Sunday, 29 May 2011

Lost in Translation? Not Anymore

A tourist in a foreign country can only dream of knowing the local language beforehand. Problems begin at the airport itself, when signage are of no help, and go all the way to the local transport, making it tough to reach places or communicate with cab drivers, and especially when it comes to restaurants' menu to select the right stuff.

When you are in such a situation, you are always worried about either running into a problem or missing out on stuff of your interest (locations, food, etc.) because you cannot communicate or read in the local language. Now, Google has launched a smart iPhone app, Google Translate, that supports translation of 57 languages.

The app allows you to translate in and out of using words or using your iPhone's microphone. While Google Translate doesn’t allow you to translate without an active data connection, you can store your most likely used translations and phrases and use them offline.

When Google Translate generates a translation, it looks for patterns in hundreds of millions of documents to help decide on the best translation for you. By detecting patterns in documents that have already been translated by human translators, Google Translate makes intelligent guesses to judge the most appropriate translation as output. This process of seeking patterns in large amounts of text is called statistical machine translation (SMT). However, in SMT, since the translations are generated by machines, not all translations are perfect.

While it is a great utility in time for travelers, it is still a machine mediator between you and the people around you who do not speak and understand your language. And the capability to translate the natural, free communication between the user and the people in real-time does not exist still. As a user of the application you are never sure of other persons’ interpretation of the translation either because of inter-language subtle cultural differences, voice and tone of the language, and/or lack of gestural explanations.

A company called Quest Visual has tried to resolve this small yet important aspect of communication. Quest Visual has invented a magical ‘World Lens’ application for the iPhone with amazing augmented really capabilities.

The application allows users to scan live views using the iPhone’s camera and translate words from Spanish to English (or vice versa) in real-time, replacing the originals in the same size, color, orientation and perspective. So now it doesn’t matter anymore whether it is a newspaper article, website content, hotel menu, or signage, all you need is Word Lens. The other exciting stuff is that the application doesn’t use active data connection to do the translations and therefore saves hundreds of dollars for travelers with active roaming data charges.

The application pushes handheld computing capabilities to make the optical character recognitions algorithms perform. The program runs the captured image through a filter to remove shadows and identify the sharpness around the text and removes everything that isn’t sharp enough. It then converts the image into black and white to further enhance text readability and do a dictionary look-up of the probabilistic text string for a closest match.

Finally, it re-renders the originally captured image by removing the original text and replacing it with the translated text string on top. Although it may sound straightforward, it is not really that simple by hand-held computing standards.
With companies such as Quest Visual creating such interesting and innovating stuff to make the overall travel experience more convenient, the future will be of an app-mesh created between augmented reality apps such as Google Goggles, World Lens, and utility apps like Google Translate with sophistication of two-way voice-to-voice translation.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Design for Everyone : Interaction Design for Differently-Abled

Usefulness is not impaired by imperfection
Imagine a world with improved interaction, design of everyday things for differently able, bringing them to be a part of a country’s economic growth. This area has immense scope for designers from all disciples especially Interaction Design to benefit a social group that has not yet been able to access the full benefits of technology.

Wikipedia defines Interaction design: the structure and content of communication between two or more interactive "beings" to understand each other. Designing interaction for the applications, websites usable for differently able people aims in bringing millions of people in developing the country. Taking only the Indian context: According to WHO figure, 10 % of the Indian population is physically challenged; the Spastic Society quotes 70 million people with disabilities. The idea is to create a common platform embracing the technology and Interaction, gesture study of the differently able .Create meaningful relationships between people and the products and services that they use, from computers to mobile devices to appliances and beyond.
Broadly this can be categorized in broad groups i.e physical disability, sensory disability etc( Accessibility is a challenge for people with disabilities. Differences in cognitive ability, sensory impairments, motor dexterity, and behavioral and social skills must be taken into account when designing interfaces using technology, assistive technology. The subject is complex in its own special way. The thought is to:
  • Create an interaction pattern before designing a product.
    • For the products that are ergonomically well designed for a commoner would prove useless for the disabled unless some redesign done.
    • Almost all the web based applications that exist currently needs to be redesigned for the differently able.
    • The interaction of these people with everyday products is important for designers to better understand their needs
  • Study gestures minutely to know the touchpoints and movements.
  • Iterate on already used and approved products and interfaces.
  • Usability testing becomes quintessential for such products, since most of our assumptions fail in these scenarios.
  • Each person is different in its own unique way, with extensive study, a pattern can be found that leads to the design of everyday things.
( in pic: mapping different position of fingers, touchpoints, approach of thumbs and fingers )

There are many communication and interaction devices for general people, but, the current communication interfaces and services are challenges for spastic individuals. The most sought after interactions by such people include simple services like changing a TV channel, playing a game, reading a book or keeping oneself busy. These are just a few of the scenarios that needs design > redesign .

Differently abled have the capability to adapt to changes better than able population. The people around these have a exceptional ideas to redesign everyday products to suit the needs in-a-way like jugaad . It is possible to design or reiterate the design to suite the need of people with disability.

Take an example of spastic people. They have restrictive movements of muscles, hence they can’t make abrupt movements or gestures. Detailed study of only one action ,has lead to evolving Assistive Technology products like jelly bean, switches etc, Text to speech, touch typing software brings some relief for using desktop applications. These are simple ideas but very useful. Ideas as simple as these can change somebody’s life and can make them one of us.

Thanks Ankush for reviewing the draft.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

How to use QR Codes, or rather, how not to use QR codes!

