Cambridge University Design / UX group

Is interaction necessary?

Sarah Humbert, Librarian, Dept of Earth Sciences

Lately, on my bus journeys home, I’ve been listening to a lot of the podcasts from the IA Summit 09 (available at boxes and arrows and slideshare) . One which has particularly struck me, and spurred me on to further reading is Karl Fast‘s talk which asks ‘Is interaction necessary?’ ( )

In this talk, Fast takes us on a journey that challenges what he calls our assumptions on interaction. For instance, we tend now to think of the use of a mouse as natural, intuitive almost. Fast argues that this is wrong, we only think of it that way because of the mouse’s prevalence and ubiquity. Drawing heavily on the work of Kirsch and Maglio in the field of Cognitive Science, he explores the two types of actions; pragmatic and epistemic.

The former, pragmatic action, changes the world around us, brings us closer to a given goal. While the latter; epistemic action, changes the nature of our mental tasks, it allows us to work out the best way to carry out a task in the physical world.

Although short the talk covers a lot, which certainly made me think and read further. In the end he answers his own question with a resounding yes, however, he turns this into a two part query by adding: ‘to what purpose?’. Perhaps we think the days of dreadful websites are over, but are we sure we’re not committing similar crimes against the user but with 2.0 rounded corners?


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Usability testing

On Wednesday, I went to a good TechLink talk on the University’s Streaming Media Service (SMS). Julian King explained how he and his team manage this service, and what we can expect from it.
If you want to know more about the SMS, Julian’s presentation is available online [PDF].

Something that got me really interested, though, is that staff who want to make their own video or audio recordings can unofficially borrow recording kit from UCS as part of a pilot scheme. The thing is that the kit looked perfect for carrying out some simple usability testing…

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Write-up: Caroline Jarrett – “Label placement in forms”

Caroline Jarrett, usable form guru, gave a 45-minute talk on “Label placement in forms (and other time-consuming controversies)“, over at Microsoft Research. She was introduced by Carl Myhill, who helps to coordinate the Cambridge branch of the Usability Professionals Association (UPA). There was time at the end for a few questions, and Caroline was joined by Steve Krug, who had popped up from London, where he is holding a workshop this week.

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Conference: “Accessibility in Technical Communication and the Workplace” June 13/14, Cambridge

The Society for Technical Communication (STC) are holding their 2009 UK Conference at Churchill College, Cambridge, in the middle of June. There are still places available, and full details are available on the event web page.

The blurb for the conference reads:

Are you reaching all your customers?

Are your documents ignoring an important market sector?

How do we make our communications usable by people with hearing and sight difficulties?

How do we work with colleagues and customers who have hearing and sight difficulties?

Book at

So this may be a useful and affordable conference for those of us who are particularly interested in accessibility.

Among the speakers is Leonie Watson, from website accessibility experts, Nomensa, and Richard Hodgkinson, who will talk about upcoming “assessibility” [sic] standards in Europe and the USA. Probably, that will be about accessibility, too.  🙂

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Running Firefox 2 and 3 simultaneously

If we are developing websites and applications, we test them in different browsers, and on different platforms, right? So you might have a couple of machines in another room where you work, and you’ve agreed with your IT guys that you want to leave Internet Explorer 6 and Firefox 1.5 or 2 running on them, so that you can test your creations.

Just for example.

But then, someone helpful upgrades to the latest versions, and your ad hoc testing envrionment is no more. Yes, there are better ways to set things up  –  I could run Parallels on my Mac, install Windows, and then have whatever dodgy old web browsers I want on there. But for various reasons, I don’t.

Anyway, it came to pass that I wanted to run Firefox 2 and 3 simultaneously on my Mac. I was already running  Firefox 3, and I knew that if I simply downloaded the installer for v.2, I would overwrite what is there already. Hmmm. So now what?

Answer 1: create a new Firefox profile, install both versions of Firefox, and use the command line (from Terminal [Mac] or Run… [Windows]) to control which version of Firefox you open

Answer 2: create a new Profile, and install the MultiFirefox app [Mac OS X only] to control it all.

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Events coming soon

I’ve been busy with work, so I haven’t had time to post anything for a couple of weeks now, but here are a couple of tips/reminders for upcoming events:

Talk: Caroline Jarrett, “Label Placement in Forms”, Cambridge, May 19th

I have blogged about this talk already, and some of you may remember that Helen Sargan mentioned it again at the University Web Liaison meeting on May 6th.

Caroline Jarrett is the leading expert in good design of forms on webpages. They are a ubiquitous feature of websites, but it is hard to get them right, and make them usable and intuitive. Come along to find out what you need to know.

Venue: Needham Building, Microsoft Research, JJ Thompson Ave, Cambridge

Workshop: Steve Krug and Lou Rosenfeld, London, May 21st/22nd

If you can get someone to pay for you to go, there are still tickets available for these two day-long workshops, being held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.

On May 20th, Lou Rosenfeld looks at interpreting and using site search analytics, but the one that I think would really appeal to you, dear reader, is Steve Krug’s one-day “Don’t Make Me Think” workshop, on Thursday, May 22nd, where he will explain discount usability testing. It looks great, and I wish I could go… but no money.

If people know of more events, please do let me know, and I will post details here for all to see.

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“Inclusive Design” write-up

Prof Patrick Jordan gave a fascinating talk at the Engineering Dept, on April 29th. In it, he discussed inlcusive design, and specifically “The Four Pleasures – Designing for Inclusive Emotional Engagment“.

But what is inclusive design?

Prof Roger Coleman at the Royal College of Art describes it like this:

Inclusive design is not a new genre of design, nor a separate specialism, but an approach to design in general and an element of business strategy that seeks to ensure that mainstream products, services and environments are accessible to the largest number of people.

Hmmm. Accessibility… usability… sound familiar?

Pat Jordan didn’t mention websites or anything like that once in his talk; it was all about products and consumers. But when you get down to it, the parallels are obvious – we are, after all, producing products that people consume, use, interact with, and so on.

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Consistent user experience

Not long ago, I wrote something that mentioned the idea of creating and re-using components in a website or other design project, the idea being that once you have come up with something that really works, don’t just bin it when the project is finished. With a bit of re-styling, that same component (a search box, a “Go to the to of the page” button, a tabbed navigation menu, etc) might come in handy again.

This makes us more efficient… why reinvent the cup of tea every time?

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More good talks

Here we go – two more upcoming talks in Cambridge, and a video of a great talk Jeffrey Veen gave recently.
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Computational Information Design write-up

Ben Fry – Computational Information Design

Making sense of huge datasets! (Microsoft Research, Cambridge, 23.04.2009)

Well, that was a pretty impressive talk. Visualising the information contained within massive sets of data is a big challenege, and something that researchers in a range of fields face every day. Designers can help to bridge the gap between aesthetics and functionality, and help make information usable.

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