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Novel vs. Neat vs. Useful

In academic research, where I started my career, novelty trumps everything. First and foremost, papers must be novel; the kiss of death for a paper being considered by a program committee is for someone to argue that all of the ideas in the paper have been previously published elsewhere. After novelty, reviewers (and committees) look for neat: is the idea cool and interesting? Whether or not an idea is actually useful is rarely, if ever, been considered. In fact, I served on program committees where committe members argued that it was not the job of the committee to determine whether an idea was actually useful. And this is for HCI conferences, where you’d think that being useful for real people would be a primary consideration. In practice, not so much.

These days I live and work in Silicon Valley, where neat reigns triumphant. You’d think that for companies trying to actually make money that providing utility that people will pay for would be paramount. Sadly, too often Silicon Valley (and the tech press that covers it) assumes that neat means useful. Virtual reality is neat, there it must be the next big thing. What’s it good for? Who knows, but it’s neat, therefore it must be useful. Conversational agents are neat, therefore they must be useful. It’s neat to ask for the weather two Tuesdays ago at 2 PM near the Golden Gate Bridge. Is it useful? Did we mention how neat it is? And most recently, through-the-lens augmented reality on phones is neat, therefore it must be useful. You can measure things and see what furniture looks like in your home (which is about the limit of what Tango came up with after 3-4 years); sure that’s neat! Never mind that you probably don’t redecorate your house that often; it’s neat!

There are companies that do focus on useful. Apple, for example, tends to focus on it, even if it means that they’re not first to bring a particular technology to market. In fact, Apple tends to get dinged by pundits for not focusing enough on novel or neat. People will pay for useful, but it’s hard to generate lots of clicks for advertising revenue from it. Novel and neat make much better clickbait.

Useful is where I personally like to work. Useful means bringing real value to people, giving them their money’s worth. Useful isn’t antithetical to neat or novel; if you can get useful and neat or useful and novel, or all three, even better. But I’ve seen too many products or features make it to market because they’re neat and demo well and nobody bothered to think through (or care about) utility. And then they (unsurprisingly) get derided as gimmicky. Yes, our products do need to appeal to consumers. But if we want to build lasting relationships that keep them coming back, we need to providing value that lasts beyond the first use.

In praise of small tablets

Galaxy Tab S2I’m a fan of small tablets. When Samsung released the first Galaxy Tab (way back when I was still at IBM Research), I thought the 7″ form factor was a strange choice: it wasn’t as portable as a phone, and yet it didn’t offer as much screen space as the recently released iPad. But we got one to experiment with at work, and I discovered I really liked the size. It was great for┬áreading, with a combination of lightness and weight distribution that made it very easy to hold one-handed, while still offering full access to email, web browsing, etc. in a way that a Kindle e-reader (which has a similar form factor) does not.

When Amazon released the first Kindle Fire, I went ahead and pre-ordered one. While the Kindle Fire was slightly constrained in its functionality (let’s face it, the email and web browser were mediocre at best, and the thing was pretty pokey), reading Kindle books was my primary use case for a 7″ tablet (and it was inexpensive to boot). And I liked it; even now it’s still totally usable.

When I went to replace the Fire, I opted for a regular Android device for access to the Google Play Store. I’d recently joined Samsung, so I bought a Note 8.0 (the tablet, not the recently released phone). That device served me well for several years, but when I went to upgrade I decided to switch to something with more regular Android updates: the Nexus 7 (the 2013 version). Even though it was released the same year as the Note 8.0, Google had been providing updates to the latest and greatest Android version, so it served me well for another couple of years. But Google stopped providing updates with Marshmallow, so this year I went looking for another new small tablet.

Sadly, while I’m a big fan of the form factor, it seems the marketplace as a whole is not. Samsung released the Tab S3 this year only in the larger, 9.7″ form factor. Apple seems to be de-emphasizing small tablets as well; the iPad mini 4 is now over 2 years old, and there are rumors that Apple won’t release another one. In the end I opted for an 8″ Galaxy Tab S2. Samsung quietly bumped the internals in the summer of 2016, so it’s still relatively up-to-date. I like it: it’s fast, the screen looks great, and it’s very light. But it’s probably only got another year of OS updates (at most), and I’m not sure what I’ll do then.

So although small tablets might be getting squeezed by large tablets and increasingly large phones, I still think there’s value in the 7-8″ form factor. It’s great for reading, highly portable, and to mind the best choice for one-handed use. Have you ever tried to read in bed with a 9-10″ tablet? It’s ridiculous. And reading long-form content off an 18:9 aspect ratio phone? Ugh. Give me a small tablet any day. Every day. Please.

