Free and Cheap Apps for the Digital Researcher

I often get asked about the various programmes I’m using for research, as I’m always looking out for opensource or affordable programs. Here are a list of those that I’ve found and find useful (most cross platform, but some only Mac).

Writing: Scrivener 

(Mac/PC Beta, $US20/free demo)
Scrivener was recommended to me by fellow designer and researcher Jeremy Yuille (cheers!). Used by screenwriters, academics, basically anyone who needs to write long texts, it lets you create outlines, write in chunks, and drop in other resources.

I'm using it to lay up my writing, and it does work well, as it makes outlining easier (OK, Microsoft Word does do this, but in a far less obvious way). 
Scrivener Corkboard View
There are different views you can use, depending on whether you think in words or with post-its.
Scrivener Writing
To be honest, I like using it just for draft writing!
It also does things like versioning and other features I haven't even tapped into yet!
Available on Mac, iPad, beta in Windows.
Other options: LaTeX (free, all platforms)

File management: Citeulike and Mendeley.

I used to use Endnote at my former university (where it was available for free for students, and also connected to our library database: one click referencing!) but after I lost it in a hard drive fail, I decided to look at other options.

(free, web based) has the advantage of being a web based lookup service (most things are there) so that you can usually find most book references, and access them from any computer. You can also share your libraries with other people.

The citeyoulike library

Mendeley (free, with paid online storage options) is a reference and file manager application. What I like about it that it also creates an iTunes like library of any articles (papers etc) you have, and allows you to add notes and annotations on top of them within the app. The free version also gives 2Gb of online backups/synching for files and annotations, and can also let you share these with other researchers. It also lets you do Cite-as-You-Write (as does Endnote) in Word and Open Office.Available on Mac, PC, and iOS reader.

Mendeley Files

Mendeley Text

Mendeley file system, and annoting a PDF through the viewer

Other options: I know many people use the Zotero Firefox plugin, (also stores files and images, but particularly useful if you have lots of web links, and imports to Mendeley), and have also heard good things about the Mac-only Papers. And good ol’ Endnote.

Backups/File Sharing: Dropbox

Free with paid options

It’s every researcher’s worst nightmare for their computer to fail or be stolen just before a big deadline. Or the inconvenience of working across different computers. That’s where Dropbox is a godsend (at least in the UK where internet is unmetered).

I have all my research files within a Dropbox folder. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a normal folder, but every time I make changes, it pushes them up to a web folder … and to any other computers I have that are connected. The iPhone app is an easy way to get photos off your camera.
Shared folders are also an easy way to create a shared resource.

Scrivener in Action

My PhD folded in Dropbox — 3Gb, all safely uploaded to the web and synched to my other computers!

I have the paid version, not only because it gives me more storage space (a whopping 50Gb), but paying a few dollars extra also gives me versioning so that I never have to worry about accidentally deleting a file again. 

Other options: I’ve heard good things about Wuala, but there are a lot of others. And of course, for Mac people, there’s Time Machine (though you can obviously use this as well as Dropbox).

Distraction Management: Freedom and Antisocial

Mac/Windows $US15 each, $20 bundle

Ah, the internet. So many things to look at. Which isn’t always good. Freedom and Antisocial work for different situations:
Freedom lets you completely turn off the internet for a set period of time. Turn it on, plug in your time, and your internet will be completely blocked for that period unless you reboot your computer. (It’s worth noting that it only counts time your computer is active: if it goes to sleep with ten minutes left on the clock, that time will carry over when you wake it up again).

Mac Freedom
Anti-social is useful for when you still need the internet, but want to avoid the pyramid of distraction, namely social media. It also lets you plugin extra sites that you want to be barred from.


Getting Things Done: Teuxdeux

Free webapp, $US1.99 iPhone app

A beautifully designed webapp from Tina Roth Eisenberg aka swissmiss, Teuxdeux has won a devoted following amongst designers. Simply add a task, and then click on it when it’s done to see it crossed out. Unfinished tasks automatically advance.


Video Analysis: TAMS

(free, Mac only)

TAMS Analyser is probably not for the technophobe — it’s coding is a bit more raw than its expensive (and PC only) competitor nVivo. Howver, if you’re prepared to learn to type curly brackets to open and close statements, it’s surprisingly powerful, with its video player even letting you usefully play footage at slower speeds. As an opensource app, it has minimal documentation, but there are some wonderful user made guides floating around).

