Design at Linux Tag 2014

Going to a Linux conference as a designer might sound like an exotic idea on first sight. While this should receive a second thought (see later), I have to admit that I had a special approach, too, when I went to this year’s Linuxtag at Station, Berlin: I went there as part of the SaSER research team at IDL which is (on the top most level) concerned with defining new more efficient, reliable, and secure communications on the internet. So we were in the sys admin domain already (although Linux is far more than for admins but that might be what you think of).IMG_9091

Visual Analytics for Security Admins

We gave a talk on our interim results, which are visual analytics tools to investigate huge log files (i.e. text files): Opening Treasure Boxes. Exploring log files with visual data analysis to detect security breaches (slides). As part of the “Tracing and Logging” track, we talked to system administrators and security analysts and everyone else interested. It was a great opportunity for us to extend our contact with users, get feedback, acquire new use cases. We assumed that we would also “evangelize” a little in favor of visual analytics and visualizations beyond bar and line charts. We were quite right with that: our ideas were partially seen as strange and  unusual but we also received quite some thankful feedback by analysts who said our ideas opened new opportunities for them.Screen-Shot-2013-10-31-at-3.45.06-PM___elasticsearch-org

A view of the Kibana interface (image from Elastic Search)

A view of the Kibana interface (image from Elastic Search)

But I also want to point out that a couple of tools in the same track provided a very decent user interface and good visualization support. This is especially remarkable as log files are abstract things and enormously large, which makes providing a grip on them a real design challenge. Lennart Koopmann of Torch presented greylog2, with an interface to query large logfiles, get an overview over values in the file, and also get visual support for results in the form of time lines. Even more dedicated to a graphical user interface was Kibana (which builds on logstash and ElasticSearch), presented by Bernd Erk of Netways. I was impressed by the visual support for building and modifying queries, the ease of building graphs, and the clean overall interface. In many regards it reminded me of Splunk, which is also a great but not an open source software. As we found during the preparation of our talk, also the event monitoring system Icinga2 starts including interesting visualizations – Markus Frosch (of Icinga) just didn’t put a huge focus on the new interface.

Design for Open Source Software (needed!)

Coming back to the (suspected) design – Linux repulsion or even design – open source repulsion: open source software gained a bad reputation for having ugly or “just enough” user interfaces, with little help for users to find a workflow or just please the eye (things like Firefox or Fritzing are an exception, of course, but they are also rather recent offsprings). It seems as if open source is much more appealing to developers than to designers. I have no instant explanation for that – if you do, please let me know! I have to admit that a lot of the software I saw during Linuxtag unfortunately confirmed this prejudice. The more delighted I was when I saw how well crafted things like Kibana were.

It might be worth noting that Edna Kropp and Nicole Charlier of akquinet gave a basic introduction into user centered design and how they work as “on-site UX consultants“. While it was pretty basic for a designer, it was probably new and remarkable for many of the developers (hopefully) listening. I think much more talks like this are necessary to get to a common understanding between developers and designers in the open source scene.

Further notes

The bare crypto stick (it has a modest but nice casing in the final version)

The bare crypto stick (it has a modest but nice casing in the final version)

For the real paranoid cautious people, there is a Crypto Stick: looks like a thumb drive but actually hosts a micro-processor, a smartcard, and an SD card. You can use it to establish secure connections from untrusted systems (like internet cafés), store your passwords, and other things. You can even transport documents “plausibly hidden”, e.g., in case you get searched at an airport – and you don’t have to think of Snowden to understand how relevant that can be. I liked the idea to have a “security thing” that is really strong but also makes it easier for people to stay safe online/digitally.
Btw: it’s open software and open hardware, so you can build it at home (although the small form factor makes it complicated)

UDOO: Standard PC interfaces for the "Linux part" seen at the front here, with pin headers in Arduino due format at the back

UDOO: Standard PC interfaces for the “Linux part” seen at the front here, with pin headers in Arduino due format at the back

Even physical computing was a topic and the only other presentation given by an interaction designer: Michelangelo Guarise presented UDOO, which combines an Arduino Due-derived board with a Linux system running on a powerful quad-core ARM chip. This “natural” combination pops out in various flavors at the moment, combining the sensor-friendly, real-time interaction capable Arduino architecture with high-performance computing. I hope they will soon add their platform as a part to the Fritzing library and I’m curious about the projects building on that single board computer!

