Skip to main content


Alien User Interface Hell

I tend to like a movie to be playing while I'm working, preferably one I know well so I can ignore it. Today Alien was up on Netflix Instant. While going to make more tea I noticed the early scene where the Nostromo's captain goes into the command area to commune with Mother. What the hell were the designers thinking when concocting the fake system user interface that is depicted in that scene?

There's a million tiny status lights, all white, set into a white background. None of them has a readable label. The whole surface of the pod is encrusted with incomprehensible but significant miniature beacons. It's been frequently pointed out that some errors on our limited space missions so far have been tied back to ambiguous or confusing information displays in spacecraft cockpits. What evolutions did Ridley Scott expect to have happened in a few decades that would allow a standard human pilot to instantly discriminate one white light from ten thousand others and act on its…
Recent posts

Calendar confusion

I finally got around to posting this as an error in iTunes:When calendars are synced between iCal and iPhone via iTunes, iTunes assigns arbitrary colors to the calendars on iPhone. These colors cannot be changed, and do not match the colors chosen in iCal. On occasion, iTunes will assign two calendars the same arbitrarily-chosen color, making them functionally indistinguishable on iPhone.This is terrible user interface design because users become accustomed to the 'meaning' of the color of the calendar and use it in recognition of the calendar layout. The mental 'wrench' involved in translating color recognition between two instances of the same calendar data imposes a unnecessary cognitive load on the user.Solution Allow the user to set the color of iPhone calendars.
If the intention is not to allow the user control of the calendar color, for simplicity of implementation on iPhone, then the logical solution is to use the same color as specified in iCal.
If the synchroni…

Folk Ergonomics: or, it all Fitts

When I was a poor civil servant (plus ├ža change) and part-time graduate student I longed to own a Mac. I’d read everything available about them, and nothing I read did anything to dissuade me. What I wanted, as well as the crisp, typographic display and the integration between the applications, was the windowing system. I already knew, somehow, that a Proper Computer™ would be able to show more than one program on the screen at once and let you move between them. Lacking the funds to buy the current model Apple was offering, a Mac SE, I made do with an Atari ST 520 STFM. This was a strange machine with a dual personality:a games machine with aspirations to being a workstation, and which used the non-broken version of Digital Research’s GEM windowing environment. This system had been shamelessly copied from the Mac interface, so much so that Apple sued Digital Research and got an injunction that prevented later versions of GEM (used on DOS machines, notably those from Amstrad) from us…

Simon's Dictionary: Integer Handicap

Integer Handicap
[compound noun]
The period of reduced efficiency while you adjust to the fact that the software vendor has relocated vital application functionality to strange and different parts of the user interface in the next version, seemingly for the hell of it.

Two lovely things

First, this widget for planning BART trips. It's a glorious piece of information design. Then the essay on the thinking behind it, Magic Ink. It's like Edward Tufte started writing code for the Mac.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Live Fast, Crash Hard

Over the last few months, my friends and I are starting to find there's something very wrong in the state of Mac remote clients. I don't have a huge number of computers, but I have enough to make the use of VNC (the free screen-sharing system originally developed by Olivetti Labs at Cambridge) necessary. I used to have a mix of Macs and Windows systems, so some years ago I settled on VNC as the lowest common denominator method of connecting to one machine from another. VNC server runs as a native service on Windows, and there are mainstream clients which work well. On the Mac, it used to be that the canonical server was OSXvnc, now incorporated into Redstone's vine server. For a VNC viewer I used Chicken of the VNC. Chicken has a reputation for being very slow but very stable and my experience certainly bore this out.

Then came OS X 10.4 (Tiger) which exposed the Apple Remote Desktop (ARD) screen sharing service in the Sharing preference pane. ARD uses another version of th…