Articles from User Experience

Using Analytics to Identify the Best Screen Resolution

By Michael Flanakin @ 6:37 PM :: 46013 Views :: User Experience :: Digg it!

As part of my site redesign effort, I had to determine what the best screen resolution to target was. Initially, I was ready to blindly accept 1024x768 as "the standard," firmly believing that 800x600 has been left in the dust more than 5 years ago. Then I reminded myself that analytics have the real answer, but not just any analytics.

Despite the wealth of interesting information we can find online about the "average" screen resolution, the best answer is a little closer to home than these general studies. Chances are, your user community isn't the entire world. If you think it is, you don't know enough about your users. This is where analytics come in. For instance, the average screen resolution may be 1024x768, but if I'm building a site/application for the visually impaired, the average may be much lower -- maybe even 640x480! On the other hand, if you're building a site/application for gamers, the average will most likely be higher. In either case, missing the key demographic will undoubtedly provide a less than desirable experience for your users. This is where your own instrumentation/analytics come in.

Get Microsoft Silverlight

I found out a few interesting things about my site's visitors from this exercise.

1024x768 is the smallest resolution. I should've expected this, knowing my audience; but I didn't. I figured there'd be at least a few 800x600 visitors out there. While I'm sure there are some in the world, this at least confirms that 1024x768 is the smallest resolution I need to concern myself with; however, at 11%, it's still a very small part of the overall audience.

26% use 1280x1024. While not that large of a percentage, the largest group of visitors has a 1280x1024 resolution. I was surprised to see this as the most popular resolution, but it makes sense, given hardware advances. Arguably, this is where my focus should be. A 1280-pixel width would support 87% of my visitors. Unfortunately, a 1024-pixel height only supports 59%, so that's not quite ideal. Luckily, this is just about scrolling. The best height to target for the prime real estate would be an 800-pixel height, which would support 86% of my visitors.

58% have widescreen displays. Again, not stunning, but very interesting. Knowing more than half of my visitors have widescreen displays tells me I should embrace the horizontal spread of key information, as opposed to dropping this info below "the fold." I'm not saying every layout decision needs to be based on "the fold," but it does exist and it should be acknowledged to a certain degree. Yes, people scroll, but the initial impact is above the fold, so that should be targeted and drive interest in not only scrolling down, but clicking thru to other pages. But I digress... The biggest lesson here is that fixed-width layouts are not an option. Limiting to a 1000-pixel width, for instance, would waste 25-50% of the display size for half of my visitors. That's crazy.

Most well known aspect ratios are the rarest. While 4:3 and 16:9 are the aspect ratios I hear about the most -- likely because they are the standard aspect ratios used in TVs -- they only make up 22% of my visitors. While knowing this won't help me come to a solid conclusion, it is another interesting point I wouldn't have expected. I only point this out because it shows how instrumentation can tell you things you may not have known you didn't know.

Strange resolutions like 1152x864 and 1366x768. I knew about most of the resolutions I found, but there were a couple I've never heard of, specifically 1366x768, which was very odd and doesn't exactly map to 16:9, but seems to be attributed as such.

There are a countless ways I could've sliced the numbers to extract other interesting tidbits, but the important thing is that I was able to use actual metrics to validate my assumptions. This would be even more important on larger projects; especially, team projects. Have you ever had an argument over some subjective aspect of a system you've built? Maybe it was a particular class design or visual layout or perhaps it was something as trivial as a color. We all have our opinions and design reviews tend to bring them all out. It's about time we stop having subjective arguments and actually pull together objective, factual metrics based on real system usage. What do your customers deserve? Assumptions and guesses or educated conclusions based on proven facts?

Source code for resolution visualization

Site Redesign Thoughts

By Michael Flanakin @ 10:57 PM :: 27166 Views :: User Experience :: Digg it!

As I mentioned on Twitter, my site's long overdue for a revamp. I'm looking at ways to make my personal site a hub of all my activity on the many disparate services and social networks I'm part of. I have a number of ideas on how to bring them together, but it all comes down to how much time I'm willing to sink into this activity, given the many other things I should probably be working on instead. My biggest concerns are creating a hub of my activity, most likely moving my blog because I'm tired of managing the current platform, and coming up with a design that's more modern and fresh, yet simpler than what I have today.

I've been doing a lot of thinking over the past few hours and, while I don't want to slap my entire OneNote notebook of thoughts out here, I do want to share a wireframe of a conceptual home page. This is merely a conceptual layout from an information architecture perspective, but it's a start.

Site redesign concept wireframe

I'm thinking about the site having four main areas: about page, activity stream, blog, and articles. The activity stream is the most complicated piece of the puzzle, given the vast number of disparate services that provide lackluster offerings. While this has the biggest opportunity for improvement, it's also a huge time sink, considering people use those services and aren't going to come to my site just to see my end-to-end activity stream. Based on that, I'm not sure how much time I'll dedicate to it.