And I got a trusted certificate from CAcert to (soon) sign my email and ssl server connections – yeeha! I was impressed by how serious they take the process, with several people checking my ID cards separately. Trust on the internet is a delicate thing and digital signatures can help a lot here.



Back from the no-Email future: Gesche Joost

Gesche Joost, a (in her field) well known design researcher from the University of the Arts Berlin, just reported from the world in 2040. Luckily, the ZEIT newspaper still exists, at least online, and they recorded her statement. It’s also pleasing to see that Gesche didn’t get that much older…

Back to reality: Of course, the future is used as a mirror to reflect our times. In her talk, she diagnoses three major problems of our times:

  1. The need to carry around digital devices to stay in touch with people
  2. Information and communication overload, mostly due to email
  3. A focus on technology rather than needs (she uses the very nice—and broader— term: “Dimensionen der Gesellschaft”, dimensions of society)

From mobile devices to the cyborg (kind of)

The dependency on mobile, in particular: smart phones, surely is striking. Just think about the careful watch on your (phone’s) battery life that you keep throughout the day. Or think about the rave that the iPhone creates as a status symbol and the surveys that tell us that phones become more important than cars as representative objects. But her imagination, that devices disappear into our clothing and our bodies, sounds a little bit like the “old” vision of ubiquitous computing, mixed with some cyborg elements.

Info overload or the nature of the email

The point that struck me more was the email overload. In her diagnosis, she says it was because it was bound to emails (let’s say: text) and emails were bound to computers with keyboards “in front of them”. I would rather argue that the Blackberry, i.e. a portable, in a sense ubiquitous device, gave the email flood a tremendous rise—right because people were no longer bound to their PCs.

And I doubt that the emails that arrive in an important person’s mailbox (I count Gesche among them) can be perceived in an “ambient manner”, in a “flow”, as she describes it. One of the problems with most of these emails is that it’s unclear–before you read it–whether you need to take a decission, or just get information. If you need to decide something, you might need to sit and think about it, with or without flow. Sure, many questions might have been decided already elsewhere, the sender didn’t have that information and bothers you again. That’s a true issue with emails, they are not good at making knowledge accessible. Luis Suarez tries to live a highly interesting vision of a life without emails, he tries to answer as much publicly (or company publicly) on a sort of Facebook stream which is fully searchable.

Text based systems, such as email, even have the advantage that we can easily “speed read” through them, and based on the bits we catch can decide whether it’s worth more attention or not. It’s rather complicated to speed read through video or sound recordings (such as voice mail) because time is part of that medium.

In my mind, “communication” won’t be a catch-all phrase in the future. For some facts and e.g. legally important stuff, we will still rely on text (email, streams). Probably, the biggest part of professional communication, still. But the part of story telling will become more important, something we do on a social level already very much when we have a coffee together (having a coffee is a synchronous activity, however, i.e. both people need to spend time at the same time). Listening to a story is a very pleasant way to learn. Of course, our current voice recording systems don’t quite support that (there is visual voicemail (Apple, again!), and there are efforts to speech recognize voice mail and make it (text) searchable by Google (of course)).

Design for the diverse Dimensions of Society

And her third point: too much male engineers, too much focus on technology instead of relevant “dimensions of society”:  I’ve little to add there since Gesche is a leading figure in the world of Co-Creation that aims precisely at bringing all relevant people (“stakeholders”, which can be potential users, vendors, help desk people, …) to the table in order to look for their needs and expectations first and then set the agenda for technological endeavours.


Skeuomorphism – a familiar touch or kitschy ornament?

