I’ve finally found a pair of headphones that I actually enjoy using: Amazon’s Premium Headphones.
As a product category, headphones continually frustrate me. I use them all the time while commuting. I shove them in my messenger bag, fish them out at odd times, and usually end up losing them within a year. I also have relatively small ear canals (according to my doctor), so in-ear types often don’t fit me well or end up hurting after far too little time.
My ideal pair of headphones would, in no particular order:
- Be tangle-free or wireless
- Include some kind of controls (volume, play/pause, etc)
- Fold or coil up into a compact size
- Fit in or on my ears
- Produce at least average sound (I’m not an audiophile)
- Be cheap (< $20) for replacement purposes
I’ve lived with cheap skullcandy in-ear headphones for years, which met some of these qualifications: They’re cheap, have a volume control, sound decent, coil up well, and mostly fit in my ears thanks to coming with different sizes of rubber earbuds. But that fit isn’t ideal, and I’m constantly untangling them.
I also own a pair of Motorola S305 bluetooth headphones, for situations where wireless is important. They don’t fold up and are too expensive to replace regularly, but are otherwise a good choice and meet all my criteria.
Now I think I’ve found a new favorite pair, from an unlikely source: The headphones that come with Amazon’s Fire phone are nearly perfect!
Say what you will about the Fire phone itself, but the accessory headphones (available separately as the awkwardly named “Amazon Premium Headphones”) tackle headphone usability in some interesting ways:
- Most of the cable is flat, not round, and relatively stiff. This part of the cable never gets tangled at all.
- The earbuds themselves are magnetic, and stick together when not in use. This reduces tangles even more.
- The built-in controls are simple and useful. Tap the button once to pause/resume, or twice to go to the next track. And the volume controls are the first I’ve seen on a wired pair that directly control my phone’s volume, instead of just modulating what’s going through the headphone cable.
- The earbuds don’t go deeply into the ear canal, meaning they actually fit me. They’re shaped similarly to Apple’s current earbuds, but those always fell right out of my ears. Amazon has slightly tweaked the shape for a more secure fit.
So they’re tangle-free, have excellent controls, coil up well, fit in my ears, sound decent enough, and cost $10-$15. I love these things, even if I’m still a bit confused that something decent came out of the Fire phone’s release. I’d better go stock up on some extras while they’re still available.
Earlier this summer I gave a talk with Emily King at ALA 2014 in Las Vegas: Focusing on the Big Picture: Re-Imagining the Library Website.
The session was recorded, and the audio and slides are now available online to conference attendees. We had a full room, and some great discussion! We covered our whole website redesign process – how we moved from 20,000+ flat HTML files to a nicely managed WordPress site with a few hundred pages.
(I’m also kind of thrilled to be able to check off “be listed in the same conference proceedings as Stan Lee” from my bucket list.)
Usability testing is one of the best parts of my job. I love hearing from users about how they interact with the library’s website and then figuring out what we can change to better meet their needs.
The dark side of this testing is the sheer time involved. Recruiting, scheduling, and sitting down with each individual user can be a daunting commitment of staff hours. I’ll say upfront: that type of testing is still great! It definitely has a place. But we’ve started using a tool that lets us run more tests, more often: Optimal Workshop.
One important bit: While Optimal Workshop has a free plan, you’ll get the most out of it if you spring for the paid level. It’s on the pricey side, but keep in mind that they offer a 50% discount to educational customers.
What we did
We used two of the suite’s three tools in a study earlier this year: Chalkmark and Optimal Sort. We advertised the tests with a pop-up on our homepage that was displayed to half our visitors. All respondents were able to enter a drawing for a $50 Amazon gift card at the end. We expected to run the tests for at least two weeks to get enough responses. But after just a week we had more than 500 and were able to conclude it early. That number exceeded my wildest expectations! Here’s how we used each tool:
Think of Chalkmark as a first-click test. You display a screenshot or design draft to your users, and ask them where they’d click first to accomplish a given task. Results are displayed in a heatmap that’s easy to parse at a glance. For example, we asked users where they’d click first to search for a book on our homepage:
82% of clicks were either in our main search box or on the link to our catalog. That’s great! They were able to find their way to a book search easily. Another 7% clicked on our Research Tools menu. While that’s not ideal, it’s also not a bad option; they’ll see a page with a link to the catalog next. That leaves about 11% of our users who went astray. Thanks to some demographic questions we asked, we know a little about them and can try to figure out what was confusing or unintuitive to them in future tests. We can also view other heatmaps based on those demographic questions, which is proving useful.
