Saturday, 31 March 2012

Arguing for and against the status quo

Here is a useful test to help reason about an issue. It comes from Nick Bostrom and Toby Ord's The Reversal Test: Eliminating Status Quo Bias in Applied Ethics, published in Etthics 116 (2006). It comes to me via Nicholas Agar's Humanity's End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement.

Reversal Test: When a proposal to change a certain parameter is thought to have bad overall consequences, consider a change to the same parameter in the opposite direction. If this is also thought to have bad overall consequences then the onus is on those who reach these conclusions to explain why our position cannot be improved through changes to this parameter. If they are unable to do so, then we have reason to suspect that they suffer from status quo bias.
This is a useful way to approach status quo conservatism or bias. If a group are resistant to a certain change, e.g. human intelligence enhancement, then the parameter should be flipped. Is the group resistant to change in the opposite direction, e.g. human intelligence degradation? This teases out if the opposition to the proposal are against the direction of change, or change itself. If they appear to be against any sort of change, then they need to be able to advance a case as to why the current value of the parameter is considered to be good/ideal and should not be changed.

I think it can also be used as a useful defence against charges that a group is being resistant to change. In these instances the parameter should be flipped. Is movement in the opposite direction desirable? If so, then the group aren't resistant to change, they're resistant to a specific (perceived) undesirable change that degrades the situation.

The Dangers of Choice

Choice is generally accepted as a good thing. We value our free will and autonomy, and being able to make decisions and influence the course of our lives is important to us. Choice isn't always positive however. Choices can be misleading, they can distract from worthwhile options, and they can be a shield or be a distraction from what matters. Sometimes it is better to omit choice, and provide a good approach or value as the default. This needs to be balanced against providing flexibility, utility, and personalisation.

In this list below, which is by no means exhaustive, I have outlined some of the problems with choices and some strategies relating to using choice in design. These issues and approaches should apply across many contexts where choice is an issue, from user interfaces, to business design, and even how we build the basic institutions of our society.

Choices can be intimidating

Choices can be intimidating. A user interface that has too many options can deter people from using the product or service, especially if they need or want something quick and straight forward. You should not want to scare away your users or customers. A search interface that explicitly provides every possible option is overwhelming. It will take time for users to grapple with the interface and figure out what needs to be done.

Provide guidance and a safe environment. Signal and signpost the option that will be the most suitable for the majority of cases. Keep things simple and easy to understand; more advanced options can be provided, but tuck them away.

In one sense this is a curse of a graphical interface. The command line is unlikely to overwhelm users with options, but it can be just as intimidating in its blinking mystery and lack of guidance. A good example of an interface with progressive choice would be a search engine that allows modifiers and additional commands to be entered into the search box. These options are available to users, and the fact of their existence could be signposted, but they are not visually apparent on the initial screen so do not overwhelm a user. Yet advanced users can make use of them immediately.

Choices can give too much choice

Choices, like design, need constraints. Constraints provide context and direction, as well as narrowing the field of potential options. Too much choice can be daunting, and it may be impractical or too difficult to meaningfully compare or understand them all.

You should design with focus. Provide meaningful choices that support the user. Provide 'one step wizards' that will handle a task for a user, and also provide small steps and functions that are easy to understand and can be chained together to perform larger actions and tasks. The available choices can be designed and presented such that they impart meaning to the application or service, and help the user understand what is available to them.

Choices can be unhelpful

You are in charge of a nuclear power station. There is an emergency, and the reactor needs to be shut down. As a user you are only interested in safely shutting down the reactor. You want clear, identifiable and easily understood routes to shutting down the reactor. You do not want to be presented with superfluous options, nor do you want the option of omitting things such as raising an alarm.

Likewise rather than being presented with the choice of a range of differently performing schools, it is far better for the users of the service that the standards of schools are raised. In this example choice is masking the failure to provide an adequate level of service.

Within the concept of freedom there is a distinction between formal freedoms and real freedoms. Although formally a freedom may be accorded to you (you are free to do X), in practice you may be subject to constraints that limit or remove your ability to freely make a choice. Give people real choices, don't give the impression of choice where in practice there is no choice.

Choices should be meaningful, relevant, and supportive. Don't provide the choice to do things badly, or to offer a poorer level of service, or if you do provide the best choice by default; require the users to actively choose a poorer (e.g. less safe or less desirable state).

