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Academic Flash and Paper of the Month

July 6, 2009

After almost a year of silence on this blog, I’m starting a new series of blog posts that cover serious topics that have both academic and practical relevance in terms of RIA development, user interface design or software design – basically topics that might be of interest for people involved in the design and development of interactive products.

If you’d like to know more about »the year of silence«, my motivations for these kinds of posts and what this is all about, then just read on. If you’re in hurry, jump to the end of the article where I’m telling you about an academic paper that you shouldn’t miss…
After my first degree and some years of practical work experience in this field I’ve finally decided to round off my formal education with an MSc degree and a year abroad in England. This has included about the period since my last post (I left in September and came back home in June, finishing my dissertation over the summer now). Throughout the whole studies I’ve been faced with reading a number of academic papers for various topics related to my assignments: some worthwhile, some redundant…some exciting, some boring…some enlightening, some incomprehensible. Prior to that, my sources of information were mostly books, web articles, blog posts, general documentation and now and then a scientific paper that I came across. While there’s nothing wrong with that, doing research at University means making extensive use of »high-quality« sources, such as papers published in recognised journals. Lecturers expect you to use various such sources and incorporate them into your reports – otherwise achieving high marks would be very unlikely. Welcome to the crazy academic world of journals, »best paper awards«, peer reviews, plagiarism, citations and where citing Wikipedia is forbidden under penalty of death.

That may sound quite negative but actually I’ve learned a lot (still much the »old-school« way from books) over the last year. The main motivation for this article is that I sometimes feel there’s a lack of easily accessible high-quality information and identifying trustworthy and reliable sources is often difficult. Blog posts, for example, are great for the most up-to-date news about a topic but often lack depth and quality. The vast number of different articles makes it hard to pick the good ones out of the superficial ones. Often articles on the web are biased and mixed with personal beliefs, which is very appropriate for some domains, but can be inappropriate for others when you’re interested in hard facts or the current state of research.

For those reasons I’m going to present one academic paper each month which I find is worth reading. My intention is to highlight papers that also have some practical relevance, are clearly written and freely available (a lot of articles can be downloaded in scientific databases only after payments or subscriptions or when you’re a student and the University has access to those databases).

Relying solely on such information may not be the best thing to do as it also has its downsides. I’ve read a lot of papers that make use of overly complicated jargon, end in vague conclusions and do not make you feel any smarter after reading. Furthermore, I was told that the processes of peer review or acceptance of papers for conferences and publication is sometimes flawed (people reviewing papers having no knowledge at all about the topic and not noticing fundamental errors). Some researchers apparently also try to boost their popularity by trying to artificially increase their work’s citation count (number of publications, citations, conferences and awards are all academic measures for successful research…). On the other hand, there are a lot of great papers and even if you don’t have any plans on becoming an academic, reading a few pages won’t hurt and could make for good additions to knowledge from other academic or non-academic sources. Besides, it can be interesting to see how research in a particular field evolves as scientists build upon previous work over the years and keep on improving the prior state of the art.

In my attempt to present relevant papers I’ll also try to do some pre-selection. This is, of course, a very subjective selection but I think much of the information may be interesting for people working in the aforementioned or related areas. Further (and in case you’re interested in different areas), I’m planning to write kind of a tutorial about how to find free academic information online for a given topic.

Just in case you’re from a non-academic background, here’s a short primer on paper reading: Most of the papers I’m going to introduce are between 6 and 10 pages long (using a two-column layout) or up to 20 pages (using a single-column layout) – depending on the topic and where it was published. The structure is almost always about the same:

If you have time, read everything. If you don’t have much time, read the abstract, maybe the introduction and the conclusion as they contain the essential pieces of information. For research areas that require user testing and experiments, you will most likely find statistics in the main body of the paper, used for evaluation of the gathered data. While you don’t necessarily need to understand everything, it can be useful to know at least some basics. An excellent book is »Measuring the User Experience« (Tullis and Albert 2008) that introduces the field of user testing, how to capture data and how to evaluate it without having to be a statistics pro.

As you can see from the number of posts in the last year, this blog is not the most frequently updated. This won’t probably change because I prefer writing less often (with last year being a special situation) but more in-depth and not repeating information you have already read on every other blog. I’ll try to write about the »Paper of the Month« at the beginning of each month and also keep up with posting other things in between – checking back once or twice a month is probably enough ;)

So, here’s the first one.
(I’m going to stick to the format »The paper« and »Why you should read it« for subsequent posts.)

The paper
Balakrishnan, R. (2004) »Beating« Fitts’ law: Virtual enhancements for pointing facilitation. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 61(6), pp. 857-874.

Why you should read it
Even if you’re not an HCI expert, chances are that you’ve already come across Fitts’ Law. It’s one of the most fundamental laws in Human-Computer Interaction pertinent to pointing tasks, which almost any graphical user interface exhibits. Paul Fitts derived an equation for this law in 1953 in his seminal work »The information capacity of the human motor system in controlling the amplitude of movement« and later it was further explored in HCI studies. The easy explanation of Fitts’ law is that objects that are close to a pointing device and big are easier to acquire than targets that are farther away and small. Something that is possibly nothing new for you and actually pretty obvious. However, in today’s sophisticated RIA user interfaces with novel navigation and advanced menu systems things are getting trickier and less obvious.

For example, the paper tells you the issues concerning expandable targets (Mac OS X dock!) and describes what choices there are to »beat« Fitts’ law for more efficient interactions. It does not contain any sections about experiments and statistics as it’s a work surveying the existing literature in this field. This is nice because – unless you want to become an HCI and Fitts’ Law professional – saves you from reading countless other papers on this topic. A really good read!

Filed under: Flex/AS3, HCI, Reading, RIA, Software Development

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