What if?

It’s a very simple question, but one that can have a profound impact.

What if…

Computers did just provide access to information, but improved the “processes of thought”

What if…

You could carry around all of the data that I would ever need or process

What if…

When’s the last time you asked your self this question. Even more important, what did you answer.

Information Rights Salon

Ana Viseu’s Privacy Lecture Series has morphed in to the Information Rights Salon. The Information Rights Salon is an open forum dedicated to the discussion and analysis of privacy, information rights issues including freedom of information, copyright, intellectual property, digital identity and civil liberties.

PRIVATERRA: Securing Human Rights through Privacy Technology

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

6:00 to 7:30 p.m.

Robert Guerra and Caryn Mladen


140 St. George, Room 728

Faculty of Information Studies (Bissell building adjacent to Robarts Library)

University of Toronto

The lectures are free of charge, and there is NO need for registration.


Robert and Caryn will talk about Privaterra’s work protecting human rights workers throughout the world by offering and implementing privacy and security technology, technological education and support. This work helps ensure human rights workers have the ability to communicate and conduct their activities in greater safety against the dangers of spying eyes and
ears that may limit their effectiveness, infringe their rights, and endanger their lives.


Robert Guerra is a leading privacy advocate based in Palo Alto, California and Toronto, Canada. After working for several years in the medial research field he dedicated his focus to the emerging field of medical privacy consulting. For the past two years he has been involved in numerous privacy initiatives to help NGOs both preserve and protect their data. He currently sits on the board of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

Caryn Mladen is a writer, consultant and educator based in Toronto, Canada.

After a career as an intellectual property lawyer, she established a consulting practice in strategic planning for high tech projects and companies. She has co-authored five books, including the Canadian Computer Handbook, and is a columnist and journalist for major computer publications, writing, among other columns, the None of Your Business
privacy column under her pseudonym Venomgirl. She also teaches at the University of Toronto and has frequently appeared on television, radio and at conferences about issues of privacy, intellectual property and emerging technology.

The Humane Environment

Jef Raskin started the Macintosh project at Apple to design a product to meet the needs of computer users. The needs included the human-computer interface and the need to have a product that was within budget of the newly developing home computer market. Raskin has proposed that Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) and their style of interaction are inappropriate for new devices, such as cell phones and and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). Raskin provides examples how computers can be made easier to learn and understand in his book, The Human Interface. Ever wonder why Windows or the Mac OS takes so long to boot up? Palm Pilots, your telephone, and other devices are instant on. The Humane Environment Project was created to "build better, faster to learn, easier to use, more efficient and lower cost ways to access the power of computing technology".

And I think that he is correct!

We need to understand the limitation of human cognition and memory, the needs of the users, and the context that devices are used we can build better software. When we look at innovators like IDEO and their holistic methods of problem definition, user observation, interface prototyping, and project evaluation, we can see that the human experience is a vital part of any product, service or environment.

Multi-channel customer experience

If Apple is a religion, then Apple stores are the temple. Business Week has a question-and-answer session with Paco Underhill about his opinions of the Apple Store. Apple understands the need to improve the retail experience. By providing a controlled retail experience, Apple has given it’s customers and potential customers a positive environment to interact and explore the newest Apple equipment. The retail store supports Apple’s online store but allowing customers to explore, touch, feel, experience Apple. Online shopping supports different customer goals than retail shopping. By understanding the goals of customers Apple has developed both a retail and an online presence that helps meet new customer goals.

Apple has focused on advertising to new Apple owners and Windows users, the Switch campaign, they have realized that most Mac users own multiple Apple machines. The needs of these customers are very different than potential Apple owners. Offering software upgrades, access to Mac Experts, and upgrades/add-ons, Apple is working on creating an experience to meet the needs of it’s existing customers.

As Dr. Underhill notes Apple can improve their retail experience by understanding their customer demographics and by observing their behaviour.

“Part of what I said is that they need to sit on a skateboard and look at the store from a vantage point of a baby stroller or a five-year-old.”

Customer observation can improve both the Apple Store experience but also how customers integrate the Online Store and Retail Store in their shopping behaviour. Apple is working to understand their multi-channel customer service.

Paco Underhill’s book Why We Buy is now available in paperback. It is mandatory reading for anyone developing customer experiences. It provides tools, techniques and vignettes about the value of customer observation in the improvement of the shopping experience.

Human needs drive innovation

We can look at Abraham Maslow’s theory of hierarchical human needs to see the successes of innovation. Maslow’s theory hypothesized that there are varying levels of needs. The higher level needs are dependent on the satisfaction of the lower level needs. We can review current innovations based on the stage of development of society and how the specific innovation addresses the underlying human needs.


Physiological needs include oxygen, water, relatively constant body temperature, etc. Significant developments to meet the physiological needs in Western culture have taken place in the last 50 years. These development include the air conditioner, the refrigerator, water purification and treatment. These innovations are adopted quickly by society and we often forget about their value to our lives. Significant opportunities exist for the development of environmentally responsible applications of these technologies.


Security/Safety needs include stability, dependency, protection, freedom from fear and anxiety, law and order. Many of these innovations are in changes to public policy and local government. The development of security tools including biometrics, encryption and personal defense. Security innovations exist in both the physical and virtual worlds. Physical world safety innovations include small arms (though the distribution and use of small arms has fuelled political instabilities and made regions of the world very unsafe—see Scientific American for more details). Virtual innovations include encryption technologies (SSL, public key cryptography, PGP, etc.), firewalls to keep out intruders, and credit card fraud detectors (HNC’s Falcon Fraud Management System).