It happens daily in front of our eyes, but few of use might have heard of “Skeuomorphism” so far. Originally referring to the marks left by tools on a product (such as brush traces on metal), it is also a technique in visual interface design. There, it means applying textures of physical objects to screen elements, sometimes also bringing entire metaphors from the physical to the digital world.

"corrugated" window resize handle in Mac OS 9

“corrugated” window resize handle in Mac OS 9 (source: guidebookgallery)

This has happened from the very beginnings of the interface but it popped up as a discussion at IxDS very recently. The latest Apple OS 10.7 Lion might have been the reason, or at least a prominent example and of course our design for the SiMKo security phone.

The OS X native Address Book and also the Calendar show very strong references to former filofax-style organizers – probably, I must add, since I have never used such organizers and few people around me have. Even less in the expensive leather bound examples that the Apple software now imitates. And with this description, I already mentioned two questionable properties of this interface style or technique: it refers to very old artefacts, that younger people might have little relation to; and it imitates material while it is obviously not there.

The iOS 5 Address Book on the iPad (source: rivacrmintegration)

Apple is known for appealing interfaces that are easy to use. In the highly dynamic field of mobile UI design, however, we also find completely opposing and aesthetically remarkable approaches in Micrsoft’s Metro style and Android Holo. The question – that I won’t be able to answer in this article: Is skeuomophism just a matter of style or does it really help people (i.e. a question of user experience)?

People Hub in Windows Phone 7 (source: wpcentral)


Let’s see what arguments we can bring to the debate. Good contributions to this debate come from Tobias Bjerrome Ahlin from Spotify and Thom Holwerda (both articles from 04/2012) and I added some considerations of my own and from office discussions.

Arguments on the pro side

  • Familiar: Skeuomorphic styles use visual elements that people know already to make them feel more at home. It lowers the entry barriers.
  • Easy to learn: Physical world references help users understand an application easier because they can reuse their knowledge.
  • Luxury: Textures from expensive materials make an application look more valuable or at least fit better into the portfolio of a particular target group
  • Hardware-Software-Consistency: Former Apple UIs were in line with the hardware around it and created “one piece” impression. Aluminium cases and brushed metail surfaces. Or colourful plastic enclosures and the Aqua interface. Not true for the latest UIs of Apple. (even from OS X 9 on)

    A bit of aluminium from the casing on the left and brushed metal UI elements (source: xverse10)

  • Playful: They are fun because skeuomorphic metaphors are still a bit surprising in digital interfaces, and they invite to touch and use an application. (from Ahlin)
  • Storytelling and “Framing”: Especially on personal devices such as phones and pads, users think less in tasks and more in leisure time categories. A visually rich interface tells them a story through the appearance not an info text and thus gets them in the right mood (or matches their mood) for this particular app. (from Ahlin)

Arguments on the con side

  • Disappointing: the textures are very obviously a simulation. What you feel is still the plastic of the touch screen, what you smell is still the electronic device, not the leather it displays. Even the reflections on the display tell you that. You feel fooled, at least unconsciously.
  • Outdated: I and even less the “digital natives” have ever used a physical address book or an expensive leather book as a calendar. Hence, the references used by Apple have no target to point to (the signs have no thing, no designata, as semioticians would put it)
  • Inconsistent: a lot of core interface elements don’t fit into a physical metaphor. No physical calendar has a dialog box with “OK” buttons. No book has scrollbars, you flip pages (some applications have both, nevertheless, point from Holwerda). This might also be called the “Microsoft Bob” argument.
    Apple Address Book uses the book metaphor heavily, it even as a page-flipping animation when you “add” a contact – but you can’t go from one contact to another by flipping pages.

