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Apparently tomorrow will be the “National Day of Unplugging”, when people who are ready to “take the unplug challenge” will obey the call to “put down your cell phone, sign out of email, stop your Facebook and Twitter updates”. But this isn’t just some kind of stunt or willpower exercise; there’s a point to it. Unplugging is supposed to help people “reclaim time, slow down their lives and reconnect with friends, family, the community and themselves.”

Uh, what?

Let me get this straight: Not posting any updates on Facebook, and not checking my friends and family’s Facebook updates, is supposed to help me connect with them? Turning off my cell phone, and refusing to send or check my email is supposed to bring me more into connection with other people?

What in the world do this event’s organizers think the rest of us are doing with Facebook, with email, and with cell phones?

The organizers are a group called the Sabbath Manifesto, and they espouse ten principles. The first two are “avoid technology” and “connect with loved ones”, respectively.

How the hell am I supposed to connect with my loved ones without using technology? Fewer than 10% of my friends, and absolutely none of my family, live within walking distance of me. (And I’m a fast and powerful distance-walker.) If I drive down the Peninsula, or take CalTrain to go see a friend, that’s using technology. If I quit using technology, I’d have to give up at least 90% of my social circle.

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Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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Once upon a time, Netscape invented the <blink> tag. And people saw the <blink> tag, and put it on their web pages, and thought it was good. And the rest of us saw the <blink> tags on those pages, and screamed, “No, you morons, it is bad! It distracteth the user mightily, for lo, our eyes are built to take especial note of motion and changes in light, for they might signal the approach of predators.”

And so, in the fullness of time, most people learned to never, ever use the <blink> tag. And that was good, for a while. But more recently, people have started putting new — and even worse — moving doo-dads on their sites: Animated Twitter feeds.

I’m talking about the kind of feeds that refresh or scroll every five seconds (or sometimes more frequently). You can see them all across the web. Here are just a few examples:

  • Any comments page on Whedonesque (Joss Whedon’s site). Try to read the text, and your gaze gets pulled over to the constantly-updating “Twitteresque” box on the right.
  • Any article on WikiHow. You have to scroll down one screen before the “Recent Changes” box becomes visible on the right — but that just means the problem isn’t apparent to a cursory, design-level glance; it only becomes obvious when you try to actually use the site for its intended purpose, by reading the content that’s published on it.
  • Even Webmonkey has gotten in on the action. Again, you need to scroll down a screen (unless your browser is way taller than mine), but the “Recent Articles” box will try to grab your attention as soon as you read past the screenshot in the main article text.
  • Like Webmonkey, you’d think TechCrunch would know better than to do this. Admittedly, they do put their “PostUp Beta World’s Best Tweeters” box further down the page, but their articles are longer, too.

Why would someone put something on their web page that effectively says, “Hey, don’t waste your time reading my content! Go look at my Twitter feed instead! Or even at some total stranger’s Twitter feed!” I’m honestly mystified. (That’s why my own Twitter-feed widget, Hummingbird, does not and never will have any kind of auto-scroll feature.)

But what mystifies me even more is: Why would people who (I presume) would sneer in disgust at the very idea of putting a <blink> tag on one of their pages — even for just one or two words — then turn around and put a much larger, more annoying motion distraction on every page in their site?

The fact that it uses AJAX and a Web 2.0, RESTful API doesn’t make a paragraph-sized chunk of never-ending motion any less of a design and usability nightmare. And this is not exactly a new concept: the W3C advised against constant motion back in 1999.

At that, they were Johnny-come-latelies compared to Jakob Nielsen, who called out “constantly running animations” as far back as 1996. In other words: The days of Netscape Navigator version 2.0x called. They have some usability advice for you… that you apparently still haven’t learned yet.

It can’t be that hard to figure out… can it?

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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It’s awfully convenient for Google that their famed corporate motto, “Don’t be evil”, doesn’t actually specify or define what counts as “evil”. And without any definition, they’re pretty much free to do anything they want, and just declare it not-evil.

Now, some of the things they’ve done have just been misguided. For example, I really, honestly believe that when they sniffed people’s unencrypted wifi traffic while doing Street View mapping drives, they weren’t being purposefully malicious, just absent-mindedly misguided. (I also have trouble getting too upset about sniffing unencrypted wifi signals — yeah, it’s kind of bad, but if the people who owned those networks really wanted privacy, would it have been that hard to turn on WPA?)

And then there was the bit where they auto-subscribed everyone with a Gmail account to Google Buzz — which, by default, made huge amounts of information public that shouldn’t have been. This was a really massive mistake, but given the way Google backpedaled from it, I still believe that they were just misguided and didn’t think things through at all, rather than actively wanting to cause harm.

