Usability and Visual Design: 3 Tools that Have it All

(Check the actual thing out at

Greetings! Today I’d like to showcase two free web 2.0 tools that are both easy to use and look incredibly professional. They are both great tools to create widgets for websites, wikis, or blogs. Unlike many free web 2.0 tools available, their designers thought hard about creating clean and simple user interfaces, easy-to-follow instructions, and they also understand the concepts of visual composition and multimedia design.

When compared to tools like Prezi (a flowing online presentation maker) or Capzles (a visual timeline maker), where the user interface is relatively intuitive but the finished product is not quite fully professional unless you take extra time and effort, the following tools have an easy-to-use interface and highly professional outcomes that do not require extra effort by the user.

Because they are so professional looking, I would not only use these tools for their intended purposes, but also examine the elements of effective visual, usability, and multimedia design with students. We know how important usability and design are with the many advanced tools and technologies available to everyone. Trying multiple tools and comparing their usability is also a rich learning experience for students to understand what it takes to create useful and effective web tools. The only issue I have with these tools is the inability to embed them into, but they can all be embedded in other blog services and social networking sites.

1. Wix

Wix not only allows you to create flash-based websites, but widgets as well. The owl on the scrunched-up paper at the top of this post was created using the incredibly easy to use widget maker feature. The owl actually blinks! You can add from Wix’s extensive library of music, animated images, and videos, or incorporate your own into the design. I used a ready-made template and simply changed the image to the owl and played with the font and text a bit. I even embedded a link in the text for my own blog. The entire process took me no longer than 5 minutes.

2. Popplet

With a name like this, you’d never know what this site can do. What it does very well, is help you to create mind maps that are incredibly stylish and easy to use. My example above is simple, but you can see how the visual design comes together to create something that is visually effective. You can use Popplet to create attractive posters and presentations as well. Check the site out to see some excellent examples!

3. SpicyNodes

With a name like this, I’m sure you are interested. This site helps you to create flowing, interactive mind maps that have animated, interactive features like my trial above. They are incredibly professional looking and easy to use. With a number of styles to choose from and the ability to play with the font and add images, this is a slick way to create organized visuals of information and ideas.

If you have suggestions for other tools with superior ease of use and extremely professional design, please share them! And if you have successful stories of how you have used such tools, share them too!

The New York Times Learning Network: An Innovation in Student Engagement

Today I stumbled upon a highly innovative resource called The New York Times Learning Network. In particular, I came across the Student Opinion blog. I am incredibly impressed with this resource and feel that most educational sites can learn a few things from it! There are a few reasons why I believe this to be an exceptional resource:

  1. High quality posts
  2. High audience engagement, interaction, and collaboration
  3. Organized appearance and layout

High quality posts

First of all, the posts are written for junior high and high school students, and contain thoughtful, educational topics of high interest. A major highlight is that the articles are written in a way that respects the intelligence and abilities of teens. Currently, the first three posts are titled, “What hidden talents might you have?”, “How do you relieve stress?”, and “Would you mind if your parents blogged about you?”. These issues are all highly relevant to students, and contain links to additional resources and articles. They provide thought-provoking questions, bring creativity to their subjects, include current issues and events, and can be used in all subject areas. Furthermore, each post is short and to the point, and is very well written.

High audience engagement, interaction, and collaboration

One of the most accurate ways to judge the quality of a site is not the number of hits it receives, but the way in which it encourages audience interaction and elicits quality responses. Judging from the well-written comments under a post titled, “How do you define family?”, I can tell that students are encouraged to be thoughtful and incredibly honest about such a personal topic. In fact, the only other place where I have encountered this number of thoughtful comments posted by young people is on a make-up review site where young women share tips and opinions. (It absolutely amazes me how eloquent a teenager can be about a subject that interests her!) Besides encouraging thoughtful responses from readers, the Learning Network also includes interactive elements including: Daily News Quiz, Word of the Day, 6Q’s About the News, Student Crossword, Test Yourself Questions, Poetry Pairings, and more (full list to the left). There are also lesson plans for teachers. All of these elements provide a variety of ways for students and teachers to interact with the material and each other.

Organized appearance and layout

I am surprised at how much information is packed into the Learning Network site, even though there is plenty of white space, columns for easy reading, and a highly accessible navigation menu at the top and right side of the page. It should be easy for teachers and students to use this site daily. Rarely have I visited a site that is so well-organized and well thought out.

