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User interface

In which I suggest a very small user interface change to add a feature to Final Cut that editors have been requesting for many years.

I know… an idea that has been around for at least 10 years. However there are two parts to any feature request: the idea and how integrate it into the application. Many Apple and Avid competitors can add better features to their software. The trick is to come up with the user interface.

Final Cut has had markers on the timeline since the beginning (markers are the equivalent of Avid Locators). Clips can also have markers. I assume the request to make single and multiple markers movable using the mouse or keyboard has been around since before Final Cut Pro 1.0 came out.

The secret aspect of software development is that Apple and Avid know perfectly well the features than the majority of users would like. They need to weigh up which it is worth spending the money on implementing. We can only assume that when Final Cut was being designed in 1996 and 1997, a software implementation decision for the Timeline window was made that meant that it would be expensive to add a ‘move markers’ feature.

This means that adding an “option-click a marker and shift-clicking another marker before dragging” user interface is probably too hard to implement without causing too many other problems.

Most people guess that Final Cut 7 will probably be a completely re-written version (to get rid of all the bugfix and implementation workarounds of the last decade and for OS X Snow Leopard compatibility). However, how could you add moveable markers to Final Cut without having to change too much in the user interface?

If we go back to why we’d want to move markers, we usually need to move them to reflect edits. If a scene is shorter or longer, we want the markers further along the timeline to change too.

We can do this my having the option to make clip markers also act as sequence markers.

You do this by adding a check box in a dialog box…
clip-sequence-marker

and a different graphic to show in the ruler:
clip-sequence-marker-on-tim

The advantage of this method is that the sequence markers will then be updated to reflect any changes to the clips in the timeline.

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For the last thirty years people have been trying to come up with clever ways to make TV interactive. In the early 80s, we had Teletext services. We later had phone votes. These days digital TV users know that they can get more content – such as games, documentaries and commentary tracks – by ‘pressing the red button;’ whichever method they are using to watch TV.

On the other hand, more devices can be modified to act as remote controls for TVs. Eventually all phones will be able to interact with nearby TVs. They’ll start by being able to switch channels and record to a DVR. Soon TVs (and computers) will accept text and multi-touch input from phones and remotes.

Maybe it is time for those designing the future of TV to take into account the essential nature of watching content on TV. What makes it different from going to the movies? Or watching DVDs and downloaded movies on computers and phones? The fact that you watch TV with one or more people that you usually know well. Phones and computers are usually used by one person at a time (unless the computer is being used as a TV replacement). When you are at the cinema, you may be with hundreds of people, but you know no-one but those you came with and you don’t spend time during the movie interacting with anyone (unless your primary reason isn’t to watch the film…).

Given that before the invention of the remote, anyone who walked over to the TV had control, maybe it’s time to plan for TV broadcasts where each person watching can control and interact with TV content. Instead of using a child as proxy remotes, as I was, the person who usually holds the remote (still typically the man) should be encouraged to share with others.

The future could be made of every individual consuming media on their own terms – on their own. It’s the interaction between those watching TV that makes it special. If TV improves and changes those interactions, it will keep groups of people together for a long time to come.

Given that mobile phones have been irritating to use for years, I had a couple of ideas that might make them more appealing. They are based on two aspects of SMS texting that I liked: texts aren’t conversations and texts are cheaper.

An advantage of texting is that you don’t have to get into a conversation with someone. They are like telegrams: you send someone a piece of information you think they should receive. No conversation necessary. Given the I couldn’t be bothered to put the time in to get quick enough at texting, I liked the idea of being able to leave someone a message – even if their phone wasn’t going to voicemail. How about calling someone, but pressing a special digit on your phone which caused their phone not to ring, but for you to be put through to their voicemail. That means you can deliver the message without having a discussion: one of the advantages of texting. Twitter grew out of the idea of sharing one short message with groups of people without having a series of individual conversations.

The other main advantage of texting is price: it’s very cheap to send people texts. My other idea was to have a speech to text system that would convert my spoken message into a text to be sent. The more you use your phone, the more accurate the text to speech would get, especially as phone calls have very specific structures and vocabularies.

