Links + Commentary

This is @xAbhishek's notebook.

The Wheel Does Indeed Turn

The world of HCI is seen joking that the only correct answer to any question about designing for user needs is that “it depends”. What that answer doesn’t do is give designers the right to skip the process of abstraction to achieve the right level of information density. A very upset John Stasko addressing this issue both on the first and last days of his Information Visualization class: “If you only want to remember one thing [as designers], remember this: Overview first, filter and zoom, details on demand.

Users goals are action oriented, and increasing the number of clicks are not necessarily a bad thing. Google Maps is a good example where zoom and filter are such an important part of the product. When you search for Walmart across the United States, you see dots instead of pins:


As you zoom into a specific area, you will see the view update to give you more usable information. Information density has an upper limit, and cannot reach a point where users are doing your work for you.

The point I am trying to make has very little to do with designing good information visualizations. It has more to do with thinking about interfaces we design beyond the stage where it is a lifeless mockup. Talking about the number of clicks in a landscape just beginning to adopt touch based interfaces is ignoring a lot of opportunity. Most time is spent navigating and scanning through the interface, but if the interface and the path to your eventual goal are both clear, clicks might not matter, because you’ve reduced a majority of the cognitive load associated with scanning. If a really good idea gets dismissed, that’s the best time to realize that what your peers are picturing might be very different from what you are. Some ideas are worth fleshing out more than others. The beauty of a pixel perfect mockup might not be as efficient as a more rudimentary prototype transitioning objects around the screen. One of the benefits of motion design are that you are able to illustrate unique interactions that appear more complicated in a still image. More people should be building prototypes as part of their design process. You cannot be stuck creating square wheels that look simple enough to build but are impossible to turn.

‘Hiring for Culture-fit’ is a bad idea. Hire to expand your culture, not more people to conform to it.

Tweet by @sidnangia

I agree with this completely. I was reminded of this as I was reminiscing about the seemingly random rejection messages my friends and I got as we started looking for internships and jobs. Some of them conveniently stated “culture-fit” as the reason. Professors I spoke to shared the view that this is the exact opposite of the academic hiring process, where you recruit people who can accelerate change. The institutions that believe in inclusion are clearly a step above.

What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language," 1946
At a high level, it’s the mentality of “this makes no sense to me, therefore it makes no sense.”

How I Use Twitter

Twitter is my leading content discovery tool. I typically follow a very small set of people on my main timeline, and like to keep my feed as noise-free as possible. The reasons I follow someone are varied: maybe I like what they are saying, I value their opinion, or I share the same reservations they do. I think I like the fact that Twitter has always allowed me to choose how I experience it.

People publish content through many mediums online. I like when people are succinct and make their point through as few tweets as possible. As an example, egalitarianism is a subject I care about very deeply. If you care about it, I would probably agree with you in a real conversation. I might even follow you on Twitter. As long as it does no harm to the quality of my feed. When there is a high frequency of posts with the same views about the same subject, it hurts my experience of gaining valuable information. Even if these are views I actually agree with, the fact that it causes delays in scrolling because of redundant content will cause me to unfollow that person. I also like that Twitter does not enforce that you follow someone who follows you.

At the same time, there are people who I respect for their opinions on very specific subjects. In my main timeline, there is no room for them because they appear innately noisy. These include designers, journalists, evangelists, and just about anyone whose opinion I might consider important through very specific events where I consider them subject experts. All the Twitter clients I use allow me to use lists as alternate timelines. I follow them through one of my many lists:

If there are events where I do not want spoilers, I try to filter my feed by muting tweets with certain keywords:

If someone posts something I find controversial, that I agree or disagree with, I like to see if and how their followers responded to them:

If I want to ask someone a question that might seem ridiculous, offend someone else or feel too personal, I use Direct Messages or email.

Favorites are Tweets I can get to easily in the future. I do revisit them to ask: “Is this still cool?” or “Does this still matter to me?” to see if they can still remain in that section.

In general, I like to follow people for constructive pieces of information and unfollow those who talk about subjects without sufficient knowledge about them. I might follow someone for their thoughts on a specific business, but end up unfollowing them when I read baseless and unwarranted criticism against a competitor. I care about technology enough to have a clear picture from all sides. Knowing that the people I follow might influence my opinion very easily, I try to weed out those who like to think that the path they follow is the only one that should exist. It is very easy for one to predict when a harsh generalization is actually a single person’s opinion. When evident, it is unacceptable for them to be on my feed. Having an opinion is also very different from projecting it in a hateful tone.

Poorly Drafted

People often set milestones while developing software, and try hard to meet targets to ship version 1.0 quickly. The process while predictable, often takes more time than one would like. These days it is even more true, where we want to ensure we iron out bugs, not just in the functionality but also in the user experience. I have worked with teams where we sit together for UX bug bashes, where each member on the team identifies issues that others might have missed in order to speed up the process. At a certain point, we stop because it is more important for us to ship than to achieve perfection. Software updates are our way of buying time to go through our entire To-Do list without affecting release cycles.

I wish we could follow such cycles while writing online or tweeting. I sit down frequently to write about topics that engage me, including in the form of long blog posts. But I do not push it out immediately, thinking the quality of writing could benefit from me sitting on it for a while. Even if only after a few hours, the topic seems irrelevant and not something I think people would care about any more. I then regret not publishing it sooner, because it would still have made sense in the original context. A good example of something I might not have published today was my post on designing consumer wearables. Everything I wrote the day I published it has been said, retweeted, indexed and archived by a hundred others. I am glad it is out, because it made sense in that context. Even after publishing it, I made corrections to it over the next couple of weeks, making it sound more sensible.

I have 14 other posts in my drafts section. One of the posts I wrote two years ago is about the kind of toys I grew up with, which shaped my likes and dislikes, enjoying my first Lego set more than the cricket bat bought around the same time, and the different forms of musical training I received among ones I actually aligned with. I could hit the publish button, but the writing style does not gel well with my present-day persona. It seems very poorly drafted, though extremely accurate. I don’t think I have the inclination to write it again, but it just speaks of how maturity actually reduces the freedoms one used to enjoy previously. The freedom to not be worried about being judged in any way but a reflection of one’s own perceived image. The commentary about present generation internet use and its infinite memory, got me to write this. A search box is now a window that reveals all. I find it fair to be worried about how one’s identity is indexed. Algorithms that favor relevance do not order results from least to most embarrassing. Sometimes you don’t realize that your marks can have repercussions until after they leave stains that cannot be washed away. There are some courts that want to give you a second chance. I wonder if a person wants to risk waiting to be given that chance. Because everything is not as easily forgotten. Even as the internet may forget, it could leave an impression on the people who matter to you. You made a crude remark, or a silly joke that you had not thought could have meant any harm to anyone. Present culture might even accept it, but it is extremely likely that it becomes taboo and demeaning to a very vocal group tomorrow. Perhaps this paranoia is extreme, but I do believe there are cases where free speech may in fact diminish the quality of one’s life in the future. I don’t intend to restrict myself in the way that George Orwell’s Thought Police would have liked. This is not weakness because you are saving yourself, but strength in that it might affect other lives you are connected with.

Looks like I’m done with grad school. At least, for the time being.