Zero Signal-to-Noise, or WT-Actual-F?

As I’ve written in my two most recent articles, my father continues in Assisted Living. Technology which we consider normal is extremely difficult for him. We’ve seen how actions that we consider simple are difficult for him, such as listening to music via Spotify and participating in video meetings via Zoom. Here’s another case for you.

My Dad likes to watch TV now and then.  When I was a boy, our TV only received three channels, which we selected with a stiff clunky knob. His cable company now offers hundreds of channels, plus on-demand streaming and DVR capability, but he doesn’t care about any of this crap.  He just wants to watch a little tube to relax him and distract him from the current lousy state of the world. (It’s either that or booze, and he’s only allowed one glass of wine with dinner.) 

But these seemingly-basic operations are extremely difficult for him to discover, remember, and execute. Here’s a picture of his Comcast remote. How can even a teenager, let alone a senior, use this piece of crap? The signal-to-noise ratio approaches zero. I mean, WT-Actual-F?

He knows how to press buttons for a channel, number 44. Unfortunately, this is CNN, which doesn’t help him (or anyone) relax. We gave him a printed card, with large type showing his favorite channels, (2 is WENH, New Hampshire PBS, 67 is History Channel, etc.) But he still has to find the sheet, and hold it in one hand while he presses the tiny, barely readable buttons with the other. One slip and the remote dumps him into weird modes that he can’t get out of.  This control makes complex, sophisticated operations possible, but simple things aren’t simple. That’s a cardinal sin. If one of my Harvard students did this, I’d flunk his sorry ass so fast he’d change his major to Egyptian hieroglyphics  (for which this design would clearly demonstrate that he has an aptitude.)

So I set out to make a program that could help my Dad easily select his favorite channels without all the rest of the crap. He’s already successfully using his iPad to select music channels, as we saw previously. I leveraged that design to make one for selecting TV channels.  Here’s a screen shot of it:

The power and volume controls are the same that he’s used to, being cut-and-paste identical to those in the music remote. The channel selection buttons are likewise similar in appearance. His iPad mini has room for about 8 of them.  

I do the configuration of the channel buttons remotely. The list of buttons and channels resides in a simple text file on my Google drive. The iPad app checks this file at startup time. I’m ready for when he says, “I don’t care about History anymore, but I want to watch Robert Irvine’s Restaurant Impossible on the Food Channel.”

The Comcast cable box uses infrared, which the iPad does not natively support. But I found an intermediary box from Global Cache that accepts commands via Wi-Fi and emits infrared codes.  The company provides the IR codes used by most standard remote controls. I quickly got the box to emit the commands I needed.  It costs $115, somewhat pricey for a commodity item. But that’s about a single month of his cable, which he will now be able to use, instead of getting frustrated with settling for CNN.

I’m getting this out to him ASAP. When someone is 85 years old, you don’t want to delay getting the MVP into their hands. 

And since we’re talking UX, I’m pleased to announce that registration has now opened for my fall class CSCI-E34, User Experience Engineering, at Harvard University Extension School. This year we will be emphasizing UX as a critical component of startups and entrepreneurship. Bring your idea, and you’ll have a full UX portfolio of it by December. We’ll also examine my new design paradigm of Assisted Computing™, and hear from exciting guest speakers. All classes are taught via Zoom, and are recorded for you to watch at your convenience. We start Monday August 31, at 7:20 ET. Information and registration at https://www.extension.harvard.edu/course-catalog/courses/crn/14557 .  I look forward to seeing you there.

Assisted Computing: Keeping On Keeping On

Last time you remember, I laid out my vision for Assisted Computing™. It’s been going fabulously. Here are the most recent developments.

I installed the smart speaker in my father’s assisted living apartment, and gave him the iPad Mini with the AC remote control app. I wasn’t sure he’d actually use it. If he perceives tech to be too complex, as he did with the original Bose user interface, he just puts it down as says to hell with it. But this one is rock solid simple. Just tap a button, the music plays. Tap another one and it stops. That’s it. So he’s actually using it. I passed the first and biggest hurdle.

I’m finding out interesting things about his usage pattern. I put radio stations on three of the buttons (“Classical”, “Jazz”, etc.) figuring he’d run them as background music. But he rarely does that. He likes button 4, which says, “Call Dave”.  He calls or emails me with the music he wants, and I from my own computer, I put it onto that button’s Spotify playlist.  He’s been going back over his favorite musicals, like Paint Your Wagon.

It’s not just, or even mostly, having music.   It’s what specific pieces of music mean to him. “I believe Paint Your Wagon was one of the first shows mom and I saw together, if not the very first,” he wrote me. She died about 6 weeks ago, and this helps him feel her still near. That, my friends, is the major benefit of AC: the human connections it enables.