What if a mobile phone had an audio interface to Twitter? That means you could join in the conversation while you are on the move, either walking or driving (using a hands-free kit). Speech to text would convert your thoughts into Tweets, if you pause it could give you a character count update. You could use simple voice commands to edit. Summarising software could suggest alternative ways of saying the same thing in 140 characters.

The other side of Twitter could also work as audio only. Imagine if each Twitter profile could also hold a phoneme database that audio-based Twitter software could use to simulate the voice of the person that tweeted.

In the coming years more services will be audio only, so maybe it’s best to start with the simplest, such as Twitter.

13 January followup: A service has been launched that relates to this. Jott works by calling a special telephone number – the processing isn’t done on the phone even though they do have a BlackBerry application (they have an iPhone application, but it temporarily unavailable).

When catching up with Maxine. a friend who is still in the conference business, she told me the tale of Nokia’s opportunity to impress some people at a multinational consumer products company.

She was working on a conference for the senior media buyers of this company who had gathered from all over the world to discuss the future of media. Between them these people controlled budgets of over €1.5bn. They talked about how social networks, interactive TV, internet search will shake up all they do when advertising their many brands to consumers all over the world. As media buyers they were repositioning themselves as internal consultants to the brand managers. This was seen as being especially useful in managing their relationships with their many ad agencies worldwide.

Instead of the usual teambuilding activity at the end, it was based around an element of the future media – what was called ‘user generated content’ earlier this year. The attendees were divided into groups and each team was given a new Nokia 95 to shoot and edit the kind of video that could be uploaded to YouTube.
nokia95

If Nokia knew that their phone was at the centre of this new media education project, would they be excited? This would position the N95 as ‘the’ media phone for some very influential people. There are three possibilities: 1. It would be good news for Nokia, 2. It wouldn’t matter one way or another or 3. They’d be worried that their phone wasn’t up to the task and that their product would look bad. There’s no way of knowing. In a way I hope it is 3, because knowing you’ve got a problem is half the battle.

You can guess how enjoyable the teams found the editing process. Maxine was pressed into service to limit the problems people had with the software. They found the user interface confusing at first and irritating once they understood how limited it was. Maxine says they ended up laughing at it.

Over the last couple of decades I’ve made a point of not following the mobile phone business. I only got myself a phone when I went freelance, I would have not got one otherwise. Phones were quite irritating back in 2001, but they seem to have go even worse in the intervening years. More and more features have been added, making the phones more difficult to use and less reliable. Or so it seems from the sidelines.

The first phone I got that wasn’t rubbish was an iPhone. The camera isn’t any good. You can’t (officially) record video with it. You certainly can’t edit video on it. You can’t copy and paste text or run more than one program at a time. I’m sure there are many phones with many more features than the iPhone has. The difference is that the phone isn’t a pain to use.

Features are less important than implementation. Over the last few years many companies created putative ‘iPod killer’ products. None of them beat Apple. They went for extra features at cheaper prices. That didn’t work. I hope Apple’s phone competitors got that message.

The phone industry had years to make phones that were any good. It happened to be Apple that came along to shake them all up. As well as having advanced software on millions of computers to manage the phone (iTunes), Apple also seems to have avoided the silly politics of the phone industry. Some people say that it doesn’t make economic sense for carriers to sign up with Apple, but it makes sense for Apple to get into deals with carriers that need them more then they need the carriers.

I hope that someone comes along to give Apple a bit of competition. They’ll need a tighter, simpler link with people’s technology (many people don’t like to run iTunes on their Windows PC) and a way of getting the best possible services to a large number of people without any restrictions from the carriers. I’m looking forward to it!

1993:
I Love Typography – A reminder of the kind of stuff I used to read at the St. Bride Printing Library in the early 90s.

The Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web – Schizophrenia resulted from me being a SGML purist in the early days of the web while designing magazines. One part of me believed that control over how different web tags are displayed should to be left to the reader in Mosaic and Navigator. The other spent time coming up with the perfect distribution of spacing in fully justified 9 on 12.5 Goudy Old Style on a 48mm measure. Maybe it’s time I bought the CSS upgrade to my WordPress blog.