    Old leather from the Calendar app frame meets glossy, virtual frame from the dialog box. (source: berlagelyceum)

  • Ego-Centric: textures, layout, behaviour is optimised for one app, to mimic it’s physical counterpart. In a different app, the same buttons might be in different places, the user has to learn each app UI anew. (see the layouts of Calendar and Address Book above) (from Holwerda)
  • Media Ignorant: the UIs are running as software; on devices that allow very very little physical experience. Designs that concentrate on this “bodyless” character make much more sense (to me) or are at least aesthetically far more interesting because they offer something “unseen”.
  • Clutter: skeuomorphic details take up screen space that might be used better for other purposes (including empty space). This is an efficiency argument and needs to be balanced with e.g. playfulness. But “could less be more?” is still a valid question.

Looking at these lists now, alternatives to skeuomorphism seem to be the better choice. However, a couple of arguments lack empirical validations and hinder clear decisions. We can get at least some of the validation from good user tests (e.g. for “Easy to Learn”) but user experience is more difficult to test unequivocally. This is something I’ll have an eye at.

The lists are a good ressource for pitfalls or important questions, however, that might help us defining a design strategy. When going for a very clean and digital interface, did we care enough about making it accessible, engaging and fun? And when we went for skeuomorphic designs: are our designs clear enough, do the metaphors still work well with the digital environment they are in, are we clear about the story to tell or is it just decoration?

For the question of the “better” approach, the debate is still on!

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My Android phone: A Hero without (blue) Teeth

Exciting, exciting: the box half open

Exciting, exciting: the box half open

A couple of days ago I touched (ha!) my first Android phone. It’s more than just a test drive this time, I dropped my S60 Nokia for it. I “am” on a HTC Hero now. HTC is stepping out of its “just a OEM manufacturer” shadow once more with this phone (they was already building T-Mobile’s MDA and the O2 XDA).

Old and new, side by side

Old and new, side by side

How does it feel?

The unboxing gave me a solid first impression, from the packaging to the metal and rubber device casing. Also turning it on was of course a carefully designed pleasure but I also admit that I had all the information ready that you are asked for during your first steps (such as all your user accounts from social networks, Google login, etc.). For complete newbies that might be a bit overwhelming but I guess that this isn’t the target group anyway. Although it’s pretty large (esp. compared to my Nokia candybar) it’s also rather thin and therefore fits into pockets easily (the rubber makes it a little difficult to get it out of there again, however).

First doubts about everyday compatibility...

First doubts about everyday compatibility...

All you get in a box!

All you get in a box!

Two really good things

… in comparison to usual phones:

The Mail Widget (part of HTC’s own “Sense” UI) on one of the home screens provides you with your mail just a litteral fingerstroke away and even notifies you via the mailbox icon on the main screen. I had email on the Nokia, too, and it was really helpful to check for important messages in some difficult situations. But it was built like an annex to the regular SMS interface, took a long time to load and was just not so easy to use. Now, it is really an option e.g. to tidy up my inbox on a train ride home, including some smaller replies right away.

The second great thing, to little surprise, is the Android Market. The (Nokia) Symbian community is an active one, too, but you can’t access its fruits as easily (at the momet they are restarting anyways, with Symbian turned open source). And there are really surprising and playful apps, like the Metal Detector (by Kurt Radwanski) that makes unintended use of the built-in compass.

There are also a couple of nice aspects that are less impressive on their own but contributing to the overall experience, such as all the widgets that you can fill your many screens with, the Blackberry-like trackball, or a standardized mini USB connector for the power supply (still worth mentioning, unfortunately). A third point would be rooting the phone and discovering its Linux guts, but that’s more a fun “because you can” — oh wait. You also need it for tethering (i.e. phone as internet uplink for the laptop)!

There are downsides, too

(this section is relatively long because I was so surprised and disapointed that a phone of this class fails on what I would consider basic tasks):

Androids love to talk via wifi but they are almost silent on Bluetooth (you can attach Bluetooth headsets! wow!). Bluetooth, however, is an established method for exchanging data between small devices, like phone to PC and even more so phone to phone. In a recent study on young people and their phones done I did for my work, Bluetooth turned out to be the second important function of the phone (right after texting) because it is so easy to swap ringtones, pictures from the last party, vcards or anything. Any device has Bluetooth, anyone can use it. I had to install swiFTP (a plus for the Market but not for Android) to make my computer talk to my phone. I always made fun of the oh-so-avantgarde iPhone users who were still passing phone numbers via pen & paper. I would have never believed that a phone of today could make this misstake a second time.

