Sunday, March 11, 2007

RitePen Does Me Wrong

This is not a rant against EverNote's RitePen. EverNote is a great company that makes great products (including RitePen). This is an essay about user interfaces and UMPC's and what solutions work best and when. In case you've never used RitePen it is a simple utility that allows you to ink anywhere on the screen at any time and then automatically converts that ink to text. For anyone who has used a browser on a UMPC this potentially solves a glaring problem: inputting text into fields.

Setting up the use case: Because the screen real estate on a UMPC is mere precious than a home with a yard in San Francisco, I always surf in full screen mode.

Knowing this, here's the out of the box experience you'll go through to surf to a page:

  1. Hit F11 to exit full screen mode.
  2. Click the TIP icon in the task bar.
  3. Put the cursor focus into the URL text field.
  4. Enter a URL in TIP and hit enter.
  5. Close the TIP.
  6. Hit F11 to enter full screen mode again.

Now some will say that I should simply keep the TIP open and the screen out of full-screen at all times but this results in about 75% of the screen taken up by the TIP, browser title bar, menu bar, command bar and status bar and leaves only 25% of the screen for actual content. Not acceptable. So here's where RitePen can clear things up.

Remember that RitePen allows me to ink anywhere on the screen at anytime and automatically converts the ink strokes to text. This means the RitePen experience should ideally go something like this (remember we're already in full-screen mode):

  1. Put the cursor focus into the URL text field.
  2. Write the URL directly on the screen using RitePen's digital ink. RitePen converts the ink to text and automatically inserts the text into the URL field.
  3. Write the enter key gesture directly on the screen to start the search.

This is a much better user experience. It permits us to remain in full-screen mode and eliminate 3 steps. Basically, the RitePen use case follows the same steps we'd follow if we entered the URL using a standard keyboard for input. Only we are inking instead of typing. This is desirable from a use interface perspective.

So how did RitePen do me wrong? As they say "God is in the details" In this case the details are found in how RitePen handles errors in recognition which unfortunately I find happens more often than using the built-in TIP recognizer . The real use case went something like this:

  • Put the cursor focus into the URL text field.
  • Write the URL directly on the screen using RitePen's digital ink. RitePen converts the ink to text and automatically inserts the text into the URL field.
  • The recognized text is incorrect. A floating correction window appears with a list of alternate spellings none of which is what you wrote.
  • As you try to find the correct word from the list the popup window fades away into oblivion...
  • You are left with the incorrect URL in the URL text field so you highlight the text and write the URL again on the screen only to find it is misrecognized again but in a different way.
  • You exit full-screen mode.
  • Turnoff RitePen in the task bar.
  • Click the TIP icon in task bar to open the TIP.
  • Enter the URL and hit enter.
  • Close the TIP.
  • Enter full-screen.

The problem with RitePen is with its correction window which pops up after every recognition. Unlike TIP, there is no correcting along the way. With RitePen you write everything on the screen in one fell swoop and then pray to the recognition gods that it comes back correct. If it doesn't you're going to have to struggle with using their popup correction window.

Problems with the correction popup: First it cuts away too quickly. While this is adjustable I found it difficult to strike a balance between staying on screen long enough to click it and "pin" it down when I need it and short enough to not be a nuisance when no correction is needed. Second, it is difficult to add a delete characters. Correcting an individual character is easy but it is frustratingly difficult to add or delete a letter at the end of the word or phrase and almost impossible to do so in the middle of a word. These limitations mean you'll find yourself closing RitePen's correction window and simply trying it again or using the TIP.

The moral of the story is this: If RitePen's recognition were better you would have a great user experience... but it isn't and their correction implementation is seriously flawed leaving us with a worse use case then simply sticking with the built-in TIP.

In my next posting Ill share the ideal solution I've found for entering text in a browser.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

A Second Use Case

If you're gadget freak like me then you probably do a lot of window shopping both online and in the real world. I do most of my research online but when it comes to the actual purchase I like to physically go to the store and see and feel and touch the product before I buy it. I'm kind of an instant gratification guy so when I'm ready to make a purchase I usually don't do it online. That means I need to know if a store's got a certain item in stock and how many they have of that item. It also means I'm probably going to be driving around to a couple stores to find the exact item that I want. And while I love my hybrid I hate bay area traffic. Enter the Samsung Q1!

Case in point: last weekend my significant other and I were out shopping for new laptop. Best Buy had the one we wanted and it was a good price but it was the display unit. We had just come from CompUSA two blocks down the road and saw the exact same unit brand new and in a box but it was $200.00 more. Fry's electronics had to have the unit that we're looking for and probably had around the same price but here's the problem: Fry's is located up over the Oakland hills down Highway 24, past the city of Orinda, down Highway 680, through the city of Walnut Creek and on the far side of Concord. About 30 minutes drive, an hour roundtrip.

Fighting my instinct to not have to interact with people I call the Fry's store and asked them if they have the laptop in stock and if it is on sale. Fry's must have the most ass backwards inventory system because the sales associate could find no use for the product description, product name, laptop identifier or any other useful piece of information. The store associate could only look the product up by its arcane and completely useless unique Fry's identification number --which of course I did not have and did not know. " However, " the store associates told me " it's easy enough to find this number online on our web site. " of course the problem being that I'm not home, behind my computer.

Ah, but I am connected! Being the technophile that I am I busted out the trusty Motorola Q, opened pocket Internet Explorer and hit Fry's Electronics homepage. If you've never been to Fry's Electronics homepage, check it out now ( This is not a mobile friendly web site. Can you imagine all those tabs displayed on a 2in. LCD screen? Needless to say the experience proved fruitless. After fumbling with the Q's menu options to display the web page as a single column, mobile friendly and desktop layouts I punched the red "Call End" button and sat in defeat. I wasn't going to drive home just to use my PC to look up a stupid fries identification number but I wanted to know if it was worth the one hour drive to Fry's to save a couple hundred bucks.

Sitting in my glove box was the Q1. I carry it around with me because I like to jot my thoughts down in OneNote. You know, for things like this blog. Any ways, the point is I had my Q1 with me and not my laptop and the whole phone experience had just failed miserably. So I paired the Q with the Q1 using Bluetooth and hit In ten seconds flat I had their website up on the Q1. And guess what? I had all 21 of those tabs displayed in their full glory on the 7in. 800 by 480, 32 bit color display in a full Internet Explorer running under a real operating system: Windows XP tablet addition.

With three taps of my stylus on the screen I had that Fry's Electronics identification number and was on the phone to my sales associate friend... who promptly told me they didn't have the unit in stock. Praise god and hallelujah baby Jesus We had our answer! Get the brand new boxed laptop from CompUSA --which is exactly what we did.

So here's the big deal. I can't always be behind my computer. When I'm out and about there are lots of times that I wish I had my PC with. Before my Samsung Q1 I just accepted that I'd have to remember what I wanted to do online until I got home. But with the UMPC, I can get the information that I want when I want it. It's not a big deal in itself but I think it may represent where the computing experience is heading - and that shift could turn out to be a big deal.

(This blog post was created using voice dictation on the Samsung Q1 - It's faster than writing and easier than typing.)