Social needs include a feeling of belongingness, love, and the development of community. Many technologies have focused on the creation of communities and the development of relationships. Communications platforms explode on to the public scene after the lower level needs have been met. Examples including the telephone, the Internet, and even blogging software. All of these technologies foster the human social needs, but their success happens only after the physiological and safety needs have been met. In the case of telecommunications the physiological needs are the network itself, i.e., I need to be able to reach someone that matters to me, and after the technology is relatively safe to use.


Ego/Esteem needs include a desire for strength, achievement, adequacy, mastery, competence, independence, freedom, status, recognition, attention, importance and appreciation. The development of recently changed weblog lists (Weblogs.com, Blo.gs) and the creation of online publications are services that promote respect and the esteem from others. The success of the Thunder Lizard conferences and the creation of web celebrities (Business 2.0’s Gurus, the Wired 52, O’Reilly Network Weblogs are one result of satisfying the Ego/Esteem needs.


Self-actualization was described by Maslow as “an ongoing process”. Self-actualized individuals are realistic, spontaneous, focused on problems outside of themselves, autonomous, creative among other things. I am not sure that there are self-actualization innovations. Many people may take other innovations and use them to become self-actualized.

“Musicians must make music, artists must paint, poets must write if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. What humans can be, they must be. ”—Abraham Maslow.

Part Programmer, Part Archaeologist

I just finished re-reading Vernon Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky where one of the protagonist’s, Pham Neuwen, is described as a Programmer Archaeologist. His experience and expertise is the underlying code and low-level functions hidden in the code beneath the levels of documentation. I started thinking about the role that history play with usability and information architecture.

Techniques for Observation
Contextual Inquiry is among the leader for mind-share in ethnographic techniques used by designers to build new software products. There are other methodologies that are based in anthropology, ethnography and archaeology including diary studies, customer interviews, . All of these are tools for understanding how people interact with technology in context, i.e., how people use and interact with tools and technology in the real-world. By observing real-world usage, designers can very quickly understand where problems exist and where to focus their efforts on designing change.

Searching for Patterns
Dictionary.com describes archaeology as “The systematic study of past human life and culture by recovery and examination of remaining material evidence, such as graves, buildings, tools and pottery.”
This systematic study of human lives leads to the identification and abstraction of patterns. These patterns exist for user interfaces, whether wizard interfaces or progress bars. By understanding when and where these patterns should be used we can build better tools.

Related Links

Tom Erickson’s Interaction Patterns page
Jan Borcher’s HCI Patterns book
Jennifer Tidwell’s UI Patterns

Search is goal directed

Buying tickets to an event online can be a very painful experience.

I recently bought tickets for Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai and Mamma Mia. I was frustrated because while I wanted the very best seats available for both performances, the tools forced me to search for tickets by date.

The ticketing sites assumed that the most important ticket selection criteria is date. This is probably true of a large percentage of their target market. I live close to the theatre district and do not have to travel to see these shows, so the date of the performance is a less important selection criteria. By identifying the goals of customers, companies can better understand purpose of their customers. What are the goals for customers of an online ticketing service?

  • Get the best seats for a specific date
  • Get the best seats for any date
  • Get the best seats for a fixed price
  • Get the best seats for a date range

This presents a key set of criteria that can be used in the search for tickets including: date; price; seat location; date range; number of seats together and others. I should be able to start my search using any one of these criteria. For example, I want 4 tickets for the first 4 rows of the center balcony, this is not possible using the current interface. Now I have to guess if those seats will be available on a Saturday in November.

Rogers Digital Cable

The price for my Rogers cable connection finally jumped (all of the discounts and introductory offers finally expired) to where the difference between my good old cable and digital cable was negligible. I used to be a Time Warner Digital Cable subscriber, though I have been reluctant to adopt the Rogers Digital Cable service. I am an early adopter, but I have held back on Rogers Digital Cable for more than 12 months. Here are some of my reasons:

  • Price
    This is always a stumbling block of new technology adoption. But until last month my cable bill was 35% less with regular analog cable. With a recent raise in rates it is negligibly different than the price of digital cable. Price was the main reason that I did not upgrade to digital cable, basically I was not willing to pay $30-40/month for the additional digital specialty channels.
  • Features
    Great, I now get over 200 channels. Why is it when I sit down to watch TV there is still very little on. I miss the features and benefits of a Personal Video Recorder. I want my Tivo. Why doesn’t Canada have Tivo yet? Great, I get more channels, but why not improve how I watch TV now.
  • Convenience
    Digital cable requires that I change my current home theatre. I have to get in behind the theatre console and reconfigure the mess of wires. When will consumer electronics companies realize that I will trade all of this for no-nonsense solution. This inconvenience far out weighted the benefits of more channels.

Rogers Digital Cable is a great example of a company not understanding what their customer needs are and misinterpreting television watching behaviour. Rogers must have analysts/business consultants/marketing analysts that review all of the vast stores of customer data and analytics but they still don’t fundamental understand how or why I watch TV. Until they do, they are doomed to add more features that I will adopt after the price has been reduced.

Linux needs to be easier


Linus Torvalds wants to make Linux more usable. Well according to an article on CNET. This should spark an interesting debate inside of the Linux community, as part of the community is bound to share the view held by Jeremy Allison, leader of the open-source Samba project, that the kernel is the most important thing to Linux. This is a radical shift in thinking for much of the development community. It requires the shift in development from improving the technology, to developing technology that enables people to accomplish tasks.

Recently at the San Jose Technology museum celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the IBM PC, Mitch Kapor, founder of the EFF and Lotus, pointed out “that despite an installed base of 500 million PCs worldwide, usability was a major block to wider adoption of technology; he warned that if the PC doesn’t get easier to use, a newer, simpler technology could replace it.” It reassures me that even the leaders of the technology industry realize that the PC is a communications platform, and we should attempt to make it usable. However I often wonder if Mitch is the lone business man in this crusade.