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What’s in a UI?

Posted By David Marble, Monday, March 24, 2014
Updated: Friday, March 21, 2014
I would venture a guess that many of you who will read this next line will say, “Doesn’t everyone know this?” 

The User Interface (UI) can be one of the biggest barriers or strongest accelerators to technology adoption.

The answer is no, not everyone knows this—at least not at the deeper levels.   It turns out that the power of the UI is often misunderstood and underestimated by individual developers, engineering departments, marketing departments, and even entire companies.  Developers are not classroom teachers or doctors—in general, they are not in the professions of those who will use the application being developed.  Developers are also geeks who don’t struggle with technology—even if they do, it’s a challenge to be enjoyed.  They often make assumptions about what is “easy,” or “logical.”  Acting as referee in this dilemma is the Product Manager (PM), who role is to translate the needs of the teacher et al to the developer.  Unfortunately, it turns out that the PM is also not a teacher or a doctor and can make uninformed assumptions as well.

 The best companies recognize the disconnect between developers/Product Managers and their target markets and deal with the issue at a fundamental process and organization level by engaging those markets at every step of the development—but believe me, that doesn’t happen as often as you would expect. When technologies come into the market, they enter the 5-phase cycle that Gartner refers to as the “Hype Cycle.” In the early stages of this cycle, a product is developed and energetically marketed—meaning that it can easily become over-hyped, hitting what they refer to as the “Peak of Inflated Expectations”. The true test for any product begins in phase 3 of the cycle, known as the “Trough of Disillusionment,” when the product is used and scrutinized by the market. This is when any problems that arise with the practical use of a product in a real-world environment are brought to light.  When the ePortfolio technology market entered the “Trough," developers recognized a lag in the product’s induction into the classroom. This was a direct result of the fact that teachers didn’t fully grasp the ePortfolio UI, or understand the best way to use the product in their classrooms. It wasn’t until the teaching community was brought into the equation to provide input into important functionality and was able to adapt teaching methods to incorporate the technology that the market took off.

It is amazing how many times the product with the better UI beats the product with a better overall architecture and performance.  I am convinced that Google is the behemoth it is today because they had, and still have, the simplest UI in the search engine business.  They had only two buttons, one which says “I’m feeling Lucky,” and it has never changed.  They weren’t the first in the search engine market, and many would say that Lycos and Alta Vista had better engines, but there was something beautiful about the simplest UI.  Nicholas Negroponte, the famed founder of the MIT Media Lab and co-creator of Wired Magazine dedicated most of his work over the years in the pursuit and advocacy for better human to computer interfaces.  He lamented one day that he realized that the toilet he used in the morning knew that he had left and self-flushed but his desktop PC didn’t know that he was leaving unless he hit the keys and logged off.  He was always dismayed by the slow pace of voice command development. 

The impact of the UI can be felt everywhere.  Can you imagine how many more tapes would be in existence if the broader population had understood how to program the VCR?  Today, my wife still watches SD instead of HD because there is one less number to remember and button to push. …Okay, maybe that’s just my wife….

Tags:  broadband rhode island  eportfolio  gartner  hype cycle  technology adoption  UI  user interface  Wired Magazine 

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Big Data

Posted By David Marble, Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The term "Big Data” is thrown around so much lately that we tend to gloss over its significance.  Some folks brush the trend off as nothing new; a natural evolution under Moore’s law.  As OSHEAN looks to 100+Gbps networks, I have become intrigued by the applications that are now emerging—applications which utilize massive data sets and ultra-fast networks to enable entirely new areas of science.

