Thursday, August 18, 2016

Speech Central - an iPod for text to speech technology

Text to speech technology is available for so long time. During its evolution it became reliable and usable, so much that at some points you can't make difference between synthetic speech and real human speech. Still, you can't say large percent of population uses this technology, although its benefits are more than obvious.

But the same situation was with MP3 players - they were clearly ahead of CDs and audio tapes but still most people used the latter. And then came the iPod and changed everything. From the technology point, it was nothing new. But from the  human-machine interaction point, it was a revolution. It enabled most people to interact with MP3 technology in a meaningful way.

Speech Central is the app that raises the bar for text to speech to the level where you can really enjoy it. Most of the text speech apps are heavily dependent on the interaction with the screen, which pretty much breaks down their usability cases - you need to set up everything in advance to use the app on the go and as we all no we don't do that well.

But Speech Central doesn't need screen at all except for the initial settings - after you set up the sources for headlines (and it can be any web site), you can just enjoy browsing those sites when you are running, commuting, doing house work or any other moment when you can't really reach the screen.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Share to Speech - an iPod for text to speech technology

Share to speech main page
Text to speech technology is available for so long time. During its evolution it became reliable and usable, so much that at some points you can't make difference between synthetic speech and real human speech. Still, you can't say large percent of population uses this technology, although its benefits are more than obvious.

But the same situation was with MP3 players - they were clearly ahead of CDs and audio tapes but still most people used the latter. And then came the iPod and changed everything. From the technology point, it was nothing new. But from the  human-machine interaction point, it was a revolution. It enabled most people to interact with MP3 technology in a meaningful way.

So, this is my first post on Share to Speech, a new software that will be soon available on Windows Store. The choice of Windows 8 was simple, as it has the Share charm, which enables easy interaction with other applications that have text. If text to speech is not just split second away from your content, it doesn't make sense.

Still different people might have different requirements from text to speech, and they also may vary from one situation to another. Application that doesn't take this into account is also useless. That's why there are four different ways to share with Share to speech:
  1. Speak now in background - you can continue your work, and the speech will start in the background
  2. Add to Now Speaking list - if there is another speech that is currently played, it won't be interrupted, but a new speech will be generated and played after it
  3. Create MP3 to listen later - app will create MP3 file and add it to To Listen items. Nothing will be played. To Listen items may be set to upload file to some location (like your USB flash drive or your SkyDrive or Dropbox folder), or you can do that from the app interface later. This way you can take your files where you really need them - like in your car or in your phone
  4. Speak from here - Uses share window to start speech - it has a benefit that it is easy to dismiss speech just by clicking anywhere outside the app, and it is not recorded as the item.
Still, things aren't even that simple - if you share web page, you don't want every text to be read on it, as it would be useless. Thus the app has intelligent algorithm that finds exact parts of page that contain only article text and reads just them.

Finally, the app has a beautiful interface to track your articles - as it processes items from Now Speaking and To Listen, they are moved to Library. And using the share charm, you can share those articles from the app to email, or Facebook or any other app that accepts sharing.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I made one more app by trying to bring exciting design to the digital clock.
Digital clock has stayed mostly the same since its introduction. And it has some flaws that analogue clock doesn't have, as it had to solve problem of which information is more important - if minutes and hours were of the same importance on the analogue clock, no one would be able to distinguish them.
So this is the new design, made as a widget for Android:
See more on DiGTy Clock site, and join beta!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Desk & Archive v1.0

As mentioned before, I wanted to show how reinvented user interface should look like in practice. That's why I created Desk & Archive, a file manager for workplace.

It reinvents desktop, tabs, item representation and adds some nice features to interaction.
It is shareware, so you can try it at I will also further blog on that site about UI inventions that it makes.

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Friday, December 02, 2011

How does the .zip survive?

It is a funny thing that anyone today uses zip format. Most of today file formats like office files, pictures, music and video are efficient enough that zip has nearly no effect on them. Also, communication and storage is efficient enough that no one should bother for some gains in file size.

And it is bother to use zip, though Microsoft did something to improve zip usability in Windows and make it more folder like. But even in Windows it is clearly not the same like other folders (you can't see thumbnails in it, Recycle bin is not supported, only most important commands from context menu are supported). And to use files in most applications, extraction is required (e.g. Picasa won't show you the pics in your zip).

So, how then zip survived? Well, there is one common workflow where zip is still useful. It is downloading pack of files from web. Unfortunately, it is not possible to download them as a folder, and zip does the trick. But is it really necessary to do such thing?

Well, I can think of solution from client side. Web browser downloads zip files, but before doing virus scan, it unpacks the zip into folder and deletes the zip file. So user is tricked that he actually downloaded folder.

On the other hand there is probably some server side solution. As it is possible to download folder using ftp protocol, there might be some server workaround for this. Though, as millions of sites already use zip to send folders, I guess first solution would be much more effective immediately.

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Sunday, September 04, 2011

Consumer vs business application

Having the same software for consumer and business market is something that most people think is OK, but it is not. Now it is not that only these two market segments exists, there should always exist some in between - like artists and students.

During 80s it was very clear: PC was a business machine. Consumers had Commodore, Atari or Sega and Nintendo, and artists had Mac. All of a sudden, in 90s things changed. Commodore and Atari went to near oblivion, so only PCs left and consoles. But consoles were too much single-purpose, so only PCs left as general purpose consumer computers. And it lasted until 2010. But then it was iPad. Steve Jobs saw how much consumers needed appliance that would just work.

But it caused the view that consumer applications are going to take over the business. Oh, how wrong is that. Even Steven Sinofsky, Windows division president said something like that.

First, there is general problem in motivation - consumers usually want to surf, and business users usually want to take away distractions. Surf started with remote control, and it is quite obvious that consumers want to face different and sometimes random content. That is part of the fun.

