Tip o’ the Week #133 – The Art of Cut n’ Paste

Like many concepts in everyday computing, the widely-adopted functionality of Cut & Paste has its descriptive roots in an antiquated process. A bit like a floppy disk as the “Save” icon, or an envelope for the email/send functions, the scissors used in Cut refer back to the old method of compositing printed materials, in the days when editors would literally make up a newspaper or magazine page by chopping up other sources and sticking them onto a master copy.

Everyone must surely be aware of the keyboard shortcuts for Cut & Paste – CTRL-X to Cut (or CTRL-C if you just want to Copy), and CTRL-V for Paste. So much quicker than clickety clicking with a mouse.

CTRL-V goes back a loooong way. Its first use was 45 years ago in the “Quick Editor” – aka QED – co-developed by Butler Lampson, one of the giants of computer history, now employed as a “Technical Fellow” in Microsoft Research. There are some other alumni of Xerox PARC nestled inside Microsoft too (like Chuck Thacker) – in a few years in the 1970s, they invented or developed/perfected the mouse, Ethernet, the graphical bitmapped display, laser printing, the GUI as we know it, distributed computing and a whole load of other technology. If you’d like to read more about what they got up to at PARC, check out Dealers of Lightning.

Anyway, back to the present. Did you know there’s a recognised religion in Sweden which reveres CTRL-C and CTRL-V as sacred symbols? Must be those long, dark winter nights…

For the most part, cut/copy & paste does pretty much what it says on the tin, but there are a bunch of options you might not have come across. When you paste content from a website into a document or OneNote page, for example, Office might not just take the content straight from the Clipboard but will go back to the source server to read the information, which might take a few seconds for each paste to occur. If you see a dialog which is taking a while (maybe even “Contacting server for information…” too), then there is an alternative, especially if you don’t need all the formatting to come with the text.

When in your favourite Office application, rather than pressing CTRL-V to paste (or just clicking the Paste icon), try clicking the down arrow under Paste in the Ribbon, and you’ll see various options – Paste Special offering the same gamut of choice as historically has been offered in previous Office versions, but the icons beneath provide a quick way to getting to the most common options.

At this point (ie when the icons are displayed), keystrokes can come back into play – press K if you want to paste and keep the source formatting, M if you want to merge the two formats, or simply T to keep the text and the text alone.

So, if you’re a Microsoftie doing your annual commitments setting, and you’ve gone to the http://performance website to update them, you might find it’s quicker to copy & paste into Word, edit your commitments there, agree them with your manager then paste back the changes… in which case, the Text Only option might save you a lot of waiting as changes are sent back and forth to the cloud… Just a thought.

The Wal-Mart Effect

Here’s an interesting book on a business force which is changing the way that the US economy works, if you believe what the author is saying. Wal-Mart (which owns ASDA in the UK) has been growing like crazy in recent years, to the point where they’re big enough, supposedly, to have a direct impact on the inflation rate in a economy the size of the US.


One startling aspect of this exposé, is the effect that a company as powerful as Wal-Mart can have on its suppliers… normally reported as a bad thing, but there are good things too. An example of the latter was of one company who was shipping goods into the US, which were then taken to its own distribution centres, repackaged and sent out to Wal-Marts distribution chain, and then on down to the stores.

Once the two companies started sharing more detailed information with the other, Wal-Mart revealed that it was sending empty trucks back to its regional centre, from stores all over the country, which could be used by this supplier – so the supplier started importing its goods bound for Wal-Mart into Florida, and using Wal-Mart’s own trucks to ship the merchandise straight to their own distribution centres, thereby cutting out waste & expense.

It’s an interesting read – there may even be some parallels between Wal-Mart and Microsoft, some positive and others not. Microsoft’s Chief Operating Officer used to be Wal-Mart’s CIO, responsible for (among other things) one of the largest databases in the world, where Wal-Mart’s suppliers could see into the sales of their products across the entire distribution chain, as they happened… Quite some system…

Graeme Obree: The Flying Scotsman

  I went to see a really interesting film tonight, a preview of The Flying Scotsman, a film about the life (or at least some of the achievements) of the remarkable Graeme Obree.

