Data Visualization

Map-Based Visualization Revisited

In January, I created an animated visualization showing the movement of domestic flights of Indian carrier Jet Airways over the course of a day:

Al flights

The time of day is depicted using a slider that moves across horizontally over time:

Al time  

The motivation behind this visualization, besides trying to build something cool, was to showcase the capabilities of my former employer’s Geographic Map API and encourage developers to build map-based visualizations.

I am thrilled to see that a similar approach is taken by Google’s visualization of flights to and from London, which was released earlier this month:

Google flights

The time of day in this case is depicted using a simple clock:

Google time

This visualization is part of the More Than a Map website showcasing the capabilities of the Google Maps API – do check it out.

I’ve always been a big fan of Google Maps. I remember looking at the newly released Street View feature in 2007 and shaking my head in awe. And MapsGL released earlier this year produced a similar reaction.

What’s great for developers is that they can leverage all of the goodness of Google Maps via the API for free! What will you build?

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Data Visualization

Chroma Chrono: Using Color to Visualize Time

The other day, it occurred to me that one of the oldest and simplest visualizations is the analog clock–it is a visualization of time using angles on a circular scale.

So, I decided to experiment with using color to visualize time and the result is Chromo Chrono:

Chroma Chrono: Using Color to Visualize Time

It comes in two flavors. This is Pulse:

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A series of concentric circles, going outwards from the centre, represent the hour, minute, second and millisecond. Each circle is colored on a scale that ranges from orange to black.

Depending on whether it is AM or PM, the innermost (hour) circle, gets brighter or darker. It is orange at noon and as the day progresses, it gets darker until it is black at midnight. From midnight to noon, it get progressively brighter until it is orange at noon and the cycle starts again. 

Similarly, the minute and  second circles go from orange to black once every hour and minute respectively in the AM and in the reverse direction in the PM. The millisecond circle pulses from orange to black or vice versa once every second.

This mechanism is inspired by nature–the overall brightness of the clock is an approximation of the overall brightness of the sky.

The Kinetic works on the same principle, except it has rings instead of circles and doesn’t show milliseconds:

2 anno

The main difference, however is a guide inside of each ring that makes it easier to tell the time. In each ring, the point where the color of the ring matches the color of the guide represents the time in exactly the same way as on a traditional analog clock. These points are highlighted using green arrows. If you look at the second ring closely, you will notice that it appears to be somehow moving. This an optical illusion caused by the fact that the point at which the ring and guides match is moving around the circumference of the clock.

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Post-PC Era, Trends & Strategy

Welcome to the Post PC Era

Something strange and wonderful is happening. The world undergoing a radical change driven by technology at a phenomenal and unprecedented pace. Technology has of course been changing our lives for the better since the invention of the wheel. Modern society has transformed rapidly since the Industrial Revolution, following which we have had the Atomic, Jet and Space Ages. We are now in the Digital Age, marked by two key inventions: the computer and the internet. These two inventions have made our lives unrecognizable in under a generation, but now we are at the brink of a major revolution within the Digital Age itself – the Post PC Era.

I started using computers in the late 80s, playing games like Space Invaders on my father’s Sharp “laptop” with a 7 MHz 8088 processor, two 720K 3.5″ floppy drives (no hard drive), 640KB or RAM and MS-DOS 4.1. A couple of years later I got my very own machine, a Packard Bell desktop with a 386 processor, 2MB RAM, 20MB hard drive, 3.5″ and a 5.25″ floppy drives, a 14″ VGA monitor and an external NEC single speed CD-ROM drive, and taught myself programming on it. It was primarily a DOS machine, and Windows 3.1 crawled on it. Ah, nostalgia! Those specs are laughable by today’s standards, but the basic design of laptops and desktops has essentially remained the same. What’s changed drastically over time however, is PC penetration. Back then, PCs were the largely the purview of the technologically privileged few. Microsoft was on the ascendancy, and Bill Gates the pioneer was my hero. Nearly two decades hence, the PC has reached ubiquity. Gates’ dream of a computer on every desktop, at least in the developed world, has been achieved. The following chart (from asymco) tells the story:

Asymco1

For three decades, the PC has been the primary computing device, but now all that is changing with the explosive growth of smartphones, tablets and other cheap computing devices. Another chart (from asymco) should leave you in no doubt as to the declining role of of PCs:

Asymco2

So, why is this happening? There are two fundamental reasons. The first is that the trend of computers becoming faster, smaller and cheaper has reached the stage where an incredible amount of computing power is available in an affordable device that fits in your pocket. The PC is a general purpose computing device, and was the de-facto choice for both creation and consumption activities. Now however, more specialised devices can be used, especially for consuming content. A computer to listen to music? The iPod. A computer to read books? The Kindle. You get the picture. The second is the ubiquity of fast, wireless internet connectivity – WiFi and mobile broadband. This means that you don’t need a PC to access the internet anymore. It’s far more convenient to whip out your smartphone to access your email or look up the meaning of synecdoche. The Post PC Era is all about affordable, connected, specialised devices.

