Posts tagged: Invisible Interface

Your Time

I have always been curious about how I spend my time. It would be useful or at the very least cool, if I could figure out what I did with the 24 hours I get each day. Considering that this is overkill, it would be useful to find out how much time I spend on each task / client at work…

This is something that a lot of companies would find useful, especially in the professional sector. Lawyers, for example need to know this information for the purposes of billing. Time tracking has always been a personal bug bear of mine and is something that I often ramble on about.

In fact, in Chris’ Blog, the team management application he speaks about towards the end is something that I have been talking about and working on in the background for about a year now (actual effort is probably only around a week since I keep getting distracted with other things)

My aim has always (unconsciously) been to have an invisible interface, more because if there is effort involved, its going to take away from the task at hand and unless you are an obsessive compulsive (which I sometimes end up being), its going to be inaccurate. More importantly, its going to take up time to track and log time and ends up being a task of its own which requires management.

The most common way to log time is to just have log sheet which is filled in at the end of the day – just putting numbers against tasks and making sure it adds up to the number of hours you worked in the day.

Mylyn for Eclipse, which is a task/bug management plugin has a cool and useful concept of task contexts. This means that when you activate a tasks, it remembers the files you are working on, as well as which lines you were on and saves it as the task context. You can then de-activate the context or activate another task. When you go back to this task, it loads up the context. In other words, the files you had open, at the lines that you were at. This is a real boon and can save a lot of time once you get the hang of creating a task for everything you are working on and practice a little bit of self discipline in terms of activating and de-activating tasks.

Mylyn could use a little more intelligence in context management and creation on activating tasks with no context. But the concept of contexts is great and it should be possible to apply this at the operating system level.

For example, I am working on Task A. This involves a number of URL’s in firefox, a number of emails from Thunderbird, some files in Eclipse, some terminal windows, couple of Documents, and a spreadsheet.

Task B involves a url in firefox or two and a document.

and so on.

It should now be possible for me to simply tell my “Task Manager” that I am about to work on Task A and have all the applications load up in the locations that I last left them and hide away or close the other applications. When I want to switch to Task B, it should close everything else and open up the applications for Task B.

My desktop environment (GNOME), like most Linux desktop environments have the concept of workspaces. You can also get this as an addon for Windows. I have used these to emulate this kind of behaviour but this is far from perfect.

In theory however, this should make it possible for an application to track the time spent in each workspace. If the application is told what task is associated with each workspace, it could automatically log time against that.

The real power for task management would come from a powerful use of task hierarchy. Lets say we have the following task list

Client A => Project A => Subtask 1

Client A => Project A => Subtask 2

Client A => Project B => Subtask

Client B => Project A => Subtask

In this setup, the task management could be told (or even better figure out on its own) that there are application hierarchies… In other words, for all tasks related to Client A – the user will always need application X (with a particular configuration – say firefox on a particular url)

For Project A, there could be the requirement of another url in firefox.

This way, when a new Project or subtask is created, the system can automatically start a few steps ahead…

Client B could have completely different application setup / layout.

Automatic time tracking, task managment and planning then becomes so much easier.

For this to be viable, however, there are a lot of things that still needs to happen.

  • Context awareness for applications and ability to save a context
  • Ability in applications to merge contexts (for hierarchical contexts)
  • Efficient Application swapin/swapout when tasks switch for instant task switching
  • Applications needs to be more lightweight to make task switching quicker

Most, if not all modern applications provide extension points and it should be possible, at least in theory to add this functionality on to most applications. More importantly, it is theoretically possible to add this functionality on to all the open source software since the source is available. However, since it requires a fairly radical shift in thinking about application state, this is probably far more complex than it seems.

Once we have something like this working, it should be much more straightforward to add workflow using the task hierarchy to make it seamless including passing the contexts to the another person if necessary…

In any case, a few years into the future, who knows, these features might be built into all applications and perhaps we will be talking about task management, not application / process management.

Invisible Interface

I am a fairly avid reader of Jeff Atwood’s Blog and the post on Is Email = Efail post was particularly interesting. This led me on to Tantek Çelik post and several other articles relating to this.

The HCI (Human Computer Interface) has always intrigued me. This was partly due to the fact that I never enjoyed working with it – adjusting all those widgets by a few pixels so things could fit and it might look that little bit cleaner. Thinking about where a particular field should go and how it would all fit together was a little too bothersome for my liking. Precisely the reason why I enjoyed web development. Someone else could work out all the aesthetics and all I had to do was plumb in the functionality behind that.

Of course, it is never quite that straightforward – there was often plenty of to and fro before the interface was nailed down. However, the worrying of where something should go could be left largely to someone else.

It turns out however, that (like with most everything else in life) – I am very much opinionated about the user interface and design. The only difference is that actually doing the work does not excite me – but the concepts do.

In Tantek’s original post, he points out:

“The fewer fields in an interface, the lower the cognitive load.”

This is something that is vital to Interface design but something that is easily missed.

It was pleasant when I went back to one of our first high profile projects – megabus and checked the user interface on there. The number of fields on there truly was minimal. In fact, there was originally only one field on there and this had a reasonable default value. All the other fields are drop downs. There are now three fields on the uk version and two on the us version of the site. All with sensible defaults.

The other advantage of the megabus system is that when you hit search, the results are usually returned under a second. This is with a very complex algorithm to calculate the availability/pricing and around two searches happening every second. At peak, we have handled up to around 5 searches a second with the results being returned in under two seconds.

After this page, there are no more fields for entry apart from when you make payment. The benefits from the simple user interface and fast search response is, at least in my view, one of the key reasons for the success of the site bringing in people from all walks of life. This includes students as well as old age pensioners who learnt how to use computers and the internet just to be able to book megabus.com tickets.

It did get me thinking thought about the perfect user interface… Is it possible to reduce the interface down to nothing…?

Installation of Thunderbird/Firefox has a good example of user interfaces that can be removed. In particular, I am referring to the import from interface…

Import Data During Thunderbird Install

Import Data During Thunderbird Install

While this is a useful step, why does Thunderbird not do this in the background, find out what other applications are installed, do the import anyway (if possible) from any and all applications, merge them together as sensibly as possible and give the user the option of whether they want to use it, or parts of it.

I realise this opens a whole can of worms…

Q. Does this not mean that Thunderbird thinks that it is smarter than the user (as per my reference to Windows being “smarter” than the user in Evil Linux)?

A. No.

  1. Thunderbird should inform the user of what it is doing – don’t miscommunicate.
  2. Have a cancel button, so that the user can cancel if the process is taking too long and they won’t be using that information
  3. If the process fails dramatically for some reason such that the install crashes, this should be detected on the next try and the installation should be “more careful” when trying again or skip that step entirely

Another example is the Microsoft Office Installation process, The name and the company of the user is already in the System somewhere (User Account Details). Why not just use this information instead of asking for it again.

Same goes for Eclipse! Why does the author information not pick up the users name from the account information?

To summarise, the point that I am trying to make is that applications should not ask the user questions if it can figure it out itself. Most modern applications can pick up most if not all the information it needs from the system itself. This even includes theming information (as per my post on Design). While the majority of the theming in most operating systems is fairly pervasive in terms of application look and feel, applications have enough control over their look and feel to be different.

While this customisation can be useful, it can also be a hindrance to productivity and an allure for procrastination!

If I have specified somewhere on my system that my name is Shri Shrikumar, every single application on here should then be able to pick that up instead of asking me over and over again per application.

I look forward to a day when I never have to type the same information more than once… 😀

WordPress Themes