The more I traveled for business reasons, the more I’ve learnt to appreciate my phone as a moving hotspot. 3G and Bluetooth drain down my battery like mad but my computer is online whereever I want (almost). The Android phone puts and end to this. No Bluetooth, no tethering. Now, most of the internet is on the Android phone already — true. But there are a couple of applications and stuff that I want to start from my computer (and note that you can’t attach files from your computer to emails on your phone without swiFTP or a cable). I read about Wireless Tether for Root that would still make it possible if I used some minor force to get root access. Which I did right away despite a couple of warnings that it also might brick the phone (thanks Jesterz and Dayzee). Having to digg so radically means that tethering wasn’t kind of forgotten but really made unavailable deep inside. WHY on Earth?

Then I have this nice Address Book on my Mac. Several hundered entries with birthdays and tags in the notes and so on. Android does everything for you as soon as you go to Google. But I don’t want to put all my addresses on Google (and I guess a couple of people in my Adress Book don’t want to be listed there, either). Google Contacts has no field for birthdays, too. So, how to sync? Android and iSync? No way (remember: Bluetooth doesn’t work). Android does sync via USB cable and HTC’s HTC Sync with Outlook (only), they say. I can barely remember such efforts and restrictions from my first Siemens phone 10 years ago. Can this be taken serious, additionally on the Mac and on-the-go?

  • Android and ActiveSync/Exchange? Granted, that’s built-in. But where would I find a trustworthy Exchange server (and for free because I think syncing my data with my devices should be nothing I pay for regularly).
  • I also tried vcardIO and Andook Lite (by Fezza) which would at least import address books from the SD card (i.e. no sync) but the applications failed before they completed their job (they are pretty beta and maybe my address book is too large). [update 2009-10-22] vcardIO had problems with the images included. Without it works very nice, except that birthday are stored as notes]
  • Android and SyncML? There is a Funambol client but it doesn’t seem to work with my o2 account. I never had to think about syncML with my Nokia, it just worked (everything was set up simply via configuration SMS!)


It’s still a great phone, the HTC Sense is a very welcome improvement over the regular Android interface and it’s all worth fighting with the downside issues. It’s completely inadequate for a phone built more or less with an open source attitude, however, to constrain the user so heavily in basic connectivity.

If there is someone out there with a non-paid, no cable, no Google solution for me, please let me know!

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User Testing

paper prototype

interacting with paper prototype

sketches after testing session

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How to pick friends

myfolks selector

Imagine, you’re back from a trip abroad and want to tell your friends about all the fascinating experiences that you have made (And you either don’t have a blog for that purpose or don’t want to publish it publicly). Usually, that means you have to go through your entire address book and select the appropriate persons. However, if your computer knew about your relationships it could help you a lot with this task.

How could an interface for this case look like? Here are some propositions (and some problems to discuss!).

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Steven’s Social Fabric

My Social Fabric as conceptual screenshotimg

The mobile phone as a truely social device makes an ideal plattform for social network visualisations. This gets demonstrated in a very inspiring way by Steven Blyth in his master thesis project at the now discontinued IVREA. As I found out he researched a question in the immediate neighbourhood of mine:

How can the softness and ambiguity of our social worlds be visualized within the computational and binary context of a mobile device?

The Social Fabric is a representation of your social world, displayed as a single visual array [of avatars] on your mobile phone. It does not replace your address book or calendar but keeps you subtly informed [via the body posture or the avatars!] about which relationships are prospering, which you have neglected, and the overall state of your social fabric.

social fabric - posturesimg

In lots of his ideas and writings I found good arguments for what I want to further investigate. A very good point is that ambiguous metaphors can avoid the impression that a computer system could be truely accurate about something that is vague by its nature: social networks. As I am following a rather number based approach at the moment, this is something I will consider (with this Paper by Thomas Erickson from IBM).