2009:
Boxee – An open-source media browser than combines video and audio on your computer or AppleTV, content served from the web and the interests of your social network together in one application.

teehan+lax – twenty years ago, I liked the idea of being a user interface designer. Maybe I might have made it to a place like this, and be blogging for them too.

friendfeed – Matt Davis asked me if there was a social media aggregator for Twitter, blogs, comments and other services. He wants a way to keep up with the various online activities of friends and interesting people. My feed combines my Twitter posts, Vimeo uploads and video choices, blog posts and comments on other sites onto a single page. This seems to work for me at the moment.

Most people would never know it, but for the last few hours there’s been a big debate on the future of Twitter’s search function. Not a big deal, but it strikes at the heart of how different people use same social media platforms in different ways.

The story starts with a blog post by Loïc Le Meur: ‘Twitter: We Need Search By Authority’

We need filtering and search by authority. We’re not equal on Twitter, as we’re not equal on blogs and on the web. I am not saying someone who has more followers than yourself matters more, but what he says has a tendency to spread much faster. Comments about your brand or yourself coming from @techcrunch with 36000 followers are not equal than someone with 100 followers.

This is followed by some people you may not have heard of with the following…

Bob Warfield:

This is a seriously good way to make Twitter search Fail big time. No better way to amplify the Echo Chamber. Is that all Twitter is? The Follower haves talking while the Follower have-nots listen? Have nots are to be seen and not heard? “Let’s move the riff raff aside, this is our conversation,” seems to be the message.

Robert Scobie:

Bob Warfield has it all right: Loic Le Meur’s call for authority-based Twitter searches is all wrong.
What is Loic’s idea? To let you do Twitter searches with results ranked according to number of followers.
You’d think I’d be all over that idea, right? After all I have a lot more followers than Loic or Arrington has.
But you’d be wrong. Ranking by # of followers is a stupid idea. Dave Winer agrees. Mike Arrington, on the other hand, plays the wrong side of the field by backing Loic’s dumb idea.

Michael Arrington:

For the record, I agree with Loic. Being able to filter search results, if you choose, by the number of followers a user has makes sense. Without it, you have no way of knowing which voices are louder and making a bigger impact. It’s a way to make sense of a query when thousands or tens of thousands of results are returned.

It looks like some of those that care about the future of Twitter think that this idea will relegate Twitter to an online version of The National Enquirer (or the Weekly World News).

Different Twitters for different folks

For some Twitter is a network for sharing status: ‘I’m off to the pub for a while,’ ‘Great weather up here in Hertfordshire!’ Others use it for personal branding or PR: ‘Why does interactive TV assume a single viewer? Why not prepare for a remote per person?’ – @alex4d, ‘My Interview of the Year: http://tinyurl.com/7wac9q Thanks @timoreilly!’ – @Scobleizer. Those are two of the reasons for wanting people to follow you – to keep them updated on what’s going on in their lives, or to influence/inspire/impress a wider network.

Also Twitter is used by people to follow others for different reasons at different points in their day, depending on mood and status (‘Just mooching around on the computer to fill time’ – ‘Researching the use of social media platforms in theatre’)

The fact something as simple as putting your thoughts online can be used in many different ways has made Twitter very popular. As the number of users rises these conflicting uses might cause problems. That is why there is this kind of debate about something as simple as search – it might restrict or direct Twitter’s use in directions that some don’t want it to go in.

A Twitterer with fewer followers weighs in with a point

Twitter search is almost at the stage internet search was when Digital introduced AltaVista:

altavista1996

AltaVista became the main page used for search because its host computers could index the internet more quickly than anyone else. It was the most up to date search. The order in which results were delivered was based on the frequency of the word searched for on a page.

Eventually Google came along and worked out a method for producing the right result quickly. Their page-rank algorithm used various statistics to calculate the ‘authority’ of the organisation that created the page on which the search text is found. As the years have gone by the art of SEO, Search Engine Optimisation, has been about site designers using web content to establish the authority of the websites they manage.

I suggest that Twitter’s search function, or even home feed filtering system could use a similar system: show me Twitterers with ‘authority’ – but this authority need not only depend on number of followers, because who knows why those people follow that person. The number of people followed could be important. What about the number of direct messages, or messages responded to, or retweets, or number of links posted that no-one else has posted, but turn out to be very popular? You could also take frequency of posting into account, the amount of dialogue tweets bouncing between two people, or even the frequency of updates to the page linked to on their profile.