Obree, if you’ve never heard of him, broke the holy-grail record of cycling, beating a 9-year old total distance cycled in an hour. That record was always though of as the supreme struggle – get on your bike, cycle as hard as you can for 60 minutes, and see how far you got.

I had a passing acquaintance with Obree when he was in his teens (and I was younger): we were both in the same cycling club, very occasionally used to go on rides (which would generally involve me being dropped early on by Graeme and his pal Gordon Stead, in whose workshop he built the “Old Faithful” bike with which he stirred a hornet’s nest of controversy in the cycling establishment, whilst breaking a couple of world records and taking a couple of world championships).

Obree was always fast – even as a 17-year-old he was doing 20-minute 10-mile time trials on fairly ordinary bikes, along a dual carriageway. I recall hearing out of the blue in 1993 that some weird Scotsman who’d build his own bike out of washing machine parts – not strictly true, but looks good in the papers – had just taken the hour record… and couldn’t quite believe that it was the same Mr G Obree of Ayrshire.

Anyway, it’s a good film. A good story, and a darker and more interesting one than the usual “nice guy underdog triumphs against the villanous ogres of the establishment” type affair. Obree was, maybe still is to a degree, haunted by a bi-polar condition which he has sought therapy from in writing his own biography on which the film is based. Jonny Lee Miller turns in a top-drawer performance, and even manages to look a lot like Graeme did at the time.

The Flying Scotsman: The Graeme Obree StoryI haven’t read all of the Flying Scotsman autobiography yet – I’m waiting for it to wing its way from Amazon – but I have delved into it using their excellent “Search Inside” feature which allows you to preview pages of a book before committing to buying it.

I suppose the Obree story is one that everyone can learn from – by having supreme self belief (he refused to talk about “attempting” to break the world record… the way he saw it, he was going to break the record) and raw talent, it’s possible to prevail. Now, I can talk myself into self belief, but I’m still searching for the raw talent… 🙂

PS. The film goes on general release on 29th June 2007, and the book has been available for a couple of years.

iCon – Steve Jobs biography

I don’t make a great secret of the fact that I’m not much of an Apple fan – I can appreciate the great design in the products but I’ve just never had a desire or need to actually buy any (apart from the iPod sock, and that was actually a freebie from Jason) – and the whole religious fervour thing that tends to attach itself to Apple stuff has a tendency to put me off.

Just before going on holiday, though, I was book-shopping on Amazon (it’s the only time I’ll ever plough through a series of books without taking weeks & weeks), and decided to grab the unathorised biography of Steve Jobs, iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business.

Having read the first few pages, I was half expecting the book to be a sycophant’s 360 page eulogy as to how wonderful Jobs is, but was pleasingly set straight after a chapter or two. The picture that the whole book paints is that, like many successful and distinctive people, Jobs is a flawed diamond – undeniably talented and possessing of an ability to energise teams of people to do things they wouldn’t do for anyone else (characterised by the now-famous “Reality Distortion Field” said to surround him).

Like other successful IT folk (Bill Gates maybe the most well known example), Steve combined a mixture of foresight (which could be seen as equally gifted and delusional for the time) which good luck (being in the right place at the right time), and managed to hang on for the ride enough to make it very successful.

It’s interesting to note that when Jobs was essentially kicked out of Apple, he went on to a series of other ventures which very nearly went badly wrong – NeXT was a hardware flop but the OS that they built paved the way for his return to Apple, and Pixar (which he picked up as an already-going concern) was seen by him as a way to sell high-end graphics computers (without apparently cottoning on to the potential of the animations they were producing, which went on to make the company billions).

One thing that characterises Jobs however, and I think is also true of Microsoft in general, is that failure is accepted as an occupational hazard and as long as some lesson is taken from the failure, it isn’t the end of the world. Steve proved this by coming back to Apple and turning the company around – though Gil Amelio might have some words to say about how the recovery in Apple’s fortunes had a lot to do with the groundwork that he had done beforehand, and that Steve happened to come back at the right time. Whatever, it’s hard to deny that had Apple without Steve might not have survived at all, and it’s a more interesting world with companies like Apple still flourishing in it.

The book finishes up before Apple’s move to Intel CPUs for the Mac lines, before the launch of the iPod Nano (which is surely the most innovative & successful of the iPods so far) and obviously before the announcement of the iPhone. It would be interesting to read a future edition of the book which looks back on the success (or otherwise?) of these strategies in years to come. All in, well worth a read, especially if you (like me) are interested in the history of our industry.

