Headphones that are never plugged into your ears!

Aftershokz headphones used by a blind person

Aftershokz headphones used by a blind person

One of the most interesting and unusual headphones are ones that don’t plug into your ears.  Instead, there are bone-conduction headsets which transmit sound to your inner ear though your jawbone rather than sticking earplugs into or over your ears. This category of headsets made a splash at recent Consumer Electronics Shows (CES) in Las Vegas over the last few years.

There are several advantages to this design because it accessible to different types of users who may have specific challenges that we don’t normally think about.  For example, blind users love these headsets because they can both listening to music or a podcast from their smartphone and also hear what is happening around them.  Moreover, hard of hearing users can wear these bone-conduction headsets and their hearing aid at the same time.

The universal design of this type of headset benefits everyone, not just people with special needs. In fact, there are other situations which users may find these bone-conduction headsets appealing.   In some cases, situational awareness can be improved and increase safety   For example, those who love to run or bike safely navigate the roads because they can hear oncoming traffic while listening to their favorite song or podcast.  Another bonus, the headset securely attaches to the side of your face just in front of the ears, so aren’t any ear plugs that can pop out of your ears as you exercise.

On the downside, these headphones do “leak” the sound so that others can hear what the output of your headset.  So these are not ideal for private phone calls or when you are in the library or somewhere which requires silence. If you need privacy, this headset may not be for you.

Another consideration is how this headset wrap around the back of your head instead of over your head.  Since the band isn’t adjustable like what you find on traditional headphones, be sure to try them out before buying them or make sure there is a generous return policy.

There are wired and wireless versions of this headset that retail for less than $100.  You can find them online at  Please note:  This author does not own any stock in this company nor does he benefit from the sale of these items.

The Unplugged

Recently, I ran across this book, “The Unplugged” by Ruven Meulenberg, which was listed on and promoted by I was intrigued by the tag line “join a new breed of developers that don’t use computer. Much.” The acknowledgements page thanks a couple of well known usability experts like Seth Godin and Jakob Nielsen for putting their ideas into writing.

After reading the first chapter entitled “Timing Change” and 5 additional pages regarding “Insights from the ‘Planning Principle,'” the author appears to promote more upfront flexible planning much like design sprints and sprint zero in Agile. The author advises not to eliminate change and force a “lock down” agreement (i.e. contract) which is typical for those who oppose the “contractual” nature found in waterfall development processes. At the same time, the author notes that there is a need to do more planning and emphasizes that it is cheaper to make change earlier in the creative process rather than jump headlong into development too early when all of the angles have not been properly considered. One would surmise that the author may ultimately propose the use of iterative prototyping using tools like GUI Mags and GUI boards.

Moreover, in some other selected pages, the author goes on to endorse the use of storyboarding. In the early creative phases, one should avoid the use of technology which may bound the designer to widgets and styles defined by the tool. Tools like VISIO or Illustrator may bound your thinking into a narrow concept of an idea. Hence, one should be unplugged from the computer which may enforce some unwanted constraints on the creative process.

Overall, the small snippets that I have been able to read appear to point to good guidance in the design process. I hope to obtain access and read the book in its entirety to assess the quality of the methodologies proposed.

Gestures and their implications

 Dan Saffer of Kicker Studio presented a talk “Tap is the New Click” hosted by R/GA in New York City yesterday evening. He is on tour promoting his new book. Dan covered the basic usability and ergonomics issues regarding a gestural interfaces. It was a great multi-media overview that included the Apple iPhone and Nintendo Wii. Attendees expressed concerns about the potential problems with patenting gestural interfaces. In addition, some were worried about confusion and inconsistencies between proprietary solutions. There could be new user interface wars between competing products. One attendee joked about having to know what gesture to use for Apple vs. Microsoft. One could image having an Apple “iRoom” user interface and Microsoft zRoom” user interface.

Moreover, one could have some “Tower of Babel” as different gestures emerge for the same interactions. How does a gestural user interface deal with “gestural pollution?” At some point, the gestures can become too contrived and complex. Even with current simplistic gestures, Dan does not like calling these “natural” interfaces. There will be “pointing” issues as to what the user’s intentions are. You can use a gesture to turn on something – but what is it that you want turned on? So you might have to say “lights” first along with a gesture. You can raise one arm to turn on one light and two arms to turn on all lights. As you can see, it can get a bit confusing… unless you develop some standards that everyone recognizes and implements.