But when Google Checkout tried to impose a “no adult content” rule on Dreamwidth? That’s a lot greyer. In essence, what Google did was tell an organization devoted to enabling free speech that it had to muzzle its users.

Google has the right to choose who it wants to do business with, based on whatever criteria it wants. But just because their choice is legal doesn’t make it “non-evil”. It’s not clear just exactly what “adult content” would have included, but there’s a strong likelihood that it would have included things like:

  • safer-sex information, including family planning, contraception, and how to use condoms properly;
  • discussion of rape, including rape survivor groups;
  • promotion of equal rights for sexual minorities

Keeping information like that off the Internet? Is not helping the world. Suppressing that kind of information harms the world, and I’d qualify it as a straight-up evil act.

It’s possible, though, that they only mean “actual pornography” (however you define that). As much as I personally may like both pornography itself, and the right to disseminate and receive it, I have to admit that simply choosing not to do business with a company that helps people publish it is not, in itself, evil.

So what about entering into secret back-room agreements to try to do an end-run around Net Neutrality and everything it stands for? And then promulgating a legislative framework proposal for Internet governance that would turn the principle of Net Neutrality into a defanged, loophole-ridden and corporation-appeasing shadow of its former self — while pretending, on the surface, to support it?

In effect, this means a full-scale attack on the core of a free Internet. This is something that reminds me of when Microsoft was going to try to “de-commoditize [the] protocols” that formed the basis for the Internet and World Wide Web, back in the first Halloween memo.

If there is a way in which this isn’t evil, can someone please explain it to me? Because it sure looks evil to me.

In the meantime, there’s one tiny problem with trying to boycott Google: They make some damned useful products. Still, if you want to start reducing your reliance on Google, here are some pointers that may help.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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Just under a month ago, an iPhone developer from Australia — one who’s previously defended Apple’s approval process — had his own app suddenly dis-approved by Apple. According to his blog post about the sudden revocation of approval, “I had convinced my company to take a gamble and make some apps for Apple’s Store. Tennis Stats had been a great success and we wanted to get on the iPad train with My Frame. Things were going well, new features were being planned money, real money was being invested. Then Apple pulled the pin”.

I could say all sorts of things about schadenfreude, or how the developer — who goes by the nom de plume “Shifty Jelly” — should have seen this coming. But the guy’s already having a bad enough month, and there are broader issues to examine. Among them the thought raised by commenter Erik K. Veland:

Remember when Apple cracked down on Podcast downloaders? It was because they themselves were introducing this very feature in iTunes.

[I] would surmise [that] Apple is now bringing “widgets” to their dashboard in the near future, and that they are pre-empting any apps conflicting with the “duplicate functionality” clause. [historical links, added by Kai]

Once you’ve considered Apple’s penchant for banning apps that compete with features that are built in to the OS, you’ve got to consider how this compares against other companies’ competitive practices.

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Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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One of the biggest problems with Flash isn’t Flash itself. It’s Flash designers. More particularly, it’s Flash designers’ basic failure to understand why certain UI elements are the way they are. This leads to one of the most common Flash designer diseases: The drive to reinvent basic UI elements. Poorly.

Page Transitions

When a user clicks a link, they’re sending a specific message with a specific intent. That intent is “show me the information I’m interested in”. It’s not “show me a nifty animation effect that takes another 5 seconds out of my busy schedule”.

Users (rightly) consider page transitions to be the space in between what they’re actually interested in. Don’t force them to pay even more attention to them.

Reinventing Scroll Bars

This error is so common, and people screw it up so badly, that I’ve already written an entire post about it. However, I’d be remiss in not listing it here, as well.

Auto-Playing Sound

Speaking of things I’ve written about before… people have been complaining about auto-playing sound since Netscape Navigator first gave us the ability to include such an abomination, way back around 1994. Eleven years later, I listed auto-playing music as a “no-brainer”, in the sense that excluding it from your site should be a no-brainer decision.

Some people will apparently never learn.

Assuming Everyone Has Enormous Bandwidth

Yes, broadband is much more common in the United States now than it used to be. That means that people are less ready to wait a long time for your page to load, not more. And a designer, developer, or other professional who understands how HTML, CSS, and JavaScript work can arrange things so that at least part of the page (or AJAXified web app, or whatever) is usable when only part of the code has arrived at the user’s browser.

If it’s possible to provide the user with something more useful than a “Loading…” indicator before all the code has arrived, then why do Flash developers never actually do so? (This is a real, not rhetorical, questions, and an open invitation for Flash designers and developers to answer it.)