(Side note: We asked library staff to take the same test, and got very different results! Fascinating, but the implications are still unclear and a topic for another time)
Analogous to an in-person card sorting exercise, in an Optimal Sort test users are shown a list of text items and asked to sort them into categories. We used it to get at how our menu navigation could or should be organized. Results are shown in a matrix of where each item got sorted:
Our results mostly validated our existing menu organization choices, but along the way we accidentally discovered something interesting!
We provided users with the option to sort items into a category called “I don’t know what these items are”. The original idea was to avoid users sorting an item randomly if they didn’t truly have an idea of where it should go. But a couple of items proved unexpectedly popular in this category, so now we know that some of our naming conventions need to be addressed.
Optimal Workshop’s third tool is Treejack, which is designed to test a site structure. We haven’t used it yet, but I’m looking forward to putting it through it’s paces.
Our website is an iterative project, one that is never truly finished. Optimal Workshop lets us run frequent tests without significant staff time involved in the execution, and to reach more users than we ever could in person. Even the free plan, with it’s 10 response limit, is still useful enough to get actionable data in the right context.
Are any other libraries using it? I’d love to hear what you’re testing.
After a couple years off, I’m returning to ALA’s annual conference this year. I’m obviously excited to see colleagues and the Vegas sights, but I’m also looking forward to my two presentations there. If you’d like to come hear about how we redesigned the UNC Libraries website and moved it into WordPress, you’ve got two options:
I’m running through a short lightning talk style overview of our process at the Tech Speed Dating session organized by LITA’s Code Year Interest Group. That’s Saturday, 6/28 from 1:00-2:30 in Convention Center room N119. There’s a bunch of other great talks in that session on the list too, including a demo from SparkFun.
Think of that as the preview for the full session on Sunday. Emily King and I have a whole session to ourselves where we’ll walk through our redesign and content strategy development process from start to finish. This one’s Sunday, 6/29 from 4:30-5:30 in Convention Center room N243. Late in the day, I know, but come rest and learn before hitting the strip.
Both sessions will cover how we made WordPress work for us, how our migration worked, and what our ongoing content & site maintenance has been like since launch. I hope to see you there!
I was fortunate enough to have two presentations accepted at Computers in Libraries this year in DC. As always I’m not sure if my slides make much sense without my accompanying narration, but I’m happy to answer questions about them.
Both sessions were collaborations. I presented “Moving Forward: Redesigning UNC’s Library Website” with Kim Vassiliadis, and “Rock your library’s content with WordPress” with Chad Boeninger. Thanks to all who came out! We had some great discussions during and after.
This is an expanded write-up of a lightning talk I presented at the 2014 LAUNC-CH conference:
Some background: We answer reference questions via chat at the reference desk using the amazing Libraryh3lp service. We log in and conduct chats with Pidgin. Libraryh3lp isn’t required for this to work, but Pidgin is.
A few months ago, a colleague asked me if there was a way to quickly cut and paste frequent responses into a chat. We end up repeating ourselves quite a bit when a common question comes up, and it seems rather inefficient.
Thankfully, Pidgin has a built-in plugin called (aptly enough) Text Replacement.
To get it up and running:
- In Pidgin, go to the Tools menu.
- Click Plugins.
- Check the box next to Text Replacement.
- While Text Replacement is highlighted, click Configure Plugin.
This is the screen where you configure your text replacement. The basic idea is that you set a keyword. Whenever a user types that keyword, Pidgin automatically replaces it with a pre-set block of text. So for example, in our case typing “$hi” will produce: “Hi, how can I help you today?”
To add a new replacement at the Configure screen:
- Fill out the ‘you type’ and ‘you send’ boxes appropriately. I recommend starting each ‘you type’ trigger with a $, which should help avoid accidental replacements.
