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Usability: BayCHI Monthly Meeting

BayCHI (pronounced bay-KI) is the local San Francisco Bay Area chapter of ACM SIGCHI. ACM is the Association for Computing Machinery, a society for information technology professionals. SIGCHI is an ACM Special Interest Group on Human-Computer Interaction.

They do talks and stuff. About usability, obviously. Once a month they have dinner in Palo Alto at Xerox PARC. Becoming a member only costs $20. You can go to most of their events without being a member but members get access to a mailing list, get an entry in their directory and access to an electronic job board.

Today they had two talks, one called "Copy is Interface" and one called "Sketching Smart Things: User Experience Design of Ubiquitous Computing Devices."

Erika Hall, Lead Strategist at Mule Design held the speech about copy in web interfaces. To me it was mostly interesting because of her choice of examples. For instance she contrasted Consumating with Eharmony when discussing authenticity. Her main points were pretty basic. If you've written for the web at all, you should already know this. Her five ideals to strive toward in web copy were:
  • authentic

  • engaging

  • specific

  • appropriate

  • polite
I think those can be applied to any element of web sites or indeed whole sites, too.

Her list of what web writers should avoid goes:
  • vagueness

  • unnatural word choices

  • passive voice

  • overly clever or cute phrasing

  • rudeness, unhelpfulness

  • insensitivity to the user's context

  • inconsistency, e.g. you/my

  • presumptuousness

Mike Kuniavsky of ThingM talked about how to sketch for ubiquitous computing applications. By "sketch" he means the process of defining the problem. The first sketching method he discussed was hardware hacking, i.e. taking existing hardware and changing it to do something new. He showed a photo of a Roomba that had been hacked to draw like a spirograph.

Another sketching method he showed, was to create a fake demo video. ThingM did this for a wine rack that allowed the user to choose a wine based on a number of facets, e.g. country of origin, grape, year. Using a wine rack was a natural choice, because wine lends itself very easily to demonstrate taxonomies. In fact it's the textbook example of facet taxonomies. Look down the left hand navigation on wine.com's wine shop and you see it made real.

ThingM blogged about the fake demo video and were soon overrun by people who wanted to buy their non-existent wine rack. So they went one step further in their sketching, they created a working prototype. It was based on putting an RFID tag on each bottle, like so many other ubicomp projects. The user could enter their preferences into a control panel and the corresponding spaces would illuminate. As the user narrows or widens their search, more or fewer spaces light up.

Mike's speech was at a much higher level than Erika's. While both were interesting, Erika was clearly the better presenter. All in all it was a very interesting evening. I'm going to go again when I get the chance.