 

Field Guide to Silicon Valley Bicyclists

Silicon Valley is a great place to bike. It pretty much never rains between May and October, and even our “hot” days don’t tend to get that hot (the current heat wave being a notable exception). And even during our “rainy” season, it typically doesn’t rain that often. I’ve been biking to work almost every day (except when it rains or I need a car during the day for some reason) for a few years now.

In that time, I’ve noticed several particular species of Silicon Valley Bicyclist. By far the majority are pleasant, polite, and well-mannered, and I salute them heartily for their decency and contribution to society (reduced congestion, pollution, and demand on the healthcare system). However, there are sadly a few types that detract from the bike commuting experience. This Field Guide provides a brief description of these types so that you can recognize them when encountered.

The first is the class of bicyclists that I call the Self-Centered Self-Movers. This class is focused on just moving themselves along, oblivious to the rest of their world. They have their headphones jammed firmly in their ears, and they pay little (to no) attention to the world around them. I can understand wearing headphones while walking or running; I do it myself. You’re moving slower, you can stay to the side, and you have plenty of time to check your surroundings if you need to change direction. But bicycling? You’re moving faster, you generally can’t stick to the side, you sometimes need to change direction and speed quickly, and (when you’re on the road) you’re contending with drivers who aren’t always good about keeping an eye out for bicyclists. But the self-centered self-mover doesn’t care who they might injure or inconvenience. They are ensconced in their own little world and assume that everything will just work out ok.

There’s a (thankfully) small subset of the Self-Centered Self-Movers that also appear to be Self-Destructive. This subset goes so far as to not even bother to check behind them when changing lanes or turning. On trails that would just be rude, but I’ve seen people in this set exhibit this behavior on roads. Drivers in Silicon Valley are generally good around cyclists, but seriously: sooner or later just pulling out into the roadway and assuming that cars will give way for you (especially when you’re weaing headphones and can’t hear them approaching) will not end well.

At the other extreme from the self-movers, we have those cyclists that appear to be convinced they’re competing in the Tour de France. While commuting. These Competitive Racers zip along on expensive racing bikes while wearing racing outfits and appear to be massively irritated that cars and other cyclists are using the same pathways they are. No gap is too small to run, no traffic law too important to ignore. Particularly through their flouting of traffic laws (I’ve seen cyclists blast through 4-ways stops with lots of cars waiting), this class of cyclists both gives the rest of us a bad name and actively makes the road more dangerous for us, making a number of drivers feel like cyclists “have it coming”.

A related class of cyclists are those individuals whose competitive instincts are a little overdeveloped. While our Tour de Frace cyclists are arguably also overly competive, they’re at least consistently fast. What separates this other class of Transient Competitors is that they’re not fast unless they’re about to be passed. They might be idling along at a slow pace, but apparently having someone pass them runs the risk of deflating their self-worth. Should you start to overtake such a cyclist, they will suddenly exert strenous effort in an attempt to avoid such a horrendous fate. Not only will such efforts involve a sudden burst of speed, they will unfortunately also include taking risks that frequently imperil other people.

If the Competitive Racers and Transient Competitors exhibit Silicon Valley’s competitiveness, the Shortsighted Cyclists exhibit Silicon Valley’s emphasis on moving fast and (likely) breaking things. They seem to be unable to look further than the immediate cyclist in front of them. More often that I would like (which, admittedly, would be never), I see cyclists attempt to pass a cyclist in front them without realizing that there is one or more cyclists in front of that cyclist, that there is oncoming traffic in the other direction, or some upcoming obstacle. Failing to look ahead and think, the Shortsighted Cyclist realizes their mistake at the last second (if at all) and simply attempts to plow their way through, other people be damned. I’ve seen at least one accident caused by such cyclists, and more near misses than I can count on two hands.

The final class is relatively recent, a development of technological improvements. These are the Scooter Riders. In the last year or two e-bikes started to catch on Silicon Valley, jumpstarted I suspect by some well-meaning company. And overall e-bikes are a net positive: they get people at least some exercise, and they get people off the roads. But a regrettable subset of e-bike riders have apparently had their “empowerment” go their heads. They’re somehow convinced that since they’re faster than other cyclists, they’re also better riders than other cyclists. As a result, they see no problem with riding their e-bikes at scooter speeds while paying minimal attention to other cyclists and pedestrians. Their attitude appears to be that if those other individuals were worthy of their attention they too would be riding e-bikes. Since they are not, they are not. While I’m generally supportive of e-bikes on trails, this class of riders is increasingly making me believe that such bikes should have speed limiters.

While Silicon Valley cyclists will encounter all of these classes, they are thankfully still a fraction of our overall bicycling population. Most local cyclists are pleasant and polite, and I thank them for sharing the trails (and roads) with me.