- Uncheck the ‘only replace whole words’ box.
- Click Add.
- click Close.
Now your text replacement is active! Repeat as necessary to create others.
We use Pidgin at multiple computers simultaneously, so I wanted to be able to duplicate these replacements at each station without having to do it manually.
Pidgin stores the plugin’s text replacement library here:
To move this file to another computer:
- On the destination PC, repeat the first chunk of steps above to enable the Text Replacement plugin.
- Copy the dict file from the source PC to the same location on the destination PC.
- Restart pidgin on the destination PC.
Now we’re in business! The next step was to figure out exactly what we wanted to replace. Read more if you’re interested.
I was lucky enough to spend last week with a loaner pair of Google Glass. Purchased by my place of work, I was asked to try them out and evaluate them for possible library use or development of apps by the library. I’m far from the first person to write about their experience with Glass, but I wanted to write up my experience and reactions as an exercise in forcing myself to think critically about the technology. I’m splitting it into two posts: One about the impact and uses of Glass in libraries was posted yesterday, and this is the second: my more general impressions as a Glass user and how it might fit into my daily life.
To cut to the chase: Google Glass is an extremely impressive piece of technology squeezed into a remarkably small package. But it does have issues, and Google is right to declare that it isn’t ready for mass market adoption yet.
What I didn’t like about Glass:
- Battery life is anemic at best, especially when using active apps like Word Lens. I rarely got more than 4-5 hours of use out of Glass, and sometimes as little as 30 minutes.
- I’m blind without my (regular) glasses. I know that prescription lenses are now available for Glass, but the $250 price tag means there’s no way I could justify getting them for a one week trial. And because Glass’ frame doesn’t fold up in the way that regular glasses do, there’s no easy way to carry them around to swap out with regular glasses for occasional use. Despite being impressively small for what they do, they’re still too bulky.
- Many apps on Glass are launched with a spoken trigger phrase. Remembering them all is awkward at best, and I sometimes flashed back to MS-DOS days and searching for the right .exe file to run.
- Confusingly, Glass does not auto-backup photos and videos taken with it. My Android phone dumps all media to my Google account, but Glass won’t do that unless it’s plugged in and on wifi.
- Style and social cues, the two elephants in the room, has to be addressed. Right now I don’t think I could ever get up the courage to wear Glass in public on a regular basis. But when the tech shrinks even more and can be embedded in my regular glasses, then things will get interesting. The social mores around wearable tech still need to be worked out. I did not feel comfortable pushing those bounds except in very limited circumstances (like walking around on a rainy cold day with my bulky hood pulled up around Glass), and rarely wore Glass in public as a result.
- Taking a picture by winking alternately delighted and horrified me. I’d love to see more refined eye movement gesture controls, instead of just the one that’s associated with so much unfortunate subtext.
What I loved about Glass:
But as a camera, Glass excels. My daughter is 13 months old, and invariably stops doing whatever ridiculously cute thing she’s doing the moment I get out a camera to capture it. The camera becomes the complete focus of her attention. But if I’m wearing Glass, I can take a picture at a moment’s notice without stopping what I was doing. A wink or simple voice command, and I have a snapshot or short video saved for perpetuity. In my week I got some amazing Glass pictures of my daughter that I never would have otherwise. For a brief moment this alone made the $1500 price tag seems oddly reasonable.
Side note: This easy hands-free capture of photos and video has fascinating implications for personal data and photo management. With such a giant pile of media produced, managing it and sorting through the bad shots becomes a herculean task. I don’t know that there’s a solution for this yet, though admittedly I think Google Plus’ automatic enhancement and filtering of photos is a great first step.
Back to what I like about Glass:
Other than taking photos of kids, I ran into three other use cases that genuinely excited me about using Glass in everyday life:
Thanks to Strava’s integration with Google Glass, I was able to try Glass on a short cycling excursion. With live ambient access to my speed, direction, distance, and maps, I was in biking heaven. And I still had access to a camera at a moment’s notice too! Admittedly, all of this is stuff that my smartphone can do too. But using a smartphone while on a bike is a dicey proposition at best, and something I really don’t want to do. Glass’ ambient presentation of information and reliance on voice controls make the idea viable. I’m not sure I’d use it on a busy road, but on paths or dedicated bicycle lanes I’m sold.
