Wednesday, 12 November 2008

World Usability Day

I just wanted to post a reminder that Thursday 13th November 2008 is World Usability Day. If you're not sure what "usability" means, ask yourself this - why (to paraphrase a comment on the World Usability Day website) is a mobile phone more difficult to use than a door handle ?
Usability means making technology products easy to use, which in turn means designing products with the users' point of view in mind. That applies both to physical products, like mobile phones, and virtual products like computer software. Generally speaking, there is a tendency for the external design of technology products to reveal much too much of the inner workings of the product, which, although necessary, admirable, and often brilliant, are irrelevant to what the user needs to use the product for. I don't know of anyone who uses a hammer for knocking in nails who is particularly interested in the temperature of the furnace in which the hammer's head was forged. It may be interesting to someone, and it's certainly interesting for the manufacturer, but it's not relevant to the everyday tasks the hammer is used for. Unfortunately, irrelevant "furnace temperature" information abounds in the user literature for technology products.
I could go on about usability, and its general absence, for a long time. It's sad but true, but even the very finest user documentation can't compensate for a product that was designed without any consideration for its usability.

Follow the links for more on World Usability Day, and in particular on events in the UK.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Challenging linguistic theory isn't funny enough

One of the good things about science, is that it always knows it might be wrong. According to Karl Popper, a theory should be considered scientific if and only if it is falsifiable. New evidence can and should displace a prevailing theory, until the point at which even newer evidence emerges.
Linguists, for example, used to believe that language was culturally determined, and then along came Chomsky who presented evidence that it was an innate, genetically determined faculty. To borrow an analogy from Steven Pinker, humans have a language ability in the same way that spiders have a web-spinning ability.
While most of the broadcast and print media (such as the Telegraph)were widely reporting a "a list of the most irritating cliches" this weekend, taken from a new book about the English language, the really interesting item for linguists and language afficionados was hidden away elsewhere. On Saturday morning's travel programme "Excess Baggage" on BBC Radio 4, linguist Dan Everett was talking about his experiences with the Piraha people of the Amazon. If Everett is right, and the Piraha language does indeed lack some of the universal innate features that Chomsky ascribed to all languages, then perhaps it's time to review the prevailing theories in the light of the evidence. In academic circles, the debate about Everett's work had been going on for several years. But "at the end of the day" it's simply not entertaining - too much like "rocket science" I suppose.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Congratulations, Mr. Obama, Congratulations, USA.

I don't normally comment on politics, but this week has been exceptional. If I had been a US citizen last Tuesday I would probably have voted for Obama, but that is hardly unexpected, given that I am a university-educated, white, middle-class liberal with a white-collar job, living in a major urban centre.

From a professional point of view, I admire Obama's command of the English language. Courses on public speaking and writing to persuade can now use his speeches as exemplars of good practice. I was amused, and perhaps a little scared, by the attempt of the Republican Party to use "he's eloquent" as an insult.

In today's Independent on Sunday there is an analysis by Dr Max Atkinson on Obama's use of classical oratorical techniques particularly the three-part list, as in his victory speech:
"Is there anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible;
who still wonders if the dream of our fathers is alive in our time;
who still questions the power of our democracy?"

[I haven't found this in the online edition of the paper, unfortunately.]

Another interesting aspect of Obama's campaign is the way he embraced technology not only to reach voters but to raise funds. I was going to comment on this, but I don't need to, as Conrad Taylor has already written an interesting article on his blog on the way the Obama team used online networking to raise money.