 

Gartner and the hyped hype cycle

It’s not exactly a secret that I have issues with Gartner and their hype cycle. When I was at IBM Research it would drive me crazy when someone would quote Gartner to try to prove that some technology or other was important. To summarize: since all Gartner really does it ask a bunch of technology companies what they think is next, quoting Gartner at a technology company doesn’t prove anything. You’re really just going with the group think du jour.

Having done my PhD studying virtual reality and 3D interaction, I tend to regard their hype cycle as particularly laughable. Lots of technologies, like VR, go around and around the circle (funny how Gartner draws their cycle as a line, as if technologies always progress from start to finish along it) from inflated expectations to disillusionment without going further. Depending on how you count, VR is on roughly the 4th cycle, and based on the job changes I see from folks I know at Facebook the current hype is dying down pretty quickly. Still other technologies are a flash in the pan, being hyped once and vanishing altogether.

And yet somehow the much hyped hype cycle endures, people quickly forgetting what last year’s predictions were in the excitement over what technologies might be about to break through on this cycle. So it was refreshing to see someone go back and look through all of the hype cycles published since 1995 to see how they fared. Short version: not well. Color me shocked.

TiVo suckiness and eero awesomeness

We replaced our old TiVo a month or so back. The previous one had lasted forever (I’m pretty sure we got it around 2009), but it was starting to experience playback issues and at this point I’m pretty sure we got our money’s worth out of it. So I went ahead and ordered a TiVo BOLT.

Previously I’ve had really good experiences with both TiVo hardware and software (witness the previous TiVo that lasted forever in technology-years). But the BOLT setup experience was awful. It’s much more dependent on network access than our old model, and its feedback when errors is downright awful. Its customer service has seriously gone downhill as well.

The problems started when first setting up the device. During setup it successfully connected to our wireless network, but then it kept complaining that our network must be firewalling it’s access to TiVo’s servers. Except, nope, no firewall. I both checked the router and confirmed with Comcast. A call to TiVo’s customer support was useless: they kept wanting me to access the network settings on the TiVo home screen, except that I couldn’t complete setup to access the home screen because setup requires a successful network connection. Great design, TiVo! I gave up on that rep and tried another, and ended up in the same place. Clearly TiVo is now outsourcing their customer service to a low cost provider (I’m guessing India based on the accents) and providing a useless trouble-shooting script where reps have no idea how to help if a problem falls outside that script.

I should mention at this point that our previous TiVo had been connecting to our wireless network for years in the same spot with zero problems. And WiFi was clearly more of an afterthought for it: we started out with a phone connection for it to download program information (told you it was old), and bought the external WiFi connector for it a couple of years after getting the box. So I was pretty sure the issue was not our network.

Finally I gave up, dug out an old TV, and set up the TiVo box right next to our router with a hardline connection. Now I managed to complete setup, and after installing a software update I managed to get a wireless connection working as well. One small problem: the wireless radio in the BOLT clearly sucks. It could establish a solid connection only over very short distances and with a clear line of sight to the router. Put it back where the old TiVo was, and suddenly it started dropping the connection (and complaining about being firewalled) 80-90% of the time.

I will admit that our router is not the most technically advanced. For the last few years we’ve just been using our Comcast cable modem to provide WiFi. Yeah, it’s not the greatest, but it’s been good enough. Our TV and a Mac mini connect to our WiFi in that same spot without problem, and our mobile devices don’t have any issues in that room. At this point I gave up in frustration and, after playing around a bit with our router’s channel assignments, decided to just live with the sucky connection. It was a close call, though; I almost decided to give up on TiVo, return the damn thing, and just make do with live TV and streaming (our consumption of recorded content had been declining for years anyway).

Use of a BOLT with an unreliable network connection, however, is a death of 1,000 cuts. Remember how I mentioned that the BOLT is more dependent on a network connection than our old TiVo? Yeah, apparently TiVo no longer believes in caching data. Which is kind of ironic given how much more space the latest boxes have to cache data. The BOLT will download and use scheduling data, but program details are pretty much all accessed on the fly. Want to search for a show to set up a pass or record it? Requires a network connection. Want to look at a program’s details to tell it to record or give it a thumbs up? Network connection (ok, from some-but-not-all screens).

I’d been curious about setting up a mesh network in our home for awhile; in general our wireless worked ok, but connections had always been a bit slow in the back bedrooms. And I’d heard good things both about the setup experience and WiFi quality of the eero. After putting up with the lousy TiVo connectivity for a month or so, I finally caved and ordered a base station and two beacons from Amazon.

The eero definitely earns the praise it’s received for it’s simple set-up process. Install the mobile app, plug the base station into your cable modem, specify the name you want for your network, and you’re off. The app connects to the base station automatically for you, so there’s no need to open up a browser and type in the IP address of your router. And the app and base station had WiFi up and running within a minute or two with essentially no additional work on part.

