Greg Walsh

A blog since 2002

3D It Character Maker

Tuesday August 23, 2016

3D printing is pretty common at the Digital Whimsy Lab. I've always wanted to have one at home if for no other reason than to just mess around. I found the Jakks Pacific 3D Character Creator at Target for $11.99 (down from ~$40) and thought it would be fun. The product is a hot wax mold injector that works with a plastic skeleton system. You place the skeleton pieces in the mold, place the mold on the melter and then inject the hot wax into the mold. After it cools, you pop it open and have a tiny action figure.

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We had a few problems. First, the device is pre-loaded with a wax stick that doesn't inject unless you place another one inside. Next, it takes about 10 minutes to heat up and 20 minutes to cool down. That means each figure takes about 30 minutes to make. I'm not sure if you've hung out with a 4 and 7 year old, but, 60 minutes for two figures is too long. Second, it never made the other figure. Something got jammed up and it just didn't work.

I like the idea of a wax mold toy for kids. I think it scratches the creative maker itch without the expense and problems of a real 3D printer. Based on the price, I'm guessing this product is being phased out, but, I do look forward to what could be next in this market.

Disney Infinity was the Best Video Game System

Tuesday August 23, 2016

Thanks to a recent sale at Walmart, my family is now the proud owner of all the Star Wars Disney Infinity Figures. I know what you're thinking, "Wow, congrats... that is a big accomplishment!" Ok, you may not be thinking that but Disney Infinity was the best video game system on the market.

Why do I keep referring to it as a system? Because it was really an Operating System for video game hardware. Sure, you could buy it for the PlayStations, the XBoxes, and Wii family of systems but it was a uniform experience across all of them. Each version of Infinity allowed for playets which were small self contained games that keep my young kids (and me) entertained. With the release of Disney Infinity 3, the developers released other kinds of games that use the characters in new ways (fighting, racing) and really extended what the game could do. In fact, we haven't taken out the Infinity Game discs since they first came out. This game OS has been all we've needed for video game fun.

It really is a shame that the series has been cancelled. Our family has found it fun and the level programming interface has been a really great intro for my oldest. I understand that yearly releases were unsustainable but I hope a third party comes along and licenses the IP and make compatible games in the future.

Going to Stonehenge

Thursday August 18, 2016

DSC_0950

Last week, I was lucky enough to visit Stonehenge. Due to my work in design research, I have a hard time not seeing the world through the lens of artifact analysis. Stonehenge itself is one giant artifact of something we know little about. Researchers have a pretty good sense of what Stonehenge was used for but are not too sure as to why it exisied. In other words, we have the thing, but, we don't have the context to know why the thing existed.

This makes me think about the things we have today and see in our daily lives that were designed a certain way but that original context is gone. For example, a modern sedan car is based off of old stage coaches. They had room for three people in the front (remember bench seats?) and cargo and people in the back. The driver could more or less steer through the yoke. When horseless carriages appeared, they kept the same bench seat and replaced the yoke with a rudder (like a ship) and eventually a wheel (again like a ship) that shifted the axles left and right. Eventually, that gearing was aided by power steering pumps to make turning at low speeds more manageable. Today, some cars replaced a direct connection between the wheels with steer by wire system that has no mechanical components. In fact, a steering wheel isn't even necessary anymore and could, instead, be replaced by a joystick.

Bringing it back to Stonehenge, the steering wheel on current and future cars has the potential on becoming a mystery to future generations. Why did we use something so archaic (a wheel) when there were so many other technologies available to us? Why did the people of 3500BCE build a giant stone structure when they could have written or etched the same astronomical tools that the stones provided? It was obviously for something that our contexts prevent us from seeing.

Moving Hosts

Tuesday August 16, 2016

I moved hosts today. I was tired of paying $20/month so I switched to Go Daddy. I'm not sure if it is better, but, it is certainly cheaper.

New Linux Laptop

Wednesday May 18, 2016

In an ongoing attempt to use Linux as my regular OS, I just bought an older Lenovo X201 laptop/tablet to run Ubuntu on.

The first version I installed was the Gnome version, followed by the full version.

Edited: 08/23/2016

Besides having to buy a better battery, everything has been working well. The keyboard is a bit small comapred to the T500 series but I like it overall.

