Every year when I go to CodeMash, I try to do a pre-compiler session on something that makes me uncomfortable or I know little about. This year, it was the Science of Great UI session presented by Mark Miller (@greatui). I am not completely lacking in artistic ability, as I can play quite a few musical instruments well, but when it comes to visual art, I am beyond deficient. I know CSS and if you give me a design I can make it happen, but to say that I do not have an eye for design is a significant understatement. Thankfully, there are folks on our team with better design taste to save me from myself.
The first thing that I noticed in the session was simply how crowded it was. They had to open up one the walls and the attendees almost filled that room as well. I was not expecting that kind of turn out for a UI session and was glad to see I was wrong. There were some “technical difficulties” at the onset of the session and Mark did a great job of handling things. Once we got rolling, I knew I was in the right place.
I tend to be very logical and hearing the science behind the UI/UX really drove home some important points. One of the most interesting pieces of the session was the discussion regarding the fovea and parafovea and how they relate to reading. While I am seriously oversimplifying, the overall idea is to get to the point as quickly and elegantly as possible with your text. There are two interesting takeaways for me regarding this: one is very much related to my work life, the other very much related to my family life.
Last year, we took a course on Precision Question & Answer, which taught our group how to ask and answer questions more efficiently. I found that an overarching theme in my communications was that I was far too longwinded, and in many cases I overlooked the critical components of my question or answer. I am still guilty of this from time to time, but now that I am aware of it I am able to work on the problem. The same thing can happen in our applications…honestly, how many people read the full EULA anymore?
I also took away something from that same discussion that might be able to help me be a better teacher to my boys. My wife and I are foster/adoptive parents, which comes with a unique set of challenges based on individual circumstances. While we are extremely proud of how far our adopted boys have come in the past few years, I had a mild epiphany regarding why one of them struggles with his reading: it’s all about his saccades and fixations. Saccades are the rapid movements and fixations are the short stops. I am a naturally fast reader (have been most of my life) and have had a hard time figuring out how to help my son improve his reading. This session opened my eyes (literally) to his problem: his fixations are significantly longer.
Fortunately, I already knew about the brain’s plasticity, especially in children. As part of being a foster parent in Ohio, I have to attend various ongoing training classes and many times I get a “work takeaway” from those sessions, but this is the first time I have attended a development session and came away with something I could translate to my kids. As soon as I got back to the hotel room I looked up “reduce fixations in reading” and have some awesome techniques to try out with my son when I get home. I am sure that was not Mark’s intent, but as mentioned during the session…our brains work in amazing ways!