Wednesday, May 06, 2015

No App Required!

I saw an ad today that had me puzzled at first. It was for a real estate agency, Re/Max, with a simple non-descript illustration, but with a huge call out: NO APP REQUIRED.

I'm so used to seeing ads that hype mobile apps that  I couldn't immediately conceive of what the ad was getting at. I thought they might be suggesting that their human, local agents are better than cold tech. But that wasn't the case (we all know tech is superior to humans - I don't want to offend our future robot overlords).

There was only other bit of text and it revealed the mystery. It was the URL
Following up on the URL on my mobile device I found a really good mobile friendly website that had everything I would need from a realtor. 

But to get this info, I didn't have to go to an app store, find, download, install, and then find again (within the clutter of my device's many apps). 

Aside from the hassle of downloading apps (compared to the ease of locating a mobile website) studies have shown that users can only handle a few number of apps and only regularly use a small number of apps. Despite how developers sell companies on the need for an app and then companies hype their apps - we just don't need more apps.  

The World Wide Web would never have become as popular and powerful today if it had followed this app model. 

I think Remax going against the grain shows a genius level of knowledge of their customers' needs - even if the customers don't know they don't actually want an app for each company they do business with. Apps have been worshipped to such an extent and across sectors that recognizing the truth is no easy accomplishment. 

Google has recently been encouraging and now enforcing websites to be mobile friendly to rank well. (Read this article on this topic.) But otherwise I do not hear tech companies or design agencies insisting companies consider the mobile web first (as I have been for years).

So kudos to Re/Max for figuring this out ahead of the curve. 

I'd like to know what prompted them to do this campaign so I will ask them and report back here. In the meantime, make your website mobile friendly and consider mothballing your app.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Accessibility of Information Systems

 Last school semester I was working for a course on Information Systems at the University of Toronto. I delivered a guest lecture, Accessibility and Information Systems, that highlights the various issues, benefits, and resources for practitioners to consider to make their info system (whether it is a website, mobile app, self-serve kiosk, etc) more accessible to people of various abilities.

As one who lives and works in the province of Ontario, I'm very proud of the work my government has done to encourage and regulate accessibility through Ontario’s Integrated Accessibility Standards. What we are doing in Ontario can really provide a role model for other jurisdictions.

You can access my speaker notes via the "Options" button on the bottom of the Google Slides' player. I"ll highlight my key points below, however. 

Introducing Accessibility
 My background and interests are in designing and understanding digital user experiences. I believe that for everyone to be able to enjoy and benefit from digital media, it should be accessible to them. Accessibility, put simply, means that people can access – that is find and use – information or resources. Accessibility, in the context of this discussion, refers to the availability of resources  and services to people regardless of their abilities. People can be blocked by barriers based on: vision, hearing, mobility, motor control, cognitive or learning ability, mental health, and other factors.

The problematic issue of accessibility, particularly in regards to info systems, has created a gulf known as the “disability divide”. The disability divide draws upon the concept of the digital divide, wherein the world is increasingly divided between those who have access to Internet and those who do not. As the ability to use the Internet is required for more aspects of life, this inaccessibility further prevents disabled people from greater societal participation.

Approximately 1 in 7 Ontarians identified as disabled = 1.85 million people. That figure is expected to rise to 1 in 5 people by the year 2036 as our population agesDisabilities may not be readily apparent. The number of people affected by accessibility is much greater when one considers that it pertains to those with permanent conditions, temporarily disabled (e.g., broken arms), situationally disabled (e.g. loud environments preventing hearing audio), and those with diminishing capacity (e.g., elderly).

Social Considerations
Studies reveal the tremendous impact Internet access can have on disabled people. Researchers have also studied homebound elderly and disabled people before and after getting Internet access, and they found using the Internet decreased feelings of isolation and depression. Also, online shopping was found to reduce mobility disability.

Legal Requirements
Ontario has a recent law regarding accessibility, but even before this law inaccessibility was considered prohibited discrimination across Canada due to our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act or AODA was passed in 2005 with the goal of making Ontario accessible for people with disabilities by 2025. The regulations apply to people who live, work, or do business in Ontario. Where the rules will be most enforced will be in regards to businesses, government, and education. If you are working for a company now with over 20 employees your company must have submitted last year to the Ontario government a report on how the company is working towards accessibility.

There are other reports and actions due in the coming years. The Ontario government has a Accessibility Compliance Wizard that walks one through compliance issues with a calendar of key dates.

 If you aren’t living or working in Ontario, you may still encounter AODA or rules like it as Ontario is being observed by other provinces and countries as an exemplar. More jurisdictions are moving forward or considering similar legislation.