Losing my Credit Cards and my Mind

Tuesday April 12, 2016

That feeling of panic struck me as I realized I had no wallet. "I must have put it down somewhere," I thought. I kept looking and looking around my office for it. Just to be clear, my office is a mess as I'm waiting to move to a new office so I keep thinking "Why bother?" I walked out into the hallway and back in the room to find it. I noticed that I had left the hallway door and my door open to walk down the hall to talk to my colleagues. My stomach sank as I realized it must have been stolen.

The police on campus constantly warn to keep doors lock as if there are thieves just waiting to pounce on an open door. Having lived in downtown Baltimore for over 15 years, I know what it is liked to be robbed. Not just bike-stolen robbed but legit pop-a-window-and-come-inside-to-steal-your-things-and-ride-off-on-your-bike robbed. This didn't feel like being robbed...or maybe I was just numb to that feeling...but only the wallet was taken. My computers, iPad, phones and numerous technology artifacts were still there. I asked my co-workers if anyone had seen anything and they insisted I call the campus police. I waited as I searched my office because I didn't want to waste their time.

Two officers came up and took a statement. I kept saying, "I don't think I was robbed." I've had my credit card duplicated several times so I immediately canceled those but I kept thinking about how hard it would be to replace my driver's license and all the other stuff in my wallet: the Icelandic money from our anniversary trip and the South Korean 1000 dollar ($1USD) bill from CHI2015.

They asked if it had any identifying marks. I said it was fat because it was filled with junk. It was a wallet my parents had given me for Christmas that had RFID protection. I didn't like it because the ant-fraud RFID protection blocked our parking garage card and transit pass. Plus it was just a fat wallet that seemed overly thick compared to my old Velcro one that I replaced.

I got down on the ground (again) and just happened to look across the room behind my filing cabinet. There was the wallet! It must have dropped and I kicked it clear across the office. I let the police know that there was no need to check cameras, everything was good.

The only problem has been the number of services I subscribe to with my now canceled card: cell phones, Tivo, Netflix, Hulu, and the list goes on. The problem is made worse when each one has a different due date and I get an announcement letting me know I am now past due (is it really necessary to use such heavy language?) or no indication and just a stoppage of service.

One of the things we teach in Designing for Humans is the ability to give users feedback when something doesn't work. This is even more valid in a service design. A simple email that says that "Hey, something is wrong with your card. It happens to everyone so fix it fast, OK?" is all I would need. Better yet, my payment services should automatically alert common chargers that the number has changed but everything else is the same.

At the end, none of this really mattered. I got my wallet back. Well, I found my wallet and still have all my cards and souvenirs. Only one service deactivated and everyone else just kind of kept going with stern email warnings.

Three Components for Success in UX Job Hunting

Wednesday March 16, 2016

I often receive e-mails from people who want to know how to get a job in the UX field. This is usually preceded with "I saw your post on X about the your students who got a job at Y." It's true that UBalt's MS in IDIA places graduates at some really interesting places, like Google or eBay or Federal work. But our success hasn't been magical in any way. We follow a simple model to help students get the kinds of jobs they want: Skills, experience, and portfolios. I'm going to explain these three elements and why each one is important to potential employers.

Skills

Skills come in all shapes and sizes. Do you want to do User Centered Design? Then you better know sketching, paper prototyping, interviewing, and data analysis. Do you want to be an Information Architect? Then understanding taxonomy and card sorting, as well as being detail oriented are all crucial skills. You need to determine what kinds of things you would like to do and get skills in those basic job types. You can be self-taught through reading (O'Reily has some great books on the various parts) or take classes. You can also find out what kinds of skills are required for your dream job by looking at job ads and finding out what employers are looking for. Be careful though as some ads are written by people unfamiliar with the field and ask for years of Javascript experience and PHP for an entry level "UX Designer". Skills are the blueprint for a career.

Be aware that some skills come and go. Any skill that requires a computer should be considered fleeting as there will be new ways to do things in as short as 6 months and most definitely in 5 years. Other skills, like paper prototyping, storyboarding, and interviewing, are less temporary.

Experience

Once you have skills, you need to apply them. This is where experience comes in. The easiest way is to do projects that use your skills for a real client. You can apply your skills at work, or if that's not possible, you can volunteer your skills for a charitable cause. I've seen people do work for their local SPCA, house of worship, or neighborhood association. If you learned your skills in a class, then your class projects become the experience. (Hopefully, your classes are working with real clients!) If you are in class, you may want to find out what kinds of research local faculty are doing and see if you can work with them. Doing applied research is a great way to gain experience. Experience is the foundation for a career.