Some see the battle between the search engines and the SEO community as an endless arms race, where Google and others use ‘security by obscurity’ to hide the methods they use to rank search results. This battle may move to Twitter search (once Twitter starts mattering). However, a new front could be avoided if Twitter searchers could ‘roll their own’ Twitterrank algorithms.

Do you want to follow me?

What are the considerations you have when deciding to follow someone who has followed you? These are the considerations you might want to be included in your Twitterrank method: I look at the subject and frequency of recent tweets and combine that with having a look at the page they link to in their profile. Is it updated regularly with content that I’m interested in. In consider my twitter feed as a series of thoughts – some of which coalesce into ideas expressed on my blog. If a follower seems to be using Twitter and their site in the same way as me, I’m more likely to follow them. Sometimes would be useful to me for Twitter to be able rank search results or filter the main feed using these criteria. However, depending on how I happen to be using Twitter, I might want to use different search or filter ranking techniques.

If other people could get useful results with a specific Twitterrank algorithm of mine, it would be useful if they could use it too. They could take a copy as it is, or possibly subscribe to it if I feel the ranking method needs to be updated.

I guess Google defines a successful search rank when a user doesn’t click on the second page of results. Searching and filtering in Twitter is a little more complex: it depends on why the person is searching and filtering. Are they removing the clutter of thousands of tweets, or are they refining their feed to focus on a specific debate? Only by trying different ranking systems will we define which models are useful. We could then have different system for different people. That would make life more interesting for the ‘Twitter Search Optimisation’ community

A single method handed down from on high seems very Google and old-fashioned. I think a roll-your-own twitterrank system seems much more ‘2009.’ What do you think?

On the BBC iPlayer, as well as watching TV from recent days or weeks, you can also listen the output of national and local radio stations. Most music shows can only be heard for seven days. The podcast versions cannot include any commercial music. For example, I can listen to the Adam and Joe show on BBC 6 Music in full (three hours long, in a format relatively difficult for people to keep on their computers) or the podcast highlights on iTunes (mp3).

Imagine if audio (and video) broadcasts and podcasts were combinations of the broadcasters’ and local playlists. If music cannot be licensed for more than seven days, the podcast playing application could insert music from the playlists on the listener’s device. If tags were added at times when music is played stating the title and artist, it could play from the local device if present. If not, similar music could play. In Apple’s iTunes 8, the Genius system is designed to create playlists of similar music. That system could find replacements in a listener’s library to follow the mood of the show.

If you were listening to a combination radio broadcast/local playlist ‘live,’ there could be user-interface item to how much music content was from the radio station playlist, and how much is local:

music-choice-prefs

This could be the way that future radio stations work, each listener could configure the shows they way they want. They could choose how much control they have over the music, whether they hear news, weather or traffic reports. Different shows might have different settings depending on the music choice or the kind of things the DJs say between the tracks.

Listen to the most recent Adam and Joe radio show using this RealPlayer location. Listen to the highlights podcast via iTunes.

It would be interesting to imagine a similar system for visual content.

When telling tales, whether it be fairy stories to children or explaining how to use complex technology, you should have a good idea of what your audience understands.

When explaining computer technology, I imagine their attitude to understanding how it works is similar to my attitude towards car technology. I don’t want to understand cars, I want them to run reliably without me ever having to see how they work.

The subtle difference when learning computer technology is that terminology is a problem. When we learn about chemistry, we are told about atoms, molecules, acids, covalent bonds and condensates. When the subject is electronics, we have to understand diodes, resistors, capacitors and amplifiers. In most fields of learning, we use new words to understand. In information technology, each term comes from a normal English word: file, directory, click, mouse, disc, bus. Some words come from less everyday words such as interpreter and icon.

I think that because everyday words are used to describe technology, when people come to understand it, they can get confused by the normal use of the word in the world of technology.

14 years ago I was introducing my friend Neil to the Macintosh. I explained the mouse, menus, clicking, icons, windows. He took notes. I then showed him how to move documents from one folder to another, and how to move folders from place to place on the computer hard drive. He then asked me a very pertinent question:

“What is the difference between a file and a folder? They seem like the same thing to me.” I explained the difference in terms of the computer, but that confused him. “So in the Mac, files are different from folders. In real life they are the same.”

