iCan shows its face

A new story on the BBC news website about how we should use second class post instead of first class passes the time, but of real interest is the link in the top-right to the BBC iCan page about Post Offices.

iCan has been alive (but in beta) for something like two years now, and I’ve never before seen mention of it on the main BBC site (although in a recent iCan survey I did say “needs more publicity” 🙂 – does this mean it’s about to leave beta? Will it actually launch?

iCan is a great site and resource, but it doesnn’t seem to have had the same design care and attention that the main BBC site and the BBC Collective have had. A bit more love in the looks department and I think it’s ready to hit prime-time.

Enhancing Firefox GUI usability

You no longer have to go through the hassle of editing your CSS, I’ve turned this into an extension

Benjamin Roe recently wrote an article titled Usable GUI Design: A Quick FAQ in which he talks about Fitt’s Law.

The time to acquire a target is a function of the distance to and size of the target.

So the bigger the target, the shorter the time to acquire, and hence the easier to reach.

In relation to the web this has been discussed before by such luminaries as Dave Shea and Dunstan Orchard who talk about making link targets larger for blog sidebars and so on.

In his article, Roe talks about how small the browser back button in Firefox is. Once I’ve applied my preferred settings (use small icons, small, no text), it looks like this:

That’s a pretty small target for one of the most commonly used targets in an application. Microsoft realised this a long time ago and in Internet Explorer’s ‘customize toolbars’ dialog you can choose to display ‘Selective text on right’ in the text options:

IE's customize toolbar dialog

What this means is that even when the toolbar icons are set to small, the IE navigation toolbar looks like this:

IE's back button with added text

The back button is clearly at least twice as wide as the less frequently used forward button and three time as wide as the stop, refresh and home buttons (Roe does actually allude to this , but mistakenly identifies it as a feature of the Longhorn edition of IE). To compensate he suggests making Firefox’s back button much bigger to make it easier for users to click on, and provides an example of what it might look like .

Of course, Firefox being completely user-customisable, we can (mostly) do this ourselves. I admit I’m too lazy to create a new back button and find out which chrome folder to put it in but all you really need to do is add the following lines to your userChrome.css:

#back-button .toolbarbutton-icon {
padding-left: 10px;
padding-right: 10px;

The easiest way to do this is to:

  • install the ChromEdit extension
  • restart Firefox
  • Tools menu -> Edit User Files
  • Add the CSS above to the top of the file and click ‘save’
  • Restart Firefox.

All done! With any luck, your navigation toolbar now looks something like this:

A wider back button in Firefox

When you hover your mouse over the back button, you can see that the target area has been massively increased

What the back button looks like when you hover over it

Obviously you can now edit the width to make it as large as you like. 10px was nice for me.

I was actually hoping to also be able to add the word ‘back’ after the image using the :after pseudo-selector but it didn’t seem to work. Any help with this gladly appreciated 🙂

An anonymous commentor shows us how to add the word ‘back’ to the button by using the following CSS:

/* Force the label to be visible, even in icons-only mode */
#back-button .toolbarbutton-text {
display: -moz-box !important;

/* Put the label to the right of the button */
#back-button .toolbarbutton-menubutton-button {
-moz-box-orient: horizontal !important;

This works a treat but this will break the display of the toolbar if you switch it into other modes. The CSS I’m now using which leaves the back button as it should be in larger modes is below. My toolbar now looks like this:

Firefox back button with the word 'back'

I’m not entirely sure it’s the most efficient thing in the world, and the previews don’t like right when you’re doing ‘customize toolbar’, but it all looks and works A-OK as soon as you hit “OK”. Promise 🙂

/* Force the label to be visible, even in no text */
toolbar:not([mode=full]) #back-button .toolbarbutton-text {
  display: -moz-box !important;
  padding-bottom: 2px;
  padding-right: 10px;
  padding-left: 2px;

/* put some spacing around the button icon */
toolbar:not([mode=full]) #back-button .toolbarbutton-icon {
  padding-left: 8px;
  padding-right: 6px;

/* Put the label to the right of the button */
toolbar:not([mode=full]) #back-button .toolbarbutton-menubutton-button {
  -moz-box-orient: horizontal !important;

Gmail Searching

I hadn’t realised until just this minute that Gmail allows a query syntax similar to that of Lookout. Lookout’s search query syntax is so intuitive that I typed it into my Gmail search box without even realising, but when it returned the mails I actually wanted I was amazed! It’s all probably in the documentation somewhere, but I really hadn’t noticed.

