Monday, April 30, 2012

User Interfaces and Aviation Safety

Q: What does computer user-interface (UI) design have in common with aviation safety?
A: Paul Fitts.

Fitts' Law
Paul Fitts was an Air Force officer who, during the 1950s, developed models of human movements that are now primarily used in human-computer interactions. His model basically predicts the time it takes to move to a target area, such as clicking a button. It could be a physical button, like a "panic button" (ejection seat button) or a virtual submit button on a website.

Bad UI design in aviation can, obviously, be critical and it may have been a key factor in the 2009 Air France crash while enroute from Brazil to Paris.

The basics of Fitts' law is that the closer, bigger, and more obvious the target, the faster and easier it is to interact with it at the appropriate time. The last part is very critical. You don't put the "delete all files" button right next to the "more info" button; nor do you put the ejection seat button next to the "turn on landing light" button. Accidentally interacting with something that you didn't intend to interact with can be just as bad, or worse, than taking too long to find what you're looking for.

Windows windows vis-à-vis Macintosh windows
The basis of Fitts' law is one noticeable theoretical and practical difference between a window on the Mac OS and a window on Windows.

On Windows, the menu bar is at the top of, and attached to, each window. So, the target (menu item) has a specific height (say, 100 pixels). Push your mouse pointer just one pixel past the menu bar and you've missed the target when you click your mouse button.

On a Macintosh OS, the menu bar for the active window is at the very top of the computer screen - there's nothing above it - and, since you can't move your mouse beyond the top of the computer screen, the height of the target is effectively infinite.

Simple and Fast is Good
The simpler and faster it is to do something that you want to do, when you want to do it, the better.

To lock a Windows computer requires two hands in order to press the CTRL-ALT-DEL keys at the same time, followed by the enter key to "Lock this computer." On a Macintosh, to invoke the screen saver which locks the computer only requires moving the mouse pointer to a corner of the screen that you've designed as a "hot corner" (once again, an infinitely large target). As a matter of fact, this technique is a little too easy to invoke, so there's a simple fail safe which allows the users to set how long, after the screen saver hot corner is invoked, before locking the computer (five seconds, one minute, five minutes, etc.).

Putting sequential targets closer to each other is usually better than spreading them far apart - within reason. Also, a touch interface should be treated differently, in certain circumstances, than a traditional desktop since moving a mouse pointer from point A to point B is sequential on a computer screen (the pointer has to pass through every pixel between the two points). Compare this to a real world touch screen where two targets could be tapped in near parallel or with minimal time.

Art vs. Science
While Fitts' law is a quantitative science, there are many other aspects which make the user experience an art. For example, understanding the type of user is important. Sometimes, presenting a casual user with a menu of options to choose from is the right thing. Other times, a computer expert will not want to be limited by a menu of options which is why many of them prefer the command line over a graphical interface for low level OS interactions.

Unlike, say Einstein's theories, which began as theory followed by experimental confirmation; user experience theory usually begins as an observation before being refactored into theorems.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

What's My DNS

I use a very simple, yet helpful, DNS tool:

Many times, I'll make a DNS change to one of my servers or hostnames and I'll wonder how well it's propagated across the entire Internet.

In "the old days," a host name generally pointed to a single IP address no matter where in the world you were when you tried to access that domain name.

But, in today's world of redundant cloud storage, you will have a hard time locating the exact server where your web resources are located. It's much like trying to locate an electron's position and momentum in an electron cloud. I host on Amazon's S3, which has about a dozen different IP addresses.

While Amazon S3 guarantees at least triple redundancy, it might, actually, be better than that.

Always keep in mind when playing around with DNS updates that it's best to set the TTLs to something very short for the new DNS entries and, doubly so for negative caching TTLs. I generally keep these specific TTLs to less than 60 seconds with a generic * hostname also set to a very short time period.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Aircraft LED Maintenance

Today's rains produced a lake outside my hangar.
God bless Thomas Edison and his incandescent light bulb, but times have changed and it's time to move from filament light bulbs to LEDs.

