Tag Archives: usability

Technology and the easily-distracted mind

Since I started my PhD adventure I have been finding it hard to focus, with reading academic texts and writing anything meaningful being particular issues.  I am often a little bit tired and struggling to juggle too many thoughts and tasks.  I am hoping my newly acquired piece of late 1990s technology will help rid me of some distractions.

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Accessible writing

This afternoon I read through a collection of abstracts for a conference.  It was a very mixed set of abstracts.  For the purposes of this post I’ll split them into “hard science” abstracts and “not hard science” abstracts.

Some of the “hard science” abstracts were talking about immensely technical and specialised subjects and yet I still found them more readable and understandable than some of the “not hard science” abstracts.  It reminded me of my comment on this post.

So why did I find the “hard science” abstracts, on the whole, more approachable?

Maybe I have a “scientific brain” that can’t cope with more complexity than “works or doesn’t work”, “yes or no”, “on or off”.  I won’t rule this out.

Maybe it’s the nature of the subject matter.  With the “hard science” abstracts it didn’t feel like anybody was trying to be clever.  The results of their work would tell the story and provide the mechanism for any ego boosting that the author(s) may or may not be looking for.

Maybe it’s easier to talk about subjects that provide repeatable experiments that deal in certainty.  In <insert conditions> you will always get < insert result>.  When you stray into anything involving the social sciences or anything involving people do things inevitably become less certain?  Does this encourage the application of mindw&nkery?

There could be a model in this.


Adding Post Categories

Until about 20 minutes ago all posts on the blog appeared in one long list.  Now they don’t have to.

David suggested that it might be a good idea to have a separate space for any posts that are only really intended for that author’s future reference.  I agree that it’s potentially a good idea to provide separate spaces for the “hey everyone, here’s an idea” posts and the “here’s something I really need to look at in the morning” posts.

The only real concern seemed to be that interesting posts might get lost and so I’ve added in a new widget which prominently displays the 10 most recent posts regardless of which category they are in.  I’ve also added a category choice widget.

Also, as a side effect of choosing a single category to display, the front page now only shows the first few lines of each post.  I’m not sure whether this is an improvement.  It does make it easier to scan through the posts but you can’t see the pretty pictures any more.

Let’s give it a go and see what we think.

PS: David, this is a test. Please comment on this post when you read it otherwise I’ll think categories might not be such a good idea ;-).

It’s only useful if you use it

Last weekend I installed Dropbox.  I won’t use it to store any sensitive files, because of the privacy concerns surrounding the system, but so far I have found it very useful for keeping my general academic files in sync between a few computers.

Then I ran into a PICNIC error.  Yesterday, during a Skype call with a colleague, I made some notes in a simple text file on my home computer.  I am now in the office and have just gone to open the file on my laptop.  Which would be fine if I had saved it in my Dropbox folder and not on the desktop.  Problem code ID-10-T diagnosed.

My first thought was the obvious one in the post title but it also made me think about the importance of users integrating a technology into their computing practices so that it becomes instinctive.

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Ubuntu Adventures 2011

I haven’t used a desktop Linux distribution since a frustrating experience with Ubuntu some time in 2004 or 2005.  My lasting memory was of having to load a terminal window not long after installation and fiddle about with various configuration files.  Even then things didn’t work too well for me and I was (and still would be) a contended user of Windows XP for my day-to-day computing needs.  My working life was firmly focussed on all things Microsoft and Linux was forgotten.

This week, after my long avoidance of desktop Linux, I installed the most recent Ubuntu Desktop LTS edition on a test machine in the office and was very pleasantly surprised.  So I decided to give 11.04 at home on a computer that was in need of a XP reinstall.

It installed quickly, runs very responsively and handled all of the hardware right away.  Even the wireless networking.  Most impressive.

I then took the plunge and installed it on my laptop.  Because a reasonable processor and 3GB of RAM doesn’t seem to be enough for Vista.  All was going well until I tried to connect to a wireless network and a sense of deja vu kicked in.

Cue Google.  Cue the Terminal window.  In the end it wasn’t a big deal in the scheme of things.  The fourth or fifth possible solution worked.  Ubuntu didn’t keel over.  I only had to remove some packages, install one new application, download an obsolete driver, install it, protect it from updates and reboot.  I’ll put it down as a lucky escape.  For Ubuntu that is.  I was this close |<–>| to getting rid of it, buying Windows 7 and waiting another six or seven years before I tried again.

Technology for Teachers

Picture yourself in the following scenario if you will.

You are a teacher in a primary special school for children with Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (SEBD).  All pupils have a Statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN) and will most likely have been excluded or have been under the threat of exclusion from their mainstream school.  In this school your maximum class size is six pupils and you are assisted by a Teaching Assistant.  Your pupils are from a mixed age range, have mixed academic abilities and tend to be grouped by their requirements and specific needs.

Pupils have an initial assessment upon entry to the school.  This involves judging the child’s capabilities against a wide range of statements (for example “Knows that multiplying by four is the same as doubling and doubling again”).  This information is stored in target monitoring software which then produces a printed list of an individual child’s targets for reading, writing and maths.  There are strict progression targets for teachers to meet with their pupils.

In a nutshell you have six pupils with individual targets, specific needs and, in the majority of cases, very short tempers and classmates who know just the right buttons to press to illicit a response.  There is the continual risk of verbal and physical abuse from pupils ranging from being spat to being kicked or punched.

Now try to imagine what your priorities would be if you were this teacher.

Having spent the best part of 18 months working with teachers in such an environment it became very clear that they were always pushed for time.  Time to plan individually for six pupils whose targets didn’t conform to “the norm” and changed on a frequent basis.  Time in class to cajole often reluctant pupils through the activities they had planned.

One of my roles was to evaluate and purchase curriculum software.  It didn’t surprise me that the most popular teaching resources were those that could be copied on to an activity sheet or dropped into a demonstration on the interactive whiteboard.  Teachers had very little time (and inclination as a result) to learn new technologies, especially if those technologies would be difficult to explain to and therefore frustrating for the pupils.

I couldn’t help but think that this situation is perhaps the polar opposite of the usage scenario envisaged for IMS Learning Design (LD) to produce reusable Units of Learning for online teaching environments.  It also made me think that if you could “sell” the benefits of LD (or any other technology) to teachers in the unforgiving environment described above then you could persuade anyone to use it.

How do you allow teachers to see the benefits of a technology for themselves?  How do you make a technology accessible enough to encourage teachers to firstly explore it (and produce something useful with a minimal investment of time and effort) and then be compelled enough to spend the time improving their knowledge and familiarity with the product in order to make it a part of their planning and teaching?  How do you strike the balance between simplicity (for the quick fix) and feature richness (for more complex scenarios)?  What do teachers want?  How do you find out what teachers want?  Do teachers have time to think about (from a technology point of view) what they might want or do they, through necessity or some other reason, stick to tried and tested technologies and methods?