Created: Thursday, 21 August 2008 Written by Gary Elsbernd

“Using Billion-Dollar Satellites to Find Tupperware in the Woods”

What do you get when you cross an old Boy Scout with a technogeek who loves toys?  Geocaching.  Geocachers hide treasure boxes in the wild as well as urban settings and post the GPS coordinates online.  Other geocachers load the coordinates into their GPS receivers and hunt for the caches.  You sign the log in the cache and then sign online.  Your online profile tracks the number of finds, hides and types of caches found.

It amazes me that I can’t get my boys to go for a hike with me, or go for one myself for that matter.  Walking for walking’s sake?  No way.  But if there’s a geocache at the end, I’ve walked up to 4 miles each way, and recently completed a cache that required wading through a creek six times each way to find caches.  I used to travel for work quite a bit, and would return to my room in the evenings and work.  Recently, I’ve been to Seattle and Boston and spent evenings walking, up to eight miles a day, to grab caches in a new part of the country.

Geocaching is also a community.  There are socially accepted guidelines governing behavior (for example, if you want to be looked down on, log a cache more than once or “find” one of your own caches) and forums for sharing ideas as well as bitching and moaning.  The community is administered by local reviewers, such as Glen – RattlingCrew – in Salina, and online by a team of moderators.  All of these are responsible to GroundSpeak, the owners of, who set the rules.

Some random thoughts:

  • Log the caches you didn’t find.  A “Did Not Find” (DNF) log lets the owners verify the cache is still in place, and warns future cachers that this may be missing or difficult. I’ve had as much fun on some DNFs as I do on caches, and log the experience, regardless of the outcome.
  • There are different kinds of caches.
    • Traditional caches include a container, from a small magnetic container the size of a pencil eraser up to an ammo can, and a logbook.  To claim a find, the cacher must sign the log.  Period.
    • A multicache takes you to one set of coordinates where you are given the coordinates for another stage.  Most are two stages, but I completed a nine-stage multi in Topeka once (FTF!)
    • A puzzle cache requires the cacher to figure out a code, clue or other puzzle to determine the location of the cache.  Sometimes you can solve the puzzle at home, but sometimes you have to solve the puzzle using clues at the location.  If you have to do something in addition to signing the logbook, for example, hide a cache of your own or sign the logbook in verse, that is also considered a puzzle cache.
    • Virtual caches are no longer allowed to be created, but there are a few out there.  Those take you to a location and require you to send an email to the owner verifiying you were there by answering a question that can be answered by looking around on-site.
    • Earthcaches are a special breed of virtual in that they are educational about some geological formation.  These are still approved by Groundspeak.
    • Webcam Caches require you to go to a location covered by a public webcam and have another person grab a screenshot of you.  These are no longer approved by Groundspeak.
    • A.P.E. Cache – these were a tie-in with the Planet of the Apes movie (not the Charlton Heston one, the Marky Mark one).  Thirteen caches with props from the movie were hidden around the world.  Of those thirteen, only two are left – one in Brazil and one in Seattle (I found that one).
    • Events, CITO Events, Mega Events – these are all gatherings of cachers and are logged as attended.  They do increase your find count, but are usually just fun gatherings.
  • FTF – First to Find.   This is considered an honor by some, and as an early cacher I raced to newly published caches, only to be beaten by Kstatealan most of the time.  I have a few now, so I’m not as competitive about it.  I usually let newcomers and FTF hounds test the coordinates first before trying them out.  I’ll grab one when it’s available, but I don’t reschedule my time to get one.
  • CITO – Cache In, Trash Out – this is motto of geocachers.  We pick up trash along the trails to leave the woods better than we found them.  CITO events gather multiple cachers to clean up an area or park.
  • Log shortcuts – TNLNSL (Took Nothing, Left Nothing, Signed Log), TFTC/TFTH (Thanks For The Cache/Hide), ROOF (Ran Out Of Fun – usually on difficult or unpleasant cache locations).

The Web as Intended

Created: Thursday, 24 July 2008 Written by Gary Elsbernd

One of the podcasts I listen to - Boagworld by Paul Boag - had an interesting feature this week about context - about how where we are influences what we want from a website. Paul listed five contextual considerations for developing for the web; Environment, Device, Comfort, Mood, Time.  He makes good points about them, especially the lack of traditional input tools on most mobile devices, but doesn't go far enough into motivations.  This tied into many things I've been thinking about with the release of the 3G iPhone.

Like most people, 99% of my browsing is done from a laptop or desktop sitting on a desk.  For these times, traditional websites are fine, and even optimized for the experience.  I have an expectation that I can browse, dig deeper and see layouts on a computer with high-bandwidth, full browsers and plugins and a high-resolution, large screen as they were intended by the designer. From design to implementation to interaction, everything about the web browsing experience has been optimized for my viewing pleasure in a relaxed setting.

My mobile surfing experience has been on a Palm Treo.  The screen is much smaller, the input is more awkward (no mouse) and the speeds are much, much slower. When I surf on my phone, I generally need specific information such as an address, geocache description or a sports score. The experience is much different in many ways, and not just that the hardware is less capable and I may be outside.  I also want to use the mobile for different things.

When you are at a desk, you have the opportunity to browse.  The idea of "surfing the web" came from the idea of skimming the top of the ocean of information, going where the wave takes you and finding things through serendipity.  When you are mobile, you are much more targeted on a specific need.  I don't want to look at a company's brochures or product demos on a phone.  I don't need all of your pretty branding and themes if I am browsing over a 3G or Edge network. There is a greater sense of urgency and focus.