Of course, I’m constantly being reminded that neither I, nor you, nor anyone else, gets anything right the first time.  After first listening to PYW, Dad replied: “Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I think you have the soundtrack of the movie version, and I wanted the original Broadway cast.”  Picky, picky. I found the OBC for him and replaced the ersatz version. Now we’re moving on with old favorites like South Pacific, Fanny, and Company.

My next AC target is Zoom. Seniors love Zoom video calls. But they find Zoom hard to use (albeit light years ahead of Google Hangouts or Skype). They have to keep track of the meeting access link, which typically arrives in their email, and hence moves around as more emails come in. And they find the meeting controls cryptic and confusing.

Zoom has an API that allows programmatic access to its capabilities.  I wrote a Zoom launcher app for Windows (Figure 1, below). Instead of having to search emails for a cryptic URL link, the user launches a desktop app that and sees pictures of the people he’ll talk to. The Zoom meeting room for my siblings and me is on the left. The one on the right belongs to the family of his sister, my Aunt Saretta.  In accordance with the First Principle of AC, the Assistor sets these up, using a separate screen (not shown).

Figure 1

Assisted Computing Zoom Launcher Screen

Senior users don’t need or want most of Zoom’s meeting controls. They find Speaker View confusing (“Wait a minute, where did Jenny go?”), so I automatically start the meeting in Gallery (“Brady Bunch”) View. They don’t care about the chat window, or the recorder, or muting the audio or stopping the video – they just want to talk with their grandkids. The only control they really NEED– the irreducible essence, as per the second law of AC – is the red Leave button. And when they need it, they shouldn’t have to hunt around for it. So the meeting screen should look something like Figure  2 below: full screen at all times, gallery view at all times, Leave button shown at all times, and never anything else.

Figure 2: AC Zoom Meeting Screen

Full Screen Gallery View With Leave Button Visible, and Never Anything Else

( I think we were celebrating National Dorky Hat Day on this call.)

But wait! I hear you say. What if the user wants to mute to take a cell phone call, or stop the video to take the spinach out of their teeth? Anyone wanting those features can use the regular Zoom app. Simplicity, and hence usability, matters more.

I was able to programmatically control the Zoom window mostly as I wanted. But I still had trouble with a few pieces. If anyone knows of a Zoom API guru who could guide me through that, I’d appreciate if you could refer them to me.

If you’d like to hear more about AC, or just see me live and in concert for the sheer pain of it, I’m doing a Zoom presentation for my good friends in Greece, the Thessaloniki .NET and UX meetups. It’s happening on Thursday July 16, starting at 1930 Greek time (1230 US Eastern time), and will be given in English. Information and registration is online at https://www.meetup.com/Thessaloniki-NET-Meetup/events/271606985/  .

And I’m already gearing up for my fall class at Harvard University Extension School, CSCI E-34 User Experience Engineering, starting Monday August 31. Live lectures happen 1920 – 2120 US Eastern time, and they’ll be recorded for on-demand viewing if that time’s not convenient. I’ve got a lot of great new stuff lined up – a class on Assisted Computing, another on Repairing the World, interesting guest speakers. Information is at https://www.extension.harvard.edu/course-catalog/courses/crn/14557 , and registration starts July 20.  Be there! Aloha!

Assisted Computing: Enriching the Lives of Those Who Need It Most

As I watch my parents in their senior years, I observe their struggles with today’s technology. It could enrich their lives so much, but instead, its complications leave them angry and frustrated, as I’ve written here before. I’ve decided to do something about it. 

I’m founding a new movement in software design. I call it Assisted Computing™, patterned after assisted living. Assisted Computing rests on two fundamental principles:

First Principle: A technologically savvy person, whom I call the Assistor, assists the user with the portions of technology that the user is unable to handle for themselves. 

Second Principle: Apps and operations are ruthlessly simplified so that the user can access the app’s primary functionality without assistance.

For example, my father loves music. The user interface of Spotify (Figure 1) is far too complicated for him to use. I have trouble with it myself. Even if I set up some playlists and write out detailed instructions for playing them, it will remain too confusing for him to use, and too easy for him to inadvertently break my careful setup.

Figure 1 Spotify PC App
Way Too Complicated for My Dad
Tricky Even for Me

My Dad can use an iPad if the apps are relatively simple. He reads the New York Times in the Safari Browser, and reads books in the Kindle and Libby apps I set up for him. Using Xamarin Forms, I wrote an iPad app that allows him to play pre-configured Spotify playlists through a smart speaker.  Figure 2 shows this app:

Figure 2
Prototype Assisted Computing™ Remote Control iPad App

I acted as the Assistor, setting up the Spotify account, configuring the streams, connecting the app to the Wi-Fi in his assisted living community. I’ve ruthlessly, brutally, simplified the function of this app. He can play the four streams (three of them are Spotify radio stations, so he won’t always hear the same songs) that I’ve selected. He can raise or lower the volume. And he can turn them off. Nothing else.