Second, businesses are not ready to trade-off flexibility for simplicity, consumers are. You can't say that you can't service the consumers because your IT doesn't support that. You can't expect to pay higher taxes because your IT doesn't support that. So, you must be able to do everything and even some marginal cases, which makes systems much more complex.

Third, security as in business software you must be able to audit, track and protect nearly everything. Consumers usually don't need it.

So that's it. You can obviously have the same platform for both purposes (like HTML or Java or .Net), but you need different applications and interfaces to succeed.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

Design principles

There is just one design principle - think what will fit your end user the best.

Everything else are just lies. Guidelines at the best case. I will take just one case that I am most familiar with, but you can see many others in many places. During the design of Firefox 3 Mozilla launched idea that Firefox interface should be native to the platform that Firefox user uses (Windows XP, Windows Vista, Mac OS, Linux). But they went so long in applying this principle that Firefox 3 for XP looked very similar to Windows XP. Yes, to the system which look was nearly 10 years old! Fortunately, there was good feedback (including myself), and mistake was avoided.

But it puts us to the core of the problem - you can't follow design principle without thinking. Generally speaking, design principle is good because following it you are doing something that is good for end user. But as you can see in this case, that is just one side of the coin. At the same time you might be doing something bad for the user. You might go against another principle. It is very unfortunate that they are not mutually exclusive, and most people forget that. And that is why this is more art than science.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Google Syndrome - or Lack of Money Incentive Kills Innovation

I think one day, it will be called like that.

Let's face it, there are not many thing that in this world that were less inventive than Google search, and I would say that in IT there are no such things for sure. What would you say if someone offered you that bulky functionless mobile phone with black and white screen that were produced 10 years ago? And that is more or less what Google did... Just a few changes of side features in 10 years, nothing more.

It comes to my mind that some options that were previously in Advanced search came into Sidebar, and are more easily accessible. Yes they have also added Google Instant Search recently. Well they have added and removed some search results related features, but none of them proved to be useful. Currently you have +1 and site preview, previously there were tools to do something like wiki with search results, but they proved no value and were removed, and I don't see that +1 will have better value either. C'mon guys, even Coke had more changes in those years!

Now Microsoft holds for not so innovative company... And probably there is and reason for that, it has held monopoly on operating systems for more than 2 decades. But let's track even that Microsoft. At the beginning of 80s, it released MS-DOS. In the beginning of 90s it released MS Windows 3.0, its first usable graphical user interfaces operating system. In the beginning of 00s it released Windows XP, which was its first really stable system, and interface drastically evolved in previous decade from application oriented to document oriented with many new features. And now, at the beginning of 10s, Microsoft is to release Windows 8, that will totally break with most previous concepts.

That might lead you to think - is there are reason for that? And the answer is simple - no money incentive. Microsoft may not innovate and it would get a whole lot money in that case too, as people would still buy Windows, but there is a catch in that - they won't buy as fast... everyone will wait for new computer (and probably even postpone such shoppings). To Google innovation doesn't lead to more revenues. It can expect the same people to come in same volume.

But yes, there is a problem with that, as Google search will become obsolete one day. Probably Steve Ballmer thought that he can offer souped up Google search as Bing and present it as revolutionary technology, but users are not that stupid and it didn't pass. Even if Bing seems to become a bit better than Google, it is just not enough for ordinary people to think and risk to switch. But if Microsoft is to offer a really revolutionary search, then things might just change, and Google might be just wiped out. And while I am sure that Microsoft has something in test phase when Ballmer talks about this, something is more sure, and that is  Watson. It won Jeopardy, and it is shooting for some verticals like sales and healthcare where Google would shoot if he had technology. Probably it can't scale to so many topics and so many searches that web has now, but it is a matter of time. And Google is spending time thinking about Google +?

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Monday, December 13, 2010

What is the problem with Microsoft Office Ribbon?

I had some issue with Microsoft's Ribbon interface (first introduced in Microsoft Office 2007). Actually, I think many people had more or less trouble using it. So I was thinking how to sum it up, what Microsoft did wrong, and where it placed its risky, but reasonable bets that might seem wrong but a necessary to obtain long-term viability of the product:
  • Incompatible with previous knowledge - actually this is not up to Ribbon, but to its implementation in Microsoft Office 2007. Microsoft just changed some of its classifications of Tools, as they are not classified the same way as they were in menus and toolbars. I think it was too much to change both things at the same time
  • Visually chaotic - again, this could be implemented different way with same Ribbon technology, but it seems that at this moment Microsoft prefers this implementation. So, while I think it is a good thing that some icons are bigger, the way of their layout on Ribbon makes you feel disoriented. Over the time, your spatial memory will probably get used to it.
  •  Non efficient for using rare options - menus seem to be better here. If you go for some option you just need at that time, and it is not a rare user pattern Ribbon doesn't do well. It doesn't come back to most frequently needed tools, but it leaves you on some special toolbar you might not really need. So, you must click to go back where you want. It hurts productivity. Even if you get used to it. And it will help you not to want to get used to it.
 But the real gain is in Easy access to a lot of tools, specially the ones that you had to go through dialogs to use them, and you have them at a touch of the hand.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Users don't need to be system integrators

As Jobs said, today.

It is something simple, and something that everybody should know, but at the end it is rarely implemented well. I remember when I was school age, I enjoyed tweaking every single visible and hidden setting to get the best experience. But now, I realize it takes time and it is just that someone didn't bother to make it right for me.

But there's more than what Steve said. Users don't want to install apps at all. Well unless they are more media than app (consider games, you will want new game because the old one will become boring after time). They want everything readily setup on their phone. And that's where, as said in my previous post, Nokia still has some advantages.