Choices can be presented poorly

The more differences there are between choices the harder they are to evaluate. In the market place there is a proliferation of choice (or at least the proliferation of the perception of choice). On the one hand this provides a greater diversity of products and services, but it also adds unnecessary choices and makes selection more difficult. As choice proliferates the effort and knowledge required to make an effective choice expands, ultimately harming the end user.

Support users in making choices. Provide meaningful comparisons. Indicate the costs and consequences of choices. Keep the field of choice small but useful.

Choice can be bad for your health

Choices are not always good. Who wants to choose between good healthcare or poor healthcare? A fulfilling life or a miserable life? Choice is generally considered to be a positive thing, but you should be cautious and carefully consider whether the choices being offered are beneficial to the other party.

A useful example comes via Brian Barry's Why Social Justice Matters. Imagine a system for health care, much like the American one, where your employer supplies health insurance as part of your reward package. Ideally for those who are the beneficiaries, this should provide for all of their health care needs. If this isn't possible then it should provide for the most likely and the most pressing health care needs. The example that Barry gives is that some companies start to provide a choice of health insurance packages. On the face of it, this seems positive because choice is considered to be good and empowering. In practice it becomes difficult for individuals to pick between the choices, and requires an investment of time and effort to fully understand all of the options and their ramifications. Additional issues include that: not everyone will be as well equipped to make the choice and so the less educated and those with less time will make poorer decisions; human beings are notoriously bad at assessing risk and so this is something better worked out objectively by experts; the choices may not be as good as the original comprehensive option and worse still employees may be asked to sacrifice more to select certain choices, and; rather than have a small number of people examining the available options the result is that now everyone has to carry out the effort. Pushing choice out to individuals, rather than having experts make choices, multiplies the overall work and effort required to make the choice. Once such a system is in place it has further ramifications: the stratified choices will create an administrative burden that has to be met by someone; it breaks people into groups which allows for treating them differently, and; it shifts responsibility, or the perception of responsibility, onto the employee. Where before there may have been a single fit-for-purpose system, there is now a series of options that are difficult to choose from, are not as comprehensive, cost more to make use of, take more individual and overall effort to asses, and if something goes wrong the perception is that the employee chose the wrong package rather than that the employer failed to provide adequate cover.

When considering and implementing choice we should always consider who benefits, and if we would be better off without a choice. Choosing between a poor transcoding algorithm and a good one is not a worthwhile choice, and nor is choosing between a poor reward package and a good one.

Provide a good level of basic service. Choice should be made available to personalise or adapt a system, not to diminish the experience of users. Clearly signpost risky or irreversible changes. Provide safety nets and recovery routes  (e.g. undo and/or a recycle bin).

On Engineering Organisations and Teams

Via Brian Barry's Why Social Justice Matters:

"Any dictatorship takes a psychological toll on its subjects. If you are treated as an untrustworthy person — a potential slacker, drug addict, or thief — you may begin to feel less trustworthy yourself. If you are constantly reminded of your lowly position in the social hierarchy, whether by individual managers or be a plethora of impersonal rules, you being to accept that unfortunate status." - Barbara Ehrenreich (2001) Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting By in America

"The re-engineering of corporations may sound progressive, especially to shareholders, but the apparent price workers pay is an undercurrent of anxiety and diminished loyalty and commitment, their morale eroded by a chaotic and dysfunctional work environment in which individuals are discounted or devalued altogether... A recent study showed that workers who kept their jobs during a major downsizing were twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease, perhaps triggered by work stress" - Cited in Stefan Fern, Let's Give Change a Rest, Guardian 21 May 2004.
If the latter is true, then providing suitable fit-for-purpose working environments that treats people as autonomous agents worthy of respect may be just as effective as some health programmes and interventions.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Products that I want #3: Network port blank-plugs

Many work in environments where there are network connections that shouldn't be plugged into certain bits of hardware. There are also situations where a bit of hardware should not ever be plugged into a network. Human behaviour and automation of tasks (habit) being what it is, if you plug a network cable into a bit of kit (e.g. a laptop) day in day out, then you pick up another bit of kit that is roughly the same, in the same location... then sooner or later accidents will happen and things will get plugged in where they should not be. Some solutions spring to mind:

  • Colour coding network cables for different networks
  • Designing the working environment to encourage certain things to happen and others not to happen, through either positive reinforcement of behaviours or placing active barriers (like the cable not reaching)
  • Easy-fit different plug-socket interfaces. Add on a star, square, circle, whatever connector to the end of your network cable, uncover the fixing end (sticky bit or something) plug it in, and then snap the plug-socket interface so that you have one bit on the cable and one bit on the computer. The result is network ports intended for network X you have these little circular (or whatever) additions to the network port, which means you have to use the network cable with the circular interface to actually make a connection. This makes it hard to impossible to accidently plug in the cable to the wrong network, and also makes it harder for people to try and connect their kit to your network; they need the right shape interface. This could be taken a step further for those who want more security, the connections could more permanently fixed and be unique, making the physical connector like a key. Only those computers with the right physical key can have a physical connection to the network. Of course you could do things like cut the cable and remount a standard plug on the end and so forth, but any secure system needs a) defence in depth and b) defence that influences human behaviour and flags up inappropriate behaviour, which this offers.
  • And.. network port blanks. I want a little shaped bit of plastic that I can pop into the network port that stops me from accidently plugging in a network cable. More 'seat of the pants' solutions include using sticky tape or tac, but these look tacky and don't last well and muck up the connection.

Friday, 23 March 2012

War Room

Releasing soon is Privateer Press' War Room, an application that helps with army construction and game management for their table top game Warmachine and Hordes. One interesting feature it has is that you can purchase the 'cards' for factions in the game, and have access to them electronically along with automatic updates when new units are released. As a Privateer Press customer with a number of obsolete books and game cards this is very welcome, though I do wonder what the update lag will be. War Room should be coming out for iOS and Android platforms.

A preview video has been released of War Room, and while these show the application while it is still in development it is clear that the User Interface (UI) isn't yet mature. Below is a screenshot of the application from the preview video.

Image of the War Room application

A number of things spring immediately to mind just from the screenshot, namely:
  • The information box is a modal lightbox containing text, so nothing else on the screen should be all that relevant to the user. Why then is it a relatively small box that the user needs to scroll through the text? I would like to see:
    • A larger content area.
    • An option to have the text read aloud.
    • An easy way to resize the text.
    • Hyperlinks to other relevant rules, and to have glossary terms.
    • Contextual additions to the text, e.g. rather than just referring to STR (strength) in the text it could also include the STR of the unit currently being viewed.
    • Diagrams and examples, which could include animations, movie clips, and 3D models that can be rotated.
  • There is no clear difference between Cancel and Back buttons on the information box, and it is likely that one of them (at least) is redundant.
  • No use of icons or iconic shapes/buttons. The back button doesn't have an arrow indicator.
  • The display looks to be mainly a direct replication of the game cards, but the information design for the cards is just that; the information design for cards. While directly copying/reusing in this way is consistent, and likely a time saver, it doesn't fully exploit the medium. Changes could be introduced that improve the software, whilst staying consistent in style and spirit. For example, why are the damage boxes so small? On the cards they're small because there isn't much space. On a mobile device you might have more space (e.g. on a tablet), but crucially the display is dynamic and reconfigurable, so you can easily have a larger damage grid. It's going to be a complete pain if it is tricky to tick off the right damage boxes (or will there be a damage roller?).
  • Will the artwork etc scale up to larger resolutions, e.g the new iPad3's retina display?
  • Is the information on screen context-aware? Some abilities will be lost, and others brought into play, as damage is taken and these could be highlighted on the display.
  • Will you be able to add identifying markers (name changes, labels, icons, photos of your model, etc) to a card in your list so that you can easily distinguish between models and units of the same type?
  • Cool: being able to tap a quote box and get a voice acted quotation.
  • For larger displays: various tile arrangements to see some units at the same time.
  • Swipe scrolling to navigate through your units (if the image is an in-game shot, it suggests you have to go up a level with the 'back' and then pick a unit, quickly swiping back and forth would be easier). There could be a grid structure for your units, with a default something like Warcaster up top, below that a row for their battlegroup of warjacks, below that a column of units, etc.
  • I hope to see unit cards show changes caused by other units, e.g. if you have Trollkin Longriders and Horthol in the same game, then the extra rules that Horthol brings to the Longriders should be displayed on their card.
Of course this is an early screenshot while the application is in development, I have no idea about the behaviour of the app or its task flow, nor am I aware of various drivers and priorities (e.g. reuse of art materials), so most of my comments may be totally moot and void. The preview does look like an application made for a pointer rather than a touch driven interface, but I can't see this remaining the case by the time it is released.