TAMS Analyser

Yes, it definitely puts the 'source' into opensource, but TAMs is surprisingly well featured past that

Project Management — openProj (free, all platforms)

While this is one of the freeware apps I’m least happy with (it is limited, and hard to print from well), openProj is useful in getting the job done for mapping out timelines.
Options: I have used Merlin ($US50, Mac) in the past and really liked it.

Short Bursts of Writing: IAWriter ($US10)

For bits of writing that have to get done, IAWriter by Oliver Richestein (aka @IA) is a beautiful to use *and* look at Mac app, with full-screen mode and formatting shortcuts.
Other Options: Darkroom and Writeroom (Mac and PC respectively, $US20 and free beta)

Communities and Sharing:, Facebook, Twitter, Slideshare/Issuu

OK, these aren’t strictly apps, but given researach is as much about getting your research out there as doing it, I thought I’d add it in.

  • (yes, its name includes the .edu) looks to be the LinkedIn of academics (and if you aren’t on LinkedIn, you should be).
  • However, in terms of keeping up with what regular people are up to, Facebook is pretty useful (mainly because everyone is on it). It’s particularly good for ad-hoc groups: my PhD cohort have a private Facebook group that we use to keep in touch.
  • And for those that don’t get how Twitter is useful for research: think of it as your personal news feed and way to connect with people. I get a lot of information about conferences and new articles from twitter, and often use it to ask questions. (For example, check out the recurring #phdchat stream).
  • I also make a point of telling people to put the slides from any presentation they do on Slideshare (free web service, with paid options). Not only is it a wonderful way to share what you’ve done with other people (rather than sending around PPT slides and risking them bouncing from people’s emails) but it serves as a passive way for people to find out about your research. A lot of people search on the site for various topics, so your slides could well reach people who wouldn’t know about you otherwise (or be prepared to skim through a 8 page PDF). For books, try Issuu.

Other options: I’m interested in the community (which is part of the model) as you can create circles and follow other researchers’ work. However, it’s still in its developing stages. I also urge people to not use Scribd anymore, as it used to have free access but now forces anyone who wants to download your PDFs to either pay or upload some other PDFs. Not very open.


What other apps are you using out there? I’d love to know your thoughts.

Turning Clicks to Sales: Review

I was recently invited to take part in a presentation from the Marketing Industry Network and Orangebus on Converting Clicks to Sales. Since my participation was only on the panel, it gave me ample time to take notes (though not sketchotes this time around).

And also check out the schwag.


User Experience and Persuasive Design — Joanne Richardson

Richardson gave a useful 101 on how UX can be relevant in an e-commerce context.

Joanne Richardson

Some of her points:

UX is “the quality of experience a person has when interacting with a specific design”
“UX design is research, planning and verification of a solution”
Investing in UX can give a company confidence in design (as it’s backed up by research) and clarity in direction.

Customers and Persuasive Design
Customers go through a journey of use: unaware>interested>first time>regular>passionate (for more on this see people such as Joshua Porter)

Framework of Users

Some tips:

  • Design has a big impact on whether people trust a site enough to buy from it. In a 2004 study, 83% of people tested rejected a health site because of its look.
  • Reassure them (they haven't bought yet!)— Amazon is good at this in stressing that pushing the next buttons won’t charge your credit card
  • Create demand (ala Groupon); add constraints
  • Incentives, everyone loves a bargain. Sweden has lottery where people can win the traffic fines. The online equivalent : #paidwithatweet


  • Social Proof: Expedia use this really well (last booking), also Amazon's recommended books
  • Social good and social giving
  • Achievement (badges etc)
  • The Goldilocks effect: have a low and high option so people can go for the middle. 

Baecamp Options

  • Remove barriers — people are inherently lazy! — Tumblr and Posterous both let you creat a blog without giving any information.

Tom Fotheringhan — Conversion Tips

Fohteringhamn gave a fast and data-referenced-to-the-hilt talk on conversions.