He also revived another fascination (deep inside of me and, actually, my thesis proposal) for agents and avatars. In his opinion they are not discarded by history, as one can hear often, but depend on the proper design and sometimes sophisticated technology. The more the latter flourish the more the first can emerge as useful companions.

In contrast to his work, visualisation is supposed to be only one facett of my thesis with further applications building on insights gained by them.
Something left unclear to a certain extent in his text is his profiling method, what I used to call the “long term relation records”. Especially when considering “old friends” and “family members” a good balancing between current communication behaviour and long time habbits can offer new possibilities to deal with the less active parts of our “circles of friends”.

Thanks to one of his co-students at IVREA, Myriel, for poking my nose into this work! It found some good resonance over different media: WMMNA (relates it to GORI), Wired, LIFT 07


Visual Phone Bills

matrix visualisation cutout
Usually, your phone bill is a vast amount of numbers that nobody ever reads actually (secret services left aside). It gives you some interesting details if you search for something particular but it’s hard to get an easy overview over what was happening the last month. Now, this has changed! After some weeks of tinkering with code (mySQL, PHP, HTML and some JavaScript) some visual tools have rolled out of my workshop.

simple visualisation for phone bill
The first simple step sums up all of your time spent calling someone on the phone. Different colours for working hours and leisure time (and for the month under focus) are added for further pattern recognition like collegue/friend identification. First evaluations revealed already that some patterns are really characteristic for particular events in the past. That way, the visual attractiveness of certain patterns leads us to remembering interesting stories attached to these dates (that sometimes have been forgotten already). As a nice Extra the whole plot seems to be somehow related to a powerlaw.

histogram of phonbill
A second graph is more oriented towards science and theory. One of the background-chapters in my Master-Thesis focuses on the (mathematical) structure underlying our social networks. Some (Barabási) say all networks of free choice are governed by powerlaws, others (Watts) think that our network of friends is described better by a bell-curve. Maybe I can deduce in reverse from the pictures I get what type of network is contained in a phone bill. It looks as if we talk a lot to non-friends, so far.

month-hour matrix from phonebill
A third (not yet fully matured) version will focus on temporal patterns and therefore plots the month of the year against the hour of the day to locate each call. With this method I want to look for “hot” times with a lot of traffic, usually calm zones and possible dissenters.

The work on this graphic as well as the others shows that rather simple data from a phone bill can generate some complexity when it comes to meaningful visualisation. In order to manage this abundance of information I want to add more options to select and filter the dataset. I also need some means to enlarge the “resolution” (i.e. less information per area) for those points in the graphic that are currently examined by the user.

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If Spam was Art

comart banner

… we all could sell it and become rich fast. Really? If everyone has a lot of the same, we won’t make much money. In fact, we will have to look out for the real rare and precious gems. A newly founded company, Com+Art Galleries, started idealistic expeditions into this unknown territory.

This presentation (pdf: 1 mb, German only but a lot of pictures) offers some insights into art and into its surrounding businesses.

Drop by often because Com+Art Galleries will go public soon, offering the possiblity to participate in this exciting project to you.


dilemma while getting acquainted

interaction principle for social wearable displays
When we want to get to know another person, we have to share some of our personal or private opinions and feelings. Some people are more afraid of doing so — they are afraid of being vulnerable — and that’s what we refer to as shy, more or less. In a recent discussion about Experience Design, we came across the Social Button again: Primarily it is intended to facilitate exactly these initial steps towards an interpersonal relation. The button reveals matching personal criteria (common friends, e.g.) by displaying some meaningful graphics on the Social Button of the corresponding person. It is not only exposing private data (to certain extent) but uses another person as “billboard” — two factors that might make us feel uneasy in a similiar way than the usual face-to-face situation but initiated by technology.

It seems as we have to trade in control for getting to know others more easily. It was one of our goals to reduce the reasons for these privacy concerns as far as possible by implementing a symbol decoding on a subjective basis.