Data sets have become markedly complex.  In response, Data Mining has emerged as a new branch of IT, tasked with developing the tool sets necessary to explore and correlate the massive amounts of data being collected in given research areas.  It is interesting to think about the evolution of these tool sets that can be launched against these data sets to uncover trends and relationships even when the researcher doesn’t know what s/he is looking for.  I was always taught the scientific method where one started out with a hypothesis, collected data, ran test cases, and drew conclusions.  Now, with Exploratory Data Analysis (EDA) techniques, we can start with the data and launch tools to generate the hypothesis.  Wilder still, there has been an explosion in our abilities to use visualization tools to help understand and represent massive data sets and outcomes.  The possibilities pouring from these new capabilities are mind-boggling.  With every technological leap of this sort, we are also confronted with moral dilemmas and this one is no exception as we face ethical questions surrounding privacy, security, governance, and ownership of data.

I was a huge fan of the Science Fiction writer Isaac Asimov and read with vigor his seminal work "The Foundation Trilogy” when I was in high school (I reread it about 10 years later).  One of the central themes in this work was the idea that well into the future, mankind would have so much data describing human behavior that we would have the ability to write programs that would predict future outcomes at a societal level.  Asimov, to his credit, tackled the ethical dilemmas facing the holders of governance to a populace that had developed a branch of science called Psychohistory—which produced quantitative capabilities to predict macro-level trends in societal evolution that ultimately included the prediction of the demise of its own galactic empire.  Holders of this knowledge were then faced with the moral conundrum of how to handle this data and what to do to manipulate a different outcome.  Sound like any headlines you have read lately?

Tags:  big data  broadband rhode island  exploratory data analysis  moore's law 

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What is a REN?

Posted By David Marble, Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, February 4, 2014
When I am asked about who OSHEAN is, the conversation often starts with a definition of a Research and Education Network (REN) and a companion discussion of Internet2. Internet2 was formed in 1996 by 34 universities who understood that the network and computing needs of research and education communities had to be handled by a non-profit consortium dedicated to their needs. This concept evolved over time, leading to the development of the nationwide 100Gbps backbone in place at Internet2 today and building the regional partner networks that OSHEAN is a member of today. There are 31 regionals like OSHEAN who participate in a national coalition called the Quilt. Take a look at the Quilt site and the work being done in the different states to get a sense of the community to which OSHEAN belongs.

This week I am attending the Quilt Winter Meetings in San Diego. Each of the regional RENs have slightly different models but all are non-profits built to serve what are referred to as Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs). CAIs are universities, K-12s, libraries, and healthcare government, and other non-profit institutions. Internet2 and the REN community represent the best of the best of those dedicated to the advancement of network and compute platforms for the research, education, and public service communities. This is part of a national agenda further buffeted by the recent completion of the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grants awarded to OSHEAN, Internet2 and many of the R&E members of the Quilt. This week we will be sharing best practices, developing new service models, and discussing our role in advocacy at the national level. The Quilt recently participated in a series of meetings with the FCC, who is currently engaged in the development of E-Rate 2.0—the technology funding model for the K-12 and Library communities. Just this past week, the FCC announced a platform to nearly double the amount of money available to schools and libraries to upgrade technology.

Tags:  broadband rhode island  E-Rate  FCC  Internet2  RENs  Research and education networks  The Quilt 

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The Net Net on Net Neutrality

Posted By Dave Marble, Friday, January 17, 2014
Updated: Thursday, January 16, 2014

The last thing I want to do in my blog is to get into political discussions.  Many people in the technical communities I walk in would much prefer a discussion of the pros and cons of a SIP trunking service to a debate about democratic, republican, or libertarian talking points.  There are times, however, when the intersection of government policy and technology markets demands our attention.  In an earlier blog, I cited the 1983 ruling by Judge Greene as a watermark to not only my career but the entire  explosion of the internet and telecom services.  In that ruling which broke up AT&T, there were provisions that placed restrictions on the new "Baby Bells”—prohibiting discrimination against information providers, and prohibiting these new common carriers from originating content themselves.

This past Tuesday, a federal appeals court made a landmark ruling against the FCC with respect to net neutrality and the overall ability of the government to force internet service providers into specifically defined fairness practices.  The court blew up the FCC’s net neutrality-based rules for pricing and delivering internet content.  The court basically said that the FCC did not have authority over broadband content providers as they are not common carriers.  They upheld the FCCs right to regulate the Internet—but not its authority over an ISP.  (Not sure how you have one without the other.)  In my simple mind, that means one of two things will happen: either the FCC will back off, or they will seek to regulate ISPs in the way they regulate common carriers.  Place your bets.