Steps to 500

Top conversion killers ranging from most to least are:

  1. Verified by Visa (Amazon is paying huge fines in not implementing it, but apparently believe that it’s not worth the loss)
  2. Discount codes (people will go to Google to search for codes and forget to come back),
  3. Forcing people to log in (instead allow for anonymous purchases and register later on)
  4. Weak buttons (making it hard for consumers to see where to click)
  5. Confusing payment channel (funnel, don’t throw extra things at customers when they just want to buy it!)
  6. Decision paralysis (don’t give too many options!)
  7. Hidden charges (airlines were the worst for this, but now state prices upfront)
  8. Slow loading pages (not only can this affect Google ranking, but it can drive customers away if they have to wait too long)
  9. Poor product pages (if it’s difficult to figure out how to buy, or find out the things customers need to know to make them buy)
  10. Having out of stock products (a shopfront of out of stock products doesn’t encourage trust as it implies you can’t manage your stock)


  • Share the love (get people to connect with Facebook or Twitter eg like for free delivery etc)
  • Recommendations (e.g. Online clothing shops benefit from customer reviews that say how products fitted etc)
  • One click to products (many sites don't do this. Make it easy to get to the product!)
  • Filters (make it easy to search)
  • Run split testing (this enables you to try different techniques and see what works);
  • Record your best sales person (listen to what they say and do, and then apply it to your site!)
  • Run instant chat for two weeks (you’ll catch people who wouldn’t call a hotline)
  • Monitor fall outs (this is easy with various analytics tools, many such as Google Analytics are free)
  • Run usability tests ( tools you can use include Clicktale, Crazyegg, and Whatusersdo)
  • Ask for feedback
  • Test for conversion not design (it's not about the site aesthetic as whether it works).
  • Set up urgency (time limited sales etc)
  • Hit the magic moment (timing)
  • Use breadcrumbs
  • Show progress
  • Consider your imagery (different photos can give different responses)
  • Think about using videos (these can be very successful, especially if your product is difficult to understand)
  • Show what people are missing (eg dating sites don't show more info.)

Top 5 free traffic ideas

  1. Flash sales (i.e. The Groupon model. use a deadline to encourage people to make a decision)
  2. Facebook ads (they have really fine-grained control e.g. age, location, alumni; and are cheaper than google)
  3. Coupons (use for slow days e.g. mid-week)
  4. Think ahead, ride the media wave (what events are coming up that you can plan for? Orange planned ahead for their very popular Royal Wedding spoof vid)
  5. Online competitions

30 Days of Creativity: A Recap

For those that missed it, for many people online last month (June) became 30 Days of Creativity, an impetus to do something creative every day for a month. (A bit like Nanowrimo, but with just doing things). Aided by a convenient plug to use Pinterest, I decided to give it a go. I didn't entirely do it (I had to go to a few conferences and so didn't always do something every day) but had an utter blast.
(The full list of what I did is on Pinterest)
Here are some things I learnt from doing it:

  1. Pick an appropriate theme. I'd just bought a Wacom, and was itching to try it out. More generally, I'm trying to do things digitally (writing, drawing, sketching) where I'd have done them with pen and paper in the past. So my unofficial theme was “to be able to use a computer and Wacom like I would a pen and paper.” The range of things I ended up included drawing in the painting program that came with the Wacom (inadvertently by an Auckland company), making collages with Illustrator, and making fonts (more on that later). Some of my favourite examples to come from this are below:DogPukekoTuiCupcakes

    Friends of mine had other themes like making repeating patterns, or learning to quickly and effectively document research. My former boss was even making stuff out of the things in his kitchen rubbish (apt for a designer championing sustainability)!
    The theme will also help you on nights when you're tired, and can't think of anything to do (often the inspiration is the hardest bit!). The 30 Days team did offer daily ideas, but I found having a recurring theme the easiest — it meant I could iterate on an idea/technique for a few days until I got sick of it. I did have the advantage of time with this to some respect as I'm studying rather than working, so if you were super-busy with life, you might also pick an easy to do theme like taking at least one picture of something interesting.

  2. . … do at least one thing you'd always wanted to do. I'd always wanted to make a font of my handwriting, as I love making notes online, but find the typefaces rather sterile compared to handwritten text. I knew that I could do it, (I'd played with the opensource software Fontforge years ago, and even installed it on my computer at the time), but never actually got around to doing it. Voila….Typeface

    (This was my first attempt, where I sketched straight into Illustrator, hence why it looks Comic-Sans-y. I'd later find it better to draw into Photoshop, but that's another story).Handwriting Revised

  3. Network, pinboard, use any way to stay motivated. As I said, I did miss a few days, but I pretty much stayed on board as it gave me such a sense of accomplishment to post things up to my Pintrest whiteboard, and I had a few friends doing it as well. The Full Pinterest List

    The twitter stream also helped a lot.

  4. Take comfort that it's only a month! I'll be honest: I was shocked at how much a timesink it could be at times (though now having read up on making fonts I can see I was only stratching the tip of the iceberg with that stuff). Between doing what I wanted to, my 750 words, and oh yeah, my studies, it was a pretty big task. But this also came down to what I wanted out of the month.

