Thursday, May 1, 2014

titles and lenses and handles, oh my!

Three notes from my job.

1. the "title" attribute.
It took a side comment from a (stridently non-UI) coworker to remember that the simplest way to get an informational popup (like the old "img alt" text) for an existing page element is to use the "title" attribute. I kind of forgot about that one! My thinking was stuck back where you only had the "alt" tag, and it was just for images, but now almost all DOM elements support bearing a "title". I was all ready to make up some kind of jQuery onhover thing, but HTML5 had me covered.

2. fisheye lens for group remote scrums over laptop video
I can recommend this set of lenses for use with a Macbook if you want to let the party on the other side get a wider view. Specifically, the fisheye lens -- the "wide angle" is just a weaker version of that, and the macro/closeup is kind of useless - at least on my iPhone, it ruins the devices' ability to focus. But with 3 or 4 of us on one couch for "video scrum" (wait, shouldn't that be a standup?) the springy clip lens works well.

3. door handles and clever hints
One of my favorite books is Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things. One of its famous takeaways is the design of doorhandles, how they hint at which way the door will be moving. It points out that a horizontal bar generally implies pushing, and a vertical bar is generally meant to be grabbed and pulled (and both of these have to do with the physiology of the arm and hand.) At my job, however, both sides of the door use vertical bars:

And yet, I never try to use the handle the wrong way. What's going on? I took a closer look, and there's a subtle but important physical difference: the "push" handle is mounted at around a 45-degree angle, and the "pull" handle is closer to flush with the door. That difference is enough to strongly suggest the right behavior!

I was impressed by the cleverness and effectiveness of the design. Though I pointed it out to my coworker, and she says she always relies on what the sign above says. (And in the one case where the sign is missing, and the sign from the other side of the semi-transparent door shines through (albeit reversed text) she finds it very confusing.) So that was another valuable lesson for me: different people read different sets of clues.

Finally, an aside about "The Design of Everyday Things"... this is a book that has disdain for objects that sacrifice usability for aesthetic appearance, and also for the professional groups that reward that emphasis-- "probably won an award" it sniffs disdainfully, at doors and other devices that go for sleek minimalism over hints at use. Ironically it didn't heed its own advice, at first! Its original title was "The Psychology of Everyday Things": a pleasing title with a lovely acronym "POET" (repeatedly used in the book). And indeed, the book won awards! Unfortunately the title confused booksellers who didn't know whether to file under psychology, or design, or what. So a less clever, more understandable title was adopted. Still a fine read, however.

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