The usability of everyday things

I’m taking a class on “Web Usability”, and our first assigned reading is The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. This is a very readable tour through design principles that can help us create devices and systems that are easy and even enjoyable to use.

The book is peppered with interesting examples of bizarre or cryptic designs. Norman seems particularly fond of talking about light switches (such a simple device, and yet so many are hard to use!). As a pilot, I also enjoyed the frequent examples he cited from the world of aviation, where a bad interface can mean the difference between life and death. However, he also says that his personal rule is to avoid criticizing unless he has a solution to offer. Now there’s a high bar!

Norman identifies “discoverability” (can you figure out what actions are possible?) and “understanding” (do you know what the controls/displays mean?) as key components of good design. He also emphasizes the importance of a user having a good “conceptual model” of the device – even if that model is inaccurate in a technical sense. A successful model is one that allows the user to operate the device successfully.

I also found his discussion of the balance between “knowledge in the head” (memory and learned skills) versus “knowledge in the world” (objects, signs, instructions) to be thought-provoking. It makes sense to try to strike a good balance between how much advance training/prep the user needs versus how much they’ll have to read/learn/absorb while using the device. Going too far in either direction makes things harder to operate.

One of the biggest takeaways for me was his encouragement to remove the concept of “error” from an interface. He points out that when we don’t understand something another human says, we don’t say “You made a speaking error.” Instead, we interact and try to figure out what meaning was intended. Similarly, devices (and computer programs) could shift from “error” feedback to help or guidance that aids the user in specifying their intent in the form that is needed. He suggests that we think of a user action as an approximation to what is desired, and help the user to improve it. Great idea!

Chapter 5 is devoted to an analysis of errors: different types, different causes, and different remedies. I like the suggestion to treat errors as learning opportunities (for the user and for the designer); we can brainstorm ways that the error could be entirely precluded in the future. I will be on the lookout for ways to apply this in my ongoing flight training.

Some quotes I enjoyed or found insightful:

  • “Machines require us to be precise and accurate, things we are not very good at.”
  • “We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we wish it to be.”
  • “We use logic and reason after the fact, to justify our decisions to ourselves (to our conscious minds) and to others.”
  • “How can the designer put knowledge in the device itself?”
  • “Expert [users] minimize the need for conscious reasoning.”

Discarding books from the library

I have a new volunteer role at the Monrovia Public Library – helping them get rid of books.

I know, I know, it sounds awful. But like any other kind of possession, book clutter builds up. Books get damaged from use. New versions supersede old ones (especially in the computer software section – one book we processed was “Photoshop Elements” from 2001. Don’t worry – the Pasadena Library still has it). Some books just never circulate. Sometimes the right thing to do is to let a book go, so you free up space for new books.

The librarians have already been busy identifying which books to discard (a process called “weeding”). (Amusingly, my just-completed MLIS thesis is on weeding – specifically, how to use machine learning classifiers to help prioritize books for removal.) I was shown an entire wall of shelves in the back room where hundreds of books are already in pre-discard limbo.

I was shown how to select one of those books, then edit the library’s catalog to remove it, and then remove the book from the OCLC (Online Computer Library Center). Among other things, the OCLC maintains a central database of library holdings, which enables you to search for an item once and find out which libraries have it, ordered by proximity to your location. Try it out: Search WorldCat.

I’m impressed and a little awed that the library would entrust me with making edits (deletions) to their catalog and their entries in OCLC. However, I’m nearly done with my MLIS, so I’m almost fully qualified to be a librarian myself, I guess! The class I took on Cataloging is suddenly very relevant; we worked with library catalog entries and strategies for a semester, and the terminology and tools are familiar.

One final challenge is that the library is switching to new catalog software on June 13, so the removal procedure will change. More significantly, that date coincides with the start of our Summer Reading Program, at which point library circulation sky-rockets. The patrons are going to have some growing pains, no doubt, and so will the staff. Fun times ahead!