If you’ve used Lookout before you’ll know exactly what kind of things you can do:

  • subject:fred will return all the mails with ‘fred’ in the title
  • from:fred will return all the mails sent by someone with ‘fred’ in their name or email address
  • subject:fred will return all the mails with ‘fred’ in the title
  • to:fred will return all the mails you’ve sent to fred
  • to:fred has:attachment will return all the mails you’ve sent to fred and have an attachment

In fact, if you click “Show search options” next to the search box and type some values in the boxes, then the exact query syntax that was used is shown at the top of your results like this:

How to construct queries

Happy searching!

IE is a choice?

Gary Schare, Microsoft’s director of product management for Windows says:

I still believe in the end that most users will decide that IE is the best choice when they take into account all the factors that led them to choose IE in the first place

Well, excuse me, but I used IE for years and never had a say in the matter. I turned on my computer for the first time years ago, and IE was just there. That was it. There were no “factors”; nothing influenced me one way or another. No-one had to convince me to use one browser over another, because as far as I was concerned, there weren’t any other browsers.

Now I know there’s a choice, IE isn’t the one I choose.

Choosing Microsoft

In his most recent ‘ongoing’ post, Tim Bray writes:

These days, interoperation and integration are everything. You’d better have open interfaces, open networks, open services; that is, open data. Which in practical terms usually means XML.

I’ve been thinking about this a little bit recently. Not the specifics of using XML, but integration in general. I’ve been trying to work out why some system administrators love Microsoft and I’ve realised it’s because of the backend integration.

Taken alone any of the standard desktop Microsoft products are pretty poor and could probably be replaced with any other off-the-shelf product (or in some cases an open-source one, like OpenOffice), and the end-user wouldn’t really know the difference. They’d have to learn that app just the same as they’d had to learn MS Word before, but there’s no obvious difference (except maybe now they’re actually working more efficiently and with fewer bugs, but that’s by-the-by ;).

The difference really comes at the backend. If you deploy MS Exchange, you know exactly what you’re getting on both the client and the server end and you’re pretty much guaranteed that every other MS app will be able to pull data out of it. If you deploy Sharepoint you have detailed tie-in to everything available in Exchange, plus complete integration with (for example) MS Word docs, effectively it views them as its native file format.

If, on the other hand, you deployed SUSE Openexchange Server (which is probably the closest you’ll get to a direct Exchange replacement) and you want to continue using Outlook you’ll have to manually install the plugin on each user’s desktop (although you do get a far far better web client), and you’ve got no guarantee of any other app being able to use that data.

If you move to OpenOffice instead of MS Office then whilst the OOo apps will have a high degree of cohesion, they just won’t be able to talk as well to other desktop (or server-side) applications.

To be honest, I’ve only given all this a cursory glance, but it looks like MS have got the market sewn up.

The First Apple UK Store

Apple opened their first shop in the UK on Regent Street at the weekend, and unbeknownst to me, my little brother was there.

In fact not only was he there, but he actually went to join the queue late on Friday night (I should point out that he doesn’t actually live in London) and was one of the first 100 or so customers (he’s spent a lot of time sleeping since then so I’ve not had much chance to keep up with him) to get into the store. Apparently the queue was quite a friendly group, and he spent the night chatting away to other Mac-loving nerds who had also decided to spend the night.

Not only that but he got a Lucky Bag (I had to find out later that it cost him £250!!!), although no iPod (they were only 1 per 6 bags, apparently they’re normally 1 per 3 bags in the US?) he’s very pleased with the contents, although he’ll probably sell the wireless keyboard and mouse as he already has a iMac G5.

I’m still scouring Applestore pics on flickr and macitynet to try and find an inadvertant picture of his eager little face 🙂

(also check out what Andy Budd and Rich Rutter have to say on the matter)

Winter arrives

Winter finally arrived in Sheffield at about 5pm last night when it started to snow.

It continued until about 11pm, but it was slightly too mild for it to really settle (except on car roofs of course). Still, hat glove and scarf time approaches!

Pine again

Having not used it for about four years, I’m slightly scared by the ease with which I remembered all of the keyboard shortcuts in Pine (in fact I knew some of the shortcuts without consciously trying to remember them).

Pine was the standard Uni email client at the University of Reading whilst I was there (’98-’02). Whilst hoping they’ve kept up with the times, I still hope that they’re forcing freshers to learn the ins-and-outs of a text-based mail client 🙂