Business Reasons:
Implementing accessibility may help you increase your company's reach or access new markets. For example, Good Grips kitchen utensils were designed for arthritis but are widely popular for their ease and comfort of use.  Other examples include screen readers developed for blind people but great for motorists. Accessible info systems may also improve interoperability and performance, optimizing for search engines, and demonstrate corporate responsibility.

 As you are studying and working in various information fields, you will encounter accessibility in various different products and services. Implementing accessibility can seem like a lot to do and may seem like it is difficult to know where to start. The first step should be knowing your audience or customers. Know what their needs are and then work to achieve this goal first. You can learn about your audience through informal data (e.g. customer service reports) or formal research via surveys or focus groups.

In 1997, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announced the formation of its Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The WAI was a collaborative effort from industry, advocacy organizations, disability specialists, and academia. Their Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) was released in 1999 and updated into a second version 2008. It is the second version known as WCAG 2 that is in use today. Despite criticism, WCAG is the leading international standard and the basis of international policy and law, including US’ Section 508, AODA, and an ISO standard. 

If you will be developing hardware or software, IBM guidelines are among the most recognized. For those working with a specific disability group, such as autism or epilepsy, there are disability specific guidelines that go beyond the others.

Accessibility Experts
 Due to AODA accessibility experts and consultants are proliferating now, but be careful. Hiring outside consultants who specialize in web accessibility can be a solution.  Yet, with any field where a client is not able to judge the quality of an expert’s work, it is possible for experts to abuse their position. So check a consultant’s past work and references first.

As people increasingly integrate online activities into their lives, a digital, disability divide exists between those who can and cannot access online content. Alterations to design and code can remove barriers that otherwise lock disabled people out of participation. As information professionals it is up to us to do our best to remove the disability divide.

Mobile Devices Give Directions... TO HELL!

I had some free time last night so I caught up on some shows saved to my PVR that I've been meaning to watch.  I used to be a big fan of the television show Supernatural - which if you haven't seen the show, the name pretty much tells you all you need to know. Now in its tenth season, I stopped watching religiously about two seasons ago.

But I've been saving an episode from this past February that I did not want to miss. The episode, "Halt & Catch Fire", was about a vengeful ghost who uses wifi networks to possess his victim's networked devices and kill them!

There's a selfie-obsessed teenager who meets her end from the cord of her device. My favourite victim though was killed by his possessed mobile device. He asks it for directions, but the device leads him far astray... until the "destination is dead ahead"!  Watch the clip:

I enjoyed this clip as I can relate! I had an evil GPS device insist I turn off the road in Hawaii and into an active volcano (I'm not exaggerating - read the details of my encounter).

Evil devices? It's not that far-fetched - GPS devices have resulted in many people's untimely demise - just google "GPS Device Deaths" to read of the many tragic cases.

Of course, those devices likely don't tell you to "Go screw yourself" first. That should be a tip-off that your device really is out to get you.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Tracking The Trackers

Having researched mobile locative technology for the past few years, I have often heard from people that they don't use such features on their smartphone that automatically ascertain and transmit their position as they are concerned about being tracked. I have never felt such a concern as I don't believe the various locations I traverse are interesting. In all likelihood, companies will may use the data to find out enough about me to try to sell things - hopefully a more geographically relevant way.

So I have always turned my location tracking settings on and given my permission for most of the apps I have downloaded onto my smartphone to access this data (with the exception of a few apps that I am unable to determine why they need this info on me).

I do believe that all users should always be given the option to turn this ability off. Here's a link to instructions on how to do this.

But since allowing myself to be tracked by my Android device's maker, Google, I have not encountered any problems (that I'm aware of anyway - who knows if some nefarious government agency or sinister hackers are compiling a dossier on me - if so it would be exceptionally boring).

And I have benefitted by a few apps knowing my location - though more often than not the location is not updated in real time to be of the utmost use.

I recently found out about an online service by Google offers, called Location History, that let's users see on a map what locations their device has transmitted back to Google. The service requires one to enter the account associated with the device and password. This service isn't new but it does seem largely unknown. It turns out, Apple and Microsoft also offer similar abilities.

When I checked out my location history that Google had, I was shocked by how frequently my location was transmitted (every few minutes) and that Google kept this data for so long (in my case dating back years -CHECK THIS!!!!).

Here's a sample of what is recorded:

I was surprised by how granular the data is and the extent to which Google let's one view it. One can view tracking paths by the day or in aggregate time frames (e.g. past two days, past week, past month, etc.). I'm not sure how long Google stores records, but I checked mine and it goes back months.