I'd love to get feedback from others. I want things to be as simple as possible. I threw around the idea of not having a main menu at all in an effort to let the context drive the experience, but I'm not sure that's approproate given the fact that people are used to seeing a menu. I should probably go for it and use instrumentation and analytics to determine which way is best. What do you think?

How the Top Tech Companies Made it There

By Michael Flanakin @ 1:54 PM :: 7369 Views :: Technology, Microsoft, User Experience :: Digg it!

If you were to ask someone on the street who the top technology company is, you'll likely get one of three answers: Apple, Google, or Microsoft. Whether you agree that these are the best technology companies or not, you have to admit these three own the broad mindshare. While I listed them alphabetically, I'd bet you'd hear them in that specific order. It all comes back to mindshare. IBM and Oracle are definitely top technology companies in the enterprise, but without a consumer focus, both are sacrificing this all-too-valuable metric. You can see how important this metric is by looking back at how technology was driven in the past. 15 years ago, technology was driven by enterprise needs. Over time, however, technology has become less expensive and more accessible, which has flipped that trend. Now, most technology trends are driven by the consumer market. But what did these three do to get that mindshare?

Ask anyone with an Apple product what they like the most or what their first impression was and they'll comment on how beautiful the device or interface is and how easy it is to use. Apple's core competence is exactly this: visual design and, to some degree, user experience.

Taking the same look at Google, first impressions are typically on simple interfaces and speedy responses. Alone, this doesn't tell us much, but if you take a deeper look, you see that Google is driven by algorithms. After all, search and advertising can only succeed with solid algorithms. This is Google's core competence: engineering.

To put it simply, Apple and Google represent the art and science of technology. As such, those are the crowds they attract. Apple attracts artists and creative professionals and Google attracts engineers and hard-core geeks. This is the key to both companies' success -- a targeted audience.

Having a targeted audience allows these companies to build precise, unambiguous experiences aimed at a specific type of user (or persona). You might say that neither Apple nor Google can do this because their products are used by a wide range of users. That's very true, but just because you target a specific persona, that doesn't mean your user base will never grow beyond that. In fact, it's just the opposite. By targeting a specific persona, you're able to focus your efforts and not only meet, but exceed that persona's expectations because you truly understand what their needs and goals are. With this, you're affording yourself the primary key to product success: passionate users.

Take a look back at the iPhone's debut. Were people not passionate about its sexy interface? Of course they were. And that passion was a virus that spread like a pyramid scheme. Google had the same effect, albeit much slower.

When Google first launched their search engine in the late 1990's, there weren't too many people using it. Yahoo was the most popular search engine at the time, with it's gaudy interface, attempting to be everything to everyone. Perhaps the biggest interaction mistake Yahoo made was attempting to follow the mythical 3-click rule, where users "must" be able to get to any feature within 3 clicks, or they will stop trying. I don't want to get into it here, but this is completely wrong. The way Google succeeded was by getting all the crap out of the way. By focusing on finding what you want, Google attracted geeks -- and a lot of them. Geeks told other geeks who told their family and friends and before you know it, less than 5 years later, Google was the #1 game in town -- all because they drove passion in a small subset of possible users. Of course, passion alone isn't going to earn you a multi-billion dollar business, but passion in the hearts and minds of the right audience can. Passion can also be dangerous.

If you're reading this, you're probably well aware of the stigma of Windows Vista. It's the worst operating system in the world, right? Not so, but the passionate few who did have bad experiences sure did let everyone know. As with the passion of the iPhone and Google search users, Vista haters shouted it out, loud and proud. But I'm not here to defend Windows Vista; I want to show you the value and impact of passion. Speaking of which, if Apple is #1 in the hearts and minds of artists and Google fills that spot for engineers, where does Microsoft fit in?

We can all agree that Microsoft isn't known for its superb aesthetics or engineering prowess, but it is good at both. And, when it comes to these three companies, Microsoft is arguably second in both areas, despite the fact that neither artists nor engineers will accept or admit it. Don't get me wrong, there have been some major blunders on boht fronts, but this is exactly my point. By not excelling in the art or science of technology, Microsoft is taking a back seat to both Apple and Google. When it comes to end-to-end user experience, Apple has the most mindshare, as I mentioned before; but I'd argue that Microsoft is second in this game. Yes, Google does have some wins in this space, but Google is nowhere near as dedicated to or capable of delivering the end-to-end user experience Microsoft is -- just look at Bing and Windows Phone. Admittedly, Microsoft has only started showing its ability in this space over the past few years. On the other side, Google drives mindshare for technology engineering; but once again, Microsoft comes in second. I can cite examples of why Apple sucks at engineering and Google can't quite cut it with end-to-end user experience, but I want to focus on the culmination of all this.