I also happened to have Glass on while cooking dinner, and while I couldn’t figure out how to easily load a recipe other than searching the web for it, I have to assume an Epicurious or other recipe-centric app isn’t far off. Voice-controled access to recipes and cooking tips, without having to touch buttons with my messy or salmonella-laden hands, is something I want.
My third compelling use case is the Word Lens app I mentioned previously. Real-time, ambient translation! Not that I need another reason to want to visit Paris, but I really want to try this in action in a foreign country.
All three of these cases have one simple thing in common: They involve a task that is greatly improved by becoming hands-free. Taking pictures of my daughter at play, assistance while cooking a meal, and ambient translation of text are all much better (or only possible at all) by removing the hands-on requirement of an interface. I believe this hands-free factor will be key in which apps are successful on Glass (and other future wearable tech) and which fall by the wayside.
Other functions, like saving voice notes to Evernote or doing live video chat, were kind of neat but didn’t strike me as particularly revolutionary. My phone does all of that well enough for me already, and the tasks aren’t significantly enhanced by becoming hands free. Navigation while driving is something I never felt comfortable doing with Glass, as I found it somehow more distracting than doing the same on my phone.
But much of what I tried on Glass doesn’t really fall into a category of something I liked or disliked. Instead, many of the apps just seem silly to me. While I might want to post to Facebook or Twitter from Glass, do I really need pop-up notifications of new posts in the corner of my eye? The prototype Mini Games app from Google features a version of tennis where you have to crane your neck awkwardly around to move around, or pretend to balance blocks on your head. I tried things like this once, and then moved on. And while it’s nice in theory to be able to play music on Glass, the low quality speakers and ease of annoying your neighbors with this feature means I’d never want to actually use it.
Some of my confusion or frustration with these functions will no doubt be addressed in future generations of the hardware. But if I can give some amateur advice to Glass developers: Focus on making everyday tasks hands free, and you’ll win me over.
When Glass inevitably hits a more consumer-friendly price point, I’ll probably pick one up. Right now I have a hard time recommending it at $1500, but of course even Google themselves consider this a sort of beta product. This a test-bed for wearable technology, and I’m grateful to have had a glimpse of the future.
I was lucky enough to spend last week with a loaner pair of Google Glass. Purchased by my place of work, I was asked to try them out and evaluate them for possible library use or development of apps by the library. I’m far from the first person to write about their experience ewith Glass, but I wanted to write up my experience and reactions as an exercise in forcing myself to think critically about the technology. I’m splitting it into two posts: One about the impact and uses of Glass in libraries, and a second about my more general impressions as a Glass user and my overall daily life.
Without further ado, lets look at the library perspective: I came away with one major area for library Glass development in mind, plus a couple of minor (but still important) ones.
One big area for library development on Google Glass: Textual capture and analysis
One of the most impressive apps I tried with Glass, and one of only a handful of times I was truly amazed by it’s capabilities, was a translation app called Word Lens. Word Lens gives you a realtime view of any printed text in front of you, translated into a language of your choice. In practice I found the translation’s accuracy to be lacking, but the fact that this works at all is amazing. It even attempts to replicate the font and placement of the text, giving you a true augmented view and not just raw text. Word Lens admittedly burned through Glass’ battery in less than half an hour and made the hardware almost too hot to touch, but imagine this technology rolled forward into a second or third generation product! While similar functionality is available in smartphone apps today (this is a repeating refrain about using Glass that I’ll come back to in my next post), translation, archiving, and other manipulation of text in this kind of ambient manner via Glass makes it many times more useful than a smartphone counterpart. Instead of having to choose to point a phone at one sign, street signs and maps could be automatically translated as you wander a foreign city or sit with research material in another language.