The solution used to be a WAP (wireless access protocoal) site that is optimized for the mobile browsing platform - it has scaled back images, floats into a narrow column that can be read on a 320x240 screen, and has large links and buttons for tapping.  A good example is ESPN for getting game scores and play-by-play: You can within three clicks find any college football game on a Fall Saturday and watch see short play-by-play descriptions on an automatically refreshed page.  On a regular computer, the interface is hideous compared to what we've been led to expect, but on a phone, the load times are lightning quick, and interactions and decision points are crisp, getting you where you want to go quickly and with a minimum of fuss. Compare this with their regular doorway of The mobile site features next to none of the graphics, advertisements and animations of the website.  It allows you to dig deeper into the stories you want to see, but leaves out many of the feature stories and options that wouldn't translate to the mobile web.  ESPN knows what their mobile users want and how that differs from what they want when they sit down at a computer, and delivers.

The iPhone and the new 3G iPhone started to change the thinking around mobile browsing.  Having the Safari browser installed and their zoom features lead developers to think there is no longer a need for a WAP.  Users can browse their entire traditional site on their phone, so we don't have to change a thing.  The missing factor in this equation is still intent.

In my work in the insurance industry, I have often wanted to develop a WAP application, to see how it's done and experiment.  The problem is, no one wants to work on their insurance while they're mobile.  Reviewing insurance is a more reflective task, requiring paperwork, comparisons and details that cannot be easily supported in 320x240.  I will find a way to do this, as our sales force is mobile, but other than basic communications covered by email, twitter, SMS and actual phone calls (do phones still make phone calls?), I haven't found the killer application yet that is targeted, a short duration, requires minimal entry and can be done without a lot of reference materials at hand.

Give me time.


When getting better makes things worse

Created: Monday, 30 June 2008 Written by Gary Elsbernd

When you change things, people will resist.  When you change things for the better, people will still resist.

Often, just being better isn't as important to acceptance of a new design as conformity with the conventions in place.  Take, for example, the control panel in Windows Vista.  Arguably, the configurations and applications are better organized, better labeled and easier to find.  Easier, that is, if you haven't already been trained to find them in different areas and under different labels in earlier versions of Windows.  There are twice as many controls in the Vista control panel, giving the user more granular control over the settings and configurations.  That should be a good thing, right?  Not if you are used to finding configurations buried under other objects and have just accepted the fact and moved on.  Now you are being asked to relearn where things are and will spend time fumbling around, especially if you have some legacy computers running different versions of Windows. While this reconfiguration will benefit new users, experienced users don't see enough marginal benefit to accept the change gracefully.

This concept should be considered in all design projects.  While you might have a better way of doing things, decide if it's enough better to force all of your users to change their mental maps.  It's amazing what people can get used to (imagine some of the legacy systems in use today), but unless you can provide compelling reasons to change, people won't.  Your choices are to follow conventions, thereby further cementing that design in the minds of the users, shift them radically and force the transition, or introduce the changes gradually through evolution.

One thing is certain.  No matter how you make changes, some users will complain. The key is to provide enough benefit that they get over it quickly.

For another perspective, see Gery's Law.


Systems Training

Created: Tuesday, 03 June 2008 Written by Gary Elsbernd

Gloria Gery once told me that all systems training is compensatory for poor design.  In other words, if the design is perfect, no training is needed.

"Just remember: you're not a 'dummy,' no matter what those computer books claim. The real dummies are the people who–though technically expert–couldn't design hardware and software that's usable by normal consumers if their lives depended upon it." - (Walter Mossberg)

This thought has stuck with me as I've designed every increasingly complex systems.  I've decided I agree with her, and that it's not a bad thing.

Before you start sending emails, this doesn't say:

  • All training is unnecessary in every case.  Training is necessary to incorporate new employees into a business.  Domain knowledge about the business you are in, corporate attitudes, principles and guidelines must be learned, along with key procedures in case of emergencies.  What this does imply is training should be focused on value-added information that is best transferred person-to-person, instead of rote procedures and facts about systems.
  • People should be able to walk up and use a system to its fullest.  The system should be built so that given a user knowing WHAT he or she is supposed to do, HOW to do it is evident.  Shortcuts and other productivity enhancements may be learned over time, but their absence should not inhibit or prevent performance of the task.
  • Designing systems that require no training is possible, or even desirable in all situations.  Such explicit systems require a great deal of knowledge of the performance environments, users, motivations, business needs and capabilities.  The time spent to develop a training free system may not be justified by the benefits.  If a short tutorial or instructions and system help within the application can help the user grasp the essentials, it may be a better use of resources to go this way.Additionally, ease of learning does not always equate with ease of use.  A system that is easy for anyone off the street to use is rarely one that "expert" users can use productively.  Consider most "wizard" interfaces.  An interview style interface walks the user through decision points and gathers information.  The wizard presents the decisions along with explanations of the implications of the step.  These systems can be used by nearly anyone because the domain knowledge and how it is represented in the system are explicit.  If an expert user does not require such handholding, a single screen interface with just the data fields may be sufficient to perform the task much more efficiently.  Familiarity with the business and a system allows experts to rapidly perform tasks such as data entry at a speed that would be impossible in a wizard-like interface.

As a designer, I strive to design the most intuitive systems and applications I can.  I go into a design knowing some training will probably be necessary, but I don't give in to the temptation to say, when faced with a design compromise, "Oh, that will be covered in systems training."

My approach has been to design a system as intuitively as possible, and then, based on user feedback during testing, add instructions to the screens and information to reference and training.  The key is frequent and iterative testing.  Get a design out in front of as many people as possible.  When faced with an issue, either integrate a solution into the application, add on-screen instructions, add online reference or training, or add it to a training class curriculum.  This "Frequently Asked Questions" method of systems documentation and training allows the trainers to focus on issues that realistically come up instead of spending time and effort documenting functions and behaviors that are well accepted by everyone.

Now you may let the emails fly.  :)