He can’t make playlists. He can’t rearrange the songs. He can’t send likes or dislikes to the playlist selection AI. He can’t even skip tracks or repeat them. I’ve deliberately not surfaced those capabilities in this app.

What he can do is listen to music without thinking about it. And that’s something he didn’t have before, something that he really likes.  

And one of the best features is this: I can change his music selections remotely. You see button #4 says “Call Dave”.  When he calls me, I can put anything he wants on that button’s list. The benefit is not so much having the music that he wants. It’s the human connection that it encourages him to make. It helps to alleviate one of the biggest problems with senior living today:  loneliness. “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity,” said a recent report from health care company Cigna.  Assisted living residents don’t see many other people, and those they do see are as old and creaky as they are. This button gives him a reason to reach out and talk to me.

I’ve written a full report on this case study and the AT Movement, which you can download here.

I’ll be continuing to design and prototype AT applications.  The next one I’m targeting is Zoom. My dad enjoys video calls with Zoom, but the complicated UI gets in the way. He doesn’t want to schedule meetings, only to attend meetings scheduled by others. He doesn’t care about the chat room, or sharing his screen, or anything like that. The AT app won’t have these distractions. And the Assistor will configure the links to the meetings he regularly attends, so he doesn’t have to mess with his email.  It’ll be night-and-day easier.

My  Harvard Summer School class,  CSCI-S36, Advanced User Experience Engineering, will be working on Assisted Computing projects. We meet live online, Mondays and Wednesdays at 3:15 ET, starting June 22. It’s project-based, hands-on, and open to the public. I hope I’ll see you there.

What’s kind of funny is that I’m already getting calls from non-seniors, from middle-aged people like my daughter’s teachers, saying “Can we have simple apps too?”  I might be on to something even bigger than I thought.

What do you think? Use the comment form to send me your thoughts.  Thanks.

After the Deluge

Dear Friends

I’m glad to see you alive and well. How do I know that? Because you wouldn’t be reading this column if you were dead, now would you? (Although if you’re reading it while sick, I hope it brings you some comfort, and wish you a speedy recovery.)

Social distancing for the corona virus pandemic has forced our everyday behaviors regarding technology to evolve. Which of these changes will we keep when it’s over?

The first major evolution I see is the rise of telemedicine. Before the pandemic it was limited to a few small trials. Now it’s become mandatory for all non-emergency care.  We’ve been forced to solve the problems that previously held it back – streamlining state licensing issues, providing insurance reimbursement, and so on. Some things work well in the new model – I recently had a good discussion with my own doctor about some long-term planning. It was better than an in-office visit in some ways: she wasn’t distracted by multitasking, and she didn’t turn her back on me to type data into her PC. OTOH, some things won’t work as well – the digital prostate exam that men over 50 get with their routine physical is going to be tricky.

Now that medical visits have become remote, I foresee the rise of a standard instrumentation device for patients to keep in their homes – sort of a medical tricorder. It could measure and transmit blood pressure, temperature, oxygenation, stethoscope sounds, maybe high-resolution pictures.  These devices always suffered from the chicken-and-egg problem – who would build the devices without the online visits, but who would start the visits without the devices? Now that remote doctor visits have been forced on us, I expect these devices to pop up as a high-end Christmas gift this year, with rapid commoditization to follow.

Online education will continue to grow. Almost all colleges switched to remote instruction for the second half of the spring term. Harvard recently announced that all of their summer sessions, including mine, will be remote. They are gearing up to run the fall term online, while hoping they don’t have to. The public schools have been trying to run online this spring, but according to my daughter, haven’t fared well. That doesn’t surprise me. The prison-industrial-complex of the modern public school was always more about baby-sitting than teaching anything, and that’s harder to do online.

Online shopping will skyrocket.  Despite all the hoopla about e-commerce killing brick and mortar stores, it has only about an 11% market share today (source), so there’s a lot more to get. Half of that belongs to Amazon (source).  Grocery shopping, especially, hadn’t moved online very much. But once you experience the convenience of having everything delivered to your door, or at least picked out and loaded into your car, you won’t go back. I defy you to show me a single person who will miss in-store checkout lines.

The same applies to public libraries, as I wrote just a few months ago. Most of my readers replied that they preferred paper books. But with libraries now closed, they can’t borrow them. Their choice is between borrowing free e-books, or paying for paper books. I’ll bet that they’ll at least try the free e-books, and then I’ll bet they’ll like them better. In particular, anyone over age 40 who bumps up the default font size by even a point or two will be instantly hooked.

Online connections will shape our family and social interactions too. My parents recently moved to assisted living, which is now locked down, with no visitors in or out.  So we brought all the generations together over Zoom for a maple sugar party (Figure 1 below). Is this as good as live in-person? No, but it’s perhaps 60% as good with 5% of the effort. I think we’ll keep doing these, even when we don’t have to. I’m really loving these virtual coffees I’ve been having with you and my other friends. I intend to keep these going.  I should have done this before.