Microsoft has a tendency to attract people who want both beauty and brains; people who understand that beauty alone will get you nowhere and brains alone will leave you as exactly that -- alone. Together, beauty and brains will reach an even broader audience. This is the 80% Microsoft is known for targeting (for better or worse), which is exacly why Microsoft is as popular as it is. Everyone like to look at pretty pictures or solve problems .6825 seconds faster than the next  guy, but the vast majority of the populations doesn't care -- as long as they can figure it out and their problem gets solved, they're happy. Let's face it, the best interface is no interface. If human beings could achieve their goals without interacting with your product, they would. Your product is a necessary evil.

Microsoft hasn't been successful by purely being a runner-up, tho. Microsoft has their own niche: developers. I know of absolutely no company that has ever had the ability to drive passion in developers as much as Microsoft has. Sure, iPhone development has seen a great boon, but that was forced (on Apple) and it wasn't because Apple had a great development platform; it was because users were flocking to the product. Microsoft has continued to deliver compelling platforms for developers to take advantage of year after year. This is only heightenedby the fact that Microsoft's partner ecosystem is fiscally 10 times the size of Microsoft itself. Said another way, partners make $10 for every $1 Microsoft earns. Given Microsoft's gross earnings, that's a huge market. I'd say that's definitely something to be passionate about.

While having 80% of the market sounds outstanding, this group is quite fickle and has no allegiences. They aren't opting out of the artistic and scientific approaches; they just don't care. So what drives them? Each of us has something inside that motivates us. If you want to be successful, you need to start with a core demographic, the primary persona you want to target. Remember that, by meeting everyone's needs, you meet no one's needs. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it's been proven time and time again. If you target a specific type of user, you're giving your primary users an opportunity to get passionate. There's no mathematical formula to cultivate passion -- if there was, Google would've figured it out by now -- but it all starts with targeted experiences. If you want to win in your market, drive passion.

To bring this back to those top 3 companies, Apple and Google are both fairly stuck in their ways. Both companies have art and science built into their DNA. I don't expect to see either company change. Microosft, on the other hand, has an immense amount to learn and I think they're on their way to correcting those. I can't say I expect Microsoft to surpass Apple in artistry or Google in engineering anytime soon; but I do expect Microsoft to give both companies a run for their money. We've already seen Apple reacting to Windows Phone 7 and Google reacting to Bing. As slow as the company is, Microsoft is a huge innovator. We've seen it in the past and I suspect the next 12 months will be full of opportunities for history to repeat itself as Kinect, Windows Phone 7, and IE9 come to fruition. Okay, there's some wishful thinking in that last one, but each of these platforms has developers chomping at the bit, eagerly awaiting their release. And, with each of these combining best-of-breed user experiences  with solid, top-notch engineering, Microsoft is giving us something to be passionate about -- on all three screens (phone, computer, and TV), no less.

For the developers out there, how about your products? How are you driving passion in your users? For everyone else, what makes you passionate?

Interesting First Impressions with the IE9 Preview

By Michael Flanakin @ 10:27 PM :: 5887 Views :: Microsoft, Predictions, Open Source/Standards, Tools/Utilities, User Experience :: Digg it!


It's been almost a year since my plea to the IE team. Windows 7 has rocked, Office 2010 is looking very nice, and, most recently, Windows Phone 7 Series has amazed the world. All these great things coming together are really putting pressure on the IE team to deliver something revolutionary. Back in Nov 2009, the team talked about the tremendous performance improvements, sub-pixel text rendering, and HTML5/CSS3 support. All-in-all, there was a quick burst of information and buzz around what IE9 could become, but then it died off very quickly. I admit, I was quite skeptical -- and still am -- but at least it showed the team is heading in the right direction. In what seems to be the IE team's typical process, silence happened and annoyance returned.

Today, Microsoft announced the release of an early IE9 developer preview. I was pretty excited about this, since I've been waiting for it since they first started talking about IE9 in November -- well, maybe since IE8 was released without some of the big features I was hoping for. Nonetheless, I was grounded pretty quickly. For better or worse, there are some interesting things that came out of the preview.

1. Uhh, What's This Window?

I'm pretty willy-nilly with new software. Not too smart, but whatever :-P I installed the preview and expected magic. As it installed, I started closing other IE8 windows. All of a sudden, a new Window popped up. "Woo-hoo, it's done! IE9, here I come!" Then I noticed I left one IE8 window open. I switched over to close it and hesitated -- "Why is there an IE8 window still open?" I switched back to the new IE9 window and thought, uhh, this isn't a browser. There's no back button; no address bar; nothing. "Ah, maybe it's just a 'Welcome to IE9' dialog before the IE9 greatness kicks in!" I close the IE8 window, open another with the pinned icon on my taskbar. "Uhh, nothing changed." *Help > About...* Still IE8. WTF!? I guess this is more of a literal "preview" than I thought. No browser; just a chance to see how their pre-built tests work. Meh.