All up, I was really happy I took part in it, and that I did what I did. Any other people who got some great things out of the 30 Days of Creativity?

Jayne Wallace

One of the joys of being in Europe (or near it) is that you get to see the work of people that you'd only read about. I remember using some of Dr Jayne Wallace's work in my MDes thesis, so was happy to hear that she had recently moved to work at Northumbria.

For those who don't know about her, Wallace has a background in contemporary jewellery, but has moved into using jewellery and craft in design reserach. Her talk today was about two projects both based around working with dementia patients: the Selfhood Project (working with sufferers and their carers) and the Reminsicence Room (a project for a home in Middlesborough that houses patients with severe dementia).

Selfhood Project Brooch

Some of Dr Wallace's work with dementia suffers and their carers.

Some of the key takeaways were how technology can be combined with craft in subtle ways to help encourage memories and behaviours (e.g. Never Ending Story-like globes with special objects in them that can be placed near a special TV to play related movie clips). Wallace also pointed out that the person you think you're working with most may not be the key person — she initially thought the work on selfhood would be for the sufferers, but found that it was actually just as if not more important for the carers as well, to help them both keep the memories of the person they were caring for but also validate themselves in a difficult and ongoing role.

Digital sketchnotes below:

Jayne Wallace — Selfhood

Download PDF

Jayne Wallace — Reminiscence Room

Download PDF

Design PhD Conference

On the 1st of July I attended the PhD Design conference at Lancaster University. While it's a conference jointly held by Lancaster and Northumbria University, paper contributions came from England to Australia, and generally all of a very high quality.

The Speakers

The presentations were bookended with talks from people that had already finished their PhDs, which was supremely useful, with other talks ranging from first year to nearing writeup.

Martyn Evans kicked off the day with talk of his journey through his PhD on design futuring and amongst other things, enlightened us about:

but above all, I loved his finishing statement:

“you start off a PhD wanting to change the world, and end just wanting it to be over.”

Martyn Evans

Martyn Evans on his reflections

Jennifer Ballie of Chelsea College of Art and Design, University of the Arts London had some beautiful slides as she talked about her work into eco-textile design.
She's looked into a number of ways to encourages this, from workshops to online platforms such as Dress Up Download
My favourite comment on her work was:

“I thought that I'd be making a digital platform, but realized the materials & scarves were the platform”

Jennifer Ballie

Jennifer Baillie

Her slides:

Fellow Northumbria student Mersha Aftab talked about her research at Philips, which unusually started with research (rather than a literature study) due to industry involvement. She's actually found the process useful as it has honed the literature she's looking into, rather than just reading everything.
While she has found that getting time with industry is hard, she has a solution:

“corner them at conferences and squeeze the informantion you need out of them!”

Luke Feast of Swinburne University is an ethnographer looking into design methods. This meant he gave us a number of useful knowledge frameworks (objectivism, constructivism, subjectivism) as well pointing to researchers such as Rittel & Schon.

Luke Feast

Luke Feast's Knowledge Framework Matrix

What was interesting about his background is how he emphasised the rigour in hard ethnography — his research into studying when and where insights happen in design studios mean that he isn't just sitting in meetings, but also going to the lunches, getting into the cabs, and generally following them around and watching for informal insights.

The other Northumbria presenter was Alana James (part of my first year cohort!) about ethical fashion. She's looking at the intention-behaviour or (30:3) gap, which is how 30% of consumers say they'd like to support ethical fashion, but only 3% actually do it.
Her most stirring quote was a reputed saying amongst Nepalese women:


“if you're lucky you're a prostitute. If you're unlucky you're a garment worker”.


Her tips:

  • Talk — use the people around you/like-minded researchers, have a community
  • Contacts — get emails from people, keep in touch etc
  • … and tweet! Use it as a news feed, find people doing similar work to you. [Of course as a tweeter I liked this one]

Alana James
Alana James — talk, contacts, tweet

Marzia Mortati finished off the day with her PhD Designing Connectivity. Her suggestions from her process were to consider the environment you're doing your PhD in and be prepared to go somewhere else for a while if need be (she was studying in Italy, but found that relocating to England for a while and collaborating with Lancaster Uni was key into getting the PhD done)

Summing up

One of the strengths of this conference was its focus — all speakers appear to have been briefed on giving tips for the research process, and they delivered.

