Category Archives: mobile

Update on an Academic’s Use of the iPad

There seems to be a huge amount of interest in the use of iPads in academia as evidenced by the popularity of my last post on the iPad. This is just a follow-up post with some more app recommendations and more thoughts on how well it substitutes for my laptop after over a month of use.

View from Glacier Point
View of half dome from subdome (yes we went up)

I recently went on vacation for a few weeks (to Yosemite National Park) and carried the iPad exclusively.  I used the Camera Connection Kit to download and view pictures and movies from my digital camera.

When I could get wireless in the park, the built-in email client worked wonderfully with my campus Microsoft Exchange email/calendar system.  Touch-typing emails is a real pleasure once you get used to the software keyboard.

To temper my enthusiasm for the iPad, Anne will present her, “things I hate about the iPad” post shortly.  In the meantime, I just wanted to follow-up with some more app ideas for anyone in academia who is thinking of using an iPad.

First, I still use Evernote as my primary note-taking application when I need to jot down an idea, draft a blog post, draft a paper review, etc. But the major downside (which isn’t the fault of Evernote) is that the lack of true multi-tasking is really annoying. I’d love to be able to have a small note window on the bottom half of the screen to take notes while I do something else.   This is not yet a major annoyance and should be partially fixed when the iPad gets updated to iOS4 this fall.

I also still use iAnnotate a great deal to read PDFs. During my vacation, I used iAnnotate to store, read, and search PDFs of various things to do around Yosemite.  I also used it for light airport/airplane reading of some work material.  The instant-on capability (and 10+ hr battery life really came in handy on the cross-country air and road trip).  PDF tip: if you scan your own journal articles, make sure to OCR them so that they are searchable within any PDF app.

Recently, the iBooks app, from Apple, was updated to support PDF reading. It presents another option if all you want is a PDF reader. It displays your documents on a bookshelf:

I recently downloaded DocsToGo to create and edit Microsoft Office-compatible files and have since abandoned the iWork apps (including Keynote).  I recently created a presentation in Keynote but then only later realized that Keynote does not export to Office/PowerPoint for later editing on the desktop.  It does import PPT files. Apple’s reputation for a closed ecosystem rears its ugly head!

Another major limitation of Keynote is in its presentation capabilities.  When you pair the iPad with the iPad VGA connector (to connect to projectors) you might think you have a great, portable solution for presentations.  Almost.  The connector does output to a projector but you can’t see your presentation on the iPad itself.  All you get is slide up/down control and a laser pointer simulation.  Hopefully this will be remedied in a Keynote update.

The iWork apps (Pages, Keynote, and Numbers) are designed well and incredibly easy and intuitive to use but the lack of a proper export option precludes me from using them full time.

Here are some screen captures of DocsToGo:

A really cool feature of DocsToGo is that it will interface with your Google Docs account and let you edit (offline) any file you have in the Google cloud. This is especially useful if you or your campus uses Google Docs for collaborative activities.  Changes made offline on the iPad will be uploaded back into your cloud. It also integrates with DropBox (another must-have tool that is available on the iPad).

Mac-using academicians may be familiar with the Papers application which allows users build a personal database of PDF articles.   A stand-alone version is available for the iPad:

Although this application does not require the desktop copy of the Papers application, I think it might work best when it syncs with a library that exists on your desktop. The company does not make a PC version so I’ve found this app of limited use right now. It might be more useful next time I need to do a new literature review.

This blog runs on WordPress.  I know many other academics who run blogs also use WordPress because of its simplicity and ease of use.  The WordPress iPad app comes in handy to do light editing, content creation, and spam management on the go.

Wordpress for iPad

There are many things that the iPad cannot do. One of them is run PC software like SPSS (used for data analysis). When I need to access specialized applications for a short time, I use VNC viewer which lets me connect to and control my desktop computer (which is running RealVNC) from my iPad.  Controlling a desktop computer with only a touchscreen is executed very elegantly with the VNC viewer.

Finally, if you’re like me and don’t necessarily want to broadcast to the world that you are carrying around an iPad, what better hiding place than in a book!  I just received the DodoCase (after a 6 week wait).  Highly recommended:

iPad in Dodocase. Moleskine Pocket notebook on top

(image of TRS-80 Model 100 from Wikipedia)

Usability Potpourri

First, some thoughts on mobile usability from Google user experience designer Leland Rechis.