2. The Tests Work... Mostly

I've said it before and I'll say it again, just being part of the game isn't going to fly. And, if this is all the IE team has to show, I'm not impressed. Don't get me wrong, I love everything they show, from performance to sub-pixel text rendering -- seriously, this isn't something to scoff at, it's a very noteworthy improvement for any browser -- to all the HTML and CSS improvements. But it's not enough. Heck, the "Falling Balls" example didn't even work. I really want to bash the performance improvements. I even wrote this paragraph a few different ways to express my disapproval in different ways, but it all comes down to this: you won't realize how drastic the improvements are until you see IE8 and IE9 running side-by-side. The Flying Images example seems obvious, when you see it in IE9, but when you go back and watch it in IE8, you think, "Is this seriously what I'm putting up with today!? I feel lied to; cheated. How dare you, IE team; how dare you!" With all that said -- and seriously, the perf improvement is tremendous -- I'm still not happy (here's where my desire to bash performance comes in). While you definitely notice that aspects of performance have improved, the perceived performance really sucks. It's not the page loading that I'm talking about, tho; it's the standard page interaction that's defunct. Even clicking some of the links used by the examples were ridiculously buggy. I guess there's a reason they called it a "developer preview"... wait, that doesn't say "developer," it says "platform"...

3. "Platform Preview"

In an effort to find the hidden navigation controls, I scoured the lifeless window edges. The best I could find was the Page > Open... menu option. Well, at least that's a way to test out other pages. I figured, what better way to test out the new browser than to write a blog post. Let me just tell you that I'm dying here. I mentioned the perceived performance sucks already. Try typing in this thing. I feel like I'm clawing my eyes out -- and I'm talking about with freshly trimmed fingernails. You know what I'm talking about, when you trim your fingernails down to the nub and putting even the slightest pressure on them hurts. Now, try to claw your eyes out with that. That's why I feel like I'm doing right now. Every character is painful. *Ouch, oooh, ouch...*

Okay, I'm exaggerating; but it is painful. But, now that I'm able to get past the examples, I'm realizing I have two versions of IE installed. Hmm... very interesting. Remember the days when IE was a crucial part of Windows and couldn't be unbundled? Well, they seem to have figured out how to install a new rendering engine without touching the old one, hidden deep in the innards of Windows. Of course, they did introduce the ability to completely uninstall IE in Windows 7, so maybe that's a moot point nowadays. Either way, this is a first for IE, as far as I know. Then it hit me... "platform preview." Are they saying something with that? Are we talking about a rendering engine completely detached from the Windows desktop OS?

4. IE9 on Windows Phone?

In the original Windows Phone 7 Series announcement at Mobile World Congress 2010, Joe Belfiore commented that the phone is more than just the Mobile IE we see in Windows Mobile 6.5 and its predecessors. He said it came from the desktop browser code-base. This alone doesn't mean much, but when he called out the sub-pixel text rendering, my mind started adding things up. Is this IE9 on Windows Phone!? Nobody has said that, but you have to wonder. I've read that Windows Phone 7 Series is based on IE7 with some back-ported features from IE8, but that doesn't really make sense, when you consider that sub-pixel rendering is only coming in the next version of the browser. I still have to wonder about this. It doesn't make sense to back-port that feature two versions. Maybe it's IE8 with that one feature back-ported, but maybe it's IE9. If that's the case, IE9 will need to be on a hyperactive beta period and, as I mentioned before, they definitely aren't close to being done, yet, and I'm admittedly not confident they even know how to do that.

5. Where's the Navigation?

I really want to get back to the preview. I'm still annoyed at the fact that I have to get to sites in a hacky way. Why would the IE team do that!? Do they not want us to use the browser? That can't be it. Maybe they didn't have time to finish out the preview and just crammed some stuff together to make the Mix10 keynote. Maybe, but I doubt it. I didn't notice this at first, but the menu options aren't standard. Specifically, there's a "Page" menu instead of a "File" menu. Perhaps I'm reading into this too much, but "Page" sounds like more of a ribbon tab than a menu option. Maybe the reason we're getting such a scaled-back browser is because the old chrome isn't there anymore -- we could be getting the first ribbon-based browser. I'm very excited about this possibility. At the same time, I can't ignore the fact that this will be a very touchie UI, given the ever-popular tab-based browser. IE7 brought me back from Firefox because the UI was slim and just looked and felt more professional. IE9 with a ribbon done right -- extra focus on "done right" -- could seriously bring people back to IE. At the same time, it's an opening for haters to complain about the ribbon. I whole-heartedly believe the ribbon interface is demonstrably better than menu-based interfaces. So much so that, if I had my way, I'd never use another menu-based interface again. I'm not saying the ribbon is the way to go in every case, but I don't know why a traditional menu would ever be the "right" experience. It just isn't optimal.