When I spoke to Dan before his talk, I asked him about the Web 2.0 conference. He indicated that the vast majority of the talks were about software only solutions while it would be more interesting if there were more software/hardware combinations presented that involved user interface design that included physical design aspects interacting with software. When you think about it, the popular products are exactly that – iPhone, iPod, Blackberry, Tivo, and DVRs.

The next NYC IxDA event is the Second Annual Interaction Design Studio — a hands-on workshop led by experts Liya Zheng and Jeanine Harriman of Liquidnet — on Thursday evening, October 16, at Roundarch.

Insights to time perception and comments on Agile development

 Jared M. Spool, CEO ; Founding Principal of User Interface Engineering gave a presentation Magic and Mental Models: Using Illusion to Simplify Designs at NYC Usability Professional Association (UPA)’s meeting last night at AvenueA | Razorfish. Jared’s talk rode the metaphor between Magic and how user interface design can benefit by using illusions such as altering time perception. One example is how there is a disconnect with the objective measure of “time” for downloading pages and how long it takes for the web pages to be rendered verses the perceived time by end users. Jared found the end users believed that was “fast” while was “slow” when in fact the opposite was true when the actual download times and web page renderings were timed. The end users were subjectively rating the speed of the webpages in terms of successful task completion time rather than the simple time measurement. Thus, was giving the “illusion” of being a “fast” website, when in fact it really wasn’t. However, it was perceived as faster because the end user’s experience of the transactions and tasks were “faster” which is what counts.

When I had dinner with him and others after his talk, I asked him what he thought about Agile development and the best way to include usability methods. His answer was to manage usability both before and after each sprint at the same time – which is a challenge.

1) Do User Research in advance to get the right Stories for the next Sprint
2) Do Usability Testing after each Sprint

This suggests you would likely need more than one usability person working on an Agile project in order to handle the work load and add the value of usability methods at the right time.

Tonight I’ll be going to Dan Saffer talk at the monthly NYC IxDA meeting at RGA. I will report back what I learn at his presentation in one of my next blogs.


Agile development process and User Experience design

An interview with Charlie Kreitzberg of Cognetics Corporation discussing the Agile development process and User Experience design.

John: We are speaking with Charlie Kreitzberg of Cognetics Corporation ( about Agile Development and how user centered design and user experience methodologies fit best. Charlie, how do we integrate the usability techniques that we know and love into this new agile development process?

Charlie: My sense is that the fit between user experience design and agile development has not been as comfortable as one would hope. That’s surprising considering that Ux design and its components like interaction design and information architecture are essentially Agile processes themselves and are highly iterative. I am not sure why it has been so difficult for the Agile people and the usability people to get together.

One barrier may be cultural. I do not think that user experience thinking has quite penetrated the development community yet although that is changing very rapidly. But developers tend to focus on functionality and maintainability and while they acknowledge the importance of user experience they’re not necessarily comfortable with it

John: Why do you think that is?

Charlie: Certainly the developer’s view of a software product is very different from the experience of end users. As a result developers may not see some user experience issues as important. And Ux is concerned with engagement and relationships. Many developers are not particularly social and so their interest in experience issues is less than Ux designers who enjoy it. And in terms of process, there is a tendency to view the UI as the last thing to focus on. I think that has been a significant error.  I believe that user experience, design and wire framing and coming up with a very clear concept are essential at the very beginning. But not everyone in the development community agrees.

John: So it’s a culture-clash issue?

Charlie: Partly. Another reason has to do with timing. The nature of Agile is that you typically go through quick design iterations and make a lot of decisions on the fly. That’s also true for Ux design. But in both cases you need to start the iterative process by developing a clear vision of the foundation and architecture you will be using. Without a good foundation in place, you run the risk of creating a patchwork quilt where you meant to have a integrated whole.

In agile development there is often an “iteration zero” which is used to setup the tools and environment. Perhaps what we need is a Ux iteration zero. But I think the problem may actually be deeper than that.

Some people embrace an extreme form of agile that is built around just in time decision-making. I think that some design elements need to be thought about holistically. Others can be designed as needed. If you don’t get that right, it’s easy for the UX designer and the developer to step on each others toes or to make architectural decisions that may not be exactly the right ones. My advocacy here is that you need to inject a little bit of waterfall mentality through a design stage during which the high-level design for the UI is thought through. Use this opportunity to bring the design to a point where at least the basic architecture of the presentation layer is understood. Get a sense of the navigation, the high-level functionality, how the information architecture will be managed. Then use this model to engage in the Agile process and refine the user interface iteratively.