I'm excited.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Against convention... conflicting associations

Which is salt and which is pepper?

Associations for salt shakers:
  • white/light
  • single hole
Associations for pepper shakers:
  • colours are generally the same as the salt shaker or darker
  • more than one hole
Which is the stronger association? Which would you go for?

Mass Effect 3: Bringing me up to speed

It is a good thing that Mass Effect 3 builds on what you've done in the previous instalments of the trilogy. It is also a good thing that you get a little overview when importing your previous game. However, I can't quite shake off a sneaky feeling that the main focus of this is to help people pick the right save game that they want to make use of. It did serve as a good reminder for me, but with a bit more effort it would have been even better. Here is the overview from my Mass Effect 2 game:

Sounds good right? Except.... I don't remember most of it. Apparently I sacrificed the Council. That seems a little extreme. I'm sure I must have had a good reason, but what was it?

This area of the software would have greatly benefited from more detail. Ideally little videos styled as documentaries or flashbacks, but I would have been happy with a little pop up box that filled in a few details (a few pictures would go a long way though... I did eventually recollect Wrex and Miranda, but an image would have helped me to make a quicker connection). The clue here is the last played date. Yes Bioware, your game was great, and I really enjoyed it. And of course I don't saving the galaxy every day, but y'know...I do that kind of stuff fairly often. 20 months is a long time to remember all the details of your game.  I also didn't have a clue what all my powers and stuff was when the bullets started flying.

Still, I survived a suicide mission with eight of my squadmates. We must have been pretty baddass eh? If only I could remember, or have a little video nudge to remind me of my glory...