The pandemic is forcing us to evolve. The sooner we recognize this, and choose the adjustments we want to keep, the better.

PS #1: I hate to say it, but readership of this column has been declining since my final MSDN column last November. If you’d like me to keep writing, please do this right now: forward this column to 5 people who you think would enjoy my warped view of the world, as you do, and encourage them to subscribe. I thank you, and I hope that they’ll thank you.

PS #2: I’ll be teaching two courses at  Harvard Summer School: Developing Cross-Platform Mobile Apps with Xamarin starting June 23, and Advanced User Experience Engineering starting June 22. Both are project-based, hands-on, live on-line, and open to the public. I hope I’ll see you there.

We Are All Fools

My friends, these are the times that try our souls. Just last month I was writing with a light heart, and today yours and mine are heavy. I’m glad you’re here to share this with me.

On this April Fool’s Day, my favorite column of the editorial year, I want to speak of what fools we are, and always will remain. I’ve written previously about My Biggest Misteaks, #1 of which has to be my prediction that the iPhone would be the “biggest flop since Ishtar and Waterworld combined”. What can I say? “Often mistaken, never in doubt.” That, and “oops”.

I remember thinking recently that we’d conquered infectious disease, at least in the First World. That most modern Westerners now died of self-inflicted diseases, stemming from our affluent diets and substance usage. My undergraduate classmate, now an infectious disease doctor, had chosen a specialty as moribund as newspaper journalism. Oops again.

Last September, many young people held large rallies ahead of the UN Climate Summit. My daughter enthusiastically joined in, along with most of her engineering school classmates.  Brimming with righteousness, they hiked 4 miles to the trolley station to travel to the rally. “We only have 10 years to reverse it, or we’ll all dead,” she later told me.

If that’s true, we’d better start planning funerals, because it ain’t gonna happen. But the cynic in me can’t help but wonder: who wants to bet that within my lifetime, we’ll be worried about the planet becoming too cold? Nuclear winter from a [hopefully limited] India – Pakistan nuclear exchange, maybe?

But of all reversals in popular wisdom, the biggest has to be the role of nuclear-generated electric power. I remember the No Nukes concert in 1979 – “Split Wood, Not Atoms”, was the slogan. Check out the video of John Hall’s song, popularly called “The Warm Power of the Sun” . Now many of those very same people want to grow more trees to store carbon instead of burning them for heat, and to expand nuclear power as a carbon-free source of electricity. If we’d kept building nukes 40 years ago, we might not be in this climate crunch now. (We’d have other crunches probably, like the Chernobyl and Fukushima meltdowns, but not that one.) Double oops.

You can feel the waves of sanctimony radiating from the stage, the self-righteousness that we hold the One True Truth, that none other is possible, that we are Right and those who disagree with us are Wrong. I knew a guy that summer who’d made a bumper sticker reading “Split Wood AND Atoms.” He was roundly reviled by both sides. The louder we shout that the other guys should shut the heck up, the more likely it is that we’re wrong ourselves.

As we shelter in place on this dark April Fool’s Day, cowering before a submicroscopic virus, I remind us once again: you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can make a fool of yourself anytime. And that the biggest fools of all are those who think they aren’t.  

You want the true warm power of the sun? Here are my lyrics for that song today, sung to the tune of the original:

Just give me the warm power of the sun
Give me the beauty of nuclear fusion
Give me the helium that used to be hydrogen
Just give me the spooky dancing of the quarks
Give me the nuclear strong interaction
But please take all your polluting carbon power away

Everybody needs some power I’m told
The best is fusion whether hot or cold
It drives the sun, and all the other stars too
That electrical repulsion’s so strong
It takes heat and pressure inside a star
To squeeze those nuclei close enough together
That good old Heisenberg can tunnel ’em through

Just give me the warm power of the sun
Give me deuterium-tritium fusion
Give me the pions carrying the field as they come in range
Just give me the curve of binding energy
Give me the spin of an antineutrino
But please take all your polluting carbon power away.

One more thing: Let’s meet for virtual coffee, you and me. Message me here or via email, and we’ll pick a convenient time. It has almost certainly been too long since we’ve sat down together. How about it?

Any Functioning Adult

I’m writing this on Leap Year Day, February 29, which means we’re in a presidential election year. This sticker expresses my feelings about it exactly:

I don’t know about you, but I still have a monster case of politics fatigue left over from 2016. As National Review columnist Ian Tuttle wrote then, we had “two small groups of extreme partisans fighting on behalf of horrible candidates, and a sea of voters in between disheartened by two miserable options.” We don’t yet know whom the Democrats will nominate, but I’ll bet you anything that Tuttle’s statement will remain true throughout this election as well.