Setting up the beacons was similarly easy. Plug one in (I’m amused that the beacons also double as night lights), wait for the app to detect it, then have the eero test the connectivity to the beacon. If the connection is good you’re done, otherwise the app recommends how to reposition the beacon. I had one placement work right away, while I had to reposition the second beacon once before the app was satisfied with its placement.

The eero also makes updating easy. The app notified me of an available update, and with one tap the eero downloaded and installed the update.

Since getting the eero, our network has been noticeably faster and the coverage is significantly better. The BOLT now has a reliable connection. The bedrooms get a strong connection. I’ve noticed two cases where walking around the house while using the network caused short hitches (presumably from transitioning between the beacon coverage zones), but in both cases the connection quickly resumed.

After living with it for a week, I’d say that, while the eero is more expensive than other mesh networking offerings, the ease of use and reliability it offers has made it worth the price of admission so far. And the obvious care and attention that went into the design and implementation of the setup experience is orders of magnitude better than TiVo’s latest setup experience.

Glance and done for wearables

Besides activity tracking, the other thing smart watches are really useful for is keeping track of notifications. Feel (or hear) an incoming notification, glance to see what it’s about, then get on with what you were doing (or interrupt what you were doing to handle the interrupt). For email, though, I want one additional step. I can usually tell just from the sender, subject, and first couple of lines of a message whether it’s something I want to handle (either immediately or later) or immediately delete. And it’s surprising to me that current watches still often make the latter more difficult than it needs to be.

The Apple Watch is, frankly, bad at supporting fast delete of email messages. If you want to delete a message, you need to scroll all the way to the bottom of the notification to access the option to delete it. Maybe the watchOS developers need to read an entire message to decide whether they should delete it, but I don’t. If they want to keep swiping left to access a Clear option (I’d happily trade it for delete), how about letting me swipe right to delete? Pull down on the message to reveal a delete option? Either would be way faster.

Samsung’s Gear watches provide access to fast delete if it’s available as an action on the notification. So you can quickly delete a Gmail message with two taps: tap on the side to open the menu, then tap delete. But for reasons that escape me, delete is not available as an option for messages received with the built-in email application. Which Samsug provides. So, y’know, they could very easily address the lack. And they should.

Maybe they’re both leaving it as a new feature to call out for future software releases. Here’s hoping.

Auto-detecting vs. manually tracking activities

In order to keep tabs on both the iOS and Android ecosystems, I split my time between a Galaxy Note 5 + Gear S3 and an iPhone 7 Plus (yes, I like larger phones) + Apple Watch. I also bike to work daily and like to keep track of my rides (why is somewhat of an open question; it’s not like I’m trying to set speed records or anything).

The Gear S3 and Apple Watch have different philosophies for how to track my activities. The Apple Watch expects me to track all my workouts manually. Want to track a ride to or from work? You’ve got to manually start tracking the workout before you leave. And you’ve got to remember to stop it once you arrive at your destination. The failure modes are obvious: get thinking about something else (maybe a technical challenge you’re working on) and forget to start tracking, and your workout doesn’t exist. Or forget to stop tracking, and suddenly your ride home is twice its actual time.

The Gear S3 has a different philosophy. You can still start and stop tracking a workout manually, but the Gear S3 will also detect when you’ve started a workout and initiate tracking for you. And it’s pretty reliable: I can’t think of a single time that the watch has failed to detect when I start cycling, or when it’s thought I was cycling when I wasn’t (false positives and negatives, for those of you playing along at home). No more need to remember to start tracking your workout. The Gear S3 will also detect when the workout has ended and stop tracking for you. And that’s where it gets a little sticky. The watch doesn’t want to end the workout just because you’ve stopped moving; you might be stopped at a traffic light on a ride. So it typically takes it a minute or two before it decides you’ve really stopped your workout. It does try to then calculate back to determine when the workout really ended, but it’s still often off by a minute or so.

What I really want is a hybrid behavior. Autodetect the start of a workout; that’s really useful. But provide a manual method to stop a detected workout (as well as an autodetecting the end; that’s useful in case I forget). Strangely the Gear S3 doesn’t currently provide a way to manually end an autodetected workout, even though you can manually stop a workout you start yourself. With that one simple addition, the Gear S3 would provide workout tracking that I’d strongly prefer to Apple’s purely manual approach.

Of course, that’s for my commute ride. For running, I like the Apple Watch more than the Gear S3. That’s largely a size / weight issue, though. I helped out with some user tests of the Gear Fit 2, and it was actually better than both for comfort while running. But for general use I prefer the watch form factor.

So there you have it: human + AI would beat human alone and AI alone for tracking workouts. But then, I’ve long argued that AI + HCI can be better than either alone.