As a private pilot, I'm not authorized to perform a lot of maintenance on my airplane. About all I can do is check the oil, add fuel, and replace the landing and taxi lights.

Since today wasn't a good day for flying I figured that I'd perform some maintenance. After having to replace both my landing light and taxi light within the first few months of owning my plane, I decided that next time, I'd use a more expensive LED light.
Removing my old taxi light, on the right.
When that time came, last summer, I replaced my traditional landing light with an LED and it's worked great ever since. However, since then, my taxi light has burned out, twice. While this isn't unusual, it's still annoying. (Surprisingly, the taxi and landing lights are not required when flying, not-for-hire, at night.)

Replacing the light is fairly simple. Just unscrew about 20 screws to remove the plexiglas covering and drop in the new bulb. After testing it, the final step is to make an entry in the airframe logbook. It couldn't be simpler.

Landing light and new taxi light are now both LEDs.
Generally, I turn on my landing light when I'm approaching an airport regardless if it's daylight or nighttime. Just like a car's daytime running lights, having your landing lights turned on makes it easier to be seen. Since I can't turn on my landing light without also turning on my taxi light, because of the light switch design, I've been hesitant to keep my lights on for longer periods. Now, with LEDs all around, I'll definitely be using them more often.

Copco Cup Design

I really like good design and beverage mugs are no exception.

I recently received three new beverage cups designed by Copco which they asked me to review. I've ended up using all of them almost every day.

Hydra Water Bottle
A unique design, which I haven't seen before, is the new BPA free Copco Hydra water bottle. It looks like a regular disposable water bottle with a colorful grip that holds just over a pint. But, the top third of the bottle unscrews so that you can add ice, lemon, etc. Best of all is that it's very easy to clean. About ten days ago, I ended up drinking out of my overused disposable water bottle, for a couple days, before I noticed that it had green slime which I couldn't clean out.

Cold Drink Tumbler
The new Copco tumbler is a particularly nice way to drink cold coffee on the go. It's a double walled cup, so it doesn't sweat on hot, humid days. Also, it forms a tight seal when closed.

The best part of this tumbler is that the straw is permanently attached to the lid. The straw is plastic, on the top and bottom, but the part of it that passes through the lid is made of flexible silicone. This enables a great feature which allows you to bend the straw 90 degrees to snap into the lid to form a leak proof seal. As a matter of fact, instead of stirring your ice coffee, you can clip the straw to the lid and shake the cup - just like a martini shaker - without any leakage (just make sure that the lid is fully secured).

Hot/Cold Coffee Cup Lid Design
As I mentioned about two months ago, one thing that I didn't like about Copco's new coffee lid design is that, when I flipped open the lid, the wet rubber stopper would hit my nose. Copco heard my feedback, along with others, and Vallory Farrasso, from Wilton Industries, Inc, the parent company of Copco, wrote to me:

I wanted to let you know that I met with a couple Copco product managers today and they are actually in the process of developing new lids for the cups. There was a lot of consumer feedback about those lids hitting people’s noses when sipping from the cups.

You have to love great customer service like that!

Fortunately, Copco sent to me their newest coffee cup with a similar, yet bigger, lid design that turns out to be great. While the two white lids in this photo look the same size, the one on the right is bigger - big enough to completely miss my nose. This larger design coffee cup has become my daily favorite. Not to mention that it's also a double walled cup suitable for both hot and cold drinks.

Yes, lid design may seem trivial, but a lid that doesn't leak is a big deal when on the go - it really is .

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Where There's Smoke...

As I was sitting on the couch, this afternoon, I couldn't help but notice the smokey smell from across the street.

I thought to myself, "I wonder if that's intentional?"

I guess not.

A few minutes later we could hear the police car and fire truck sirens.

Many catastrophes begin as little things that go overlooked or unnoticed.

Easter Nostalgia

Last weekend was one of the first times, in a long time, that I've been back to where I grew up for a holiday weekend.