John: You noted that sometimes the Ux designer and the developer can step on each other’s toes.

Charlie: Generally, when I am in that kind of environment, I try to keep the user interface design one or two cycles ahead of the development rather than in lock-step. As a result, you are moving forward on the user experience side while the developers are actually building something that is a little bit further in the past.

John: Would you say that you have applied a kind of hybrid model to the Agile process?

Charlie: It’s not that I consider it hybrid but that think that there are initial conditions that are needed before you begin the iterations. And the context of almost every business-financed product I’ve encountered is sequential. Every one begins with a business case, setting up a team, planning, coding, testing and release. Some people might call that “waterfall” but I think that we need to remember that the context in which agile takes places tends to be built around sequential stages at a business level.

I think the flow also changes depending on where you are in the product’s lifecycle. When you are developing a brand new product, there are many stake holders who need to get clear about what is envisioned. But when you have an established product, and people really know where it is going, most change can be conceptualized in an incremental way.

But, in the early stages, it is important not to get on the wrong path and not to make some decisions about the user interface that later on do not work and force you to make changes you would prefer to avoid.

John: So you are thinking that the initial user centered design model should be input to the first iteration of Agile before coding begins.

Charlie: Yes, that is correct.

John: So are you making the analogy that when you are building a house, you need the architect to come up with a blueprint before the carpenter starts nailing up the walls?

Charlie: It’s a good, if well-worn, analogy. When you are building a house, you cannot decide to alter the footprint once the foundation has been poured. If you poured a slab you cannot later decide you want a basement. And if you designed a one-story ranch you cannot decide to make it a two-story house – at least not without a lot of work and investment.

On the other hand, there are a lot of decisions that you can defer for later. Non-supporting walls can be moved, you can change a lot of the interior spaces as long as the structural support is present. The trick is knowing which decisions can be deferred and which have long-term consequences. If you get the bearing walls right, you can always push the partition walls about. You can certainly change the colors; you can add a window or a door. But if you try to change something that is essentially structural you have a real problem. I think the same applies certainly to the user interface

I break requirements gathering into two phases. Initially I focus on the high-level conceptual design and functionality. The second phase is detailed design. Early on, in the envisioning process, I’ll think about functionality that may not be planned until later in the future. The reason is that I want to create a user interface that is extensible and architecturally can accommodate the evolution of the product over a long period of time.

John: So are you concerned about Agile becoming “cowboy coding” rather than responsible development?

Charlie: I wouldn’t equate Agile with cowboy code but there are some developers who may think that that is the way to go. The reality is that waterfall methods, while they appear logical and structured, often fail. The reason is that you can never completely specify everything upfront. What Agile offers us a way to make design decisions in a just-in-time fashion. And that works well as long as the decisions with long-term consequences are made correctly.

I believe a framework needs to be established upfront that lays out the basic structure of the user interface and is based on an understanding of task and activity flow.

John: Tell me about the LUCID framework you developed.

Charlie: LUCID is a framework for user experience design that I developed with some of my colleagues starting in the 1990’s. The name is an acronym for Logical User-Centered Interaction Design. We created it because we saw a need to help product developers structure the Ux components of a project.

When we conceptualized LUCID we attempted to blend both sequential and iterative elements. It was sequential at the highest level meaning that we went through a series of phases to get from the business case, through product envision, through prototyping, build and deployment. But LUCID is highly iterative in the design stages. Now what we didn’t do in the early versions of LUCID was to really look at the integration with development methodologies because what we found at that time was that in a highly waterfall world, a lot of the user experience work was ideally done before the development process even began.

LUCID became a very popular methodology surprisingly because we did not do much publication on it, but we did place it in the public domain and made it freely available to people. It started to work its way into university courses and occasional text books and at one point I actually encountered a research study which said that it had become the most popular proprietary methodology for design. That was really nice. I think a lot of that had to just with its pure simplicity.

What I am engaged in now, and this is just getting started, is starting on a new version of LUCID. One thing I would like to address in “LUCID 2” is the fit with Agile environments.

I am planning on building LUCID 2 in an open source collaborative environment. I hope we can engage developers, business analysts and usability specialists to work together and exchange ideas about how to work well together.

John: Okay. Well that is really great. We look forward to progress on LUCID 2 and hearing more about it. Thank you very much for agreeing to be a guest and being recorded for my blog. I appreciate it very much.