I want to see this taken further. Auto-save the captured text into my Evernote account and while you’re at it, save a copy of every word I look at all day. Or all the way through my research process. Make that searchable, even the pages I just flipped past because I thought they didn’t look valuable at the time. Dump all that into a text-mining program and save every image I’ve looked at for future use in an art project. I admit I drool a little bit over the prospect of such a tool existing. Again, a smartphone could do all of this too. But using Glass instead frees up both of my hands and lets the capture happen in a way that doesn’t interfere with the research itself. The possibilities here for digital humanities work seem endless, and I hope explorations of the space include library-sponsored efforts.
Other areas for library development on Google Glass:
Tours and special collections highlights
The University of Virginia has already done some work in this area. While wandering campus with their app installed, Glass alerts you when you’re close to a location referenced in their archival photo collections and shows you the old image of your current location. This is neat, and especially while Glass is on the new side will likely get your library some press. NC State’s libraries have done great work with their Wolfwalk mobile device tour, for example, which seems like a natural product to port over to Glass. This is probably also the most straightforward kind of Glass app for a library or campus to implement. Google’s own Field Trip Glass and smartphone app already points out locations of historical or other interest to you as you walk around town. The concept is proven, works, and is set for exploitation.
Wayfinding within the library
While it would likely require some significant infrastructure and data cleanup, I would love to see a Glass app that directs a library user to a book on the shelf or the location of their reserved study room or consultation appointment. I imagine arrows appearing to direct someone left, right, straight, or even to crouch down to the lower shelf. While the tour idea is in some ways a passive app, wayfinding would be more active and possibly more engaging.
The secondary use cases above are low-hanging fruit, and I expect libraries to jump onboard with them quickly. Again, UVA has already forged a path for at least one of them. And I fully expect generic commercial solutions to emerge to handle these kinds of functions in a plug and play style.
Textual capture and analysis is a tougher nut to crack. I know I don’t have the coding chops to make it happen, and even if I started to learn today I wouldn’t pick it up in time before someone else gets there. Because someone will do this. Evernote, maybe, or some other company ready to burst onto the scene. But what if a library struck first? Or even someone like JSTOR or Hathi Trust? I’m not skilled enough to do it, but I know there’s people out there in libraryland (and related circles) who are. I want to help our users better manage their research, to take it further than something like Zotero or the current complicated state of running a sophisticated text mining operation. The barriers to entry on this kind of thing is still high, even as we struggle to lower it. Ambient information gathering as enabled by wearable technology like Glass has the potential to help researchers over the wall.
Tomorrow I’ll write up my more general, less library oriented impressions of using Glass.
Fine print: My opinions and thoughts here are as always my own, and not necessarily those of the UNC Libraries.
I’ve wanted to write about the state of citation management for months now, and the idea kept rattling around in the back of my head. There’s so many options for managing research and citations out there, and I support a couple of them as part of my job. I frequently get asked which one is the best to go with. When Proquest announced a free version of Flow last week, I couldn’t avoid the topic any longer. I was originally going to do a compare/contrast review of the major options out there, but I find the Flow announcement so interesting that now I want to focus on it entirely.
Flow is Proquest’s successor to Refworks. Their official line is that Refworks isn’t going away, but I have to believe that Refworks’ lifespan is limited at this point. Why would Proquest want to develop two similar products in parallel forever? That has to be a huge resource drain. Refworks hasn’t seen a major new feature in years, and still doesn’t support collaborative folders, while Flow seems to be adding interesting options all the time.
Flow is a promising product, but not quite at 100% yet. The web import tool in particular has a long way to go before matching the utility of Zotero’s, but at the same time the Flow UI provides a pleasantly minimalist reading experience and fills in a number of feature gaps present in Refworks (especially collaboration and PDF archiving) while streamlining the clunky Refworks UI into something much more usable.
But I’m not here to just review Flow as a product. What confuses me is this new business model of providing a free account. Flow’s free accounts include 2gb of storage and collaboration with up to 10 people per project. If an institution subscribes to the paid version of Flow, their users get bumped up to 10gb of storage and unlimited collaboration. The institution itself gets access to analytics data and a handful of other administrative features.