It was a beautiful Easter weekend as Laura and I flew from Morristown to Farmingdale's Republic Airport. While it was a little breezy, there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

My sister had been asking to go up for a ride in my plane; so she came down to the airport and snapped some great photos as we flew over Huntington and the Long Island Sound.

On Easter Sunday, I went to church with my mother and sister. The last time I was at this church was on Valentine's Day (our wedding anniversary) in 2007 as I stood on the church altar to deliver my father's eulogy during an ice storm that made the headlines. The offering hymn was one of my favorites, Lord of the Dance, which most any Marine, who's gone through boot camp on Parris Island, could never forget.

One thing that I had completely forgotten about was the holography lab that I had set up in my childhood basement when I was in junior high school. The solid basement foundation was ideal for making holograms since any movement more than a few hundred nanometers, during the 6-12 second exposure, would ruin it.

On the wall of my holography lab, I had painted a diagram of a ruby laser, which was the first type of laser invented in 1960. (Ironically, you can't make a hologram without a laser, yet the hologram was invented about a dozen years before the laser.)

As an early teen, my budget was rather limited. It had taken me many months to save up enough money to buy my first two lasers. In the early 1980s, diode lasers did not exist as consumer devices, like they do today, and I had to buy much larger and more expensive helium-neon lasers.

Since my budget as a 13-14 year old was limited, I didn't have enough money to buy all of the metal letters which I had started to use to label the parts of my ruby laser drawing.

My ruby laser diagram may look like a cave painting in ruins, but it's actually never been completed. I doubt it every will.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Brooks Brothers: Customer Service with Style

Brooks Brother's, known for their stylish clothes in today's business world, has been around for almost 200 years, making it the oldest clothier chain in the United States. As a young Marine, I remember reading W.E.B Griffin's The Corps novel series which romantically described two young Marine officers ordering their uniforms, during WW II, from Brooks Brothers because they used the finest materials.

But, even though a company has been around for almost two centuries doesn't mean that they can't make mistakes. Whenever that happens, it's an opportunity for the business to excel by correcting the issue.

New Clothes
About a month ago, I bought a sportcoat, cuff links, shirts, and slacks at Brooks Brothers. The sports jacket and shirts were a perfect fit, but the slacks needed tailoring which would take about two weeks.

A few days after purchasing the clothes, I wore my new sportcoat and immediately noticed a couple white marks on the back. I took the sportcoat back to the store and my sales associate, Anthony, recognized it as chalk marks. He took it into the back and cleaned it up. I tweeted about it on the way out of the store and I was surprised to see that Brooks Brothers immediately tweeted back and thanked me.

A couple weekends later, I went to pick up my trousers and one pair didn't fit properly, so they marked it to be taken in. The following Saturday, I went back and the pants still didn't fit correctly – the seat was too big. They made a couple chalk marks and asked me when I needed them. I told Anthony that I was leaving the following day on a business trip to Annapolis. Anthony said that it wouldn't be a problem, just stop by, tomorrow, on the way to the airport.

When I returned on Sunday, one of their tailors had mistakenly let out the seat, rather than take it in. They checked the tailoring instructions card and confirmed that it said "take in" not "let out."

At this point Anthony was a little annoyed at the poor service. He called for their best tailor, Tino, who came out, took a measurement, made a chalk mark, and suggested that I go get a cup of coffee – he'd have my pants fixed in 15 minutes.

Lo and behold, when I came back, the pants fit perfectly. They were spot on. Even though they made a couple mistakes, I certainly felt well taken care of.

Ralph Lauren
While I was waiting for my last fitting, my wife and I wandered over to the Ralph Lauren store not too far from Brooks Brothers. After all, Ralph Lauren, who's worth more than $6B, got his start working at Brooks Brothers and even licensed the Polo trademark from them.

Unfortunately, Ralph Lauren doesn't stock the one item that I was looking for: simple collar stays (Brooks Brothers collar stays are too long for Ralph Lauren collars). The sales rep referred me to one of the mall department stores. However, the Ralph Lauren store did have a beautifully decorated "blue room" which my wife fell in love with. I didn't know that Ralph Lauren did interior design. It can't be cheap.