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Nearly a Source Data Diagram

Many paper charts include a Source Data Diagram (SDD). This is small inset displaying the charted area which indicates something about the origins of the information used to compile the chart. There can be some important stuff here.

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This SDD shows that some of the soundings come from a lead line survey in 1832. In other words... and think about this carefully ... a hundred and eighty years ago somebody stood on deck with length of hemp rope with knots or marks on it and a heavy weight at the end. From the numbers he shouted out you are going to decide if there is enough water to avoid grounding your boat. To be fair most commonly used waterways are much more recently (and accurately) surveyed than this but even so it can be worth checking. The chart may be completely up to date but the original survey could have been a long time ago.

Of course with your shiny electronic charting system you may think that this sort of consideration is not an issue any more. Sadly this is not true. Most electronic charts are created from paper charts and this will probably be the case for a while. Now clearly the underlying accuracy of the survey data is a concern. The designers of S57 had a think about this and came up with the notion of a ‘Category of zone of confidence in data’. This is chart meta-data - data about the data. Areas are defined and for each area the quality of the underlying survey data, the Zone of Confidence (ZOC) is classified as one of:

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This looks quite promising. Instead of telling me something about where the data came from they are going to tell me directly just how accurate it is.

These meta data objects are designed to be used at the compilation scale of the chart however this does not seem quite right to us. The information is really part of an overview of the chart, a summary, so in Nuno we are introducing an overview window. This displays the Zone of Confidence areas and has some other nice uses too.

A second potentially useful bit of information for the overview comes from 'Nautical publication information' objects. This is more meta data which is a reference to a specific paragraph from a nautical publication. Quite usefully this is often a note about the paper chart which was used to create the electronic cell and in particular the source date of the paper chart.

So in Nuno we have put this information together into a nice little inset window which can be easily displayed or dismissed. It gives you a handy overview of the main chart view and its surrounding area. It also supports panning and zooming which can be a neat way to move the view around larger areas. 

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You can click on the little button I have circled in red to make the overview disappear. Technically this is called an affordance (just in case you wanted to know).

Sad to say there is small hiccup in this scheme and this is because of another value for Zone of Confidence which does not appear in the table above. The value is U and this means ‘data not assessed’. Which is to say that the creators of the electronic chart cells have chosen not to specify anything about the quality of the chart data. To my mind it is a bit unfortunate that this value even exists however it gets worse because for the most part all the NOAA data is classified as U. A few newer cells use B but most of them are just U.

I was recently at an IHO meeting to discuss S-100 which is the chart standard currently being designed to replace S-57. One topic was a consideration of ways to display the S-100 equivalent of this sort of data quality value. There was, as usual, much discussion on this, but to my amusement nobody pointed out that unless the chart producers actually encode this information then it does not really matter how it should be displayed. S-100 is a long way off but for now, please NOAA, could you start adding more zone of confidence information? It is really quite important information. The Nuno overview is useful in its own right and it displays the date of the source chart for each area. It also displays the data confidence level so if more of this were actually in the cells then we would really have an electronic equivalent of an SDD. Come on NOAA – we are all ready for you.

The Nuno Software License

In a previous blog I was encouraging people to pay attention to what the software license actually meant. I shall now attempt to take my own medicine by describing the Nuno license sufficiently succinctly that you won’t doze off or lose the will to live before you get to the end.

On the way I may even convince you that this is a really good deal with no subtle clauses that are going to disappoint you.

Here is the small print – in headlines.

Summary

For an initial outlay of $100 you can have a license for a state of the art navigation system and a one year subscription to full support and update services. After a year you can choose to renew your subscription for a further $50.

If you want to know more; keep reading.

How to buy Nuno

On the Nuno website you create an account and pay for Nuno with your credit card. This gets you a license to use Nuno and a subscription for a year.

How to get Nuno and Install it

You may have already downloaded Nuno to try it out before you bought it. If not you can download it now. This will be the very latest version. As soon as Nuno starts up on your computer it will ask you for your account logon credentials. This is the same email address and password you used to create your account. Nuno will use these to activate over the Internet. Once activated Nuno is fully functional.

You can have Nuno installed and activated on two computers at the same time. This is so that you can have one PC for route planning and another, maybe a laptop, for use at sea.

You are now up and running with the latest version of Nuno and a complete set of up to date charts from NOAA.

During the next year

The subscription is valid for a year and entitles you to the following:

· You will be able to use our chart updating service. This is basically just one click to update all your NOAA charts.

· You will be notified of any updates to Nuno.

· Occasionally we find bugs or problems in the code. More often we want to roll out a bunch of usability and implementation improvements. You will be able to download, install and use the new version of Nuno with these fixes and improvements.

· In the next year we are planning to add several new features including Active Captain Integration, AIS support, S63 (commercial, encrypted ENC), auto-helm and a rolling road (whatever that is). You will be able to download, install and use the new versions of Nuno with these new features.

· If you encounter any problems or have any issues you will be able to contact us directly and probably have your question answered by one of the programming team.

After a year

The subscription expires in a year.

At the end of the year we will invite you to renew your subscription. This will cost just $50. If you renew your subscription then you can carry on with all the good things I have just described for another year.

Expired subscription

You can still use Nuno. It is yours to keep and use whenever you want.

If you ever lose your copy of Nuno you will be able to log into your account and download a fresh copy.

You can still update your charts but not via the update service. You will need to download updates directly from NOAA and then install them manually.