You need to keep lots of notes about your projects. The best kinds of projects require you to do lots of iterations and the final project may not reflect all the ins and outs you explored as you got there. Documenting your experiences with prototypes, photos of user tests, and a journal will be useful later in looking for new opportunities.

Portfolio

You have skills and you've used those skills gaining experience. The last step is to show off what you have done in a portfolio. The portfolio should not be pretty pictures of final projects. Instead, it should reflect each project's journey by showing the process, the inputs, the deliverables, and the user tests. It should also include a statement from you about each project of how you've become a better UX designer through this project. Did you implement a new technique? Did you learn the value of working with end-users? All of that kind of material needs to be in the portfolio. Your portfolio should be a living thing and you need to continue to add to it as you gain more experience. The portfolio is the embodiment of a career.

I have heard from multiple (really awesome) employers that seeing a portfolio with finished work is always disappointing. They want you to take them through your process and be ready to talk about the highs and lows of the project. They are interested in your skills but they are also interested in who you are and how you think. A well done portfolio that demonstrates skills through experiences is the key to doing interesting projects.

If you are interested in pursuing a Masters or post-undergrad certificate, feel free to contact me at gwalsh@ubalt.edu

To the Author of "Science Fairs Have Lost Their Way"

Thursday February 25, 2016

This is an email message I wrote to Rhett Allain about his excellent article in Wired this morning titled "Science Fairs Have Lost Their Way. Let's Make Them Cool Again".

Dr. Allain,

My name is Greg Walsh and Im a professor at the University of Baltimore. I saw your article about Science Fairs in Wired this morning and was very excited to see it. I have a 7 year old and have judged several science fairs. At best, participants follow the formula you bemoaned and my least favorite is when students build something without asking any questions about why or how…they can only tell you they saw it on the internet.

My question is about your pull quote:

Science is about building models. These models can be physical, conceptual, computational, mathematical or other types of models. If a model agrees with real life (experiment), then thats good. If the model doesnt agree with real life, we have to change it (or come up with a new model).

I found that description compelling if for no other reason than a self-serving one. My work is with Design Research, specifically involving children in the design of new technologies for children and families (My portfolio). One issue I've had, as well as my like-minded colleagues have had, with the larger Human-Computer Interaction researchers is the notion of science. HCI expects all research to be exactly as you described the science fair right down to the independent and dependent variables and even materials. Sociologists have a very different notion that swings very far to the qualitative, one-person interpreted conclusions that doesnt fit us either.

Design research and other interdisciplinary endeavors dont fit neatly into either of these molds. I just wanted to let you know that your description of science has given me a lot to think about!

Thanks,

Greg

Tomorrowland

Monday February 22, 2016

[You think] they're saving the seat on the rocket ship just for you? Youve been manipulated to feel like youre part of something - like you're special. But you're not.

I watched Tomorrowland with my family this weekend. I've been a big fan of Brad Bird's work since The Iron Giant and then again with The Incredibles. I'm also a huge fan of the Disney Theme Parks (especially EPCOT) having cited them as the main reason I've gone into interaction design and user experience. When I heard that he was directing a movie based on an area of the Magic Kingdom, I was terrified that this would be another awful piece of Disney Shovelware like Eddie Murphy's The Haunted Mansion. The trailer was intriguing and who wouldn't want to see a movie with jetpacks and wheat.

The movie opens up in the 1964 World's Fair and I was immediately enthralled. As I've gotten older, I've become much more cynical, especially about the future. When I was a kid, I looked so forward to the future and all the promise that places like the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland and EPCOT hinted at. I'm not even talking about flying cars...I'm talking about all the things that we a humans could do once we were all connected. Video phones would let us practice foreign language with others across the world. Wrist telephones would free us from the walls traditional phones were bolted to. Bubble cars with gull wing doors, monorails, and glass elevators would move us around vast cities efficiently. There was to be a colony on the moon and underwater. It was all I could do to keep informed on the future.

But the future got here and what do we do with it? Video phones are on our computers and may keep us connected with loved ones far away but haven't changed anything culturally. Mobile phones are used more to keep us separated from people then connected with texting and games. We have tiny, efficient cars that are plastic versions of the same ones we drove 50 years ago. (Don't even ask me about monorails). We canceled manned-flights to space and forget about the moon or the ocean. The future is really just the same thing with small changes.