There were some errors for places I didn't go but was near and going underground (such as a subway) caused the route lines to be wrong as it assumes a straight line between two known positions).  I've heard that such features are a battery hog, but I read that Google uses positioning by cell phone towers instead of GPS to save battery life.

Not being a privacy worrier, I was nonetheless bit creeped out by this despite how cool it is to see this so nicely and interactively presented. Google does let one delete their location history completely or item-by-item.  Still, I'm not planning on deactivating it.

I thought this feature was interesting if not particularly useful. It had occurred to me that I could use it to prove that I (or to be specific my smartphone) was at a certain point when I said it was. But it wasn't until I mentioned to my cousin that she thought of a powerful - and affordable - use for it. Her company is looking for a logistics solution for their small fleet of delivery trucks.

She describes their needs, "We are looking for an inexpensive way of tracking our fleet throughout the day without installing something on the vehicle. Our fleet have Android devices tethered to tablets turned on for the work day and in the vehicle charger while driving."

If each driver were given their own individual account for the tablet, I can't see why management couldn't use this information to track their location history at a rate significantly cheaper than logistics solutions.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Playing and Learning with Digital Media and Technology at digiPlaySpace

Recently, my daughter and I were hosted at TIFF's digiPlaySpace, an annual digital media playground in Toronto that runs this year until April 19th. We were last there two years ago and I blogged about our fun explorations there. This time, my daughter is guest writing the blog post - with some help from me.

Here's her review of digiPlaySpace:

On Tuesday, I went to TIFF Kids digiPlaySpace with my Dad.

digiPlaySpace is an interactive place where you can do hands-on activities and learn things too. Their activities include stop-motion film, robot making, virtual reality, greenscreening, objects that
light up, arts and games. It is in downtown Toronto.

I went two years ago when I was in grade three. It is a lot different from the last time I went there  - almost everything is new. It's fun to have new things.

digiPlaySpace is different from museums as there is more hands-on stuff instead of things in a glass box or on a wall. Doing things yourself is more creative, makes you think more about the objects and
what you are doing and what it is. It would be great if other museums did stuff like this too.

I like the staff members - they were very nice and helpful. One of them helped me build a robot for the first time!

I liked all the exhibits! Below are my reviews of some of my favourite exhibits. If you click on the names of the exhibit, you will go to TIFF's review of the exhibit.

Me changing the lights and patterns of "Forest"
As soon you enter into TIFF if you look to the left you'll see a thing called Forest. It is a wall of lights that change colours. There are circles with a stick in the middle that you can turn to change where the light goes. It was pretty cool. I liked how TIFF put something on the outside so that you get something even before you enter. I like how you can change the light and how the light changes colour - you can make some pretty patterns. It was cool - it was artwork that you can make it look how you want it to look!

Six-Forty by Four-Eighty
As soon as you come in, this is the first thing you will see. It is a bunch of squares that light up and change colour if you touch them. If you touch two at the same time, you can change that square's colour. The squares are magnetic and you can arrange them however you want on the wall. For instance, you can make your initials, make patterns with the colours, or come up with your own design. I like how if you touch the squares they did cool things and you can make awesome designs and it looks beautiful.
Playing with the squares of "Six-Forty by Four-Eighty"
Visitor is a big weird blobby thing that has sensors on it that depending how you move your hands it will light up and change colour across the blob. If you have two people, they can be on two different sides and you can be shooting the light one way and then they send it back. It was really cool and pretty.  I think it is a type of art that each person creates at the moment by moving their hands. I like art that is more of a doing type of art rather than a looking type of art! I also learned that motion sensors can be put on objects and you might not be able to see them but when you find them something cool can happen.

Headrush is a virtual reality game where you put on 3D goggles and you have to stay away from objects, such as rocks, walls, trees, and blocks. So when you jump in real life the screen moves up and same if you move side to side. If you hit an object or go through an object, it slows you down. I think this is the best 3D I have ever seen. It really feels like you are in the game, which is cool. It was good exercise too for my dad.