With all that said, maybe the ribbon isn't the IE team's target. Maybe they've put a lot of thought into how users should be interacting with the browser. In either case, I welcome the change. Chrome took an interesting move with minimization, but I don't think it was drastic enough. Google played it safe with Chrome. Microsoft's not afraid of taking big risks when it comes to user experience -- just look at Office 2007, Windows Phone 7 Series, and even Visual Studio 2010 to a lesser degree.

No matter what happens, I'll be eagerly awaiting either the next preview/beta. At the same time, I'm not holding my breath. The IE team has a lot to prove with respect to being agile and, if they really are creating a new UI, that'll just complicate things more. I'd like to say we'll see something by the end of June, but who knows with that team. All I can say is, IE team, prove me wrong; please, prove me wrong!

A Plea for IE

By Michael Flanakin @ 7:28 PM :: 8713 Views :: Technology, Microsoft, Predictions, Tools/Utilities, User Experience :: Digg it!

Internet Explorer

Microsoft is out to prove a point with Windows 7. I can see the message clearly: "See, we can deliver on time; and earlier than most expected. And to top it all off, we did so without drastically changing the OS. That 'polished' OS you're looking at... yeah, it's Vista; 'Vista-point-1' to be exact. Sure, we tweaked it; but that's just to prove another point: Microsoft software isn't about bloat." I could probably go on for a while, but the signs are all there. Sinofsky has done a great job taking the Windows team under his wing. I've been very happy with some of the decisions they've made. As a matter of fact, I'm hoping to see some of the same changes on other fronts. Enter Internet Explorer.

IE8 is a big flop in my book. Don't get me wrong, it's my default browser and I love the enhancements; but it's just hiding the real, underlying problem: the foundation. I apologize for the analogy, but you can only mold a pile of crap so many ways before it just starts falling apart. Arguably, the same can be said about Windows, but Windows 7 has really given it a refresh. It's hard to explain how much better Windows 7 feels. I have to say I'd liken it to the first day I got Windows Vista, to be honest; but the key differentiator there is that I had quality hardware that was up to the challenge and no legacy software or devices to be concerned with. I'm not the "normal" user, of course, and I feel bad for those who had bad experiences. It's not because the software is bad, it's because your circumstances around which you experienced it were wrong. Not that Microsoft isn't to blame, tho; but I'm getting way off topic. It's time for a major change with IE.

I remember seeing some early concepts around IE8. At first glance, I was confused at a few of the ideas -- I'm thinking of one in particular -- but after I paused to really mull it over, it hit me. The power users would have at their fingertips would be astounding. There's a common root to the booming growth of Google and Firefox. This is exactly what Microsoft would've seen with this feature. Guess what: that feature never saw the light of day. As a matter of fact, I don't even know that it made it past that slide deck. Admittedly, the idea was rough, but it had some real potential. What's funny is that I just read something about the same concept being applied to another browser. *sigh*

Before IE8 beta 1 hit the streets, I saw another slide deck about what would be included in IE8 and 9. At first, I was excited, but it didn't take long for that to wear off. I actually began to question some of the decisions. There was (once again) one feature loved, but then I started to wonder if it even made sense. Depending on whether the team takes a left or a right out the gate will be the deciding factor for that feature... if it's still even a possibility. IE8 was pushed back so much that the IE9 time frame and feature set is completely out of the picture for what I saw. It's too bad; I was looking forward to a few quick revs. At the same time, this could be perfect timing.

Windows 7 is on the way, with rumors of April and May release candidates culminating in a June, July, August, September, October, November, or January final release date. It's pretty clear nobody has a good clue of the actual release date, but there is one constant in all the confusion: simplicity and performance are the two driving tenets in Windows 7. These two factors are huge for usability and, furthermore, perceptions. So, when I think about what to expect in IE9, I'm looking for both of these: simplicity and speed. IE8 is a dog on some machines. We've seen JavaScript benchmarks and "everyday use" benchmarks that all tell us different things, but it all comes down to our individual experiences... and perceptions. For IE to be a contendor, it needs to clean up its act. I want a sleek, sexy browser. It's not Firefox; it's not Chrome; and it sure as hell isn't Safari or Opera. I'm not saying each isn't functional, I'm just saying there's a lot to be desired.