The 1964 World's Fair was one of the last times that Americans were really excited about the future. From what I've seen and read, it was an amazing time filled with hope and promise. I've been to the fairgrounds in Queens and, in a fitting way, was permanently scarred by the run down, dilapidated visions of the future. It's very disheartening to see murals about the promise of tomorrow literally crumbling away due to acid rain and neglect. It was a living analogy of how I began to feel about the future.

Like the X-Files Mulder, I want to believe...believe that we can still make a shiny future that people will truly benefit from. That's why I liked the movie Tomorrowland... it really makes you want to believe that a positive world is possible. In a way, the movie is an antidote to Hunger Games, Terminator, and all the other dystopian science fiction that exists. It hints that we can make the future a better place.

Is the future full of white buildings with jet packs? Probably not...so much of the future looks like today with something we can't imagine people ever lived with out. In Baltimore City the future just needs good transportation to jobs and access to healthy foods to make positive changes here. The future is whatever we make of it and Tomorrowland offered this cynical person hope. I'm going to go listen to my EPCOT soundtrack again.

Thanks to In Defense of Tomorrowland for an awesome article and the above pull quote.

Master the GREs for UX Schools

Thursday February 18, 2016

Why GREs Our IDIA program requires the GREs. When people ask me about the admission requirements, they either sigh at the mention of the test or try to negotiate not taking them. As a program director, I find them valuable for reasons that were not necessarily intended by the test makers.

First, I understand no one wants to take an extra test in their life. Plenty of controversy has surrounded the test since 1993. I did not want to take them way back in November of 1996 and again in summer of 2007 when I applied to my master's program and PhD program, respectively. They can be stressful because someone is testing you on at least one topic you don't feel you are good at.

But, the GREs help me because they show that you are committed to going to graduate school. You had a goal, set a plan into motion, took the test, and had the grades sent to admissions. So far, they have been a great indicator of who will finish their thesis and the program. When I first took over the reigns of the program, some people were admitted without the GREs because previous directors said if you did well in your classes for the certificate, it showed you could waive the test. But the test doesn't really show how well you'll do in class, in fact, a meta-analysis of GRE research showed that GRE scores don't really mean a whole lot beyond your ability to complete a goal.

That sounds silly except the ability to set and complete goals is my personal, non-tested, favorite indicator of future success. It's kind of like running a marathon because it is something almost anyone can achieve by setting small goals that build to a larger one. That's all grad school is!

If I did have to pick one GRE test to really look at as a program director, I would look at the Analytical Writing test. In grad school, as in most professional endeavors, writing and communicating is extremely important. The analytic test has you write several (two?) essays based on a question and two humans grade you from zero to six in half point increments. The grade is based on your ability to form an argument and logically make that argument within the essay and is the mean score of the reviewers rounded up. Here's a review of how to interpret the scores.

When potential applicants are nervous about taking the test, I give them this study tip:

  1. Go buy a GRE study book that has sample computer tests.
  2. Don't look at the book.
  3. Take a sample test and get the score.
  4. See what you didn't do well in (I prefer over 70th percentile) and study that part of the book.
  5. Take another sample test.
  6. If your score went up and you're relatively happy with it, go take the GRE. If not, study again.

Note: If you want to practice the analytical writing test, ETS has created the ScoreItNow tool/service.

I mentioned 70th percentile but I know that is very ambitious. When I look at applicants, I look at GRE scores, resumes, GPAs, letters of recommendation, and the applicant's personal statement. Those different things give me a good picture of the applicant. A low GRE score with a pretty well defined resume with several years of experience would balance each other out. A high GRE score with no experience and a personal statement that doesn't articulate why UX or UBalt doesn't bode well for the application. An incredibly low GRE score (under 10th percentile) but a great rest of the package usually triggers a call from me to the applicant to talk. The answer is often "I don't test well". OK, sounds good to me.

The GRE score is just one thing I look at when admitting students but I do require it. It gives me a peak at the applicant's commitment to grad school, and the ability to set goals and accomplish them. In my time here, commitment and goal-achieving have been the best indicators of graduate student success.

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Last updated Tuesday August 23, 2016. Copyright 2016 Greg Walsh.