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Installing Mass Effect 3

  1. DVD goes in drive
  2. Installer for Origin comes up
  3. What is this? Check install instructions.
  4. Origin is some digital download malarkey. Apparently there is an install route for disc users and an install route for Origin users. I have a disc, I am a disc user. The instructions are very brief which is normally a good thing, but here it doesn't tell me how to install without this Origin thing.
  5. There doesn't seem to be anything else to install. Okay, I'll install this Origin thing.
  6. While I wait...
    1. I've got some code thing for extra equipment. Why do I have to put the code in? Why can't I just get it with the game? Product differentiation rubbish. More choice for consumers blah blah blah resulting in a worse product/experience.
    2. Much head scratching and trying to remember my username and password to log on to the Bioware thing. Look I have an (empty) profile. Why do I want to Social Network? I don't, I want to save the universe whilst flying around in my cool looking spaceship. This is a bigger thing to ask for than not to have to sign up to lots of rubbish, so why can I have a thing that lets me save the universe and not have a thing that stops me having to sign up to junk?
    3. Code redeemed. Hurrah. I have some N7 kit. Hurrah?
    4. More info... I need to login to Origin (aha! just as well that is installing then) and then.. .download stuff. It isn't on the CD. Did they not get around to finishing it in time so had to do it afterwards or something? It's two DVDs, you'd think they could squeeze it on somewhere. Possibly too many human-alien sex scenes taking up all the space. Hmmm. Hurry up and install.
  7. Hurrah Origin installed.
  8. Do I want you to tie into my Facebook and have a profile where random strangers can find me? No, no, no.
  9. And now Origin is updating.
  10. I waited a couple of days for this to come in the post and now I have to wait for stuff to download, sheesh.
  11. Why is it cheaper to buy the physical thing anyway?
  12. I'm still not clear whether I need Origin or why I would want it. What is it anyway?
  13. Apparently Origin is  "The EA Store is now Origin, powered by EAOrigin is your new digital playground. It's where you go to find the best that EA has to offer." Right, they want to sell me stuff. I don't want this.
  14. Origin Beta. I've paid good money for this! Why am I having a beta product foisted on me? Will they pay me for taking part in their testing and evaluation?
  15. A window to enter a product code! Right... N7 swag code go!
  16. Hmm. Enter code, click Next, get told about the N7 gear that the code is for, click Next, get told the code isn't valid. Stupid beta product. With your unclear purpose and utility.
  17. There is an FAQ!
  18. As predicted it didn't help. And despite giving me a specific error/exception, the link to the FAQ took me to a set of questions to find my specific issue. Hmm.
  19. Whatever, close that window.
  20. Right, I can redeem a product code. Not sure why... go go DVD installer! Pah. Okay, I'll try my serial number.
  21. It says it is for a digital download or in-game content. It's neither, but I don't seem to have any other options to pursue.
  22. Apparently it was a digital download or in-game content, because it likes the code and is showing me Mass Effect 3. Well, it is showing me a picture just like the DVD box I've already got.
  23. I have successfully redeemed my product code! Please oh please just install now.
  24. I have no option to install, only to download. Why why why? I have a DVD!
  25. Apparently my N7 warfare gear is already installed however, I'm not sure that is true. Am I wrong? Is it lying to me? Do they really mean it is unlocked?
  26. Trying DVD 2...
  27. Look at you Origin store with your annoying advert transitions and you're not being Steam. Ha! Stupid divergent platforms.
  28. Right, just a 2 GB zip file that won't open. *sigh*
  29. Maybe if I click on download it'll give me an option to use my DVD that I have. It is crazy, but it might just work.
  30. DVD back in drive..
  31. A thought occurs to me: I'm now an Origin user. Granted, I'm a user against my will. But I'm still a user. Maybe the Origin user instructions are now relevant to me. Maybe they should have been clearer, something like this:
    1. Disc user? Soon you will be converted to an Origin user! Read on to find out how this will be done to you.
    2. A thought occurs: I wonder if 'they' will claim usage statistics in a people-use-our-service way when really it is ha-we-tricked-people-into-our-store (you know how people just love being tricked into stores)
  32. Go go installer!
  33. Yes, the Mass Effect 3 installer again. Install!
  34. It appears to have opened Origin (well, brought it to the foreground)
  35. I've clicked download. It really seems to want to download! Arrgh. I HAVE A DVD! TWO! TWO DVDs!
  36. Maybe the kids today don't think they've got a finished product until they've downloaded lots of add ons and patches etc? Darn kids.
  37. No of course I have not read the EULA.
  38. It really is downloading. Arrgh.
  39. Now watching videos on YouTube on how to install Mass Effect 3. Comedy.
  40. Read some support Forum post about how you need to quit Origins and try again. AKA you have to install something you don't want and then stop using it so you can install the game.
  41. My DVD drive appears to be choking on the DVD.
  42. About 34 minutes into the install so far.
  43. Some guy on the forum is pointing out that it might have been easier to get a pirate copy. Sad but possibly true.
  44. Right, click Install! (third time lucky?)
  45. Arrgh Origin has launched
  46. Hmm, but it seems to be doing something with the installation. Now... is it downloading or coming off the DVD? It doesn't say. Poor feedback.
  47. Click on an up arrow and get more info. It is downloading. Arrrgh. Cancel that download.
  48. Close Origin
  49. Damn, it is tucked away in the system tray. How rude.
  50. Get annoyed, rather than close it from the system tray I'm gonna jab it good via Task Manager. Blimey, 90 MB of RAM for a glorified shop and installer thingy?
  51. Process Tree Ended! That felt therapeutic.
  52. Install! (4th time)
  53. Origin launching...
  54. Hurrah! A proper install dialog!
  55. I don't really want it to create an Origin Games folder, but it seems pretty flaky so I don't want to mess with it. Why is the installation software a beta product? And wasn't Origin a publisher of games back in the day? Vague recollection of something to do with Wing Commander.
  56. Yes yes yes of course I have read the EULA, I mean everyone does right?
  57. It is installing. There is still no feedback from EA's software as to where it is getting the files, fortunately (!) I can tell by the DVD whirring noises.
  58. Ah, 49 minutes and counting and it is at 4%
  59. Tum tee tum....
  60. Right, it has wanted the 2nd DVD for a little while but the dialog window telling me so is a) separate from the main install window with no prompts/info on the main window and b) appeared on the other monitor. It also didn't show up on the highest level, instead it hid behind Chrome though I'm not sure if I just missed it and brought Chrome forward by mistake. Not even some sort of signifier in the task tray. Tsk.
  61. 1 hour 4 minutes. Second DVD in.
  62. I'm hoping it isn't going to do that stupid/annoying thing where a) it requires you to have media in the drive to play and b) requires a different disc to the last one you used to install the software and never tells you. Wouldn't it be a little ridiculous if I have to use the DVD for a game that I can legitimately download?
  63. It is finished and has told me it is ready to play, but now it is doing something else.
  64. And now it has stopped. I don't know what it was installing.
  65. 1 hour 10 minutes.
  66. Fingers crossed to play...

I miss my Sega Megadrive. Open box. Take out cartridge. Stick in machine. Switch machine on. Play!