PhD Defense of Elina Vartiainen

Finland is one country in Europe were it seems pretty hard to get to in the morning from Germany or Austria. If you have a meeting before 11 am you have to fly the day before.

I was invited to Helsinki to be opponent (together with Kaisa Väänänen-Vainio-Mattila) for the PhD defense of Elina Vartiainen at Helsinki University of Technology. The first time I came across work she was involved in was at CHI 2006 in Montreal. She worked with Virpi Roto on the Minimap web browser [1]. Last year in a doctoral colloquium in Finland we first discussed some of her work and I was excited to read it in more detail for the PhD exam.

Dissertations in practical areas of computer science that are done in company research labs are at the same time limited and exciting. What can be done is often limited by the company needs but on the other hand it offers the great opportunity to get things out large scale and collect experiences from many users (e.g. you may want to check the ImageExchange project, where the studies were also part of Elina’s dissertation).

I like the finnish system of having a long public defense. We discussed about 3 hours with Elina and I enjoyed it 🙂

There are two general but important issues I think I take away from our discussion:

  1. do question the research process including the steps (e.g. hardware first or applications first), the approach (e.g. human need centred vs. design driven) and the setup of the teams (who is needed to get a successful product? Business, law, design, hardware?).
  2. innovation for web services on a global scale comes not from a single company or small set of highly skilled developers. Creating opportunities for a larger number developers (with skills limited skills, e.g. like web development) will be the key to create all the applications people need all over the world. Having a single instance controlling what can be developed does scale.

Guess what was the first web browser on a mobile device I used on a mobile device? It was an Apple Messagepad – and the browser was PocketWeb developed at TecO in Karlsruhe (where I worked from 1998-2001), see [2] and http://www.teco.edu/pocketweb/

[1] Roto, V., Popescu, A., Koivisto, A., and Vartiainen, E. 2006. Minimap: a web page visualization method for mobile phones. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Montréal, Québec, Canada, April 22 – 27, 2006). R. Grinter, T. Rodden, P. Aoki, E. Cutrell, R. Jeffries, and G. Olson, Eds. CHI ’06. ACM, New York, NY, 35-44. DOI= http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1124772.1124779

[2] Stefan Gessler and Andreas Kotulla. PDAs as mobile WWW browsers. Proceedings of the Second World Wide Web Conference ’94: Mosaic and the Web. Chicago, Illinois, USA, 1994.

Richard Atterer defended his PhD-thesis

At LMU in Munich Richard Atterer defended his PhD thesis on Usability Tool Support for Model-Based Web Development. The external examiner was Prof. Martin Gaedke– it was great meeting Martin again, we shared an office some years back at TecO, University of Karlsruhe. While I was with LMU I worked with Richard on a number of interesting topics and I learned to value his technical skills and insightful reflection – hope he stays in academia 😉 
Our experiments with remote usability assessment and effectively fine-grain user tracking on web pages [1] created a number of ideas for follow-up projects. The overall concept is really simple yet powerful: people use a proxy server (willingly or transparent) and by these means Javascript code is included in the html-source of arbitrary web pages to add new functionality [2]. Florian Alt extended this concept to an annotation system and currently we look into more general implication of this approach.
While writing his theses Richard countered our routine question “how is progress?”  with a dynamically generated graph on his webpage. Each time he checked his document in SVN the graph was updated with the current number of words and pages … but we still kept asking 😉 
 [1] Atterer, R. and Schmidt, A. 2007. Tracking the interaction of users with AJAX applications for usability testing. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (San Jose, California, USA, April 28 ? May 03, 2007). CHI ’07. ACM, New York, NY, 1347?1350. DOI= http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1240624.1240828
[2] Atterer, R., Wnuk, M., and Schmidt, A. 2006. Knowing the user’s every move: user activity tracking for website usability evaluation and implicit interaction. In Proceedings of the 15th international Conference on World Wide Web (Edinburgh, Scotland, May 23 ? 26, 2006). WWW ’06. ACM, New York, NY, 203?212. DOI= http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1135777.1135811 

Buying Music Online – how easy is it?

Imagine there is a song – you know band and title – and you want to buy it. Should not be really something worthwhile reporting in a blog…

How long does it take to buy a song and how many steps does it need? I tried myself and was pretty much amazed that it is still more difficult than other ways to get music. The idea was to put the song into my shopping cart, press check-out, pay by credit card, and download. On the stores I encountered you have to register before to buy… I finally got the song and here are the steps at a major German music store: go to shop page, search for song, put in shopping cart, go to checkout, told to register, fill in registration form, told to confirm email, opened email client, waited 3 minutes for email, confirmed email, logged in on webpage, realized shopping card is empty :-(, search for song, put in shopping cart, go to checkout, entered credit card information, pay about 1.69€, got download link, got music.

I really wonder how many people will become first time buyers in this shop. Sometimes I think the things we teach in User Interface Engineering are obvious – but real life tells me they are not! If you run a music download portal or if you are in the music business and you wonder why no-one buys – we can tell you 🙂 it may be about utility and usability of your online offers… if you need more details we are happy to help you 🙂

PS: there was a store with a .ru address with better usability that offered the song with no registration at 0.20€ – but I did not want to give my credit card details… 

Our Papers at Interact 2007

Heiko Drewes and Richard Atterer, collegues from university of Munich, have travelled to Interact 2007. Their emails indicate that the conference is this year at a most interesting place. The conference is in Rio de Janeiro, directly at the Copacabana. The conference was highly competitive and we are happy to have two papers we can present there.