He’s right of course. In the real world, we used to take different bits of paper with content on the same subject and put them in a card binder which was called a file. “Could you get me the letter I wrote to Jim at Prudential? It’s in the insurance file in the top drawer of the filing cabinet.” “I’ll just catch up with my filing.”

The term ‘file’ comes from the very early days of computing. It used to be that computers were programmed by operators who set a series of input switches in sequence, following instructions typed on paper. This became a lot simpler when these combinations of switches could be encoded on punched cards. A program was stored on a series of cards which could loaded onto a card reader and read one by one. The term file probably comes from the concept of a queue of instructions, a dictionary definition of file is ‘a line of people or things one behind another.’

When Apple first popularised WIMP principles (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointing devices) in user interface design on the Lisa computer in 1983, they had to introduce people to many new ideas. Before Lisa people hadn’t heard of using windows and icons for organisation. Menus usually filled the screen when a program was started – a special keypress took you back to the menu to change modes. Apple decided to call programs applications, came up with a way of going back if you changed your mind (‘Undo’) and referred to computer files in directories as documents in folders.

In those days menus titles were verbs:

lisa_file

You ‘File’d a document, ‘Edit’ed a selection, ‘Format’ted a selection, and ‘Customize’d the application you were running.

A year later, the Macintosh arrived, this convention continued, but the menu title of ‘File/Print’ was abbreviated to ‘File’ as the Mac screen was much narrower at 512 pixels wide, and menu bar space was at a premium.

After a few more years of applications for the Mac, Apple realised that menus in applications were better understood by new users in terms of nouns for menu titles, verbs for menu items. The order of the menus should also give some idea of the structure of the kind of information the application edits. The order from left to right goes from largest to smallest logical unit. The Apple symbol represented commands associated with the Mac. The file menu was where all the commands associated with the current document were. This is where you open, close, save and print documents. The edit menu is for the verbs associated with selections: you cut, copy, paste, find and select all here. The theory went that the next logical unit below that of document would be controlled by the next menu. In desktop publishing applications that would be the Page menu, where you can add, move, format or delete pages. Then you’d have a Text menu or Picture menu etc.

This means that if Apple had the courage, and that enough of their computers had wide enough screens, they would have named the menus ‘Document’ and ‘Selection’ instead of File and Edit. They later added the application between the Apple menu and the File menu, but they gave it the name of the currently running application.

All this goes to say, remember what your audience knows before you tell them a story. For anyone over 45 bear in mind that they might have a very different understanding of the technical concepts you think are generally understood. This difference is down to the fact that they haven’t yet come across someone who knows the way they see things work. If you don’t have an idea of what they know, don’t be surprised when what they hear and what they understand is very different from what you intended.

I don’t know if work for freelance web designers is starting to dry up, but here’s a new sideline: take an existing Flash-based website and use the same text, pictures and video to make a version for mobile phone users.

Many people believe that Apple will not allow Adobe’s Flash on the iPhone. The PR reason is that they think that the programming language behind Flash could cause security and technical problems. An incompetent or malicious programmer could make iPhones go wrong. Since phones have been able to run more and more 3rd-party applications, they have become more unreliable.

The ‘Steve Jobs’ reason might be that Adobe have never spent enough time making Flash work well on non-Windows-based computers. People complain that it is a waste of processor and battery power when a Flash movie plays on a mobile phone. On Macs, simple Flash operations take over 70% of CPU resources.

If the iPhone becomes more popular, it might be a good idea for those sites that are centred around Flash to have an alternative non-Flash version available for those browsing on the run.

A few weeks ago I was at a social organised by Stellar Network. After chatting with various people for a while I thought it wouldn’t be too pretentious to get my iPhone out. We had been talking about post-production toys such as the new Red camera system, so I hoped that browsing the web in public would be OK. It was response to a conversation about web design. One person there was Melissa Byers. As she is a cinematographer with foresight, she grabbed a great domain: camerawoman.com:

Melissa Byers' site

I tried visiting her website. My iPhone wasn’t good enough to browse her Flash-based site.

I got an email from Melissa this afternoon. I remembered our conversation and visited her site for the first time today.