The free Flow option is certainly superior to Mendeley’s free plan, which also includes 2gb of storage but limits collaboration to just 3 users per account. I find Mendeley’s pricing for extra collaboration slots insane (plans start at $49/month and go up sharply after that), but that’s an argument for another time. Zotero, admittedly my personal favorite citation management tool, by comparison offers a paltry 300mb of storage but allows collaboration with an unlimited number of users. My point is that the free Flow plan, with 2gb and 10 collaborators, is a pretty attractive option by comparison to the competition. I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of our users would be satisfied with those limitations.
Flow or Refworks access at an institutional level is not cheap. We’re facing our fifth or sixth consecutive year of hard budget choices, and while we have no plans to cancel our Refworks/Flow access I have to wonder at what point that becomes a viable option. Other than the obvious Big Data potential, I don’t know what Proquest’s endgame is by offering free Flow accounts. I hope they’ve thought through what the option looks like to their paying customers.
I used to write elaborate annual posts detailing my favorite things in a variety of media. For 2013, I only have time to squish it all into one abbreviated post. My #1 favorite thing this year was of course the arrival of my daughter, an event which itself drastically impacted my ability to find other stuff to rank. But I did manage to find a few things that I highly enjoyed and recommend:
- I finished Ancillary Justice just before the end of the year, and coincidentally it’s also the best book I read in 2013. Author Ann Leckie does fascinating things with consciousness, narrative perspective, and gender while still telling a great worlds-spanning space opera tale. (The cover, not unusually, has virtually nothing to do with the book)
- I didn’t have a ton of gaming time this year, but I keep wanting to go back and play more Monaco. The cooperative heist game pits you and your friends against a variety of robbery goals. It’s difficult, but in a way that feels hilarious when you fail rather than frustrating. One of the best cooperative games I can remember.
- You will pry my Yonanas Elite machine from my cold, dead hands. Frozen fruit goes in one end, delicious not-quite-frozen-yogurt comes out the other. In a blind taste test I don’t think I could differentiate this from the real thing. I received the Elite model as a Christmas gift, and it’s worth the upgrade. The motor is both quieter and more powerful. My current favorite combo: Bananas and cantaloupe.
- The Chromecast is just a really neat, inexpensive media streamer. I use it almost every day to watch youtube videos or play music, and it works well with a number of video streaming services too. I still can’t quite wrap my head around fumbling for a pause button on my phone instead of a traditional remote, but I’ll get there.
- A few months ago I switched to a Macbook Pro at work, from a PC. The learning curve was shallower than I expected, and now I wonder how I lived without the ability to easily swipe between multiple desktops. I have issues with some of the functionality in Finder (image previews in particular work better in Windows), but my quibbles are all minor. I’m particularly blown away by the 8+ hour battery life.
- I have fallen in love with Google Plus’ Auto-awesome photo features. I throw all my photos at it, and Google figures out what the highlights are. I took a ton of photos in 2013, thanks largely to the aforementioned daughter’s arrival, and would never have time to sort through the whole pile on my own. Google also automatically creates motion gifts from burst photos, merges exposures to HDR, and creates photobooth style portrait montages. This is by far the best feature of Google Plus, and it makes me wish I knew more than three regular users of the service to share the resulting photos with.
- Paired with Google Plus, I now use Adobe Lightroom for more serious photo organization. It’s not flashy, but has solid and in-depth management options for metadata and organization. I don’t have every photo I ever took in my Lightroom library, but the most important ones are there. And if you work at a .edu employer, there’s a steep discount available.
- Bioshock Infinite was another of the rare video games I played all the way through this year. While I found the minute-to-minute gameplay got repetitive and stale after a few hours, the beautiful environment and underlying themes of the story kept me glued to the screen. I’m looking forward to playing through the new expansions.
- Google gave away Chvrches’ album The Bones of What You Believe, and I can’t argue with the price of free. Along with The Naked and Famous’ In Rolling Waves, I have these two albums in constant rotation. I don’t know what to call their genre exactly, but it’s a blend of rock, pop and electronica.
- Playstation Plus is Sony’s game subscription service. For $50 a year (or $30 on Black Friday) gamers get access to an incredible library of downloadable titles. I now have more PS3 games than I’ll ever be able to realistically complete, and couldn’t be happier. And just today they added Bioshock Infinite to the list of included games.