February 2nd, 2006

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Cool things that people have done with interfaces and why they work

I don't often ask for review copies of O'Reilly books on paper. I write about them and refer to them frequently but I usually read them through Safari, the online library where I can search, browse or read page by page like a normal book. I did ask for a copy of Designing Interfaces: patterns for effective design (Jenifer Tidwell) because I thought it would be a book to pore over. It is.

First thing I noticed; the cover is the usual O'Reilly animal - but in attention grabbing colour. There's a whole section of CSS Zen Garden styles. It's packed with clips of interfaces from applications and the Web. I'm going to sit down and read it properly, but I'm going to recommend it straight away anyway ;-)

Getting the interface right is half the battle (functionality matters too, hence the rant that will be in my next post about the rumoured RIM workaround) and I've been thinking about design styles for supporting navigation habits a lot lately because of the gender design preferences piece I've been researching (now to find a home in .net magazine). Press the user's joy button in the interface, or at the very least don't whack them on the funny bone. At AOL I had to spend a significant proportion of my daily life in a CMS that has what I would nominate as the world's worst interface: eleven tabs with 20+ checkboxes and fields on each, of which a minimum of two needed changing on each tab. Add in a garbage collection mechanism that was so aggressive that it collected database record locks and you have a user who develops strong views on user interface. So I like that here's a book you can give to programmers along with Understanding Comics and say 'read this and then we can argue'.


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BlackBerry workaround not so sweet

An anonymous tester who's tried what he says is the workaround that RIM will use if the court upholds the NTP patent case and makes them change their service gives it five stars here. I disagree completely; this could be enough to make BlackBerry worthless to me, and I'm a huge BlackBerry fan. Disclaimer: I haven't seen this and I haven't discussed it with RIM. Caveat: the company has said the workaround would only apply in the US (and to BlackBerry users visiting the US) so UK users may not need to suffer. Double disclaimer: this is anonymous, rumour and unsubstantiated.

According to the post, the workaround will push email headers (subject/time/sender etc) but not the message body. That will be retrieved 'seamlessly' when you open the message - in the same way that BlackBerry today only downloads anything after the first 2K of the message when you scroll past the More marker.

Faster networks will make the pause while the message arrives much shorter; the new 8700g will be pretty speedy on Orange's new EDGE network, though not as fast as the Palm 700w on the US EVDO network (personal prediction here; perhaps a 3G Palm 700w for the UK in the second half of this year when the 3G radios eat less battery).

But it means you have to be in coverage to read your email - as opposed to looking at the message and thinking 'wow, I need to read that; shame I'm on the tube for the next 45 minutes with plenty of time to read and reply but no network connection'. If I have time to stop and retrieve email in coverage, it's not going to be any faster than stopping and hitting Send/Receive on a Windows Mobile device like the MDA Vario (where I get excellent predictive dialling and over the air synchronisation of my contacts and calendar without needing the BES server).

You just can't assume universal connectivity; that's the failing of many mobile systems. You need to handle offline and online smartly and seamlessly. The asynchronous 'it's just there' of BlackBerry is the secret sauce; that's why it's so much better a push email solution than anything else I've tried yet. Make me get involved, demand I push the right button at the right time and you've taken away much of the value. I find I'm hoping the NTP patents fail and the BlackBerry stays the same; and I do hope any changes don't happen during March when I'll be in the US, relying on my BlackBerry for email and blogging in motion.