Playing the VR game "Headrush"
Pop and Lock Dance Machine
Last time I was at digiPlaySpace, they had stop motion animation where you can actually be in the video. This time, their stop motion exhibit was called Pop and Lock Dance Machine because you make a dance video. You get to choose the dance style and number of moves that you need to do. You can have people join, but my dad didn't want to do it with me as he was too exhausted from Headrush, so you can do it with cartoon characters that you pick. Then there is a shadow on a wall behind that shows the position to go into. Then the staff member takes a photo of that and you repeat that over and over again. My dance had 18 different poses to do. Then they put it together with a song to make a video.It was really fun to do and watch. Here it is


Part of digiPlaySpace is called Makers' Space, where kids (and their parents) learn how to make things using technology or media. I really like their Build-a-Bot Lab where you put special pieces together to make your own actual, moving robot! I learned that to make a robot you have to have three things: 1) a battery [power source] 2) a sensor so the robot knows about its space such a motion or light sensor 3) an action - the robot needs to be able to do something.
Building my first robot
They had parts to light up, wheels, and speakers. They had two different robot sets that you can use to put these parts together any way you want to make a robot. I made my first robot this way by myself! The first robot I made moved all around and because they are magnetic it attached to other blocks and absorbed my dad's robot (his first robot too).

They also had lots of games. For instance, a pillow game where you have to push on a pillow to play the game. They have a wiener dog (my mom loves wiener dogs) game, it's called Push Me Pull Me, where you try use the dog's body to keep a ball on your side. They had an old-fashioned video game that my dad played when he was a kid called Pong - it had pretty lights and my dad really loved it.

digiPlaySpace has a lot to explore like how they have a tiny door see a short silly little scene. They also had Bubl show where they have special glasses you put on and you can see a picture or a video of outdoors and see everything all around you as if you were there.

My experience at digiPlaySpace was amazing! There is so much to see and do there. I love the exhibits and spending the day with my dad.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Learning Appreciation for Graphic Literature

Recently, I was invited to conduct a workshop for kids aged 8-12 on graphic novels and web comics at my local library . As you may be able to tell from the name of this blog, I am a fan of comics. When I was a kid I did not like reading and only read comic books and books in the Choose Your Own Adventure series (now I'm a PhD candidate so don't believe the criticism that reading comics makes you stupid.)

I was eager to lead this workshop to help convince kids that graphic literature is a legitimate literary and art form and that they can do it themselves. I had three goals for this workshop:
  1. introduce components and techniques to reveal how the medium works 
  2. highlight various genres to show that graphic literature is broader than just superheroes (although I am an unabashed fan of this genre)
  3. get kids started in making their own graphic works
I got a good response from the kid attendees, so I thought I'd share it here.

Before starting, I should clarify terms. Kids don't really care about using correct terms, but adults do. And I, like many people, hate the term comics (as they aren't exclusively funny any more) as a term for the entire medium. The term comics should be used to refer to short content either published in monthly print magazine type form (then known as comic books), or in newspapers (then comic strips), or online (then web comics).

Although the term graphic novels has become popular, it is not a catch-all term for all the forms of the medium. Graphic novels should be used for longer form works that tell a singular story- as in a novel (but in graphic lit form). Graphic novels can be created specifically or result in a collection of comic books.  Graphic books refer to any longer graphic literature published in a book - so this can include treasuries, collections of humour strips such as Garfield, instructional, etc. I like the term graphic literature for a catch-all term.

Introduction - Sequential Art
I started by telling the kids that graphic lit is a series of panels of art and words that work together in sequence to tell a story. (You can mention that there are other forms of sequential art and a long history of this, such as ancient cave paintings. See Scott McLeod's excellent book Understanding Comics for more on this. Also, words are sometimes optional as some graphic lit uses panel images only.)

Activity: For a fun way to demonstrate the importance of sequential order, I had the kids arrange a page of a comic book that had been cut out and put in random order back into its original order. Then I asked the kids to explain why they chose the order they did.

I had pages from different titles (e.g. Teen Titans Go, Uncle Scrooge, Angry Birds, Wolverine, Spider-ham - yes, Spider-man in pig form) ranging in difficulty from easy to hard. Once the kids had their order, we'd check it against the comic book. The kids could do the easy ones on first try, but often needed hints for the more difficult ones.

Preparation: It is is essential to find a page that makes sense when removed from the overall context of the story and has self-contained panel shapes. Instead of commiting the crime of cutting up a comic book, I colour photocopied pages and then cut them out.

Activity B: Have the kids grab a handful of panels from various titles and then arrange them in whatever order they want and then tell the group their story in order based on their panels. (My daughter came up with this idea - I love it!)

Genres of Graphic Literature
Having established what a graphic book was for the kids (I used the term comic for them as they were familiar with this term and not the others), I wanted to have them consider the various different genres.

 I had the kids start by saying what graphic books they had read and what they liked about them. I asked them what genre ("type of story") they thought their example was and would help them if they got stuck (e.g. fantasy, non-fiction, humour, etc.).

I brought with me a few of my favourite kids' graphic novels from a variety of genres, showed the kids a few pages, and asked them what genre they thought it was.