Sibling dynamics in picture books

This week for my History of Youth Literature class, we were tasked to pick out three picture books, written in different decades, that portray family dynamics, and compare them. Here are the three picture books I chose, spanning 1964 to 2008:

1. A Baby Sister for Frances (by Russell Hoban, 1964)

This is a story about the challenges of a new sibling entering into the family (in this case, a skunk family). Frances feels left out and unimportant; her dress doesn’t get ironed before school, and there are no raisins for her oatmeal. “Things are not very good around here anymore,” she says, and decides to run away. She packs her things and runs away to the dining room. Her parents talk about how much they miss her, so as to be deliberately overheard. “A family is everybody all together,” they say. She comes back and her mom makes a chocolate cake.

2. Rosie Runs Away (by Maryann Macdonald, 1990)

This story about a rabbit family has almost the exact same plot as A Baby Sister for Frances. Rosie struggles to compete with baby Mat for Mama’s attention. Rosie tries to help by shushing Mat, then taking him outside to play, but she gets in trouble for this. She packs her things and runs away to sit under a tree, far enough to see her house but not be seen. She reflects how even if Mama doesn’t miss her, Mat and dad will. She comes back and bakes pies with Mama.

3. Kitchen Dance (by Maurie J. Manning, 2008)

This story begins with a mystery; the children wake up to strange noises coming from the kitchen. They investigate and find mother and father dancing around while washing the dishes. When they are discovered, their parents pull them in for some whole-family dancing, then gently put them back to bed. There is a strong atmosphere of love and acceptance. There is no sibling rivalry or competition.


In all three books, children are indulged. Frances is allowed to “run away” and then provided with affection that compels her to choose to come back on her own. She negotiates for a higher allowance because she’s a big sister now. Rosie also runs away and is welcomed back with hugs and pie-baking. Rosie does get reprimanded for taking Mat outside by herself (and getting him dirty), but the feeling is exasperation rather than anger. These messages can help children work through their own feelings of frustration and sibling competition for attention without fearing punishment.

The children in Kitchen Dance are not chastised for getting up at night, but instead embraced and included. The magic in this book, I think, is the fascination kids have with the mystery of what adults do, once the kids are in bed, and the feeling of being drawn in and loved and included in that special time.

For the first two books, from 1964 and 1990, the gender roles are very traditional. Frances’s mom feeds the baby (from a bottle, not her breast), gets Frances ready for school, knits, and bakes a cake. Rosie’s mom bakes and tends to the baby. Frances’s dad (literally) reads a newspaper, smoking a pipe, in a comfortable chair. Rosie’s dad only appears on the last page, when he comes home (with groceries), and in a fond memory Rosie has of telling him jokes when he “comes home tired”, presumably from work. (In the picture, he too is sitting in a very comfortable chair with a newspaper on his lap.)

Kitchen Dance departs from the traditional view in that both parents share the domestic duties equally – washing dishes and putting the children to bed. They are equally domestic and nurturing. We don’t get to see what they do for work or childcare during the day.

All three families are two-parent families with a mom and dad. No extended family are present. The first two books have animal protagonists, but they feel very “white.” Kitchen Dance is explicitly hispanic. The father sings “Cómo te quiero,” a phrase that is repeated multiple times in the book. The family members all have dark skins rendered with beautiful colors.

The theme of conflict between a single child and a new sibling is one with enduring appeal and relevance. Still, I was surprised to see almost exactly the same plot in books written 26 years apart. Kitchen Dance portrays sibling dynamics in a subtle way; when the narrator (the youngest child) wakes up, she wakes her older brother to include him in investigating the noise, rather than seeking out parent time for herself.

There is also a consistent theme about food providing comfort. At the conclusion of the first two books, the family celebrates being back together by baking a cake or a pie. Kitchen Dance occurs in the aftermath of (presumably) a family dinner.

From this small sample, I would conclude that traditional family structures and gender roles continue to appeal to authors, illustrators, and readers. Our lecture notes for the week discuss the 1980’s and 1990’s as a time when working mothers were more recognized and social issues like divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy began to be portrayed, but these books don’t touch on any negative aspects. Overall, I enjoyed having this chance to dive into the world of picture books!