NB: Geek in Disguise, Steve Clayton, wrote about the “D Conference” this week, where Gates & Jobs will jointly appear for the first time in a long time. Now that’d be worth seeing…

The Design of Everyday Things

In part 2 of my book post about design (part 1 was earlier this week), I’ll revisit an old title which is still great reading for anyone interested in cognitive theory or design. It was written by Donald Norman, and first published nearly 20 years ago as “The Psychology of Everyday Things“. The author found that bookshops & libraries tended to lump the book in with all the psychology textbooks, so a later edition was re-released under the modified title of the Design of Everyday Things.

The book itself looks at lots of good examples of where a designer has clearly thought about a problem and taken account of it in the design, but the more interesting (to me, at least) cases are where the usability of a system is so totally shot just because the designer didn’t take a simple thing into account.

Examples of the kinds of scenarios that Norman deals with are cookers where the layout of controls for the burners is different to that of the burners themselves (eg the burners are 2 x 2 but the controls are in a line of 4 – very common) or light switches which seemingly bear no resemblance to the layout of the lights they operate. I’ve lived in houses for years, and still kept getting the switches in the hall round the wrong way, so I know where he’s coming from there. In fact, in my house right now, the left hand switch operates the lights at the right side of the room and vice versa – I really must get round to rewiring that switch one day.

My favourite examples in the book are of the humble door, however. Here are some example photos I’ve taken on a camera phone (my new Orange E600, a version of the HTC S620 which Darren recently raved about).

The first 2 pictures are of a fire door in Microsoft UK’s TVP campus; the point about design here is that there are no instructions on the door about what to do. If you walk up to a fire exit door, for example, and it has a horizontal bar across it, you would be drawn to grab it and do something – quite possibly pull on it, but when it doesn’t move up, you’d push, and the door would open.

Similarly, when you walk up to a door which doesn’t have any handles, the only thing you can do is push, so that’s what you’ll do, right? 

To make it a little easier, a good designer would put a plate of some kind on the door, to underline the fact that there isn’t a handle for a reason (ie it hasn’t fallen off or anything).

Conversely, when you see a handle, you’ll instinctively grab it and pull. So a well designed door will have a handle on the side that needs to be pulled, and nothing (or a plate) on the side that’s pushed.  The only other marks on these fire doors are signs saying that the door is to be kept closed. Interestingly, they was part of the original Thames Valley Park campus which opened in 1997.

Now if we move to a newer part of the campus, there are nicer-looking glass doors, but their design is less clear – there are handles on both sides which look swish, but offer no affordance – ie they don’t give the user any clue which way the door is going to open. Maybe you could look out for hinges or the likes, but it’s very common to see people walk up to a door and pull it when they should be pushing.

To try to avoid that confusion, the door company puts a little sign saying “Pull” or “Push” on the door – something that still evades many people’s attention, a bit like The Far Side cartoon of the School for the Gifted.

Here are just two examples…

Even the old part of campus has plenty of glass doors, but they are designed correctly. Evidence:

There is nothing on this door other than the furniture – a piece of design which looks good, doesn’t have anything superfluous, and yet is easier to use than the more fussily “designed” items.

It’s books like DOET which give you a new perspective on the mundane things you’d not normally notice, and as a result, are well worth a good thumb through even if not an exhaustive read.

When interaction design goes bad

For various reasons, I’ve been testing & driving several different cars lately, a process I quite enjoy – getting to know the foibles of the car’s cockpit, playing with the various toys and gadgets, as well as actually learning how to drive each one according to its size, performance etc. It’s really pleasing to find a well thought out design in some bit of car UI (Audi’s MMI system is just sweet), but even more frustrating that some companies can spend $100ms developing a car but overlook some really basic functions which will just make the driver crazy (like the clock which looks very smooth and lovely but has no obvious way of adjusting the time… I’m currently driving around in a loan car which is 1 hour adrift of real time because I haven’t figured out how to move the clock forward to Daylight Saving Time, and haven’t yet gotten around to RTFM).

Thinking about all of this reminded me of two great books which, if you’ve any interest in design at all, I’d highly recommend. I’ll do this review in 2 parts, this one being, as it is, part one.