Opera's doing it's thing, although I'm not sure why it even bothers; Apple's giving Safari on Windows a go, but not doing well; Google's got juice, but I don't think they have the right talent-mix to succeed; and Firefox is leading the pack against IE, but hasn't really made any significant innovations and is growing more by perception than anything. Microsoft (read: IE team), the browser market is yours to lose [which you're doing]; but it's also yours to dominate. Take a step back. Review the history books. There is one constant in what drives the up-and-comers of today. See that and feed into it. The world is asking for simplicity, speed, and all-around usability. IE8 isn't the answer. IE9 could be. You can do better. I know it; you know it.

2008: Year of the Cloud

2008: Year of the Cloud

Every year, there's one underlying theme that seems to be pushed in the technology arena more than anything. This year, I feel like it's the year of the cloud. The last time I did this was five years ago, so I'll have to back-fill a few years, but here are the themes I've noticed over the past 11 years.

  • 2008: Year of the Cloud
  • 2007: Year of User Experience
  • 2006: Year of AJAX/Web 2.0
  • 2005: Year of SaaS
  • 2004: Year of Offshore Outsourcing
  • 2003: Year of the Architect
  • 2002: Year of Web Services
  • 2001: Year of XML/.NET
  • 2000: Year of Enterprise Java
  • 1999: Year of Linux
  • 1998: Year of the Web

We've been approaching "the year of the cloud" for a while, now. You can actually look back to 1998, when the web started to really catch on. A few years later, as Java started to build momentum and then .NET hit the scenes, which is when XML as a standard communication language started to catch on. Also tied to the .NET release was a huge push for web services. As this was more and more successful, service-oriented architecture (SOA) started to boom. In my mind, that was a big boon to the outsourcing trends, which have seemingly quieted down a bit, but not completely. SOA also led to the software as a service (SaaS) trend, which triggered Microsoft's software plus services (S+S) push, but that was more of a side story. With everything moving to the web, backed by [typically open] services, asynchronous Javascript and XML (AJAX) was the next big push. This was tied to the "Web 2.0" moniker, which I'd argue wasn't quite what Tim Berners-Lee intended. Either way, this led to the big push for better user experiences, which many people confuse with user interface design. The Web 2.0 push also kept the industry on its web focus, which is where we are left today.

It's easy to look back and see how we got here. Trends show that architectural changes typically take two or three years to gain momentum in the community, so we'll probably have a couple of years before the next major architecture peaks. The trend towards distributed computing has grown more and more, but I have a feeling things are going to start coming back a little. We've been pushing out to the web for a lot of reasons; one of which is the rise of the Mac. What we've been losing out on, however, is the power of the desktop. I see the S+S push to continue, but more as an underlying theme than a strong focus. Services will continue to be the foundation, maintaining the importance of cloud computing, but the desktop will be where the processing occurs. I see Silverlight proving a huge success, which will eventually bring .NET to the Mac. This will probably bring Novell and Microsoft a little closer together, with respect to Microsoft's relationship with Mono, but this may simply be a change in focus for Mono. Oh, and when I say, "bring .NET to the Mac," I'm not talking about the scaled-down version in Silverlight. I'm talking about the real deal. I see WPF and Silverlight merging along with the smart client architecture built into .NET today. This will take more than a few years, but it seems to be inevitable. Most likely, by the time all this happens, multi-core will be a way of life, as opposed to the we-should-be-thinking-about-threading thoughts most developers have today. Armed with a strong multi-threaded foundation, which is easy to use, the combined WPF/Silverlight presentation tier will quickly overtake Flash and Air. By this time, we should also start to see more integration into our everyday lives...

Okay, I'm probably getting a little out of hand here. If I go much further, we're going to be on the USS Enterprise, so I'll stop while I'm ahead. I'll just leave it at, it'll be interesting to see what's next. My money's on the power of the desktop, which we've lost over the past 10 years.

WPF and Silverlight (XAML) Tooling

By Michael Flanakin @ 7:51 AM :: 4843 Views :: .NET, Tools/Utilities, User Experience :: Digg it!

WPF/Silverlight XAML

If you haven't played with either WPF or Silverlight, you first need to understand the tooling we have available: Visual Studio, Blend, and Design. Most people don't consider Expression Design, but I'd argue that it's perhaps the best way to get started, depending on what you're doing. This is probably common sense, but if you haven't played with each of the tools, you may not realize how valuable each is to your end goal.

Any developer will most likely want to start with Visual Studio. Try it. You'll find yourself wondering where to start. If you're an old school web developer, like me, you'll stare at the XML code and wonder what to type and finally fall back on the toolbox. If you're a drag-and-drop type (either Win or Web Forms), you'll probably go directly to the toolbox. In either case, you'll most likely find it useful to tweak both the designer and XML... well, that's not completely true. If you're comfortable with XML, you'll eventually stop using the designer because it's just too much of a pain to deal with in Visual Studio. Visual Studio is the best environment [today] if you want to modify markup or code. Don't choose Visual Studio if you're a drag-and-drop type of developer. No matter what type of developer you are, however, you'll find yourself wondering if there's a better way because it just doesn't "feel" right. This is when you'll begin to wonder about that "Blend" thing you heard about.