Charlie: Well, I am delighted to talk with you John, and I hope that if any of your readers are interested in getting engaged in the LUCID 2 project they’ll write me at charlie (at) cognetics (dot) com. I’d be happy to hear from them. There some more information about LUCID at This is an unfunded effort but fortunately in our Web 2.0 world it’s easy to put a website together and to start the discussions going.

John: Well thank you and thank you for participating.



World Usability Day 2008, November 13th

The Usability Professional Association (UPA) is sponsoring a World Usability Day (WUD) on November 13, 2008 in New Jersey at Rutgers University. The focus will be on Transportation.

How do humans interact with the following aspects of transportation:

  • Modes – automobiles, planes, trains and subways, boats, trucks, busses, bikes, animals, and more.
  • Infrastructure – roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, and more.
  • Technologies and resources supporting transportation – online travel advisory and ticketing, maps and more.
  • Security
  • Signage

If you have been to New Jersey, you know that signage is really important!

The only way you would know where to make a left turn is to really pay attention to those signs telling you which lane should be used in order to make a turn. (Those jug handles are inconsistent and a nightmare for those unfamiliar with the area)There should be a contest regarding the best and worse signs.

The past WUDs focused on Innovations in Healthcare in 2007 in Princeton, NJ.

Interviews of User Experience Pioneers
This past weekend, I learned about Tamara Adlin’s website focuses on  User Experience Pioneers, including an interview of people like, Arnie Lund. The are fascinating recounts of their life experiences and how they got interested in User Experience. I took my first Human Factors course as an elective during my Senior year in college. At that point, I was already interested in Psychology and computers. That’s why I joined the Human-Computer Interaction at the University of Maryland to work with the likes of Ben Shneiderman (who is also featured on this website). What about your life?  How did you get interested in this field?

Google talks about using Metaphors and online collaboration

Today, I’ll be attending the NYC Usability Professionals Association meeting which features a presentation: UX Research at Google in NYC: Methods and Case Studies

Two members of Google’s User Experience team will outline Google’s UX design and research processes in New York City, then delve into two recent case studies where designs were influenced by some unique work with metaphors, and where supporting underlying relationships with software can be the make-or-break predictor of success.

Speakers: Molly Stevens, UX Team member, Google, Inc.Michelle Lee, UX Team member, Google, Inc.

Case study: “Using Metaphors to Communicate Research Results with Impact”

Molly Stevens will discuss how using a metaphor helped engineering understand the social dynamics of a b2b application. This caused them to fundamentally rethink the prioritization of features and some of the basic interactions.

Case study: “Getting on the bandwagon: Critical roles in online collaboration”

The biggest predictor of success is how software supports underlying relationships among group members. Not all collaborators are created equal;

Michelle Lee will explore critical roles & implications for design using Google Docs as a case study.

The Truth is Out There: Using Mobile Technology for Experience Sampling

I read Gavin Lew’s (GFK AKA User Centricarticle “The Truth is Out There: Using Mobile Technology for Experience Sampling” in the latest issue of User Experience Volume 7, Issue 3, 2008. (the paper version was delivered to my door via postal mail and I could not find a hyperlink yet on the UPA Publications website – sorry for the digression).

Rightly, he laments that lack of research in the wild as well as the need for longitudinal research. Specifically, we don’t know much about the influencers of usage such as: motivation, fun and emotion. He discusses the common use of a diary to capture usage information to gain deeper insight to user activity and motivation.

One of the few longitudinal studies that we had conducted used a diary as method for capturing end user information and usage. The diary enabled us to learn more about what would happen to wanted vs. unwanted calls that were screened by a new telephone service.

Chin, John P., Herring, Richard D. and Familant, M. Elliott (1992): A Usability and Diary Study Assessing the Effectiveness of Call Acceptance Lists. In:  Proceedings of the Human Factors Society 36th Annual Meeting 1992. pp. 216-220.

This study involved prototyping and testing feasibility of a caller acceptance list for Personal Communication Service (PCS). The caller acceptance list would allow only callers on the list to contact the PCS subscriber directly rather than be redirected to voice mail. The studied examined the impact of the users’ caller acceptance list over a two week period based on a record of all phone calls received by end users The results showed that a caller acceptance list reduces the number of unwanted calls by one-third. The insights were valuable, worthy of the large amount of time and effort involved.

The challenge is to convince paying customers/clients that these longer term studies are worth the investment. With the new technologies in place, this may be the right time to pursue more research in the wild that is outside of the laboratory.

The BIG Three:  Usability, Utility and Ubiquity

Photo courtesy of MJ Broadbent of NYC IxDA.Last June, I had attended a NYC IxDA meeting hosted by Icon Nicholson that featuredDavid Armano’s presentation on micro-interactions in a 2.0 world.