Teaching kids about terminology isn't necessarily something they are interested in. But to understand the components of graphic literature, how artists use them, and how they work together to tell a story it is essential to introduce a few key terms.

I had a handout to give the kids with the following key terms:
  • Cover = first page
  • Panel = shapes (often rectangular) containing a single scene
  • Border = lines that surround a panel 
  • Speech Balloon = round containers for characters’ talk 
  • Thought Balloon = containers for characters thoughts
  • Captions = containers  for information about a scene or narration
  • Sound Effect = words used to describe sounds – Splat! Pow! 
  • Lettering = design of the words (using distinct fonts)
  • Gutter = space between panels
  • Emanata = symbols or shapes showing characters' emotions or thoughs (e.g. light-bulb for an idea, tear or sweat drops, etc.)
  • Bleed = images that extend beyond frames
  • Splash = image that takes up a whole page
  • Spread = image that takes up more than one page
Activity: I had them pick a book from my stack of graphic books. Then I would say the term and its definition and have kids point them out in their book.

To add excitement, I made it a competition to see who could find an example first or who could find the coolest example of it.

The Art of Graphic Books
The visual art aspect of graphic lit is often not considered or relegated as secondary to the words and narrative of the work. But the art is essential (and has been getting better and more diverse now for decades.) For kids inclined in visual arts, graphic lit can be a great form for them so it's important to come at this topic from this angle as well.

My handout also had a page with the following art terms:
  • Colour (intensity, hue, number)
  • Size
  • Shadows and Brightness
  • Lines (strength, shape)
  • Viewing Angle (such as sideways, birds-eye view)
  • Distance (such as close-up, far away)
  • Layout and Placement (such as overlapping, bleeding, foreground)
Activity A: As with the prior activity, I had the kids find examples of the art technique after I had explained them. We briefly discussed the way that the artist used art to tell a story or create an effect, mood, or style.

Activity B: I then had all the kids make a simple illustration.

Preparation: There are a lot of good books or websites that teach kids how to draw illustrations or comic art. I found a book page with a very easy example of how to draw a dog in five easy steps. I photocopied this page and included it in my handout.

Lettering the Work
To discuss the words and font aspects of graphic lit, I discussed how the story is told not only by the words in bubbles captions but also in how the words are presented.  I went over some terms related to font (e.g. centering, case, bolding) and then had kids define them for me.

Activity A: Using pages of a graphic book that has bubbles and captions in place but empty, I had the kids fill in their own words. I told the kids that spelling didn't matter and that they could say whatever they wanted. Then we all took turns reading and presenting our creations.

Preparation: You could make your own by whiting-out (either digitally or physically) an existing portion of a comic book. But I recommend the website for
the graphic books Stone Rabbit. They have an excellent two-page story available here to download and print that is set up for just this activity.

At this point as a reward for participating, I bribed the kids with Spider-man gummies. After recharging the kids up with sugar, I had them create their own short comic strip. I emphasized to them that anyone can create a graphic work and that to begin don't worry about art style (stick people are fine), spelling, or grammar. Just do what you want.

Activity: To make your own comic strip can be done either by having the kids hand-draw them on paper. If one has access to computers and the Internet, there are a few great websites that make it easy for kids to create their own web comics. BitStrips is such a site and is highly recommended by my daughter.

I ended it by giving the kids a list of graphic novel recommendations - which you can see via my list on Goodreads of Graphic Literature for Kids and recommending the book Lila And Ecco's Do It Yourself Comics Club. It's an amazing book for kids interesting in learning more about how to create their own graphic work.

Let me know if this lesson plan or any of the activities are useful. Spread the graphic lit love and knowledge!

Thursday, March 05, 2015

In Defence of Stock Photos

Stock photography - that is a library of royalty-free photos - seems to be the subject of much mockery lately. Buzzfeed has numerous, hilarious pages involving the glorification of the cheesiness of stock photos.

For tomorrow's release of the film Unfinished Business, the studio has released stock photos of the typical business sort with the cast of Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, and Dave Franco.

AdWeek has an article on the campaign and the full set of photos. It turns out the photos are actually digitally altered to include the cast into pre-existing stock photos. But they look convincingly cheesy.

You can get the stock photos on Getty Images - along with the equally hilarious captions.

 But stock photos aren't necessarily as bad as these satires make out. If you have a website or other types of publications to get out on a budget or very quickly, stock photography can be a lifesaver. It's not like many people can afford to hire a photographer and arrange a custom photo shoot every time they need an image.

Stock photo providers contain an amazingly extensive library of stock photos - generally categorized and with keyword tags so nowadays its easy to find any photo you want at an affordable price - even if your tastes tend to the cheesy!