I see that Raskolnikov’s strategy of inciting Democrats to fight each other, leaving the party broke and exhausted and unable to take on Trump, seems to be working, though US intelligence is finally catching on, obviously in response to my warning. Where Plattski and DGMS lead, the federal government eventually gets around to following. If Microsoft had let me run that piece when I first wrote it, for April Fool’s Day of 2017, we might have avoided all this of trouble.

I have to admit that I loved watching the giant clusterfuck of the Democrats tallying up the Iowa caucuses. Even several days after the event, the party couldn’t report all the results, and even after reporting them, couldn’t guarantee their accuracy, in fact STILL can’t at the time of this writing. Hysterical! I can’t wait to see what they do with the general election.

Technology has drastically changed political campaigns since my younger days. Listeners who followed the 1960 Kennedy – Nixon debates on the radio (beta-level wireless audio streaming, for you millennials) scored it as a draw.  But viewers who watched on the brand-new medium of broadcast television (sort of an early YouTube, OK?) overwhelmingly favored the younger, charismatic Kennedy over the older, saggier Nixon. The shift in technology caused a shift in voter responses, which one side recognized and exploited, while the other did not. Teddy White’s excellent book  The Making of the President 1960 describes this campaign in fascinating detail.

Political organizations now recognize the importance of technology. But that leads to saturation and resultant fatigue on all communication channels. I sat next to a guy from Alabama in an airport bar in the fall of 2017. He complained that the special election to replace Senator Jeff Sessions had attracted all kinds of money and resources from outside the state, and now both parties were ruining his life.  He was getting spammed around the clock – home phone, cell phone (illegal, but still done), email, snail mail, Facebook, human door-knockers; everything. I suggested he file an absentee ballot, buy a burner phone, and flee to Miami for the duration. But that’s harder to do for a presidential election.

Social media platforms have to decide how to operate in today’s environment.  I want to applaud Twitter for banning all political ads – goodness knows I don’t want to see them – but that denies the choice to any user who is interested. (I’ve yet to meet this person, but I deduce that they must exist.) Perhaps that setting should be made configurable, as I suggested in my October 2016 plea for a political content blocker, “A Technical Solution to a Political Problem“?

Facebook has said they won’t be vetting political ads for truthfulness. I have no problem with this either, though a configuration setting would be quite interesting: “Political Lies: Off/On”. Is this something AI could detect? What kind of data set would you train it on – “Here’s a video of my opponent eating live gerbils”? And do you tell the AI that one is true or false? If you set Political Lies = Off, do you get any political content at all? Although let’s face it: even in fields other than politics, if you are depending on Facebook to shield you from falsehoods, I have this bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

I cannot close this column without renewing my eternal election-year call: Lie to the exit pollsters. In fact, lie to any and all pollsters, anywhere and everywhere. The control they exercise over our society is revolting, but it’s easy to disrupt. If you voted for X, say you voted for Y, and vice versa. If you made up your mind a long time ago, tell them you just made it up today, or the other way around. If they ask your age, add or subtract five years, whichever you think you can get away with; it might push you into another bracket. If they ask your gender, you’d probably better tell the truth; it might be a control question. If everyone does this, we’ll have a delightful election evening of watching the prognosticators fall on their faces—the funniest night of political foolishness since Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, even funnier than the Iowa caucuses. Now let’s go to it.

Two Brain Droppings

Dropping #1:

Whenever we work on a UX project, we always think of pleasing the end user. But it often happens that the users aren’t the ones paying for the project. And the users’ desires and the check writers’ desires often don’t coincide, and sometimes even conflict.  So: how do we please  the user, while loosening the purse strings held by the check writer? You would think that calculations for user productivity would carry the day, but often that isn’t the case. There’s a whole lot more emotion tied up in it than you think. I call this the “third-party problem”.

One company has solved this problem brilliantly: American Girl Doll, launched in 1986 by Pleasant Thiele Rowland, now owned by Mattel. An 18-inch plastic doll, which couldn’t cost more than a buck to manufacture, sells for $100 because of the marketing stories woven around it.  And the customers flock to it.

Parents, stretched by mortgage payments and orthodontist bills, won’t cough up that kind of money. Mattel solves this third party problem by marketing the dolls to grandparents, who will pay almost anything to please their grandkids. My parents gave my girls Nelly (Irish immigrant) and Samantha (wealthy family employing Nelly), at ages 6 and 8. My girls loved them for about 5 years, then as they approached teen age, gave them away to younger friends.

My parents loved to see my daughters play with their dolls. They especially enjoyed taking them to the American Girl café, where the people tables also contain doll tables, and the girls can get their dolls’ hair done in the salon. And the accessories! The $85 foosball table is cheap compared to the $150 bowling alley or the $215 radio-controlled car. (The tie-dye T-shirt set only costs $25. If only it came with a Grateful Dead CD. But that’s so 20th century. Sigh.)  

