Archive for December 2005


Oh dear! After upgrading to version 1.5, my beloved Firefox quickly developed a form of Pythonesque gluttony in that after a few hours it managed to devour most of the available system memory. At one stage, it had eaten a whopping 534MB. Not good.

Firefox taking up over 500MB of memory!

It seems that I’m not alone in in suffering this memory leak. Just hope there’s a fix for it pretty pronto.


Intelligent design ordered out of class.

Hmmm… maybe Hallelujah isn’t the best word to use in this context. Perhaps Hurrah! is better. Although it’s interesting that (as far as I’m aware) there aren’t any words that mean “Praise to Darwin”. I guess that’s the difference between a religious belief system and an objective, evidence-based scientific theory.

The eyes have it

Matteo Penzo has written a very nice introduction to eyetracking in usability studies over at UX Matters.

The only thing I’m not entirely convinced about in the article is the idea that you can adopt a think aloud protocol and measure eye movements at the same time. Think aloud already has its own set of limitations (e.g. it’s a relatively unnatural scenario for the user, it’s full of interruptions and there’s the potential for subconscious bias and “priming” by the tester) so there’s a risk that you might end up measuring eyetracking artefacts that don’t occur under more natural user scenarios. The two methods are designed to evaluate very different aspects of user behaviour, so I’d always be inclined to keep them separate and play to their strengths. i.e using think aloud to evaluate and understand user expectations and mental models, and eyetracking to get quantitative data in specific task-based situations. Of course, there’s no reason why you couldn’t use both approaches in separate tasks within a test session to get a broad picture of user behaviour (assuming that’s what you were looking for!).

There are more articles on eyetracking in the pipeline for future issues of UXMatters, which should be well worth checking out.

The Internet is Closed! and other seasonal tales of E-commerce woe.

This is a (mostly) true Christmas story.

It was a night before Christmas. All was still. A fresh fall of snow lay glistening and untouched on the ground.

It was just past midnight and Tiny Tim was up late trying to get his Christmas shopping done online before having to head back to the workhouse in the morning.

“Hmm..”, mused the Tiny One, ”... I think I shall send some beautiful festive flowers to my aunt and uncle”. And as he marvelled at how convenient this Internet thingy was, he headed for a website of a large, reputable retailer, who shall only be referred to as N*xt. Tim yawned as the home page flickered into life in front of him. “This should only me take five minutes”, he thought, “which is lucky, as I have a very busy day tomorrow”. And it was with eternal optimism and a heart full of festive joy that he set about finding the flowers. It didn’t take long. Soon he found a gorgeous seasonal bouquet. A beautifully arranged symphony of red and yellow blooms, it was exactly what he was looking for.

“I’ll just buy these, then it’s time to hit the hay”, he thought. So he hit the Add to Bag button and readied himself to enter his credit card and delivery details. But no details came. Just a few lines of writing on a big white screen. They read:

Online Shopping – Store Closed.
We are currently unable to take orders after 00:00GMT.
The store will re-open at 06:00GMT.
Our apologies for any inconvenience this may cause.

“It’s closed!” exclaimed Tim. “The Internet is closed!! But I thought it was always open – that’s why it’s so great! Maybe it’s because the computers have to sleep sometimes too. Oh well, I’ll just have to get up 15 minutes early in the morning to sort it out.” And it was a slightly perplexed Tiny Tim who crawled into bed that night.

In the morning the Internet was open again, much to everyone’s relief. Unfortunately, though, the N*xt website had decided not to recognize the diminuitive chap’s account details when he tried to log in. “All is does it tell me that the details need to be exactly the same as those on my printed statement, which they are! How frustrating! I still haven’t managed to buy anything and now I have to go out and earn my daily crust”.

Later that day, a weary Tim staggered into his house and collapsed into a heap on the sofa. “It’s no good! I can’t relax until I finally order those pesky flowers!”. So he dragged himself to his feet and trudged off to his computer. He was more relieved than delighted to find that both the Internet AND the N*xt account login page were actually working, so he started to feel much more festive and even treated himself to a mince pie. “Mmm, Tasty”, he muttered.

