UX Lx: Day 1

Thoroughly enjoyed UX Lisbon, organised by ideas e imagens. I don’t think I’ve ever been at a conference where I didn’t regret a single session.

These notes are not necessarily complete summaries of the sessions; they focus on the aspects I found most noteworthy.

1. Prototyping with HTML5 – Todd Zaki Warfel

@zakiwarfel | Slides

Probably the workshop in which I learned least, as Zaki Warfel effectively described exactly the way I currently prototype, and for the same reasons. But was good to have this reinforced.

With all prototypes, including wireframes, set expectations with the client. Choose the level of visual and functional fidelity the project requires. I tend to choose HTML prototypes when I require a high level of functional fidelity, when I don’t know whether an interface works until I can use it.

HTML prototypes have many advantages:

  • closest to final delivery environment
  • browsers & text editors are ubiquitous – fewer things that can go wrong
  • my favourite: producing production-quality HTML for the prototype can shave 30-40% off production time. (This divided attendees as some considered it too high a hurdle. But aligns with my belief that well-structured semantic HTML is akin to IA and the IA is best placed to write it)

HTML + JavaScript is also more capable than any GUI prototyping tool like Axure. But remember, it is still more constrained than a sketch or a wireframe. When you are sketching you can invent things; you’re not constrained by the familiar toolset.

Zaki Warfel stressed the advantages of HTML5, but I came away still unconvinced of any real benefits for prototypes. Only new HTML5 form attributes (date, email, tel, url, placeholder, etc) are a no-brainer if you want to improve usability in iPhones.

In the tricky choice between HTML5‘s <section> and <article> elements, he suggested thinking of using <article> for things that you can imagine going into an RSS feed. But just “choose one road and don’t look back”. (I also find this very confusing, and agree with Jeremy Keith that article and section should be merged into a single element.)

To make HTML5 compatible with older browsers, Zaki Warfel recommended html5shiv instead of modernizr, to keep your HTML cleaner.

CSS3 he didn’t have to sell to me. I already know it saves major time not doing sliding doors or image-based corners, shadows or gradients. But note you have to go back later to fix for IE (or convince the client to accept visual compromises in IE, as Zaki Warfel, echoing Zeldman, advised.)

CSS3 selectors are also a huge time saver in prototyping, but (in my opinion) they will usually require extensive refactoring for IE later.

Zaki Warfel recommended using include files for repeated elements in your HTML, using PHP (already installed in OS X). At first I thought this was unnecessary, but then remembered that in later stages of prototyping I tend to do a lot of difficult find/replace operations across files. So I definitely want to try this in future.

Finally, Zaki Warfel demonstrated the magic of jQuery. I’ve only recently started learning it, and I think every interaction designer should. I use it for all show/hide, open/close, expand/contract, highlight, popup, etc. behaviours in HTML prototypes, and it is a pleasure being able to do this as easily as CSS.

2. Skeuomorphs: The Good, The Bad, and the Silly – Andrew Watterson

@andrewwatterson | Also summarised on Johnny Holland

Skeuomorphs refer to physical metaphors to ease transition to new technologies (mostly touch interfaces in this talk). Explicitly recommended in Apple’s HIG. Criticised by Adam Greenfield “patronizing crutches” and (implicitly) by Jakob Nielsen “Users don’t know where they can click.”

Skeuomorphs can be good:

  • They deemphasise technology in favour of utility (cf. Apple’s ads which suggest familiar usage contexts for new technology, vs. Android’s science-fiction approach.)
  • They can reassure and please, bridge gaps, ease transition. He paraphrases Don Norman’s adage that users have 2 needs, (1) to get something done, and (2) to smile.

But skeuomorphs can cause lots of problems (interestingly, most of the worst culprits are Apple apps)

  • They can mislead with inappropriate metaphors (Apple Calendar and Contacts on iPad have scrollable areas, concealed by the fact that they look like paper; Contacts has a “Groups” icon that looks like a bookmark but is actually a button; the Apple Sound Recorder shows a realistic microphone that conceals the location of the device’s actual microphone)
  • They can cause you to skip opportunities to innovate, preventing you from improving on existing tech (e.g. Apple’s Compass app, which has no more utility than a mechanical one, compared with AR Compass which uses augmented reality to give a far more useful view.)

Watterson didn’t even talk about Apple’s egregious Game Center, which boasts the worst skeuomorphic interface I’ve ever seen.

3. Serendipity: Beyond Recommendation – Pedro Fernandes


In Fernandes’ talk, serendipity refers to fortunate discoveries while looking for something unrelated.

The essence of his argument was that existing recommendation engines frequently resemble echo chambers, limited by their algorithms or the metadata they depend on. If item A always recommends items B and C, and items B and C recommend A/C and A/B respectively, then you’ll never discover items D or Z.

In e-commerce this can undermine “long tail” sales, but in social networking it can result in “cultural tribalism”, online spaces that just reinforce your preferred world view.

Fernandes showed two apps that try to inject more serendipity into the user journey: mowid.com for browsing films, and Serendipicity, a mobile app for tourists. Mowid relies heavily on tag-based browsing, drawn from a rich vocabulary of tags, and Serendipicity lets you explore places primarily via photos (inherently more open to interpretation) taken in the vicinity by other users.