More than just the fun, the dolls tap into the grandparents’ dreams for their girls. They think the dolls encourage the granddaughters to learn about American history, and to emulate strong female characters like Addy, who with her mother escaped slavery and ran north to freedom on the Underground Railroad. If I live long enough to have a granddaughter, you can bet your ass I’ll be giving her Luciana the astronaut, $48 flight suit and all. Though I may have to draw the line at the $785 space habitat.

You see? They’ve managed to snag even a cynical bastard like me, for a granddaughter I don’t even have. I haven’t yet figured out how to generalize this solution to the third party problem, and it may be a non-emulatable unicorn. But think very carefully about the relationship between the check-writers and the users when designing your project.  

Dropping #2:

I slammed today’s Skype a couple of months ago, arguing that Microsoft fails to understand its utilitarian role in its users’ lives, burdening it with counterproductive bumpf while ignoring important aspects of its most basic functionality. Lately I’ve been forced to use it for conference calls, and I find its animated emoticons extremely annoying. For example, when I select a new person for a contact, Skype displays an emoticon inviting me to  “Say hi with a wave” (Figure 1). The static display below does not convey the annoyance of that inane creature blinking its eyes, waving its hands, and  moving its mouth – constantly, forever, as long as you have it on the screen. (I won’t inflict that on you, dear reader. You’re welcome.)  It’s like a five-year-old rushing home from kindergarten waving a finger painting – “Mommy, look what I did! Can I have a cookie?” Your mother might care, because you did it and she loves you, and then again she might not, but I guarantee no one else does (except maybe your grandparents, who might reward you with more American Girl Doll accessories, see Dropping 1 above).

Figure 1
Emoticon from Skype
This static view does not do justice to the annoying animation

And when I’m on a Skype call, a throbbing heart in the lower right of my screen demands my attention, offering more emoticons for me to add to the conversation. In 2020? Seriously? It’s not just annoying, it’s potentially dangerous. Sending a throbbing heart to the wrong person at the wrong time could get me fired.

Motion attracts a user’s attention. It’s used to signal conditions that require immediate action. Violating this convention is crying “Wolf!”, lowering the signal-to-noise ratio of the universe.  Whoever is in charge of Skype needs to re-read Donald Norman’s superb book The Invisible Computer.

Has Microsoft forgotten Clippy? At least you could turn off that vile, Gollum-like creature, but these chirpy things you can’t.  Since Microsoft insists upon emoticons, I will say that their prevalence in Skype makes me feel like this: image-2 . And to its authors, particularly whoever decided it was non-removable, I say image-3

Watershed Down

Welcome to 2020, dear reader. As we pass the watershed  (dictionary: “a crucial dividing point, line, or factor; a turning point”) into a new decade, I realize that I’ve passed a personal watershed in my adoption of technology. Here’s mine, and does it ring any bells about yours?  

I was browsing the new paper books in my local library, and picked up one I wanted to read: “When They Come For You“, by David Kirby. (Great attention-grabbing title, almost as good as my “Why Software Sucks.”)  I then pulled out my phone to see if the library offered that title as an e-book, and felt disappointed to find that they did not. I was then stunned to realize that even with the paper book in my hand, I preferred the electronic medium. I’d unconsciously changed an existing, almost life-long, behavior. How the heck did that happen?

Part of it is today’s good hardware. I bought an iPad mini to demonstrate programming it for my Harvard course on Xamarin (which I’ll be teaching there again next summer, if you’d like to learn it.) I found, to my surprise, that I really like it. The light weight and slim profile make it easier to carry and hold than any paper book. The combination caused me to shelve my comparatively clunky Kindle Fire. I didn’t realize the difference that sleek design would make until I had one.

More tellingly, the crisp retina display is easy on my eyes. Anyone over age 40 will appreciate a larger-than-standard typeface (though I’d be lying if I said I was happy about needing it). The automatic brightness adjustment actually works. Again, I didn’t know how much I’d like it until I’d used it for a while.

As an author I hate to admit it, but I don’t buy many recreational books. I mostly borrow them from my public library. I only buy the ones that are so good that I want to read them again and again.  Among my chosen are “Carrying the Fire,” by Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, humanity’s greatest-ever journey of exploration, described in beautiful writing from the actual participant (see my discussion here ).  Or the historical novels comprising “The Flashman Chronicles“, by George MacDonald Fraser, with their meticulously researched historical detail and engaging rogue protagonist (see my discussion here). These I will gladly pay for.  

The rest I borrow and return. That requires a certain effort with paper.  But the public libraries in my tech-savvy state of Massachusetts are leading the way in the lending of e-books. Almost everything published in the last 10 years or so is available in this format. While popular new titles sometimes require a wait (as do paper copies), I can easily place a request in the queue and have it automatically delivered when my turn arrives. I don’t mind waiting a few months for the next Jack Reacher novel from Lee Child. I have so many other books in the pipeline that I always have something good.

