San Francisco is a very interesting place. I was there all last week for a conference/seminar set up by the Nielson Norman Group, a big consulting firm. Before I blather on and on about San Francisco, I'd like to as briefly as I can explain the conference and all the important and intriguing things I learned.
The vast majority of the conference centered on human-computer interaction and usability. There were seminars on usability testing, general usability, and eye-tracking studies. They were all eye-opening, though, pun sort of intended. What I got out of all three of my classes (one was three days) was generally that users have come to expect certain conventions, things in certain places in applications and websites and that things do not have to be as hard as they often are. We often plod through applications and sometimes websites and work around and learn to overcome unnecessary difficulties and usability bugs and we've just accepted that that's the way it is. The biggest class I had drilled into our heads hat with enough actual usability testing and some more intelligence things don't actually have to be so frickin hard. For example, CAD/CAM programs should be more like Vellum, not Autocad. For more details look them up, but basically Autocad makes people pull their hair out while learning it and learning it well takes years. Vellum, you can learn to work with it in minutes, you can master it in hours.
When I was in the classes that were website-oriented we talked a lot about where users expect certain elements, certain kinds of content to be and what they expect them to look like. Often designers - and I have been guilty of this myself (no more!) - in an effort to do something different, be more creative, dismiss website standards that users have come to expect. Yes it's still a relatively new field but there have been some standards established. For example, we watched an excruciating usability test where a woman was given the task of finding the "Investor Relations" section of an old Johnson & Johnson website. She found the About Us page and skipped over the heading "Investor Information" heading several times (which was in all Caps - another thing I learned was that text in all caps is actually 40% less readable, counter to what most of us have been taught). She got frustrated and did a search for "Investor Relations." No dice there, either. She eventually found it. "She's just an idiot!" some of us might think automatically. That might be true but these tests find things like this quite often. The single most important philosophy I got out of the seminars was that just screaming "Well they're all idiots!" and doing what we want anyway is not the right attitude, that software/website developers/designers should strive for better usability and not be so arrogant and actually listen to the users. We should strive for user delight (a new buzzword lately and with good reason) and we might fall short at perfection. Whereas if we just strive for perfection we're going to get something far less than perfection.
But enough about that, on to San Francisco. If you would like more information on what I was taught, /msg me. I might do a more in-depth node on that stuff later if enough of you demand it. It was very, very interesting stuff. I might just do a usability testing node.. hmm...
But anyway... San Francisco. Very cool city. I use the word "cool" there to mean more than one thing. Indeed, I had to pack long-sleeved shirts even though the temperature in Missouri was in the 90's (F). I learned that lesson last time I was in that area in the summer of 2001. Actually, though, it was unseasonably warm last week in SanFran, but it still got quite cold at night, especially when the wind started whipping you hard.
My coworker and I (Aaron) decided to take a shuttle from the SFO airport to the hotel on Nob Hill. We arrived very late at night. The shuttle was actually some guy and his big dirty, smelly van. The driver was Tommy Chong without glasses, I'm serious. It was just mineral spirits in his flaccid drinkholder, but at first we thought it was a big bottle of vodka.
After zipping through some scary areas of the city, we finally arrived at the hotel and collapsed for the night, which was around 3AM Missouri time. The next day we started our classes and I very quickly learned why it cost so much to send us there. In addition to lunch breaks where we were on our own in terms of getting food, there were twenty minute breaks where they served us snacks out in the lobby. I ate a lot of food while in SanFran. At least I worked most if not all of it off. For those of you who've never been, walking in SF is insane. After eating at a lot of fancy, expensive restaurants (even a little pizza dive we found called "Uncle Vito's" was quite pricey) we decided we were going to try an In-N-Out Burger. We did that one on my 30th birthday. We don't have those anywhere near Missouri so I had badly wanted to try it. It was quite cheap and about the greasiest burger I'd ever eaten! A friend of mine had suggested telling them I wanted it "animal style." Glad he did. The walk to the burger joint was mostly downhill, from Nob Hill to the Fisherman's Wharf area. With the steepness of the hills I often felt like I was going to fall over. We joked that it might be faster to just roll down them. We had thought that that was hard, but the mostly-uphill walk back almost killed us. Well, me - Aaron was in slightly better shape. I was attempting to talk on my wife on the phone during that walk but it was more like a perverted prank call with all of my heavy breathing.
We saw some great sights, though. Magnificent, in fact. So far, San Francisco is the only California city I've seen that I'd actually like to live in.
If I were a millionaire, that is.
As my feet burned and my lungs begged for mercy, we walked by tall brick homes with arched doorways, shiny lamps, and hugged by lush, colorful flowers and bushes. We trudged down Lombard Street - known as "the crookedest street in the world," which was dizzying with its hairpin turns and lined by beautiful hydrangea gardens. When my boss arrived with a car we rode down it and in the car it was more disorienting, but actually walking it was not much better.
Like I said, most of the restaurants we ate at were quite pricey, but the cheapest meal we had there was actually the best! The last night we were there we ate at Morton's Steakhouse which cost over $130 for just the two of us (thank God for company credit cards!) and that was OK, but the little Chinese restaurant hole in the wall we'd discovered in Chinatown had food that puts Morton's to shame. I wish I could remember the name of it (if you're ever there look for a restaurant serving dim sum that has a green sign), but this place had some of the best grub I've ever tasted and that's saying a lot. Look for a dim sum Chinese restaurant in your area if you don't already know where one is. I'm looking for one in St. Louis and they're hard to find around here. We were the only non-Chinese in the place and they brought the food around on carts and we just pointed to what we wanted but man it was good and we ate and ate and ate until we almost popped! And for three of us it was only $15!
I could go on and on, but I'll stop here before this gets too long. I highly suggest finding some excuse for visiting SanFran if you haven't yet, even if you're in Europe. It's one of the most beautiful, laid-back, liberated cities in the nation (I don't look at its "gay" reputation as a negative thing, not like a lot of people do - as a matter of fact I was there as they were ramping up for a Gay Pride weekend and that was quite a spectacle). And the Golden Gate Bridge is quite an experience, especially at night. Drive or ride across it even if you have no reason to trek across the Bay.
All in all, it was a great conference in a great city. I learned a lot of useful things, met a lot of wonderful people (hopefully with most of them I've made friends for life - we're already all emailing back and forth), and had an awesome time. I can't wait to go to the next conference.