I really enjoyed his talk. Essentially, he proposed that, “it is the little things that really do matter!” The sticky websites that have a relationship with the end users changes advertising on the web from merely broadcasting a message in brochure-ware mentality to an active interaction style. Engaging, empowering and enabling the end user is the key. Of this triumvirate, usability is only one aspect. One needs to also include Utility and Ubiquity. This becomes more apparent that it is a two way street when 25% of the content of Google search results about the 20 top brands are generated by consumer content! As usual, it is the word of mouth that works.

I look forward to the next NYC IxDA meeting scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday, July 24, 2008 when Luke Williams from Frog design will speak. For location details, send email to

P.S. All guests for the event tomorrow will need to have their name on the list (same RSVP address as above).

Patent for User Interfaces with Personality?

You always wonder what impact you work has on the world or how you contribute to the world. Stanford researchers Clifford Nass et. al. cited my research
Chin, John P. (1996): Personality Trait Attributions to Voice Mail User Interfaces. In: Proceedings of the ACM SIG CHI April 13-18, 1996, Vancouver, BC, Canada. pp. 248-249.
 along with others in their patent application regarding user interfaces with personalities.

This work was also cited by US Patent 7266499 – Voice user interface with personality, which was issued on September 4, 2007.

What do you think of patented user interfaces? Do patents stifle or foster innovation?

User Interfaces for an Aging Population

Recently, I read the latest issue of Interactions, Volume XV.4 (July + August 2008)  An article entitled “Older adults, health information, and the internet” by Bo Xie at the University of Maryland, College Park, College of Information Studies – struck me as an important segment of the end user population that needs greater attention.

I saw an article about a new HP device that was used for one way transmission of email from the internet using a service called Presto (note I don’t directly own any shares of HP or interests in this product or service – nor do I necessarily endorse it). This product is suppose to address those who do not want to use or own a computer. It allows other users on the internet with a mechanism for broadcasting/sending an email or photo to the intended person who might be either a ludite or low tech person.

It seems strange to me that the end user is not given the ability to “Reply” to the email sent by calling back and recording a reply message which has a audio recording from the end user. I would think products and services like Presto would make a provision for a unified mailbox that handled all types of media like audio files in addition to text. This would greatly enhance this service. I think I better a patent to this idea before someone else does!

Menu Design: Theory and Practice – PIE Menus

As a graduate student, I worked with my advisor, Kent Norman, studying menu design. Recently, I found that he wrote an article for the special 50th Anniversary Issue of The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (Volume 50, Number 3, June 2008). Better Design of Menu Selection Systems Through Cognitive Psychology and Human Factorspp. 556-559(4).  In the abstract, he concluded:

“that cognitive psychology has contributed substantially to the design of better menu selection systems… It is imperative that designers continue to apply these findings to interfaces that they develop and that researchers continue to study the characteristics and efficacy of innovative menu designs as they appear”

Unfortunately, it is not clear to me that designers are applying what has been learned from academic research. In a recent listserve thread by IxDA (Interaction Design Association), only a couple of designers were aware of the origins of the original pie menu.

Callahan, J., Hopkins, D., Weiser, M., &; Shneiderman, B. (1993). An em-pirical comparison of pie vs. linear menus. In B. Shneiderman (Ed.), Sparks of innovation in human-computer interaction (pp. 79–88). Norwood, NJ: Ablex

Pie menus reduced the time to make a selection by having the distance (mouse movement) to each item selection the same (unlike linear menus). This advantage can be predicted by the GOMS theory (GoalsOperatorsMethods, and Selection Rules).

Fostering Innovation

Recently I read the latest issue of the User Experience Magazine: Volume 7, Issue 2, 2008  Online, you can access the User Experience Magazine if you are member of the Usability Professional Association:  On page three, there is a special note which states that Dr. Ben Shneiderman, University of Maryland, was being honored for his 60th birthday with a special issue of the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction.  I worked with Ben while I was a graduate student and member of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab. There’s a great quote:

“We begin by choosing excellent and pleasant people. Then the Maryland Way is to foster innovation through seven sparks:

1. Choose a good driving problem

2. Become immersed in related work

3. Clarify short-term and long-term goals

4. Balance individual and group interests

5. Work hard

6. Communicate with internal and external stakeholders

7. Get past failures. Celebrate success!”

I wholeheartedly agree with these seven tenets.