As we break free from the confines of the PC, amazing new possibilities emerge. Possibilities that challenge the way we lead our lives. As an avid technologist, I have experienced the start of this change first-hand, and it has been striking. For thirty years there hasn’t been much change in the way we have used PCs apart from a general shift towards laptops versus desktops. All this changed virtually overnight with the advent of the smartphone to rule them all, the iPhone. I distinctly remember the aha moment when I realised the power of having “the internet in your pocket”. I had moved to London in late 2008 from Australia (where the iPhone wasn’t available when I left), so I was looking forward getting the iPhone once I settled in. The US Open started a few days after I arrived in London and one day, during lunch with some friends, someone asked what the current match score was. My first thought was to go to the nearest TV, but someone whipped out their shiny iPhone and looked up the score in a matter of seconds. I sat there smiling and shaking my head.I got my iPhone 3G soon after that, and it changed my life. The internet became an extension of my brain. Since then, smartphones have become almost ubiquitous in the developed world. I now have an iPad in addition to my smartphone and laptop, and I am finding myself using my laptop less and less when it comes to consuming content. Since London, I’ve been living in India where my favourite magazine Wired isn’t easily available and is expensive when it is. My tablet aha moment came when I discovered I could finally read Wired regularly by subscribing to the iPad edition which apart from being much more affordable is a better experience than the paper version since it is interactive. The time will soon come when high-quality tablets are as ubiquitous as smartphones and PCs. But we have only scratched the surface of what is possible in the Post PC Era. In future posts, I will discuss what to expect in areas such as business, entertainment, healthcare, finance, education, manufacturing, transport and software development.

So far I have only talked about the developed world, but the fact is that more than 85% of the world’s population lives in developing countries, a figure that is growing. From a global perspective, the most promising aspect of the Post PC Era is the impact it will have in the developing world. Two years ago I tweeted about a UN study which revealed that far more people in India had access to cellphones than toilets. With prices of low-end smartphones falling sharply, a future where virtually everyone in the developing world has a smartphone is just around the corner. For the majority of people in the world, smartphones will be the first internet access device. If basic text-based services such as M-PESA can have such a profound impact on millions of people, imagine the possibilities of a full-blown smartphone and other Post PC Era devices! Efforts such as Intuit’s txtWeb are commendable, but organisations looking to innovate and have an impact in this space must, like Jeff Bezos, take a long-term view.

 

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Data Visualization

Visualizing Jet Airways India Domestic Flight Schedules

Like most airlines, Jet Airways publishes flight schedules on their website.

I thought it would be interesting to bring these these schedules to life by creating a visualization showing flights take-off and land as the day progresses.

The result is the Infragistics Flight Watcher app, a showcase for visualizing flights schedules with the Infragistics Geographic Map 2011.2 CTP:

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User Experience

Searchable Menus: Using Text to Navigate Complexity

The Problem

One of my favourite features of my Samsung Galaxy SII is it’s ability to create a Wi-Fi hotspot. I find myself using it regularly to give my laptop internet access when I forget my 3G USB modem at home or when I travel to a city where the modem’s carrier doesn’t have 3G services.

The hotspot works like a charm, but getting to the menu item to activate it however, is a pain as the following screenshots show:

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Similarly, the other day I was editing a document in Word and wanted to edit the header. Call me stupid, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it! After a couple of minutes of trying to figure it out, I ended up having to Google “Word 2010 Header”.

Both these scenarios highlight the huge and ever-growing problem of navigating complexity in software. But it’s not as if software developers are not trying to address this issue. Microsoft for example, has put in a massive amount of effort in making the Office menu usable as it grown more complex, and their latest solution is the Office Ribbon. You can read the story of the Office Ribbon, and take a trip down memory lane. I “borrow” a couple of slides from Jensen Harris’ deck to quantitatively illustrate how menu complexity has grown over the years:

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Menus2
So how do we navigate this complexity and get to what we need quickly even if it is buried several levels deep? What we currently do is learn how to get to a particular menu item, then try to memorise it for the future. It may take us a few tries before it is committed to memory. Then, everything is OK until a new version of the software is released, we have to learn it all over again. The level of angst this causes has probably been unknown until social networks came along and allowed users to give instant feedback. It is clearly evident from the number of exclamation marks that accompany Facebook status updates every time the Facebook layout changes. Yes, we ultimately get used to it the new layout and the new way of managing privacy, but the amount of time wasted is phenomenal!
 
This is certainly not the shortest distance between “our brain thinking we want to do something” and “actually performing the activity”. The ideal solution is of course, the device just reading our thoughts, and while there is some amazing research going into making this a reality, we are still stuck with giving commands to our machines for now. Meanwhile, Apple is once again pushing the boundaries of user experience, but voice commands have clear limitations and are not suitable for general purpose use. At least not yet.
 

The Solution

I believe there is a simple, elegant solution to the problem that we can apply immediately. It is the idea of making menu items searchable using text, or simply “Searchable Menus”.
 
Specific implementations of this proposed “Searchable Menus” pattern would of course vary according to device, platform and type of application.

Consider the scenario of firing up the WiFi hotspot on my phone. If I search for “hotspot” this is what I get:

4image
 
The Google Search Android app already searches apps, text messages, and visited web pages, so why not menu items as in the following mockup?
 
5image
 
Similarly, in Word, a “Command Search” pane or similar UI element could be used to enable searchable menus.
 
Revisiting the header editing scenario, one would simply need to type in “header” and get a list of relevant menu items as follows:
 
3image

Searchable menus can be context sensitive. For example, I would just select some text and type in “super” into the “Command Search” , which would list relevant commands:

1image
 
This way, I get Word to do what I want in what soon after me thinking “I want to make this text superscript” and getting Word to do it for me.

Searchable Menus also solves the problem of relearning software every time a significant change to the UI is made.

Predictive analytics could be used to optimise the search results for the particular user. For example, often used commands could appear larger or nearer the top of the search results or use colour to stand out. It could also be used to suggest items that have the same meaning as what has been typed in, so we don’t have to remember exactly what the menu item is called. Relevant data could be stored in the cloud so that moving from one platform or device to another would be smooth and seamless.

Ultimately, I believe Searchable Menus have huge potential to make users more productive in an increasingly complex world. Further, I think they have the possibility of changing our thinking away from a “one size fits all” solution (e.g. designing menus around the “the 80-20 rule”) to one that is more customised to the user.

What do you think?

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