While I agree about the central issue, I was a bit skeptical about both apps.

Designing for Touch – Josh Clark


Definitely one of the conference highlights (all the way from the Johnny Cash opening music). Clark proved himself a consummate educator, fitting in so much detailed, actionable information and examples that the fact it was a presentation rather than a workshop didn’t matter.

When designing for mobile devices, forget pixels: think of it as designing a physical device. It’s more like industrial design.

Many design rules follow directly from physical limitations. On small touchscreen devices, follow the rule of controls at bottom, content at top – so that content is not obscured by “meat sticks”. For the same reason, two rows of buttons at the bottom is also not ideal, something which Android is unfortunately stuck with.

Josh Clark demonstrating optimal thumb range on an iPhone

Optimal thumb range

Bottom-left is the top spot – for right-handed users at least, which is what you should optimise for. But consider offering a setting for the 10-15% of users who are left-handed.

Because it’s difficult to fix buttons at the bottom of the screen using JavaScript, he suggested a design pattern for web apps where the main menu is always presented at the bottom of the content, but with a “menu” anchor link at the top of the page.

For the iPad / tablets, rules are different. There are many ways to use them, and many use contexts, with no clear preference for portrait or landscape. It is therefore harder to predict hand positioning. Top-of-screen controls are better, to avoid controls at the bottom sinking into your belly 🙂

The Instapaper app, with its controls in the top two corners, was praised, and The Daily, where using the page scrubber at the top obscures the thumbnail images just below it, was criticised.

What is the optimal size for a button? The answer turns out to be 44 pixels high (29 wide). This happens to be (no coincidence) the height of the iPhone menu bars, buttons, and keys on the virtual keyboard.

But what is a pixel? Due to differing pixel densities, we should stop thinking of device pixels, and think rather of a physical measure on screen. This is called

  • iOS: points
  • CSS: pixel (which is device-independent)
  • Android: density-independent pixel (dp)

So if you continue to use the px unit in CSS, it automatically does the right thing. However, you need to start producing both a normal and high-density version of all images, e.g. image.png and image@2x.png
This is easy enough to apply using the IMG element, but for CSS background images you have to specify the higher-density image thus

@media -webkit-min-device-pixel-ratio:2 {
		.class { background-image: image@2x.png;
		         background-size: 50%;

It’s not just about size, though, but also spacing: the closer together, the bigger buttons need to be. A useful tip is to invisibly increase the hit area for small elements (Remember the Milk does this for checkboxes.)

You can also use animation to draw attention to or explain buttons or other elements that might otherwise be missed or misunderstood. For example, slide in a menu that can be swiped, or pop up the primary action button (Gowalla does this.)

Single-screen interfaces (utility apps) strengthen the illusion that it is a physical device. They should pass the “glance test” – right information hierarchy at arms’ length. Two examples: Tea Round and Umbrella Today. Strip out everything not needed when rushed and distracted. Clarity trumps Density (of features).

But mobile devices are not always used when rushed and distracted! People don’t want “dumbed down”. People want uncomplicated. Full-featured, just lighter interface. (Story of initial Facebook app which was billed as a companion app, which users rejected because they expected to be able to do everything they could do on the website.) Some mobile apps need to do more than the desktop versions.

Don’t fear extra taps! Web has made us squeamish about number of clicks. Latency not an issue in a native/cached app. Tap quality* trumps tap quantity (*unconfusing)

Similarly, don’t fear scrolling. E.g. USA Today used an accordion interface to avoid a long list of headlines scrolling, but not all users understood it. For long lists of content, scrolling is still better.

Changing orientation: think of it not just as a change in layout, but also a change in mindset. Landscape mode can also be seen as “focused mode”. But beware of depending on it, as it is hard to discover. (Personally, I believe orientation in iOS is flawed, invoked overwhelmingly by accident. I think Ben Summers has the right idea for how it should work.)

Affordances: gestures are the keyboard shortcuts of touch interfaces, they can be hard for users to discover. Shortcuts need backup plans – never rely on all users discovering them.

When you see your app being used, look for unsuccessful gesture attempts and repetitive interactions, and pave the cowpaths. (Have Apple never seen users try to swipe the Calendar app to change day?)

Multi-touch (on phones, not iPad) and the shake gesture generally considered bad.

Don’t get carried away with an impressive, glitzy interface. Showcase the content, not the form. Don’t underestimate the power of the humdrum and familiar – see NY Times and Flipboard apps. Similarly, skeuomorphs, while still window-dressing, can enhance a design; familiarity and intimacy invite touch. But if you’re aping a physical object, choose the right metaphor.

But try to avoid buttons altogether. Buttons are a hack. Look at how a toddler uses an iPhone/iPad – they try to interact directly with the content. Wherever possible, make the content the interface. (Example: see how Twitter for iPad eliminated the Back button.)

Clark signed off on an optimistic note, and an encouragement to experiment: new platforms don’t appear very often. This is the coolest job in the world.

One thought on “UX Lx: Day 1

  1. Paola Kathuria

    Great write-up and a very interesting read. After your tweet, and after my raving about Twitter and Facebook, I’ve realised today that finding out what my friends are up to seems to have used up the time I’d read articles or books. :-/

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