Amelia’s Last Flight

Amelia Earhart planned to write a book about her around-the-world expedition. It was to be called “World Flight.” She wrote some material before departing, and she sent back notes and logs from various stops across the globe. When the flight ended prematurely, her husband assembled the pieces and notes into a book that he published as “Last Flight.”

The first-person narration gives you a real sense of Amelia’s voice and character. She was fearless, in an awe-inspiring way. She was ever ambitious, reaching for the next challenge. She was also very interested in encouraging women in engineering (and aviation in particular). She criticized the way boys and girls were (… are …) shuffled into certain kinds of hobbies. “With rare exceptions,” she wrote, “the delights of finding out what makes a motor go, or batting the bumps out of a bent fender, are joys reserved for masculinity” (p. 47).

To enable her plans to go around the world, she acquired a plane that seems mammoth to me:

“The plane itself is a two-motor, all-metal monoplane, with retractable landing gear. It has a normal cruising speed of about 180 miles an hour and a top speed in excess of 200. With the special gasoline tanks that have been installed in the fuselage, capable of carrying 1150 gallons, it has a cruising radius in excess of 4000 miles. With full load the ship weighs about 15,000 pounds. It is powered with two Wasp ‘H’ engines, developing 110 horsepower” (p. 50).

By comparison, the Cessna 172 that I am learning to fly carries a maximum of 40 gallons of fuel and has a max takeoff weight of 2300 lbs. It has a cruising speed of 120 mph and a radius of about 600 miles. It would take a long time to get around the world that way!

She chronicles her travels from Miami to Brazil, then over to Dakar in Africa, then through India, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, and Lae in Papua New Guinea. Even knowing in advance that her trip will be truncated, it’s hard not to gain enthusiasm and confidence that it will somehow succeed, after she travels through so many different places, weather, and challenges. The book ends, necessarily, abruptly.

… and we still don’t know exactly why.

Harry Potter en español

I picked up the first Harry Potter book, in Spanish, as a fun opportunity to practice (and improve) my Spanish skills. The writing level is a bit above my current reading level, but it’s fun to be pushed a little, and my vocabulary is definitely benefiting.

Reading this translation also raises interesting questions about the translation process — which is one of those topics that you think you understand until you think about it a bit more.

Some American readers will be amused by the Spanish title, which is “Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal” (the Philosopher’s Stone) — which is the literal title in British English, but not the American one. It was changed to “the Sorcerer’s Stone” apparently due to expectations that “philosopher” would not appeal to American children, and that they wouldn’t know what the Philosopher’s Stone was.

Chapter 1 is titled “El niño que vivió”, which again is literally the same as in English: “The boy who lived.” However, the verb “vivir” in Spanish doesn’t quite have the nuance that “live” does in English (that it can also mean “survive”), so it probably comes across a bit oddly to Spanish readers.

The first sentence includes a bigger translation gap. The English reads:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

That final phrase (“thank you very much”) is a clever injection of the characters’ voices into what is otherwise simple narration — a charming bit that apparently wasn’t translatable. The Spanish version replaces this phrase with “afortunadamente” (“fortunately”), which gets the meaning across, but loses the charm.

One of the other large gaps is in dialect. Hagrid appears near the end of this chapter, with his rough, uneducated dialect (e.g., “Lily an’ James dead — an’ poor little Harry off ter live with Muggles”). Apparently this is hard or impossible to convey in Spanish, so he sounds (as far as my limited ear can tell) like a normal person: “Lily y James muertos… y el pobrecito Harry tendrá que vivir con muggles” (“Lily and James dead… and poor little Harry has to live with Muggles”).

There is one place where the translation, I think, improves on the original. When Albus Dumbledore walks along Privet Drive, putting out street lamps with a silver lighter, that lighter is called the “Put-Outer” in English, which is awkward and clunky. (One thing Rowling is generally very good at is coining apt and elegant names, so this stands out.) In Spanish, it is the Apagador, from the verb “apagar” (to put out, turn off, extinguish), and that has such a better feel to it!

I’m up to chapter 5 now, make slow but enjoyable progress. Once I finish this book, I want to move on to some books at a similar level that were originally written in Spanish. That should give much more of a “real” feel for the language, without the obstacles posed by translation.

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