Heiko presents a paper that shows that eye gestures can be used to interact with a computer. In his experiments he shows that users can learn gesture with eyes (basically moving the eyes in a certain pattern, e.g. following the outline of a dialog box). The paper is part of his PhD research on eye-tracking for interaction. More details are in:

Heiko Drewes, Albrecht Schmidt. Interacting with the Computer using Gaze Gestures. Proceedings of INTERACT 2007.

Richard’s paper is on collaboration support with a proxy based approach. Using our previous work on the UsaProxy we extended the functionality to supported synchronous communication while using the Web:

Richard Atterer, Albrecht Schmidt, and Monika Wnuk. A Proxy-Based Infrastructure for Web Application Sharing and Remote Collaboration on Web Pages. Proceedings of INTERACT 2007.

Great tutorial on eXtreme Programming/Agile Methods

Today Karl-Heinz Sylla and Reinhard Budde (both senior researcher at Fraunhofer IAIS) gave for the summer research project a tutorial on agile methods for software engineering. The experience they have from large scale real world projects is impressive! We looked at different approaches to software construction and discussed the pros and cons. Short iterations, user stories, pair programming and test driven development seem to fit very well to our work approach and project goals. A good starting point for more on the topic in particular with a teaching perspective are the following 2 papers: LeJeune, N. F. 2006. Teaching software engineering practices with Extreme Programming. J. Comput. Small Coll. 21, 3 (Feb. 2006), 107-117 and Schneider, J. and Johnston, L. 2003. eXtreme Programming at universities: an educational perspective. In Proceedings of the 25th international Conference on Software Engineering (Portland, Oregon, May 03 – 10, 2003). International Conference on Software Engineering. IEEE Computer Society, Washington, DC, 594-599.

From a user interface engineering perspective is very positive that agile methods are good to integrate with user centred design – in my experience much better than traditional software construction processes. Especially the fact that XP (eXtreme Programming) is open to change in functionally throughout the process is a key.

In this summer research project one great challenge is that the students have to build up knowledge in various areas (e.g. search technologies, web technology, user interfaces) while creating high quality code. There is a very interesting paper that discusses software engineering issues in the context of web applications: Jazayeri, M. 2007. Some Trends in Web Application Development. In 2007 Future of Software Engineering (May 23 – 25, 2007). International Conference on Software Engineering. IEEE Computer Society, Washington, DC, 199-213.

Always when the discussion comes to programming languages a debate on strong typing starts. Especially in the web context this seems come up again and again…

the count down started – about 5 weeks to the prototype

Yesterday our summer project started at IAIS. The students are highly motivated and the combined skill set of the participants is impressive. We discussed a lot what we want to achieve over the next weeks.

Creating a new special purpose search service – basically from the rough idea to a working prototype – in 5 weeks seems a bit crazy but I am confident that we get there 😉 In certain areas we already have an idea how much pages we have to crawl and how much content we have to analyze.

It is interesting that it already now becomes apparent that user interface issues and system architecture decisions are closely linked. E.g. doing a meta search while the user is waiting requires some other content that we can present while the user is expecting the results.

What happens if you ask the customer (user)?

Dell started some time ago a web page where the public was asked for comments on improvement (http://www.ideastorm.com) – by now the list is quite impressive – at least in length. Such open community processes are really exciting to watch. I am curious which of those suggestions are implemented and how successful it is to listen to customers direct responses. If it works well others are probably trying it, too…

To make the most out of these suggestions and comments it seems essential to perform a detailed analysis (perhaps taking into account temporal dynamics of the conversation additionally to the content) – looks like another really interesting field for text-mining.

Panel on Users as Producers at Schloss Birlinghoven

In the castle on campus Ute Schütz and Michael Krapp from IAIS and SCAI organize a public panel discussion on citizen journalism and Web 2.0 trends. The discussion looked at the topic from several angles including technology, content, and communication. I had the honour to be on the panel with Wolfgang Back, Frank Patalong, Moritz „mo.“ Sauer and Thomas Tikwinski.

On issue was how much blogs are (mis)used to transport information or to do advertising. The web seems to be to many people a very believable medium. This reminded me of an article I read some time ago on story-telling o n the web (Miller, J. 2005. Storytelling evolves on the web: case study: EXOCOG and the future of storytelling. interactions 12, 1 (Jan. 2005), 30-47. DOI= http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1041280.1041281). I think something along this lines would an interesting project with students.

The questions what is going to change in the near future on the WWW brought many trend statements out, but for me it is amazing that most of the infrastructure and technology we need to make this happen is out there. One comment which I think is really true is that it is more an more about content and communication again. As Thomas said before the panel – most of the great things that are called Web 2.0 have been in the original proposal for the WWW (e.g. annotations by everyone or users as editors) – but now technology is finally there that people can use it.

Having a digital presence after life?

An event this week reminded me that life has an end. Getting a link to a Google Map page (satellite image) where someone found his last resting place shows how far reaching new technologies have penetrated our life. This made me think about a demo I saw at Ubicomp last year (http://mastaba.digital-shrine.com/). The digital family shrine did not really relate to my cultural experience and felt somehow strange, but still very interesting and intriguing. I wonder in what form of digital presence after life will become common in Germany