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity Alan Cooper

This is a fascinating book which talks about the doom-laden scenario of everything we use being computer controlled (and since the book was written around 10 years ago, shows a fairly decent grasp of the future, some of which has already come to pass), discusses the design of User Interaction, and a model which Cooper has used successfully for a number of years, centred around “Personas”.

Note the use of the term User Interaction as distinct from User Interface (UI)… in this case, we’re talking about the whole way that people interact with a system or device, not just the UI of the software – extending the user interaction model to include only as much information as required, without being stupidly modal (eg the same button doing different things at different times based on what mode a device is in, especially bad when the device doesn’t make it obvious what its mode is).


A great example of good user interaction is the iPod – good UI in software, but it works so much better because the device complements it totally. Bad user interaction design is evident in many remote controls – they have lots of identical buttons with confusing labeling (what *do* all those symbols mean?) and the software they’re controlling on the TV/DVD player etc, is sometimes less than intuitive and not helped at all by having a control that needs the manual to be open in front of the user to make any sense.

There’s one great example of good design that jumped out from reading the book – and that was Cooper’s commission to design an interaction model for a new airline video on demand (AVOD) system. Various attempts were made to get something that could display quite a lot of possible options (since there were many films & TV shows which could be watched at the user’s demand), without having to give any instruction on how to use the thing, even to people who weren’t familiar with what they might expect on modern consumer electronics or computer systems.

After selecting and rejecting various ideas, Cooper settled on a simple UI of a rotary dial positioned directly below and in the centre of the screen, combined with thumbnail views of the film/show. Show someone a rotary dial or knob (suitably designed – maybe one with serrated edges and no obvious way to pull it out) and they’ll instinctively turn it before trying anything else. (This is a topic also covered by the 2nd book in this series: it deals with how a device naturally affords itself to the user – eg if you pick up something with a single, raised button, your first instinct would be to press it rather than try and pull it off – it affords being pressed more than being prised).

If the user turns the dial back and forwards, the list of titles pans that way, and if they turn it more quickly, the list moves quickly. When they find something they want to watch, they press the button. End of user interaction model.

Again, note the distinction between user interaction and UI. As far as the user is concerned, they turn the dial and push it to pick stuff. The UI can later deal with minutae like what to do if the user selects something by mistake… how do they go back? How do they control the volume or screen brightness etc? Maybe other buttons or controls might be required for that… unless they got into some modal system where the dial would control volume… but that could just confuse things more than adding an extra button or two.

Alan also introduces Personas as a key way of focusing designers and developers on how to address the specific needs of a specific type of user; rather than being generic (“the users”, or even saying retired people, or young mothers, or teenagers or tech-savvy twentysomething males, is still vague), the concept means they actually embody a persona with characteristics as if it’s someone they really talked to – here’s John, he works in a small business IT provider, so he knows a good bit about technology but lacks the time to do lots of reading about how to implement it, etc etc.

The Exchange development group in Microsoft was one of the no-doubt many who have adopted personas when it comes to designing software – so the needs of a whole group of disparate people can be met, hopefully, by using more holistic design processes, than simply concentrating on making it look and function well to the people who’re doing the designing.

More info on Alan Cooper’s personas

Adjunct: There’s an amusing article courtesy of SAP, on Golden Rules for Bad User Interfaces – if you’re going to sit down and design a really bad UI, follow these rules and you won’t go wrong…

Thought provoking stuff…

I’ve no idea how accurate this information is, but in a short video on http://www.scottmcleod.org/didyouknow.wmv there are some wild predictions about the future… under the title of “Did you know?”

This echoes somewhat  “The Age of Spiritual Machines” by the eminent Ray Kurzweil (I saw him present once, and it was truly amazing – this guy has a brain the size of, I suppose, a planet … e.g. he invented OCR when a blind friend complained that the supply of audio books was seriously limited), where the author theorises that technological evolution is almost exponential – ie. the pace of change is accelerating.

Kurzweil reckons the first 30 years of the 21st century will see the same degree of technology progression that the entire 20th century saw, and that the next 10 years will see the same again… to the point where, by the middle of the century, nano-bots will be injected into the bloodstream to repair damaged organs and defeat blood-borne diseases.