If you're proficient in Flash development or claim the "designer" moniker, you'll probably start with Expression Blend. Blend is the best tool to build an interface along with some key interaction details (read: animations).  The problem with blend is, there's absolutely no intellisense in XAML, which I find ridiculous. And, just to put salt in the wound, you can't even edit code (C# and VB) files with the tool. This really drives in the fact that the tool is intended for no-code applications. These don't exist. In my experience, Blend will become less and less useful over time. Why? Because you'll start to realize you can't do everything in XAML and will have to move some things to code. This, in conjunction to run-time bindings in XAML will render the Blend design-time experience useless. Visual Studio is the same in this aspect, but it just because apparent that you'll prefer the intellisense, since you'll want to work with the XAML. Unlike Visual Studio, tho, you'll find yourself tweaking the designer more than the XAML. Coding isn't the only thing that will take you out of Blend, tho.

Let's face it, most people start looking at WPF and Silverlight because they want glam. They want beautiful applications with all kinds of frou-frou animations and transitions. This drives me crazy, but I'm not surprised. Choose WPF and/or Silverlight not because it can be pretty, but because it's the next generation user interface technology. This means, if you're building a new Windows application, don't even look at Win Forms. WPF is the way to go. Microsoft hasn't said it, but Win Forms is dead to me. If you have an existing app, I'd recommend you start looking into interop scenarios. Whether you're looking at WPF and/or Silverlight as the next gen platform or not, you're still going to want that glam I mentioned. This is when you should take a look at the often ignored, red-headed step-child of the Expression suite.

Today, Expression Design is a vector graphics editor. Don't expect to switch to Design for raster images (i.e. GIF, JPG, PNG) -- which is what I was hoping to do -- you'll find yourself missing crucial capabilities. I keep Paint.NET on hand for these needs. Design is best used to build creative visual interfaces. I've used it to theorize and bring certain design elements to life. You might do this with windows, buttons, and other framing elements, for instance. I simply find Design to be a better interface for adding glam to my user interface. Note that I'm not referring to animations. Use Blend for animation; use Design for static visual elements, like rotation, embossing, and the like.

To sum it all up, here's what I believe a WPF/Silverlight project should looked like.

  1. Know the difference between graphic and interaction design. Essentially this is the user interface vs. user experience debate, it's important to know the difference for staffing purposes. There is a difference and it's substantial. Don't assume that a graphic designer can architect an ideal interaction or vice-versa.
  2. Get a graphic designer. Unless you have an eye for graphic design, you won't be getting the eye candy you're probably looking for. If you have a passion for this, but it isn't your calling (like me), you might be able to get there eventually, but your time is probably better spent elsewhere.
  3. Get an interaction designer. The fact that we have dialog after dialog and click after click proves how important this one is. I'd argue this is more important than a graphic designer, but I might be biased. The good news is, this can be learned a lot easier than the artistic nature of graphic design. Don't think you can get there without dedication, tho. There are some scientific guidelines, but I have yet to see a good roadmap. It's more about opening your mind and removing yourself and what you might do from the process.
  4. Design is the graphic designer's scratch pad. Whether you start with wire-frames or set your sights on the real deal, Design is great for slapping something together that will eventually be useful. Tweak and tweak and tweak until you get something that looks right. Then, export to XAML.
  5. Blend brings your design to life. Now that you have your XAML, you'll probably need to tweak it to make it slightly more human-readable and maintainable as well as do some initial bindings and animations. This is where three worlds collide. Graphic designers will feel awkward in Blend, but will still be able to be relatively production; interaction designers don't really have a tool, so it will depend on where they came from, but Blend is arguably the best place for them to get started; and, developers are typically more code-focused, so Blend will be awkward for them, too. The bottom line is, Blend isn't the perfect tool for anyone, but it does fill a need. Use it to add interactivity to your design.
  6. Visual Studio gets the job done. When you're ready to make your app do something real, open it in Visual Studio. Arguably the worlds best development environment -- although not without its flaws -- you know why you're here. 'Nuff said.

As a developer who is very comfortable with markup, I've found that this has changed for me over time. I still believe it's a great workflow that supports some moderate back-and-forth -- at least, between Visual Studio and Blend -- but my habits have changed over time. As I've become more and more familiar with XAML, I tend to create visual and interactive effects in Design and Blend, respectively, and then just look at the XAML to figure out how it's done. Occasionally, I'll open my app in Blend, but not too often. This just depends on how big of an effect I'm trying to implement.

