Bad MUNI user experience works in my favor

I am a lazy San Franciscan. I live 10 blocks uphill from the building where I work, so it’s easy to walk downhill to work, but I take the bus uphill on the way home. Since I don’t go far and my bus is very crowded, I try to sit as close to the back door as a can so I can squeeze out without bumping too many people. From this position, I have a great view of the painful usability of the door mechanisms on the buses.

Since the bus driver does not necessarily open the back doors at every stop, there is a button next to the doors on the outside of the bus that will open the door. The button looks like this:

MUNI back door bus button

What most people don’t understand is that you have to hold down the button until the door opens.

On the style of bus I take, there is a pressure sensor built in to the step inside the bus leading down to the back door, which opens the door when you step down on it (which also isn’t great user experience, but that’s another story). I assume that when the buttons were installed, they were configured so that they would work the same way as the pressure sensor in the step. While it makes sense that you would need to keep standing on the step for a moment to open the door, that’s not a great user experience for a button.

Few people understand that they need to hold down the button to open the doors. Over the course of my 10 block bus ride, I usually see many people frantically pressing the button repeatedly, as though it were an unresponsive elevator button. It’s a perfectly reasonable response, considering how much the bus button looks like an elevator button.

Sadly, the bad design works in my favor. When people fail to open the doors from outside, the bus is able to leave a bit faster. Still, I feel a little guilty about benefiting from bad user experience.

Until MUNI posts instructions next to the button, I’ve resolved not to worry about it. If the bus isn’t crowded and I’m standing within a step of the door, I’ll open it for someone who wants to get on, but I won’t go out of my way to make a packed bus even more packed. If there’s anything San Francisco buses don’t need, it’s more confused riders.

Required checkboxes don’t make sense

Recently while filling out a bank form online, I had the option to receive emailed statements rather than dead trees in the mail. The checkbox looked like this:

Receive email statements

I preferred the dead trees, so I left the box unchecked and clicked “submit.” The page came back with an error and pointed out that checkbox actually looked like this:

Receive email statements *

Of course, I wasn’t being given the option to receive emailed statements, but rather the bank needed me to acknowledge that I would receive emailed statements, despite my preference.

It doesn’t make sense when you think about it. A checkbox field is always a required field, whether or not it has a little red asterisk. It only returns true or false; it can’t return null. It doesn’t make sense to give the user an error saying they didn’t give an answer for the checkbox, because not checking it is an answer. Continue reading

My shortest paths app for Vassar College

I’ve finished the first online version of my application which finds shortest walking paths on the Vassar campus. It uses Dijkstra and the Google Maps Javascript API to find and plot the shortest route between dorms, academic buildings, and student centers. I’m hoping for some feedback from online testing before I submit the final version as part of my senior research project. I’ve solved a lot of arguments about quickest ways to class already!

Four great questions to ask in a technical interview

I’m excited to be able to say that I accepted a great job offer at a dot-com in San Francisco. I get to start right after I graduate in May. Now that my job search is over, I want to share some of the questions I had for interviewers that got the best responses on the spot.

• “If you had to work in a different group or department within your company, what group would you join? Who is working on something you’re interested in?”

Hands down, this question got the most, “Ooh, that’s a good question,” responses. I like it because it tells me what groups have exciting new projects within the company, and whether the employees are excited about their company’s up-and-coming projects. I get excited when engineers are excited about what their coworkers are doing. I think interviewers like this question because it’s a little out-of-the-box and because they get to talk about their own experiences with and opinions of the company.

Continue reading

Please don’t use someone else’s PPT deck

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by a New York community based around the site LessWrong. The lecture focused on the site’s first core sequence, Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions. The subject matter and the meetup group were great (and highly recommended!), but the presentation suffered from one obvious shortfall: the presenter used someone else’s slide deck.

I happened to be at a party with the presenter the night before the lecture, and he told us how excited he was that an eminent authority on the subject had given him the slide deck he usually uses for the lecture. The presenter went on about how his presentation would be much better now with slides that were literally crafted by an expert.

Unfortunately for him, slide quality on its own doesn’t make a great presentation. Continue reading

Twitter and chat in class are signs of bigger problems

Last month I attended a “Technology in Education” panel in which one of the student panelists described a class she took while studying abroad. She praised the professor’s idea of creating a Twitter hashtag for the class. He would project the twitterstream containing the tag onto the screen during class, so the students could see what the others were tweeting, share links, and ask questions.

On Reddit two days ago, an education professor bemoaned his university’s chatroom system. His class is conducted in a computer lab, where all the students have access to a shared chatroom (which the professor cannot disable). The professor does not watch the chatroom while he lectures, but he can see afterward that a bunch of students use the chat to post about how bored they are.

Plenty of sites claim that Twitter and other chat services are great tools that improve in-class student engagement. I disagree; I think these tools are half measures that imply there are bigger problems in the class.

Continue reading

I know I belong in CS, but sometimes I wonder

Sometimes my Compilers professor will introduce a topic saying, “Who knows what lexical analysis is? No one? What, don’t you guys do this constantly in your spare time? All right, I’ll show you …” I know he’s just joking, but every time he does this, it reminds me of one of the barriers to women in computer science that I am particularly sensitive about: wondering whether or not I really belong in programming because I don’t program all the time.

If my CS experience were limited to my college, I wouldn’t be very worried – I go to a liberal arts college where no one has only one interest. In the first few weeks of my freshman year when we’d ask what other people wanted to major in, it was always, “Classics and chemistry” or “Neurobiology and art history” or another pair of an art and a science. In my social sphere, everyone has broad interests, so it shouldn’t worry me that I like cognitive science, philosophy, Japanese, and knitting in addition to programming.

However, in the past few years, I’ve met more students who study CS in engineering schools. When they talk about how they live to program and never leave the lab, I feel like I’ve been wasting time by having other hobbies when I should have been keeping up with my competition. I worry that my skills aren’t up to snuff because I’ve been knitting or reading Japanese books instead of programming and reading compiler books. Continue reading

New year’s resolution: stronger passwords

I’ve liked to think my password is pretty strong. It has a good mix of symbols, lowercase letters, capital letters, and numbers. However, you’ve probably already picked up on the biggest problem: like most, I have one password I use for everything. XKCD has a great explanation of why this is a problem. For example, If I’d had an account with Gawker when its servers were compromised last month, I might have been in trouble. For all I know, I already am in trouble from a different site I use having been hacked.

For the new year, no more! My new year’s resolution is to use only unique passwords for all my different accounts online. Continue reading

Many high schools offering “Computer Science” really aren’t

The following post is an excerpt from a research paper I wrote this semester examining the use of high school computer science classes to increase the number of women in computer science. Yes, the high school I reference is the one I attended.

A major issue in teaching computer science in high schools is that not only do the students not understand what computer science is, but frequently neither do the teachers and administrators. High schools frequently offer classes under the heading “computer science,” that are actually courses on keyboarding or using applications. Continue reading

Should colleges ban laptops in class?

A debate has sprung up on my campus lately about whether it is acceptable to use a laptop in class, with a technology panel and two school paper articles on the subject. I wrote last January about my decision not to use a laptop in class based on my inability to keep up with typed notes, but rather than actual note taking, the current debate is largely over the way that students slack off with their laptops in class. While many students do use their laptops to take notes, it is my impression that even more use them to check their social networks instead of paying attention to the lecture. Continue reading