The concept of net neutrality is not new.  It has been around for generations—initially, it focused on access fairness for telecomm, but now it’s centered on the internet services concepts behind charging for content and quality of service.  The current debate centers on large Internet providers such as Verizon or Comcast, versus content providers such as Google and Netflix.  What was once a grassroots effort to provide fairness for the little guy in the light of large corporate agendas is now a huge debate between huge players with billions of dollars at stake.  This ruling will have significant, long-term ramifications on rates and application performance.  Make no mistake, it’s still the little guy who will suffer the end result.  

Net neutrality makes for an interesting debate.  At stake are a host of free market concepts versus the public interest.  Has the Internet reached the level of public utility to the point of government regulation?  Should an ISP be able to recover the cost of supporting Netflix traffic and better still can the ISP compete with Netflix by having native content?  If you separate functions, how can a small content provider compete with Disney if Disney can afford a premium Quality of Service plan from their carrier of choice?

I am fascinated by the depth of the arguments on both sides of the Net Neutrality debate and leave you with one premise that I have long believed: it’s extremely hard for the government to keep up with regulating technology industries such as ours.  The pace of our change is too extreme.  Even in this latest FCC attempt, they didn’t include wireless providers, as they thought that industry too immature for regulation. Hmmm… aren’t we on iPhone 5?

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The Pace of Technology Change

Posted By Dave Marble, Monday, December 16, 2013

I was at a school district meeting on technology the other night and one of the parents in attendance asked why her son’s teacher didn’t use the beautiful SmartBoard the school had purchased over a year ago. The discussion quickly turned to the school’s lack of resources: no training, poor planning, not enough time in the teacher’s day, etc. My thoughts, however, went elsewhere. I began ruminating on the so-called "Digital Divide” that exists between the technological haves and have-nots.

The traditional argument delineates the Digital Divide at an economic level. While economic factors can (and often do) play a role in the Divide, they are certainly not the only factors worth considering. Isn’t there also a clear divide that can exist at a generational level? Grampy will usually get his butt kicked by his 10 year old grandson in a game of Madden -- and, while my parents are overwhelmed by the Skype video call, I just wonder why this technology took 20+ years from the days when I was involved with PictureTel.

The rate of adoption for technology at an individual level is driven by a few factors, including one’s personality, education, and overall acumen. Some folks may not be self-starters or adventurous types where technology is concerned. Still others may just not have had the education necessary to get them started with new technologies. This alone can prevent them from ever turning their new SmartBoards, meaning that they miss out on hundreds of tutorial videos, and, in turn, hundreds of potential lesson plans that utilize SmartBoard features. Acumen, education, and economics go hand-in-hand. A geometry teacher with the acumen to try a flipped classroom knows whether all of his or her students have access to a computer and high-speed internet at night so they can watch their Khan Academy videos on the Pythagorean Theorem.

I recently watched an interview with a doctor who is closing his practice after 30 years because he can’t adapt to the government’s new Electronic Medical Records requirements. Much like the discussion at the school district meeting, this gave me pause. I realized that our expectations aren’t often aligned with an understanding of the Digital Divide -- so just as we expect all teachers to be using SmartBoard technology, we expect all doctors to have their records maintained electronically and accessible by any hospital. Without the proper training and resources at hand, this is neither fair to the teachers and doctors, nor the students and patients. It seems in the best interests of administrators and planners to consider this when building well-intended technology programs.

I am encouraged about the state of such things in RI. We have strong advocacy and deep technological understanding in this area at the state level, led by our friends at BroadBand RI (BBRI). To learn more, check out their policy paper here:


Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Tags:  BBRI  broadband rhode island  Digital Divide  flipped classroom  OSHEAN  Rhode Island  SmartBoards 

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