search the inbox or inside a particular message.

To be fair to the developers of Outlook, this is not a new problem introduced with any recent release but a legacy dating back to the early 1990s. As Jensen Harris blogged during the development of Office 2007, “CTRL+F” is an issue that falls under the 50/50 rule – that is 50% of users want or a expect a feature to behave a certain way, and the other 50% of a different behavior.

Whilst I’m not sure if the 50/50 proportions are still correct for this day and age, but how this rule plays out for Outlook is that a large portion of users expect CTRL+F to initiate a find or search behavior, like it does on the majority of English-based PC applications today (apparently keyboard shortcuts are language-sensitive), whilst a certain portion have developed a strong association with CTRL+F to forward email that changing it could confuse or upset them.

Admittedly it was insightful for Jensen to talk about the issue, however Outlook 2007 did nothing to address it.

Now, some new blood who just joined the Outlook team finally wants to take the noble action to change the behavior of CTRL+F in Outlook 2010 to “Find”. Surprisingly, the Outlook team is apparently open to the idea but will only accept it if system quality metrics (SQM) data (ex. data sent back to Microsoft about your usage behavior) supports it. Statistics as everyone probably knows by now can be manipulated in many ways. How can SQM data in this scenario prove the need for change, or otherwise, disprove doing nothing?

On one hand, gathering the SQM data itself raises a few interesting issues, for example, looking at how many people click CTRL+F, then escape, and then the search box might provide evidence of people intending to use CTRL+F to search, but this is not a perfect representation of the search experience in Outlook.

On the other hand, I want to highlight the much broader issue of design by engineers where coincidentally the highly notable designer, Douglas Bowman, left Google for this very reason. You might be thinking what is design by engineers and why is it an issue? Douglas put it best,

Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions. With every new design decision, critics cry foul. Without conviction, doubt creeps in. Instincts fail. “Is this the right move?” When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

Although I don’t know with full certainty this is Microsoft following Google, or in fact Google turning into Microsoft, this Outlook example is the only recent one I’ve heard of and also an example where I have a strong belief the data will fail to support what I believe should be changed for the better in the long-term.

I’d love to hear everyone else’s opinion on what CTRL+F in Outlook 2010 should do and also how you feel about design by engineers.

Update: I feel I should clarify my opinion on the matter. I am inclined to believe that exclusively design by engineers, like it is used in this scenario where a decision purely rests on whether SQM data supports it or not, is not good for innovation. Not to undermine the usefulness of data – it can help to evaluate a decision, but because it reflects the past and present, it does not entirely represent how users will react to a change or new feature.

Like the what Douglas points out in Google, If a company like Microsoft falls into the habit of exclusively design by engineers, then it will always make the safest decision which will satisfy the large majority of current users, but won’t help the company attract new customers or do radically new things, and that may have long-term consequences. Will Office in 5 years be the only application on Windows that does not follow the standard CTRL+F behavior?

Windows Mobile 6.5 takes personalization to the next level with themes and Titanium plugins

Windows Mobile 6.5 customizations
(Left) Original Windows Mobile 6.5 look and feel. (Center) Customized Windows Mobile 6.5 theme.
(Right) Custom Windows Mobile 6.5 Titanium plugin.

Windows Mobile 6.5 may still be a month away from release-to-manufacturing (RTM), but that hasn’t stopped the thriving Windows Mobile modding community from already working on and releasing some promising customizations to take advantage of the new themes and Titanium plugins engines. Here’s a couple examples where WM6.5 allows for more powerful customizations for its new look and feel without any third-party software.

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Windows enthusiast Cullen creates “Copenhagen” user experience concept video

Once in a while we all, as Windows enthusiasts, come up with those great ideas the next version got to have. Some put it in writing, some vote (shameless plug), some Photoshop mockups, but rarely do we get concept videos as elaborate as Cullen Dudas’ “Copenhagen” user experience video.

Here it is for your viewing pleasure. (The real gem starts 1 minutes in)

If the vibe of the video leaves you wondering where you’ve seen it before, then that’s because Cullen draws inspiration from the infamous Longhorn “Rocks” concept video where a lot of radical UX ideas were thrown in the air.

Mostly composited in Flash and taking around 2 months to make, there are definitely some interest UI ideas presented building on top of some of the new UI elements we’ve seen in Windows 7. Whilst in my opinion many of the ideas are impractical in a real use scenario, my hats go off to Cullen for walking the walk and getting his ideas out there.

What does everyone else think of “Copenhagen”?