Plus, the e-books are always available. If I run out on a Sunday evening when the library is closed, or if I’m on the road, or if I just get tired of what I have and want something different, the Boston Public Library’s huge collection is always at my fingertips. And again, I didn’t know how much I’d like it until I’d used it for a while.

The reading software has also turned a corner. The user experience of previous e-readers, such as Overdrive and Hoopla, wasn’t great. But the latest reader app Libby ( for Apple, for Android) is astonishingly good. I’m going to do a case study on it someday. It has transformed the electronic reading experience from not-as-good-as-paper to better-than-paper. And it runs, synchronized, on all my devices, so I can read my e-books on my phone or PC when I’m not carrying my iPad. So I always have a good book or five with me wherever I go.

In some ways, I’ve changed a behavior I’ve had since I was about three years old, that of borrowing books from the local library. In other ways, it’s the same concept, just with drastically lowered friction of the process. I discussed this dichotomy in my January 2018 MSDN column, entitled “WD-40” . Like so many other lower-friction things in life, how did I ever live without it?

Tech is funny that way – sometimes it works. How is it for you? Use the comment section of this blog to tell me about your watershed experiences. And best of luck in the watershed of this new decade.

What the Skype?

I had planned a different topic for this month, but a bad experience with Skype so infuriated me that I need to rant about it here.

What happened? The usual. I started a scheduled call with an important client, and I could hear her, but she couldn’t hear me. “Hello. Hello, Dave, are you there?”  We had to fumble through a frustrating game of charades over the video channel. I held up a can of cat food that I keep on my desk for this all-too-common contingency – “Can”. I pointed at her , “You”; at my ear, “Hear”; at myself, “Me?” She shook her head no. I mimed again, pointing at myself, “I”;  at my ear, “Hear”;  at her, “You”, nodding vigorously to signal the affirmative. Then we both shrugged, as I wondered about the sign language for “WTF?”.  

It took us 20 minutes to get it straightened out. I had to call her on a land line to coordinate: “Can you hear me now? [no] How about now? [still no]”, especially inconvenient because she had set up Skype in a conference room and had to run back to her desk for the land line. Eventually we got it working, though we’re still not sure what was broken or what we did to fix it.

When I mentioned this to several readers, I unleashed an avalanche of pent-up frustration and annoyance. This apparently happens to everyone, at the start of every single Skype call, without exception. Both parties endure a frustrating dance, each saying, “Can you hear me? No? How about now? I can hear you. No, wait, now I can’t hear you anymore.” It’s extremely difficult to figure out what the problem is, especially because the problem itself blocks the channel you’d be using to coordinate your efforts to solve it. There’s no obvious entry point for debugging it, so you have to guess. Not OK.

Worst of all, when we finally got it working, the first thing my client told me was, “It’s probably my fault.” Users blame themselves for software not working correctly. It wasn’t her fault, and it wasn’t mine. It was, and is, the fault of software that requires non-intuitive thoughts and actions from its user. That’s why I wrote Why Software Sucks, to rail against developers of apps that cause that feeling, and The Joy of UX, to explain how to write software that didn’t.

It shouldn’t be this hard. Ideally, Skype should automatically figure everything out and magically just work. If not, how about a little help? Web conference software Zoom, which I use for my remote Harvard Extension School classes, offers an audio test box at the start of every session. You can easily verify that your audio is plugged in and turned on and working correctly.  Skype desktop offers a similar test when you first install it, but after that, you have to work your way down three non-obvious levels (ellipsis menu, settings item, audio and video tab) to even see the testing tab.  Zoom also detects some types of potential problems during the call. For example, if Zoom notices you talking a lot while your mike is muted, it will show a small red highlight around the muting icon on the screen. If you intended to talk to the meeting, you’ll see the highlight, slap your forehead and say “Doh!”, and unmute your mike. But if you’re talking offline to someone in your office (“Damn, that speaker is boring. I sure wish Plattski was giving this talk instead. Don’t they have enough money to hire him?”), it won’t embarrass you by popping on suddenly.   

Because of the prevalence and the seriousness of the audio connection problem, Skype should have an obvious connection wizard or mayday button. It would trigger a good, smart wizard, asking about your exact symptoms, perhaps offering selections such as “I can’t hear other people”, or “Other people can’t hear me”. The wizard would automatically handle the obvious situations, such as testing your Internet connectivity by pinging Microsoft. It would communicate with both parties as needed. “Alice, I’m hearing you OK. Bob, you say you can’t hear her, is that right?” And it would figure out the problem and fix it, without needing to restart the Skype session. For example, “Bob, I see you’re wearing a headset, but your audio is set to your local speakers. (Wizard switches Skype audio to headset.) How’s that now?”  

