Archive for the 'Usability' Category

Apple, Usability

Mac Spaces

One of the reasons I was happy to upgrade to Leopard was that I could finally use Spaces, Apple’s take on virtual workspaces. Once I started using it, though, I was mostly content. Defining and switching between spaces is easy, and now I can keep my work projects separate from my RSS reader, iTunes, Twitter, and so on. So far so good.

But two things still bothered me:

  1. I could not figure out how to move an application window from one space to another, no obvious way to “send to another space.” I thought I’d done it once accidentally, but couldn’t reproduce it so must have been wrong. I knew I could pin an app to a space — I do this for Twitter and NewNewsWire — but once a window was open I couldn’t move it elsewhere.
  2. I can’t set a different desktop background in each space. I would love this, because then I could immediately identify which space I’m in without having to think about it. Having to take a split-second to review the app windows or check the menu bar isn’t unbearable, but the small things add up.

Granted, I have not bothered to investigate whether these things were possible, but they weren’t obvious. I’m lazy.

I was delighted to find, then, that there are several ways to move a window to another space, including the now-obvious technique of clicking a window’s title bar while switching spaces. Excellent.

Still flummoxed by the different desktop backgrounds, but neither have I started digging. :)

I really should read Mac Tips more often.

Funny, Usability

Products ‘n’ Solutions

Saint Paul College has been named a Sun Center of Excellence. My favorite part? The URL:

There are so many other things they could have done instead of “products-n-solutions” that would have been more likely.

  • productssolutions
  • productsandsolutions
  • products-solutions
  • products
  • solutions

Their services and solutions page has “servicessolutions” in the URL. If you try to go to you get redirected to (Bravo for that! It could so easily have returned a 404 File Not Found. Pity about the “index.jsp” bit, though.)

And of course, any of that could have been capitalized, but with Sun’s Unix roots, we can hardly expect that, can we?

But no. It reads “products ‘n’ solutions.” How terribly colloquial.

Small things delight me. What can I say.

Apple, Usability

Something’s wrong here.

Kiara was complaining today about a user interface problem in her mom’s new Audi:

Owen and I played with an iPhone in the AT&T store today. He thought it was pretty cool; he figured out how to scroll through pictures of Antarctica.

A four-year old can figure out how to look at pictures of Antarctica on the iPhone. I can’t figure out how to get to Minneapolis on my mom’s car’s navigation system.

We live a five minute drive from Minneapolis.

Apple, Security, Usability

Password Safe on the Mac

I’ve been using a Mac at work for a short while now and am much, much, much happier for it. As my coworker Mr. Ladwig says, I swear a lot less at the computer now. But there are a few Windows apps I’ve missed. Small things that aren’t quite worth firing up Parallels for, or that it wouldn’t make sense to anyway. TortoiseSVN is one, although I can work around that with the command line and Eclipse (and wait for Versions to be released). I miss TrueCrypt, which I used for anything that mattered, but FileVault and OS X encrypted disk images meet my needs, though I do look forward to an OS X version of TrueCrypt. If I had ever been more willing to dive deeply into the Windows world instead of just tolerating it, no doubt I would sorely miss PowerShell. But I don’t.

I can cope without all of that. What I really, truly miss is a good password manager. Namely Password Safe. With Password Safe, I never need to know any of my passwords. And I don’t. Password Safe can generate and store strong passwords and never display them to me. (Under the same principle, for some web sites I use a modded version of a password generator bookmarklet that you might find useful. It’s not perfect but for many things it’s good enough.) Passwords are stored in a believably cryptographically strong manner. After I copy a password to the clipboard to paste elsewhere, the password can be cleared from the clipboard by minimizing or closing Password Safe. Yes, keeping sensitive data in a shared clipboard makes me nervous. It minimizes and locks itself after a configurable period of time.

It works well and I trust it.

OS X has Keychain, a password store with strong crypto. It’s nicely integrated into the OS and made available to applications. Subversion finally uses Keychain to store passwords on OS X (instead of leaving them in cleartext, which you’ll find on Unix systems. Grrrr…). I can use Keychain to manage my passwords, but it badly needs some user interface work. Yes, it can generate passwords using several different algorithms, but I rarely succeed in creating a new password. There’s no clean way to copy the password to the clipboard, and when I do it visibly exposes the password in cleartext. Then I can’t clear it from the clipboard.

Keychain just needs a little UI love.

Last night on Twitter I was bemoaning the situation. Stephen Collins immediate responded, pointing out that there’s a Java version.

What? I didn’t see that in the list of related projects! Oh, that’s because it’s not there. It’s down under news from 16 January 2007. Of course.

But it’s there, and it works. Not surprisingly for something that’s at version 0.6, it’s not as polished as the native Win32 version. And maybe it needs a little Filthy Rich Clients love. But so far it’s a far sight better for what I want than Keychain is.

I should probably try Password Gorilla, too, which I’d conveniently overlooked. It reads and writes Password Safe 3 databases.

Thanks, @trib.

Design, Usability

No, they cannot print

Over the past year at work, we’ve been moving our colleges to an updated version of our student and faculty online services “portal.” At first it’s just a look-and-feel update, letting colleges and universities provide their own style sheets so that instead of looking like this, a classic mid-90’s design:

old MnSCU e-services design
it can look like this:

MnSCU eservices site with MSCTC look & feel


MnSCU eservices site with MCTC look & feel


MnSCU eservices site with Saint Paul College look & feel

Considering that we released the base design and markup before I thought it was ready, some of the colleges have really outdone themselves in their designs. Bravo. But that’s not what this post is about.

While overhauling the markup, I wasn’t at liberty to remove things like the unbelievably verbose login instructions that you see in those screen shots. As useless as it is, that text is politically charged. College presidents have been involved in writing it. Seriously. We’ll be stripping it down before terribly long, but for the first release it had to stay.

I could, however, make changes like remove the “print this page” icon at the bottom of nearly every page.

Print this page icon

Two problems with it. First, all it did was call JavaScript’s window.print() function, with an unfortunate use of <a href=”javascript:window.print()”> that’s been bugging me for years. I’m trying very hard and with mixed success to make our use of JavaScript as unobtrusive as possible. If JavaScript is required to perform some functionality, then the JavaScript should inject itself into the page, layered onto the markup instead of tightly mangled into it.
Second, I asked around when I was visiting campuses and didn’t find anyone who used it. If they needed to print, they used File > Print or the print icon in their browser’s toolbar. I talked with a few campus webmasters, and they all had the same reaction: “uh, File > Print?” Since we don’t have a separate printable page (we use CSS to hide navigation and such) and since the print icon was apparently not used, I pulled it from the design.

I felt very comfortable with this decision.

Boy, was I wrong.

The new design was out in production for months before I heard any comments from campuses, but by then I had come to the realization that people don’t know how to print.

I figured, “hey, it’s exactly the same as every other application you use.” But here’s the thing: lots and lots of people don’t know about File > Print. Watch what people do in Word or Excel: they use the print icon in the toolbar. Internet Explorer has a print icon in the toolbar by default, and people use it — it’s even more noticeable in IE7. Take away the icon, and people don’t know how to print.

Okay, I thought, folks can just continue to do what they do to print every other page on the web and use the icon in IE’s toolbar. Those who use other browsers seem to manage just fine.

Then the complaints started rolling in. People just did not know how to print their schedules, their transcripts, their lists of advisees…

So yes, we’ll be adding a “print this page” icon back. It will be in a different place and won’t be the same image, and we’ll be using unobtrusive JavaScript, but we’ll be putting it back.

Live and learn.