Of course, all of this could be a load of old tosh – after all, people thought in the 1950s that we’d all be piloting flying cars, wearing space suits, and eating food in pill-form by the end of the 20th century…

Are you CrazyBusy?


I was reminded the other day of a term coined by Edward Hallowell in his excellent and thought-provoking book, CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD.

Hallowell, an ex-Harvard Medical School specialist in Attention Deficit Disorder, has deduced that technology and the modern way of life & work is turning us all into ineffective wastrels who burn out by the time we’re 50.

He tells a story of how he was staying in a remote cottage which had one of the old rotary Bakelite telephones, and no mobile coverage, and the act of dialling his friend in a nearby village took so long (in reality only a few seconds… the number probably had lots of 8s, 9s and 0s in it), that he was getting madly frustrated. This set him thinking about how strange it was that a simple act of waiting 15 seconds or so for something that normally takes a snap on a push-button phone, should be enough to make him near apoplectic. He started finding similarities in the symptoms of ADD patients he’s treated, and normal people who just get frustrated, distracted, impatient etc, in the normal run of their daily lives.

He’s even coined some interesting new terminology:

Vocabulary for a crazy world

Screensucking: wasting time stuck on the internet or Blackberry when you could be doing some work

EMV or e-mail voice: the ghostly tone of voice people assume on the phone when they are talking to you and reading their e-mail at the same time

Frazzing: when you are multitasking ineffectively

Gemmelsmerch: the ubiquitous force that distracts us from whatever we are doing with the desire to start doing something else

Doomdarts: suddenly remembered commitments such as a birthday or an invitation that had slipped our minds in all that frazzing and screensucking

I particularly like EMV and Doomdarts – been there, done that, many times…

“Dealers of Lightning” – an insightful history in Xerox PARC

Ever since reading  Robert X Cringley‘s excellent 1996 Accidental Empires book (which actually has the even more excellent full title of Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition and Still Can’t Get a Date), I’ve been interested in some of the history behind the way the PC and internet industry has evolved. I’ve always loved Cringley’s description of Steve Jobs as “The most dangerous man in Silicon Valley”… (in fact, he even opens Accidental Empires with a line akin to the opener from the sadly departed Douglas Adams’ tome, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which was, “High on a rocky promontory sat an Electric Monk on a bored horse.”)

Many commentators would trace the genesis of a lot of technology we now take for granted back to Xerox Corp’s famed Palo Alto Research Center, aka PARC. The roll call of what was supposedly invented at PARC is long – laser printers, ethernet, the bitmapped display, GUI, mouse, object-oriented programming, distributed computing… the list goes on.

Legend goes a little fuzzy though – not everything that came out of PARC originated there, but a lot of the researchers who worked there in the glory days brought ideas with them and refined them enough to be useful (eg Doug Engelbart, who invented the mouse before coming to Xerox but perfected its use with the new bitmapped displays and Graphical User Interface). Legend also has it (backed up by some fact, in fact) that The Most Dangerous Man in Silicon Valley himself was given a guided tour of PARC’s facilities, saw the Alto computer they’d invented (showcasing their GUI, mouse et al) and became inspired to have Apple launch the Lisa computer, which was the forerunner of the Mac.

Anyway, a few years ago I picked up Dealers of Lightning – a potted history of what happened at PARC, and it really is a fascinating read. It can be a bit heavy going in places but gives a great insight not only into the amazing work they did at PARC (and the disdain the industry poured on Xerox Research for basically inventing the world as we know it but then alledgedly doing nothing with it, because they couldn’t see how it related to selling photocopiers), and it also paints an inspiring portrait of the head of the Computer Science Lab, Bob Taylor.

Taylor’s basic philosophy was to hire people that were smarter than he was (and he was the guy who founded ARPANET, the precursor to the internet, so must be a bit of a smart cookie himself). He also decided, in the CSL, that he couldn’t manage any more than 50 people directly, so he set the cap on that size of organisation (since he didn’t want to introduce layers of management), and just went about making sure those 50 were the best he could possibly find. What an visionary management style, and an amazing story.

It’s also interesting to see how many of the luminaries mentioned in this book as the fathers of computing as we know it, now show up in the Microsoft Global Address List 🙂