Microsoft spends a lot of time and effort adding obscure features to Skype. Most recently I saw a feature called “background blur”, which (you guessed it) blurs the background of your video transmission so your counterparty can’t see that you’re sitting on the toilet. This is, at best, a misprioritization of developer resources – especially because the workaround is easy, just use the bathroom first and then sit in front of a blank wall. (Now foreground blur, which would blur the face of anyone too ugly, that I can see. Or better yet, subtly improving the speaker’s looks, like showing me with more hair, maybe for an extra fee. After they fix the audio though.) 

Audio is very much the essence of Skype. If it’s not working, your computer is an expensive paperweight.  Microsoft should ensure that this essence works correctly, as seamlessly as possible, before wasting time on extraneous nonsense.

Blatant Self-Promotion 1: This holiday season, why not give the gift of a ranting lunatic? Send that hard-to-please geek on your shopping list a link to this column, and invite them to subscribe. The price is right (free), and double your money back if not delighted. What a great way to start the decade of the 2020’s. My best to you and yours.

Blatant Self-Promotion 2: I’m teaching my 3-day UX Jumpstart Workshop at the University of Iceland, on March 18-20 in Reykjavik. It’s open to the public, with information and registration here. Participants will work on their own projects, under my guidance, and the class will be taught in English. Be there! Aloha.

To Your Health

Microsoft recently announced the impending shutdown of its HealthVault service, effective November 20, 2019 (see https://www.healthvault.com/en-us/healthvault-for-consumers/) . I am sorry to see it go, but I understand the competitive pressures and shifting landscape that led to its demise. We can learn from studying its triumphs and errors.  

You’ve probably never heard of HealthVault (HV), which is part of the problem. HV is (soon to be was)  a personal health record that lives in the cloud. Think of it as your Live email account, except that it holds an electronic copy of your data from all health providers. Imagine that Dr. A tests your blood and gives you the result on paper. If you are extremely organized, you take that paper home and store it in a binder, which you bring on your visit to Dr. B, so she can see what Dr. A did. But if you’re like most people, the paper floats around your desktop for a month, until you spill coffee on it and toss it. If Dr. B needs something from Dr. A, she’ll call his office, and they’ll send her a fax. Not exactly today’s standard of care for any other industry, but somehow medicine seems to muddle through with it.

With HV, Dr. A’s computer would upload the data (with your permission) to your HV Record (HVR). Home medical devices, such as blood pressure readers, could also upload their measurements to your HVR. When Dr. B wanted that data, her computer would fetch it (again with your permission) from your HVR. The doctors’ systems don’t need to know anything about each other. All each system needs is an HV gateway.  Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Yes, but:

Microsoft prioritized the user’s privacy, which doesn’t sound like a bad idea.  All the data in a user’s HVR is owned at all times solely and absolutely by that user. The user could grant Dr. A’s computer the right to access it, and then rescind that right at any time, without consent or even notification of Dr. A. Fine, customer in control and all that, but here’s the snag: this means that Dr. A’s computer system couldn’t use HV for its primary data storage, because his access could be cut off at any instant. HV offers nothing to assist developers of the doctor’s main clinical program. HV only offers interchange with whatever other HV apps might exist. It’s purely a network app, the utility of which grows with the square of the number of users, but which has no utility at all in a standalone situation. Few vendors considered that benefit cost-effective.  

Or sometimes even desirable. Given the consolidation in the health care industry, executives care greatly about communication within their own network, but not so much outside it. Boston’s Beth Israel Lahey medical center wants easy communication among its 4000+ doctors. It cares much less about easy communication with the 6700 doctors at Partners, the area’s other dominant practice.  

HV could also be difficult to use. Allowing Dr. A’s computer to access your HVR was cumbersome. His system had to negotiate with HV, passing it a security question and answer, providing you with a GUID and a URL. You had to navigate to that URL, correctly answer the security question and then type in the GUID. It was very secure – Dr. A’s system never saw your HV credentials, or even your HV user name. But it was too hard for most civilian users, especially if they were old (hence less computer-literate) or sick or both.

I liked HV from its inception. I taught some classes on it, consulted on several HV projects, proposed a book on it (that MS wouldn’t pay for), used it for my Xamarin CHF weight tracker app (see https://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/magazine/mt814422.aspx).  But Microsoft never solved the chicken-and-egg problem: which vendors would put an HV gateway onto their apps, until enough others did? Almost every vendor took a wait-and-see attitude, and while everyone waited, nobody saw.  

Because, finally and most telling, the HV ecosystem lacked a killer app – one that users would join an ecosystem to use. The killer app for the IBM PC was Lotus 1-2-3; for the Macintosh, it was PageMaker; and for Windows, it was multitasking and Solitaire, not necessarily in that order. If Microsoft had somehow provided, say, a HV app that would guarantee an extra fifteen minutes of sleep each night,  they might have bought themselves enough adoption to start the virtuous cycle.

But Microsoft didn’t, and now they’re shutting down HV. So it goes. These are the lessons that Microsoft has, I hope, learned, and that you have now also learned on Microsoft’s dime. Bayete, HealthVault.