The bottom line is, get some experience in all three of these tools. You'll find your own comfort zone. It may include the all-too-bloated and usability-hating Photoshop with a XAML exporter instead of Design or augmenting XAML editing with a light-weight tool like XamlPadX or Kaxaml. No matter what you grow into, know there will be growing pains. WPF and Silverlight have a huge learning curve, but you're buying into the future. The curve is there for a reason, but will hopefully be lessened as the tools improve. I'm also hoping for some major improvements in .NET 4, but I'll try to touch on that later.

Lenovo Keyboard Layout Survey

By Michael Flanakin @ 10:22 AM :: 4312 Views :: Technology, User Experience :: Digg it!

I've talked about my desire for a keyboard layout standard, especially with respect to laptops. Heck, I've even tossed the idea of buying a MacBook out the window because of their horrible keyboard. For me, this is the first thing I look at when considering a new laptop. Since last year, when I bought my first Lenovo, I've been griping about the ridiculous Fn key, which is on the wrong side of the Ctrl key. That's not my only complaint, but it's the biggest one. The next is the Esc key that's above F1, which causes me to press F1 occasionally. There's a few more, but I'll spare you. Luckily, Lenovo fans have a small glimmer of hope: Lenovo keyboard layout survey. This was recently mentioned on the Lenovo Design Matters blog Syndicated feed. Go, go, GO!!! Unfortunately, this doesn't explicitly ask about the Fn key, but I definitely left a comment about it. Please take the survey, but if you contribute to them screwing up the 3x2 Insert/Delete, Home/End, Page Up/Down keys, I'm coming after you.

Lenovo keyboard layout survey

What's Your IQ?

By Michael Flanakin @ 4:48 AM :: 2558 Views :: .NET, Development, User Experience, En Español :: Digg it!

I saw Simon Guest Syndicated feed talk about user experience back in August and one of the things I liked was a tool he had to help decide what user interface platform was the best. Microsoft has 30-something user interface technologies. Sometimes it's hard to know which will be best. More often than not, we use the one the tech lead is the most comfortable with, which is pretty much a crap-shoot. Simon's app, UXIQ, asks 12 questions which you answer on a sliding scale. Ultimately, you're given three recommendations to decide on. I'll definitely keep this tool in my arsenal and suggest you do the same -- both the app and source are available on Simon's blog post.

UXIQ by Simon Guest

¿Cuál es su Índice de Inteligencia?

En Español

Simon Guest Syndicated feed hablar sobre experiencia de usuario en este Agosto pasado y me gusta un aplicacion que ayuda decidir lo que plataforma de interfaz es el mejor. Microsoft tiene alrededor 30 tecnologías de interfaz. Es a veces duro saber cuál será el mejor. A menudo, usamos la tecnología el plomo técnico es la más cómoda con, cuál puede o no puede ser una buena opción. La aplicacion de Simon, UXIQ, pide 12 preguntas cuál usted contesta dentro de una gama. En última instancia, da tres recomendaciones de elegir de. Guardaré definitivamente esto y sugiero que usted haga iguales -- la aplicacion y el código son disponible en el poste de Simon.

UXIQ by Simon Guest


By Michael Flanakin @ 6:17 AM :: 2934 Views :: .NET, Development, User Experience, En Español :: Digg it!

I was just telling a co-worker how, despite the fact that it hasn't been said, I believe WPF will be the future of Windows development. This seems obvious, but my initial take on WPF was that it was merely another option. I even question a potential attempt to relace the myriad of web development technologies with a XAML development experience. I don't see this being overly successful, but the idea of a single development model intrigues me. If that were to happen today, it seems like XHTML + JavaScript would have more potential. Either way, I don't see it happening any time soon.

Whether or not we see a single language span Windows and web, it looks like we have something new to look forward to. Apparently, Microsoft is looking into yet another UI platform. I seriously question why, but welcome the change. I'd really like to know what WPF is missing that requires a new platform. At this point, tooling is my only real complaint about WPF.


En Español

Yo decía a un amigo cómo pienso WPF será el futuro de desarrollo de Windows. Parece obvio, pero mi primera impresión fue que WPF era simplemente un otra opción. Dudo un intento substituir la miríada de las tecnologías de desarrollo de Web con XAML. Dudo que esto esto fuera acerto, pero la idea de un modelo desarrollo me intriga. Si ése era pasar hoy, parece XHTML y JavaScript tendría más potencial. Cualquier manera, dudo pasará pronto.

Independientemente de si vemos una lengua para Windows y Web, parece tenemos algo nuevo anticipar. Al parecer, Microsoft está investigando un otra platforma de UI. No sé por qué, pero abrazo un cambio. Quiero realmente saber que WPF falta que requiere una plantforma nueva. Las herramientas son mi solamente queja de WPF.