Next, decisions, decisions, decisions…when did buying gas become so difficult?

As Travis says,

At this point, why not let me use a slider to create my own mix? That’s a keyboard, touchscreen and 5 grades of gasoline. From somewhere in Florida on I-75″

(Thanks Travis Bowles).

Finally, when keyboard shortcuts go bad!  (from SvN)

iPad is everything the Kindle isn’t (for my use cases)

I acquired an Apple iPad a few weeks ago and am very impressed with it. Just as background, i’m a PC person (a desktop at work, home, and a Fujitsu P1620 ultramobile tablet, all running Windows 7).  My portable computer weighs about 2.5 lbs but the iPad is a full pound lighter and the battery lasts about 10 hours. Less than the Kindle, but much more than my laptop.

Like my previous look at the Kindle, this isn’t a review, but just some thoughts after using the iPad for a few weeks as an academic. To cut to the chase, it’s everything the Kindle isn’t. If you remember from my post on the Kindle, I loved the e-paper screen but lamented the many limitations, the most severe of which was the inflexibility with note-taking and reading PDFs.

That observation was recently re-iterated in several test trials of the Kindle in academic settings (see my previous post, and the results of another academic trial of the Kindle at UVA).

That inflexibility I mentioned was certainly felt by the students in the UVA trial:

“You must be highly engaged in the classroom every day,’’ says Koenig, and the Kindle is “not flexible enough. … It could be clunky. You can’t move between pages, documents, charts and graphs simply or easily enough compared to the paper alternatives.’’

Koenig learned of the dissatisfaction from a mid-term survey that concluded with two key questions: Would you recommend the Kindle DX to an incoming Darden MBA student? A total of 75 to 80 percent answered “no,” says Koenig.

The iPad, while not perfect, fixes many of these problems.  Navigating the document is fast and fluid and you can view books and PDFs zoomed in, two-pages-at-a-time, or full page.  Note-taking is also very easy and consistent with my usual workflow (marking up documents).  So with that, here are some apps I use frequently for work:


I am generally a pretty paper-less person who scans everything into a PDF.  One of my favorite PDF readers is iAnnotate which not only lets me view PDFs but annotate and then email them:

The application has a PC-based component that will serve your iPad PDFs stored on your computer so you have access to your complete library from your iPad. After you’ve marked up your PDF, you can upload the marked-up copy directly to your computer.


The other app I use frequently is Evernote which is a note application that syncs to a web service.  The notes are then accessible from the web, your mobile phone, or your desktop computer.  Another thing I’ve realized is that the landscape software keyboard (shown below) is surprisingly touch-typeable.  I think I can achieve about 85% of my touch typing speed.



Finally, I also use the iWork apps (Pages, Keynote, and Numbers) but Keynote seems to be the most useful.  The others have very wonky conversion with Word and Excel files.  Keynote seems to handle Powerpoint files adequately:


Soft Keyboard: Smart Idea or Incredibly Frustrating?

ThickButtons is a replacement soft-keyboard for Android phones that works in a very unique way. It uses the predictive word functionality available in many soft keyboards (where it can predict what word you are likely to be typing based on what you’ve typed) but takes that one step further by enlarging the next letter on the keyboard. Take a look:

This seems very ingenious but the constantly changing key sizes could be frustrating because it interferes with our ability to use consistent elements of the environment in learning. When the mappings between stimulus (key size, location) and response remain fixed (as in a hardware or soft-keyboard), it is much easier for us to learn and automatize.  This is one of the seminal findings of cognitive psychology/human factors research.  In training, reaching automaticity means reaching the state where very little attention is required–in this case, attention to where the button is located on the keyboard.  That is how, with extensive practice, some people can become extremely quick soft keyboard typists.

Consistently mapped situations, where the keys remain in the same position, in the same size, encourage automaticity (more or less) while variably-mapped situations discourage automaticity (performance is “controlled”).  When automaticity is reached, performance feels effortless and automatic (think of tying your shoe).  However, in VM situations, performance never reaches automaticity and always feels very effortful.