A count of Smartphone users, counting only US users, at the end of February 2011, gave an astonishing figure of 69.5 million! This number is definitely going to rise exponentially and the proof is visible everywhere around us. We find at least a couple of Smartphone users in our circles and others who don’t own one, always eye the new Smartphones from the corner of their eyes.

And along with Smartphone came in smarter things like QR codes. A QR Code is a 2 dimensional matrix code created by Japanese corporation Denso-Wave in 1994. The "QR" is derived from "Quick Response". The creator’s intention was to create a code whose contents could be read at high speeds.

QR code is in the limelight and there are no ways about it. In a horde to use this somehow or the other companies are breaking their head, day and night. QR codes are seen everywhere from an outdoor hoarding to a magazine cover. An example of how the importance of QR codes is growing:

“Along with HTML5, QR codes will become a far more important part of the travel experience.  These barcodes may soon be providing TV channel listings in hotels, in flight entertainment instructions on airplanes and itineraries on cruise ships.” -Ayan Banerjee, Senior Consultant, MindTree Ltd. Read the full article!

The tool is simple to use. Point the camera towards the QR code, and an in-built app will de-code the QR code to some data. This simplicity may have a lot of potential and appeal with the growing Smartphone user segment, but as long as it is not in the face of a user.

Here are some of the direct uses of a QR code:
·         To initiate a browser session – This is the most abused one!
·         To display text
·         To initiate Email Transaction – An email can be initiated and even the message body can be populated
·         To initiate SMS transaction
·         To initiate Audio/Video Streaming

A prevalent use by marketing companies is to replace the sexy looking advertisement with an ugly looking black-and-white QR code. QR codes are supposed to enhance the Mobile Experience of a user. But, this should not be at the expense of ruining the physical appearances and experiences.

Let’s see what happened when some marketers used QR codes in this fashion. Most of the users who still don’t have Smartphone, struggled to understand what it was about. Smartphone users who didn’t know about QR codes struggled to understand how to use it. Smartphone users who had enough of it, passed on! Effectively the marketer lost on the customers, who looked at that advertisement, and could have read on about it but moved on, since it was either not understandable or too boring! What we also observe is that most of the marketers end up using the QR code as an alternative for people to click links. Therefore, it is not surprising when people perceive QR codes as just a link to the main advertising page of a company!

Is this what the advertisers/marketers were looking for? I believe not!

Some golden rules to keep in mind when devising campaigns using QR codes:
  • Everyone does not have a Smartphone
  • Every Smartphone user does not know how to use a QR code
  • Smartphone user who knows about QR code may be fed up of seeing them everywhere
Another key lesson for any marketer will be, to realize that QR code is not an alternative to a link. This has been over used and abused in all senses. It’s time that we think beyond this. Innovative use of these codes is the need of the hour!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Information Design for Product Display on e-Commerce Websites

Designers often get biased to widely used interaction design patterns on Web. It makes it difficult for them to find a completely different way of looking at how people would like to deal with information dissection, manipulation, and retrieval on Web.

Many times there is too much of information, too much data, or too many options and choices to make sense of. Users can easily become frustrated or disengage if they can’t find a connection with what is presented to them. One such example is e-commerce websites serving millions of products across thousands of categories.

Most e-commerce websites serve product information in a list or in a grid view. Facet search panel on left comprising either check boxes or links, with bracketed number of products inside each category, is another universal pattern used for product retrieval and filtering. For example, a website selling digital cameras, printers, or flat panel television sets will allow users to filter assortments by technical information such as megapixels, aspect ratio, screen size, FPS, make, model, and more. Most of these facets are not useful for people to make buying decisions anymore.

Few websites show number of reviews to prove product popularity in the market without caring for how long the product has been there on the shelf. Comparing product features is not desirable either because it just rearranges the technical information in a big table where each product is a column and users are forced to scan the information row-by-row to understand which product is better over others. And as mentioned before, technical information does not anyway affect people's choice of product.


When people buy items of such kind as mentioned above, beyond the technical information they are interested in the purpose and use of such products. Let's take an example of an office purchase manager searching for a large flat panel television to be used in a conference room with a seating capacity of 10 people for presentations and Internet video calls. Internally, it can be mapped to technical information such as resolution 1024x768, low priced, and Internet ready, and more. Similarly, let's look at a man who wants to buy a digital camera to capture his son’s Tennis game. Suitable camera can be internally mapped to technical information such as high FPS, bigger aperture, and in-built filter, and more. In both examples, the important point is that people want to buy stuff that is aligned to their needs. They find it very difficult to map their needs to the technical search/filter/compare criteria provided by websites.

A designer should experiment with visual/information graphic facets that will allow people to filter and compare products on their practical and emotional needs instead of technical information alone. A very simple visual representation of information can help people make better decisions, and understand something that's really complex, and connect them emotionally.


A product’s social popularity on the Web has become very important. Buying decisions have started to get influenced by people's online reviews of a product. It is time that e-commerce websites graduate from traditional popularity display patterns. Merely showing information such as "number of people recommendations," "number of people liked or disliked" or "number of reviews" is not good enough anymore.

Interface designers need to start experimenting with ideas that can generate popularity based on people’s reaction in a particular context, time, and specific need. For example, one could use data visualization, like pie charts, scatter plots, and relationship circles to compare two point-and-shoot cameras and display one being more popular than the other among amateur photographers for taking home pictures and not so popular among professional or wildlife photographers along with comparative results achieved. Such generic visualization patterns will add depth to the user interface and eventually make it more useful for buyers to make right decisions.