Everything was now just splendid. “Ah, this is more like it! I’ve found the flowers I want. I’ve logged in successfully. Now I just need to confirm the purchase and it’s all done at last. Maybe I’ll even have another tasty mince pie in a minute”. But Tim’s festive cheer was short lived. As he hit the button to confirm the purchase, all he got was an error message telling him that the site was experiencing technical problems. “Nooooooooo!” Tim’s screams floated into the chilly Winter air. He cursed under his breath and let a short sigh of despair. “I don’t even know whether the order has gone through or not, so I can’t even buy the flowers from somewhere else in case I buy two bouquets by mistake. There’s still enough time before Christmas, though. I’ll see what happens in the next day or two”.

Two days later, Tiny Tim hasn’t been charged. Unfortunately every last bouquet on the N*xt website is out of stock. “OK, I give up! I really did try to buy flowers from you, N*xt, but you just wouldn’t let me!! ”

“I should have done this ages ago, but it’s finally time to try somewhere else. What about D*b*nh*ms? Surely it can’t be as difficult there” mused Tim, who was blessed with the spirit of eternal optimism.

The little fella soon found a bouquet among a screenful of technicolour options. It looked beautiful. It cost 27 British pounds, which seemed eminently reasonable. Tim quickly clicked on the picture to see more details. “Hang on a second…” he exclaimed ”’s now selected a version that’s 35 quid! That’s really sneaky – it didn’t even mention that there was a 35 quid option before!” Tim was pretty sharp and didn’t fall for such sleight of web easily, and with a deft flick of a mouse he’d chosen the 27 pounds option again.

“Right, I’ll just add that to my shopping basket then and I’ll be off”. No such luck. Click. Nothing. Click. Click. Nothing. Not a sausage. “Why isn’t it working?!” questioned a bemused Tim, before a suddent realization hit him. “Ah-ha! It doesn’t work in Firefox. Maybe I’ll have to try it in Internet Explorer”. (Although Tim doesn’t know it, the site doesn’t work in Mozilla, Opera, Safari or Camino either, so he’s not alone in his festive frustrations.) A few long minutes later he finds himself gazing upon the same page in Uncle Bill’s finest browser. The page has reverted to the 35 pound version of the bouquet again, so it’s with a deep sigh and a heavy heart that Tim wearily chooses the cheaper option yet again.

At last! Tiny Tim’s Christmas was back on track as he finally ordered the flowers. As the final confirmation appeared on the screen he slumped back into his chair. “Thank goodness for that!” Relieved and annoyed in equal measures, his goodwill was sapped. Where once there was a young, optimistic, positive young man now sat a frowning cynic. Deep creases has begun to appear around his eyes and across his forehead. He just sat there. Motionless and silent.

Sounds wafted up from the street below. Children laughed and sang carols. Sleighbells tinkled. The deep voice of a slightly inebriated office worker could be heard. “Merry Christmas, one and all! Merry Christmas!”

“Bah, Humbug!” said Tiny Tim.

Communicating with humans

Great little presentation about the process of developing websites from pingmag. You can be picky about some of the details if you want (which isn’t surprising since there are so many different development methodologies to choose from – UCD, Agile, XP, Waterfall etc). It’s so refreshing, though, to see something which is visually rich and captures the essence of human interaction. There’s also a lot of humour there too, which makes it even more engaging. These are the communication techniques that we need to be using with clients, rather than bullet lists and flowcharts.

A Wellcome change

As a “usability professional”, it’s sometimes very frustrating that I can’t easily get hold of academic research papers in my field. I’m not affiliated with a University in any way, so I have to pay a LOT to download a paper. As a result, it’s tricky to keep up with latest developments. It’s actually estimated that the lack of access to publicly-funded research costs the UK around £1.5bn per year. So it’s great to hear that the Wellcome Trust are going to start allowing open access to all publications resulting from research that they fund. Just a shame that the Royal Society seem to consider their own interests over and above the rest of society…

I’m not quite sure how this will affect access to HCI-related journals, but it’s definitely a really big step in the right direction.

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I'm Stuart Church, a user experience consultant with Pure Usability in Bristol, UK. Sensorydrive is my personal blog and covers user experience design, information architecture, product design, psychology, research methods, perception and pretty much anything else that takes my fancy! You can find out a bit more about me if you want...