Ideas for use

Here are some ideas for how to use this rich, vast resource with students:

  • Hook students with something curriculum-related
  • Give students a ‘thought break’ half way through the class
  • Encourage discussion about critical and relevant issues in the everyday lives of students
  • Have students respond to an article, comment, or interactive activity on the site
  • Begin research on a topic presented in one of the articles
  • Explore the writing style of the posts and use them to teach students how to write for the web
  • Have students contribute to their own blog about relevant issues

Have you used the New York Times Learning Network resources? How have you used them? Do you have additional suggestions for resources of this quality? How do you assess the quality of a resource?

Tech for Calm: Great Apps for Relaxation

At the end of a rushed, packed work week, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by my never-ending to-do list. When this happens, I like to do one of two things: read a great novel or create some artwork. So this weekend I chose the latter and went in search of some relaxing and artistic apps for my iPhone.

My search reminded me that technology isn’t just about productivity, information-management, or efficiency, but it can also help you feel as if time has slowed for relaxation and renewal. It reminded me that technology can be as connected to our emotions as it is to getting things done. So don’t expect the apps below to be action-packed visceral experiences–I was aiming for relaxation, calm, smiles, easy-to-use, and preferably free. Here’s what I found:

FlowerGarden (free) (iPhone, iPad) – You can grow flowers in several pots from a variety of free and paid seed packages. The flowers grow right before your eyes–some grow completely within a few hours. I believe that they do not die if you forget to water them, they just wilt so I appreciate that this is not one of those games that requires a ton of time and worry. My favourite part is that the flowers wave from side to side when I tilt my phone. It is somehow calming and entertaining at the same time. Lasting impression: Happiness.

Talking Larry the Bird (paid) (iPhone, iPad) – I haven’t tried this app, but the huge number of positive reviews makes me want to! A very cute bird responds to being poked and touched, and will repeat what you say or whistle. It sounds like laugh-out-loud entertainment. Lasting impression: Hillarious.



PlasmaGlobe (free) (iPhone, iPod, iPad) – A plasma sphere that you have probably seen in your high school science class, with a game twist. This one makes cool zapping sounds when you touch it and it’s also a game where you try to zap some small spheres that float by. It’s not difficult–just fun. Lasting impression: Zap!



Swirlcity (free) (iPad only) – This app allows you to draw lines made with particles with your fingers, and the particles attract or repell each other so they move as you draw. It adds an element of unpredictability to your doodles. Lasting impression: Physics and particles.




Irogami (free) (iPad only) – A drawing app in which the lines you draw are endless stacks of origami paper instead of ink lines. It’s simple and different. Lasting impression: Let’s learn to fold origami.


MirrorPaint (free) (iPhone, iPod, iPad) – This app takes me back to the Spirograph from my childhood. It mirrors your strokes and creates geometric Spirograph-like images. You can select the number of mirrors as well as watch the creation of pre-programmed patterns. Lasting impression: Spirograph!



Fingerpaint (free) (iPhone, iPod, iPad) – Unlike other finger-painting apps, this one features paint that has a smeary, smudgy texture. Although it doesn’t act like real paint, it makes me think of the way paint behaves when you use your hands to spread it on the page. Lasting impression: Digital messes are just as fun!



Fluid (free) (iPhone, iPod, iPad) – This app is visually like running your fingers through water and looking at the rocks below through the distortion. It includes calming background music. The only thing missing for me would be the sound of the water when I touch it. This is ultra-simple but calming and fun too. Lasting impression: Calming stream.



Bubble Harp (paid) (iPhone, iPod, iPad) – This incredibly innovative app connects sound to your movements on the screen. The app was originally released as interactive art in galleries and museums. The mixture of sound and visual output is both exciting and calming. It is an incredibly unique experience that can keep me entertained for a long time! Lasting impression: Mind-blowing.



Soundrop (free) (iPhone, iPod, iPad) – This app is a lot of fun and very simple to use. You place sticks underneath a small hole that drops come out of. When the drops hit the sticks, they bounce and make noise, becoming a work of music. You can remove sticks and add more at any time, which magically changes the music. Lasting impression: Tickles my ears.



Beatwave (free) (iPhone, iPod, iPad) – This is a basic step sequencer that you can use to create very pleasant-sounding loops without knowing anything about beats and music. You can get quite complex about it, but even when used simply, it is a fun and relaxing experience.  Lasting impression: Light and fun.

Have you used any of the apps above? What do you think of them? Please share your thoughts and recommendations!