It’s kind of rare for me to pimp out products and services on my blog, but I’m going to do so just this once.
I really despise faxes, but occasionally I do have to send them in the course of some of the admin work I still do on the side for my old consulting company (address changes, etc.). If you’re in a similar boat, you really owe it to yourself to check out hellofax.com. It’s about three gazillion times better than any other similar service that I’ve tried (which were all embarassingly bad: I’d sooner just go to a copy shop) and has saved me hours and hours of time and frustration.
Despite making a dramatic shift from front-end development to back-end stuff since I started at Mozilla a few months ago, I’ve still had occasion to have to do a fair bit of user-facing code, even if an audience of other developers is a bit more limited than what I’ve been used to. Since my mission is to make the rest of Mozilla more productive, it’s worth putting a bit of time and intention into the user interface for my stuff. If I can reduce learning curves or streamline day-to-day workflows, that’s a win for everyone since they can spend that much more time rocking at their jobs (whether that be release engineering, platform work, or whatever). This brings up a point that I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while:
Despite conventional wisdom, developers can design half-decent user interfaces (if they try)!
I used to be certain that a project really needed graphic designers and/or usability experts to provide guidance on UI issues, but my experience over the last few years with iOS/web development has made me reconsider. Sure, pixel pushing and vector art is never going to be a programmer’s strong suit (and there’s certain high-level techniques that take years of study to acquire/understand), but the basic principles behind good UI design are accessible to anyone. There’s really only three core skills:
An ability to put yourself in the shoes of the user. Who are you designing for, and what are they trying to accomplish? How can I streamline my UI to help them quickly solve the task at hand? This is one of the reasons why I find user stories so helpful.
An understanding of common vocabulary for describing/designing applications and knowing what is “good”. Unfortunately I haven’t found anything like this for the web, but Apple’s human interface guidelines have some good general advice on this (just ignore the stuff specific to phones/tablet apps if that’s not what you’re doing).
A willingness to iterate. The best ideas usually aren’t apparent immediately, and may only come out of a back forth. It’s been my experience that the more constructive dialog there is between people actively involved in the project on user experience issues, the better the end result is likely to be.
For example, one of the things that release engineering has found most useful in the GoFaster Dashboard has been the build charts. Believe it or not, the idea for that view started out as this useless piece of junk (I can say that because I created it). It was only after a good half hour back and forth on irc between myself, jgriffin, and jmaher (all of us backend/tool developers) that we came up with the view that inspired so much good analysis on the project.
All this is not to say that usability experts and graphic designers don’t have special skills that are worthy of respect. Indeed, if you’re a designer and would like to get involved with our work, please join us, we’d love your help. My only point is that on a project where a design resource isn’t available, thinking explicitly about usability is still worthwhile. And even where you have a UX expert on staff, programmers can have useful feedback too. Good UI is everyone’s responsibility!
A few weekends ago, there was a Montréal Ouvert hackfest at the Notman House. I decided to take a bit of a break from my usual transit hacking and built up a mobile friendly interface to the wonderful Déchets Montréal, which lets residents easily get information on their garbage collection schedule.
The interface is intentionally quite simplistic, the idea being that if you’re accessing the site using a mobile device you’re probably only interested in the collection schedule for the current week and nothing else. If you want something more complicated you probably should just be using the full site.
Anyway, another fun opportunity to play with mobile web technology (a bit of break from my current consulting gig, which is mostly native iPhone apps). A few things that I learned this time around:
It’s easy to give your application a nice icon when added to the iPhone home screen by using a webpage icon.
Related to the above, you can give the user a nice hint to add your webpage to their homescreen by using Google’s mobile bookmark bubble library.
Because I don’t have enough spare time projects (this is a joke), I decided to take on the task of adding a must-requested special iPhone/iPod-touch friendly view for the WifiDog authentication server (used by the infamous Île Sans Fil) after being inspired by the WifiDog camp held a few weeks ago at Station C. I finally finally finished up a prototype today. It’s a bit of a hack, but a relatively clean one– hopefully some version of it can be integrated into trunk, and users with mobile devices will have a better experience when they’re on the go in Montréal (or any other area with a community-oriented wifidog deployment: I hear there’s lots).
For those interested in grubby details, you can track the progress of this work on the WifiDog ticket tracker.
Started to use a new piece of hardware at the Navarra office today, which resulted in the following gem being added to the GNOME notification area. Would anyone care to guess what the following icon is supposed to represent?