I wonder if the purported benefits of this configuration outweigh the possible variably-mapped fiasco…it’s an empirical question!  (i.e., someone should do a study).

For more on the CM/VM and automatic/controlled processing in attention, please see this Google Scholar link to just some of the relevant papers.  Note that some of them are quite technical and may require a background in cognitive psychology.

[via Lifehacker]

Personas & Windows Phone 7; Apple Mouse Fix

Two unrelated posts; both usability-related:

  • I’m sure that Microsoft has used personas in design and evaluation before, but have they advertised it so broadly–even bragged about it?  I think one of the major benefits of personas is that it focuses development (and evaluation) reducing feature creep; something that the old Windows phones were definitely guilty of [Engadget].
  • This third-party “fix” for Apple’s Mighty Mouse is simple and interesting.  Is the original mouse a case of form over function? [Switched]

Magic Mouse Fixed from on Vimeo.

(Post image from Engadget).

Design & HF Potpourri

  • Comparison of text entry input speeds.
  • Steve Krug (of “Don’t make me think“) has a new book on usability titled Rocket Surgery Made Easy.  See the first few chapters.  [via Photoshopblog]
  • Smashing Magazine has a list of how various websites portray progress in multi-step tasks.
  • A piece on complicated and overwrought design from the NYT.  Choice quote:

    Sadly, more and more products seem set to suffer the same fate, as many of the objects we use daily are “replaced” by digital touch screens. Think of the iPhone, which fulfills the functions of a watch, phone, camera, clock, DVD and CD player, barometer, and so on. The skills of their U.I. designers will be just as important in determining how pleasurable — or otherwise — it will be to use them, as old-fashioned considerations, like how they look. And it’s those same designers that we’re counting on to save us from the curse of over-complicated design.

(post image:

HF Potpourri

  • James Rubinstein sends along a this post about a 32 inch LCD TV presumably designed for older users.  It has features such as a dramatically simplified remote control, fewer wires, and a shut-off timer.  [Engadget]
  • Designing Devices is a relatively new blog devoted to “how and why to create devices” from Dan Saffer (author of Designing for Interaction).  I’m loving the long posts (especially the one on Controls).
  • In the “why didn’t they do this sooner” category is an Ethnography application for the iPhone called Everyday Lives (warning, link opens iTunes).  It lets you record audio, video, images and other data in the field (via UXforward).

HF Potpourri

More potpourri from the web:

Results of long-term educational use of Kindle

The Kindle e-book reader has great promise, especially for students.  Who wouldn’t want to trade in a bunch of heavy books for a slim electronic device?  Amazon partnered with Princeton to see how students would interact with the device.  The results are not good.  The student’s comments sound vaguely familiar to my own experiences.  The Kindle is great as a pleasure book reader, but not so good for academic use.  One student in the trial eloquently commented that:

Much of my learning comes from a physical interaction with the text: bookmarks, highlights, page-tearing, sticky notes and other marks representing the importance of certain passages — not to mention margin notes, where most of my paper ideas come from and interaction with the material occurs,” he explained. “All these things have been lost, and if not lost they’re too slow to keep up with my thinking, and the ‘features’ have been rendered useless.

One of the loudest complaints seem to center on the inability to easily take notes (which was one of my major gripes).  The human factors lesson?  Task analysis:  learn how the user does it now, and then replicate or improve it, but don’t interfere with it.  I can’t beat up on the Kindle too much (I really *want* to like it) because presumably it was not designed for academic use.

[The Daily Princetonian via Engadget]

Consequences of Mobile Phone Usability…big consequences is reporting that part of the economic recession may have been caused by Warren Buffet not being able to check his voice mail:

as Buffett was rushing out to a social engagement in Edmonton, Alberta, he got a call from Bob Diamond, the head of Barclays Capital…[ed. Diamond was creating a plan to save an investment bank and needed money from Buffett]…

Fast forward 10 months. Buffett, who admits he never has really learned the basics of his cell phone, asked his daughter Susan about a little indicator he had noticed on the screen: “Can you figure out what’s on there?” It turned out to be the message from Diamond that he had been waiting for that night.