Tag Archives: Usability

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Urban Usability – How walkable is your city?

Cleveland skyline from the Superior Viaduct I have a little project called Localographer, which you can use to create heat maps and find a house or apartment near your workplace, friends and relatives, or other place you’d like to be.  When I showed it to my brother he tried mapping out places in Boston and ran into a limitation – the interface doesn’t show you various transit options and it doesn’t make it easy to figure out the real cost and benefits of living in different places.

If you move to the suburbs, you might be able to commute by car but living by a train stop can be cheaper and easier.  In some neighborhoods you can get 10 different kinds of food in a 10 minute walk, in others you need to get in your car and drive a quarter mile to get anything to eat at all.

Adding features like this to Localographer means solving two problems – data and user interface.  I don’t have access to restaurant locations, transit stops, etc. and that sort of data can be expensive to get from commercial sources.  I could go the wiki route but that would require building an interface for users to contribute data and finding ways to make the data more reliable.

So in the mean time, if you want to get an idea of how walkable a potential neighborhood might be, take a look at Walk Score.  It’s a very cool site which has some of the features I’ve been meaning to add to Localographer – you can get a score for how livable the area around any address might be.

For example, my current neighborhood in California has a score of 74 out of 100.   Our house in Shaker Heights scores 62 out of 100.  Because any excuse is a good excuse to use a spreadsheet and a graph, I’ve plotted out the walkability of all the places I’ve lived using a Google Docs spreadsheet and the Interactive Time Series Gadget.  I wrote earlier about how you can embed any Google Doc or Spreadsheet into a blog post but Gadgets are even easier – just click the “Publish” button on the gadget and paste the Javascript code in the raw HTML view of your blogging software.

There are some issues with Walk Score, of course – for example Naples, Florida scores very high, but when I lived there I really missed having access to a car.  Most of the restaurants and shops along 5th Street and Tamiami Trail were out of my internship-funded price range.  I used to bike some distance to get to The Clock, a cheap diner.

All of this discussion is pointing toward a much larger question that I have been thinking about for a long time – I know how to study the usability of web sites and other software, but I wonder if anyone does usability studies of urban planning?  I’ve seen traffic flow studies and I know building codes have some basis in ergonomics and accessibility, but does anyone do observational studies of how people interact with different urban environments to figure out what works and what doesn’t?  Is there a Fitt’s Law of where to locate grocery stores compared to condos?

Problem with iPhone after 2.0 firmware update

My wife tried to upgrade her iPhone to the 2.0 firmware this morning. Everything went fine until the phone got to the stage where it has icons telling you to lug into iTunes and the message “slide for emergency.”

Plugging in to iTunes gives us this message: “We could not complete your iTunes Store request. The network connection was reset.”

I finally found a thread on Apple’s discussion board with a workaround – keep the phone plugged in, and in iTunes, keep switching between the iPhone and another function like Music. You’ll keep getting the same error over and over, but supposedly it will work after a few minutes of trying.

After about 20 minutes of this ridiculousness (you can use the ‘m’ key and ‘i’ key to switch if you get tired of clicking), it finally looked like it was going through…

Only to tell me “iPhone activations are unavailable at this time.”

Clearly Apple underestimated demand, and their serves can’t handle the number of incoming requests. That isn’t much solace for my wife, who can’t use her phone today.

In the usability world, the technical term for this is “epic fail.”  We switched from Palm devices to the iPhone to avoid this sort of craziness.

I have to go to work. Guess I’ll try again later… anyone have any other workarounds?

Web Video Usability Review: South Park Studios

After a few years of Youtube showing the world how to do video on the web, lots of traditional broadcasters and studios have started putting their content online. Part of the reason is to try to steal YouTube’s thunder – a more market-friendly tactic than just lawsuits. Many of these sites are trying to figure out an advertising model and make money, while others are obviously trying to get viewers more engaged by joining social networks, making mash-ups, etc.

But enough about their goals, what about user goals and experience? In web video the content may be king but usability is almost as important. If your user interface is difficult, confusing, or unpleasant, users will leave your site to get the content elsewhere.

So I’m going to try to do a usability review of various web video sites over the next few weeks. These won’t be formal reviews with user tests and cool eye-tracking heatmaps. Instead I’ll point out some user goals and hold up each site to the same rubrick.

The first site: SouthParkStudios.com


So, what do users want out of web video? I can think of a number of scenarios: finding a particular clip or episode, watching recent episodes, sending a link to a friend or embedding a clip in a blog, and , well, just enjoying the show.


Score: 4 out of 4 points. This site has everything – every show from every season.

Finding Particular Videos

Method: I’m taking a cue from the creators of Friends – people don’t remember episode names. So I’ll be doing a Google search for the show name and “the one where” and taking the first relevant result. In this case it’s “the one where Ben Affleck has a relationship with Cartman’s Jennifer Lopez hand” (without quotes).

Score: 2 out of 4 points. The search fails, but a simpler query for “Ben Affleck” leads us right to the clips. The full episode is available.

Watching Videos

How easy is it to watch videos? What’s the quality?

Score: 4 out of 4. It’s immediately apparent what to click on to see an episode or clip. You can watch videos full screen and South Park’s animation lends itself well to compressed video. The navigation between episodes is pretty nice, with thumbnails of all episodes for that season along the bottom of the window.

Linking to Videos

Score: 3 out of 4 points. The URL for each clip and episode is available by clicking the “Share” button. Clips open up in the main window so if you can get the link like any other web page. The only lost point is the fact the episodes open in new windows – what is the point? It takes away my browser toolbar and any social bookmaking toolbars or extensions I might normally use.

Embedding videos

Let’s give it a try:

Score: 3 out of 4 points. Once again use the Share button to get the embed code. They lose a point for not allowing embedding of full episodes – they probably have good reasons for not wanting users to do so, but we’re only concerned about the user’s side of things right now.


Score: 3 out of 4 points. Ads are shown before the video (for clips) or at two break points about halfway through (for full episodes). Commercials are short and don’t obscure video or interrupt the show more than normal TV commericals would. They lose a point, though, because of the lack of variety – I watched a few episodes and plenty of clips and only saw two different commercials, over and over again.

Audio Experience

I’m going in go with a slightly different scale this time: introducing the patented Bleeding Ear Scale of Web Video Volume.

You may have noticed that some TV stations play their commercials a little louder than the show. The theory I’ve always heard is that they want you catch your attention even if you get up to go to the fridge.


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Unfortunately, most people don’t watch web video the same way they watch TV – they’re usually sitting much, much closer to the speakers or wearing headphones. The bone-shattering difference in volume between the video and the commercials on SouthParkStudios.com earned the site four bleeding ears.

Total score: 19 out of 24 points, with a special note to dive for the volume button whenever an ad is coming up.