Sunday, July 27, 2008

Trying out

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Man, am I chatty all of a sudden

I think my previous high for posts in a day was two. I also think I set it earlier today. Now here I go breaking new ground. I ran across Wordle a while back, linked from Mike Nygard's blog. It's a neat app that takes a set of words and creates a visualization of them. I tried it out with my tag cloud, and it does a nice job of letting you know what I find interesting.

Technorati, finally

I guess it's time to grow up.

Here's my Technorati Profile.

Switches and dials, thresholds and evaluations

I spend a fair amount of time playing games, of various sorts -- a lot of computer games, mostly of the RPG genre, as well as card games (Magic and traditional) and some board games. One thing that strikes me is the similarity between the design decisions made when building games and those made when constructing other sorts of UIs, such as web sites or applications. When you are dealing with the interface between humans abstracted into an interface layer of some sort, whether it's a set of rules you read, the instructions on a card or the placement and nature of buttons on the screen, you're dealing with variations on a theme: how does one person understand what they can and cannot do to interact with the context they are in to produce results?

When I am thinking about the controls available to users, I conceptualize them using a framework I call "switches and dials". Switches are on/off states -- something is in play or not, available or not, alive or dead, and so on. In a website or application context, these are things like whether or not you offer search, or the ability for users to save a constructed navigational state. At the most basic level, a switch is a threshold -- you are on one side or the other. In World of Warcraft, for example, you must have purchased the skill that allows you to use a given weapon before you can equip it.

Dials are indicators of degree -- things that may occur in increments, such as points of health, chance to dodge and so on. Often, they're linked to switches -- in World of Warcraft, once you have purchased the ability to equip a given weapon, you still have to build up your skill rating with it.

This leads me to framing user decisions about whether to like a given component or system in terms of threshold and evaluation considerations -- which features or functions will make or break a user's decision to use a web site or application at all, and which will influence it.

There is, of course, a pretty big difference between switch/dial in game, site or app design and threshold/evalution in user preference, but there's enough similarity in concept for me to link them in my mind -- and isn't my mind what blogging is all about? :)

An example may help. For me, the ability to see screenshots of a piece of software is make-or-break; even if downloading it is free, I still want to know what the thing looks like, After all, I am going to have to uninstall if I don't like it, and that represents an investment. So no screenshots is a threshold for me. Once we get past that, then I'm looking at the content in the screenshots, and we're in evaluation territory.

From the other side of the equation, deciding whether or not to put screenshots on the web site is a switch.

Okay, what's the reason for all of this? When making decisions about what to put into or leave out of your game (site, application, etc) consider what part of the decision-making process it occupies for your end-user, in addition to thinking about what it means to your design intent.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Twitter - should I stay or should I go?

I'm finding myself starting to really like Twitter. My original use of it was somewhat minimal, kind of like my approach to blogging (although I'm handicapped a bit by blogging twice -- here and at work -- so some of the time and ideas I have are being used in a closed system). I posted a few tweets (twitts? I prefer tweets, I think), subscribed to a couple of interesting people, but was treating it more like a mini-RSS feed than a communication mechanism. Over the last week or two, though, I've used it for direct and indirect communication, including a really entertaining instance of connecting to someone (Chris Thiessen, creator of, which is fascinating) through Twitter before I had the chance to connect via email.

At the same time, I'm starting to understand the frustration felt by Twitter users at the downtime for the service. Direct messages have taken up to 10 hours to get through, and some of the website's functions have failed to work or generated baffling error messages. Reading about Twitter on techcrunch, I'm concerned about the long-term viability of the service.

So I find myself at a bit of a crossroads. Do I keep investing time and energy in building my social graph on Twitter, hoping it will become stable and usable, or do I seek out alternatives?

I'm reminded of the adoption of instant messaging in the mid-90s. I started with AIM and built a modest network of friends, then somehow lost my account in the Netscape/AOL transition. I built another network on Yahoo Messenger, another on Microsoft Messenger, tried Trillian to hook them up, but found it didn't work on my work computer. Now Google and Facebook and everyone else wants to provide instant messaging infrastructure.

I'm tired of setting up new accounts and rebuilding my social graph. I want a way to hook up all of the ones I already have, and to be honest, I'm willing to pay for that.