You will not be able to upgrade Nuno. Activation will be frozen at the latest version on the date that your subscription expired.

“Easy to use”. What does that REALLY mean?

When we started writing Nuno, we really wanted to make it simple and easy to use. That's easy to say — but not as easy to do.

Most of the software products we write at CherSoft are large systems. These products are used every day by trained professionals, who can afford to spend a week learning how to use the product, if it means they can do their job much more efficiently later. For Nuno, we've been trying hard to adjust our mindset. Our customers are mostly not trained professional navigators, they won't be using the software every day, and we hope they are more interested in enjoying a weekend away on their boat than they are in fiddling with navigation software.

For Nuno, we think “easy to use” means

  • People should be able to put the software onto their computer easily to try it out.
  • People should be able to see quickly whether Nuno suits their needs
  • People should be able to learn how to use Nuno even if they are not confident with computers. They shouldn't need to read manuals or search online.
  • People shouldn't be able to break anything or get confused about what they have done with it
  • The Nuno experience should be all about sailing a boat or planning a trip, not about struggling with software

As we started out, we had a really clear idea of what we don't like in the software we use in our daily lives. We don't like menus. We don't like dialog boxes. We don't like having to remember where things are or what they do. We don't like enormous seas of confusing options and settings.

As we went along, we quickly discovered that it's not easy to write simple software. Now we've finished, I think we've done a reasonable job of it, and I've put together this list of the principles we leaned on to guide us.

Ubiquitous direct manipulation

If I don't like something, I want to be able to grab it and change it. I don't want to go hunting in a menu for an option.

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In Nuno Navigator, to change the chart orientation you grab the North arrow and drag it round.

Minimal mouse mileage

Once I'm familiar with a particular program, hiking my mouse around just slows me down. If I have to refocus my attention constantly and move my mouse away from what I'm working on, I'm likely to keep forgetting what I was trying to do in the first place.

The “ubiquitous direct manipulation” I mentioned earlier is good for maintaining focus. If I decide I want to change the name of a point, my mouse is probably near the point name already, so it's easy to mouse to the point name and edit it there on the chart.

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I'm also a big fan of “Context Menus”, where each item has its own mini menu. If I've drawn a point overlay on the chart, and I want to change the symbol shown on the chart, I click on the point with my right mouse button and select a new symbol from the list. I don't have to move my mouse far and I don't have to wade through lots of menus filled with irrelevant options. The only options in the menu are the ones that make sense for a point — that's why it's called a context menu!

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Everything is reversible

Right from the beginning we knew we needed good support for Undoing things. We want everyone to be able to play about with Nuno in the confidence that whatever they do, if it doesn't work they can just hit Undo straight away.

Like newer versions of Microsoft Office, our Undo / Redo menus give you a drop down list showing what you've done, so it's easy to understand what you did and what you are undoing.

Be helpful

We use "hover tips" to show you how you can interact with something.

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Don't make people feel stupid

Have you ever gone to make something special for dinner, and discovered you don't have the right ingredients? Or come back from the hardware store with a new drill, only to find out you don't have any drill bits? Have you ever typed your credit card number into a website, only to be told you are wrong, and credit card numbers can't have spaces in? Did you forget where you saved a document?

One of the reasons I like working in software is that we can often fix problems like these. Some of the time we can just fix the problem automatically and you'll never know about it. For example, if we need your credit card number without spaces in it, we can just make the software remove the spaces. When we want to talk to your GPS we auto-configure it by ourselves instead of asking you to tell us the settings. Some of the time we need some help from you, but usually we can just ask you a couple of questions and then let you get straight back to what you were doing. We try not to stop you and put up a big sign saying “No! Wrong!”.

The results

We're fairly pleased with how Nuno turned out, but we're sure we could make things better. What do you think? Do you find Nuno easy to use? Has Nuno ever left you feeling stupid or wondering what happened? Let us know about your experiences in the comments.

The Nuno Navigator Blog

My company, CherSoft, has just launched a new product called Nuno Navigator. This is a whole new direction for us. Sure we have written lots of marine software before but this time it is different, this time we are trying to sell directly to our end users. Previously, by which I mean the last 15 years, we have mostly just operated business to business. We wrote the software and someone else would sell it. Sometimes they would use their own badge and branding and sell it as their own. This is quite normal, much of the software you use is not written by the company on the box. One particular company even attended a lavish ceremony and dinner to accept an industry award for our software. We only found out about this much later.

Working as a back office company has quite suited us for quite a while. It meant that we could get on with writing software which is what we like best. It meant that we didn’t have to get too involved with things like sales and marketing which was fine too because we didn’t really like that too much anyhow. Of course there was a down side. We spent a fair bit of time worrying about contracts and specifications. We spent far too much time quibbling about how to write the software or what it should do or what it should look like. So all the time there has been that temptation to strike out on our own and actually create a software application start to finish that we can call our own.

Anyhow, we’ve decided to step out of the shadows and face the harsh and unforgiving glare of end users directly. This is a bit daunting but hopefully we are not completely unprepared. The code is pretty solid, we know a fair bit about marine navigation and we have cobbled together a website. Well ok, I know there is a bit more to it and that is what this blog is about. I’d love to say it will be a ‘how to’ on launching a new software product or a better navigation system but the reality is that we’ve still got a lot to learn and a lot to find out. So instead it is going to be ‘stuff’ with a vague theme of things associated with software and navigation. I guess it is also going to be about facing the great and wonderful public directly and probably about some of the things that happen to us along the way.

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