The plenary at the end suggested the following themes, which I agreed with:

  • visualization (there was a lot of mapping shown, and making visual sense of information)
  • social networking (be it twitter, skype, or general online communities)
  • sharing battle tips (as above)
  • the breadth/depth of design and methodology (design is a broad church).

Perhaps the best summing up of the conference was from the panel as well:

Design is about the question “why not?” and a PhD “so what?”

British HCI: Digi-Sketchnotes (Day 2)

More notes from the conference. Sadly, my notes can't capture the wonderful demos that happened at CultureLab (I was brave enough to try out the Digital VJ by Steve Gibson & Stefan Müller Arisona, but hope the footage doesn't end up on Youtube as I was pretty bad).

Exploring Choreographers’ Conceptions of Motion Capture for Full Body Interaction (Marco Gillies, Max Worgan, Hestia Peppe and Nina Kov)

Note: this was probably my favourite paper of the conference, an interesting topic with unexpected insights. Also: I missed his setup, but later was told that Marco Gillies was rocking an iPhone with his speech notes, head mic, and a number of videos in his presentation. I missed this because the presentation was bug free.


Download PDF

Supporting Hand Gestures in Mobile Remote Guiding: A Usability Evaluation (Weidong Huang and Leila Alem)

Download PDF


Designing Blended Reality Space: Conceptual Foundations and Applications (Kei Hoshi, Fredrik Öhberg and Annakarin Nyberg)


Download PDF


Making Public Media Personal: Nostalgia and Reminiscence in the Office (Paul André, Abigail Sellen, M.C. Schraefel and Ken Wood)

Download PDF


Curiosity and Interaction: making people curious through interactive systems (Rob Tieben, Tilde Bekker and Ben Schouten)

Download PDF


The Significant Screwdriver: Care, Domestic Masculinity, and Interaction Design (Shaowen Bardzell, Shad Gross, Jeff Wain, Austin Toombs and Jeffrey Bardzell)

Download PDF


Collective Creativity: The Emergence of World of Warcraft Machinima (Tyler Pace, Jeffrey Bardzell and Shaowen Bardzell.)

Download PDF

British HCI: Digi-Sketchnotes

I sat in on a number of the British HCI talks with a laptop and Wacom tablet, and captured notes from Abigail Sellen's keynote presentation, and some panels. The attached PDFs have clickable links and selectable text if the images aren't enough.


Keynote — Abigail Sellen “The Future of Looking Back” Download PDF

Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards “Encouraging Teenagers to Exercise through Technology Probes” Download PDF


Jennifer Sheridan, Nick Bryan Kinns, Atau Tanaka

Art and HCI panel — Jennifer Sheridan, Nick Bryan-Kinns, and Atau Tanaka Download PDF

The Second International Symposium on Culture, Creativity, and Interaction Design: Notes

On Monday and Tuesday this week I was fortunate enough to attend the The Second International Symposium on Culture, Creativity, and Interaction Design, held in conjunction with British HCI at Northumbria University.

The first symposium happened five years ago (well before my time in the UK, barely into interaction design at that point), but from what I can gather the symposium gathered a range of second-time and first-time speakers/presenters.

The presentations/papers covered a range of topics in HCI and creativity, from semiotics to dance.

One of my favourite things about the symposium was its focus on getting the groups to interact with each other in activities on how the group should continue.


Manifestos Ahoy

This could be new to me as I've generally gone to industry conferences, but what I appreciated from this was that it actually allowed for true discussion. I'd love to see this happenmore (though I have started to see it happen in break out sessions in some conferences).

Digital Sketchnotes

I was interested in trying to take a hybrid form of sketchnotes at a conference, that combined the freeform nature of drawing with the usefulness that searchable text provides. These sketches were made with a laptop and Wacom on Illustrator (the font is one I made of my own handwriting to make it feel less sterile and more personal). All are avaiable as a PDF underneath.

Jettie Hoonhout

Jetttie Hoonhout Download PDF


Calvi and Wood

Licia Calvi and Dave Wood “Running in Hermeneutic Circles — A Visual Phenomenological Methodology” Download PDF

Gilbert Cockton

Gilbert Cockton “Creativity in Design Theory and Discourse” Download PDF

Jan Deroven

Jan Deroven “Semiotics in HCI Practice” Download PDF

Ann Light

Ann Light “Making Monsters” Download PDF

Darren Reed

Darren Reed “Dancing Interactions” Download PDF

Per Henrik Storm

Per Henrik Storm “Expressive Interaction” Download PDF

Thelca Schiphorst

Thelca Schiphorst “Exquisite Sensing” Download PDF