That’s why it might be a good idea to have alternative version of your Flash site for people like me with more money than sense – iPhone buyers!

You could even learn how to turn Flash sites into iPhone web applications. Before July 2008, that was the only way to add functionality to the iPhone. Find out about iPhone WebApps at http://www.apple.com/webapps/

Over the last few years media companies have been scrambling to avoid what was seen as inevitable: that Apple would steamroll video content owners into giving up control over pricing their programming on the iTunes Store. Commercial TV and movie studios didn’t want to be caught napping like the music industry.

On both sides of the Atlantic an ‘anyone but Apple’ solution has become successful. In the US, NBC and News International launched Hulu:

cloudhulu

It is an advertising supported site for U.S.-based viewers to watch TV shows and films from Universal, Fox and NBC amongst others:
cloudhuluvt

In the UK, the BBC has had great success with its iPlayer service. It is a catch-up service structured around the schedules of their TV and radio stations:
cloudbbc

As the BBC is funded by the TV licence system in the UK, the service is free for British citizens.
cloudbbcvt

The problem with the BBC getting large numbers of people to watch TV on their catch-up service has made things difficult for advertising-supported networks to get the same kind of figures. ITV, Channel Four, Five and Sky TV have their own services, but far fewer people use them. They have much less money to spend on their services.

The UK commercial networks are facing the same problems that TV stations all over the world are facing: more entertainment options available to their audiences and a reduction in spending by major advertisers. Some of the networks have been calling for a share in the money the government raises for the BBC.

Instead of sharing any of that reliable stream of cash, the BBC would rather maintain the future of UK Public Service Broadcasting by creating partnerships with other organisations. In a document published today, they state:

The BBC is today launching a series of new partnerships that could deliver more than £120 million per annum by 2014 to PSB beyond the BBC, including sharing the iPlayer with other broadcasters and bringing it to the television set.

The wide-ranging proposals cover the production, distribution and exploitation of content. One partnership—to develop a common industry approach to delivering on-demand and internet services to the television—is already being progressed by a group including BBC, ITV and BT.

Other proposals announced include helping support regional news beyond the BBC; BBC Worldwide working with other broadcasters to develop new revenue streams; and the BBC sharing technology and R&D to create a common digital production standard.

(Emphasis mine)

They plan to bring a standard user interface for catch-up TV to UK TVs that will be able to play content from any channel. This might include content from the huge archives of the media owners.

My second highlight shows that they suggest that their technology could be used to create an open-source digital production system for programme-makers. The PDF specifically says:

The BBC is exploring how it can adapt its own significant digital production investment to help create a common digital production standard for the sector: bringing together the UK’s creative industry and technology vendors with ‘software as a service’ that adheres to agreed industry standards, including:
A digital archive tool: creating a shared repository for the industry allowing content to be more easily stored and accessed by producers and broadcasters in common
A digital production tool: enabling new material to be combined with archive material and moulded roughly before craft edit begins, and which allows content development to be shared more easily by producers, editors and others.

If you are worried about the power Apple, Adobe, Avid or Microsoft may want to wield over the future of post-production, this might be good news.

In order to keep the licence-fee money, the BBC may be forced to act as an honest broker in the UK to make sure all applications will be able to interoperate using open standards. This will take the risk out of post production technology investments, make collaborative production simpler and cheaper and will open up the market to small production companies:

These services would not be constrained by geographical boundaries: a small independent producer working on a commission in Scotland could save money by paying to re-use rushes recently shot by a different production team in London rather than reshoot that material. Craft edit and graphics could be delivered via service providers on the platform with multiple remote online review points. Finally, the finished product could be delivered digitally in file form to the commissioning broadcaster, conforming to agreed standards and ready for cross-platform publication.

(from the detailed BBC document on partnerships)

Another step towards the day when all footage will be stored in the internet ‘cloud’ and creative people will be able to collaborate to make films no matter their location or financial resources.

Here are some links to PDFs of relevant BBC R&D:

File-based Production: Making It Work In Practice

Business-to-business metadata interchange: Requirements for transport and packaging

Standardising media delivery in a file-based world

Open Technology Video Compression for Production and Post Production

PRISM (PeRvasive Infrastructure and Services for Media) is the BBC Research project for storing footage and programmes in the cloud.

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