Here’s Why So Many People Disparage Flash “Designers”

For a trifecta of awfulness, check out the site for Alembic, a bar in San Francisco. On my fiber-optic, 6 Mbit connection, it takes nearly 10 seconds just for the site’s intro to load. Then, once the little rocks glass is full of liquor, the page blasts some sound at me — sound that doesn’t even convey any information. (Believe it or not, I already know what a crowded bar sounds like.)

Then there are the slow transitions from sub-page to sub-page. All told, it took me a ridiculous amount of time just to find out what their hours were. But for a true dose of awfulness, try clicking on “Menus”. Then try clicking on one of the other main menu items. The site’s “background” doesn’t even realize that there’s still a “window” open in front of it… even though both the “background” and the “popup” are just visual elements of the same Flash object!

The real kicker comes when you try clicking on one of the menu pages. Rolling over zooms them a bit, but clicking? Launches a PDF document! A separate one for each page! That zoom effect was apparently just a red herring, and trying to get the place’s full menu would require seven separate PDF downloads.

I suppose they could, somehow, have disrespected their users a little more. At least the page doesn’t literally throw a drink in the user’s face. Just figuratively.

Please, if you’re designing your sites in Flash, don’t make them like this. Don’t be the web equivalent of “that guy”.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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Think about some of the great Internet memes: (Warning: Most of these links have auto-playing sound.) All Your Base Are Belong to Us. The Viking Kittens, and Longcat (who is looooong). The Badger Badger Badger song. “Don’t tase me, bro!”, “I kiss you!”, and “Leeeeeeeroy… Jenkins!!!” Why do we get “Internet memes”, but not “radio memes” or “printing press memes” or anything else like them?

Let’s try a biological analogy: Imagine you had some microorganism that could only survive in a Petri dish full of agar solution, between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit (roughly 15 to 25 degrees Celsius). Make it too hot or too cold, and this thing will die. Change its food supply to some other, less plentiful, sugar source, and it can’t continue to reproduce.

Wouldn’t this organism be destined to die out?

In the real world, sure. But it might be able to thrive in a specially engineered, very gentle environment, like a climate-controlled lab.

The Internet is just such an environment, but for data and memes instead of living creatures. It’s an environment designed explicitly to propagate information — with no regard to what kind of information it is.

When we say something is “an Internet meme”, what we really mean is “a meme that’s too unfit to survive anywhere else”. Some memes — like democracy, or the works of Shakespeare, or fashion trends or the latest commercial jingle or catch-phrase — can survive and thrive outside the Internet, but some could never have taken off without the Internet making it easy for them.

They’re like hothouse flowers. Calling something “an Internet meme” is effectively calling it “an idea that could only thrive in the Internet’s no-fail sandbox”. It’s not a compliment to the meme at all.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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Here are a few things that I consider to be basic requirements for functionality in a smartphone, along with notes on how my Palm Prē fails to deliver:

When I press the power switch, the phone should turn on.
(Assuming the battery is charged, of course. And I’m willing to accept that a modern smartphone needs to be charged every night. No problem there.) But given that, when I press the “on” switch, I should see the screen light up within, say, one second. It should not take ten seconds. By the time ten seconds go by, I’ll assume that I must not have pressed the power switch hard enough, and I’ll try pressing it a second time.



Did you know that the Palm Prē stores power-switch presses in its input buffer? That means that when the phone finally does get around to waking up, it processes the first impulse, lights up the screen… and then immediately blanks it again as it processes the second impulse. This is extremely frustrating.
When the screen lights up and shows me an “unlock” icon, it should actually let me unlock the unit.
I’m not complaining about the fact that it shows me that icon. I recognize that it’s there to conserve my battery life by making me prove that I’m a human being, and not an inanimate object that jostled the phone in a crowded purse or backpack. I’m fine with that.



What I’m not fine with is having to try three-to-five times to get the icon to recognize my input. And it’s not like the Prē stores this stimulus in its input buffer, so if I just wait for it to catch up… it blanks out the screen and I have to try again.

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Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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If you’re going to reinvent the wheel, you should at least make sure your new version is somehow better than the previous kind. Reimplementing standard UI and OS widgets is one of the most common ways developers reinvent the wheel these days — it started with Flash developers building their own controls, and has now spread to Adobe AIR and Silverlight.

It might be a welcome trend, if the replacement widgets people were building had more functionality than the OS-native ones that are available for free in any other context. But usually, the widgets I see in these frameworks have less than half the functionality of the things they try to replace. I’m going to pick on scroll bars for now, because I’ve seen them horribly mangled too many times.

To start with one aspect of scroll bars that we often take for granted: Can you guess which of these text boxes contains more text?




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Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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The following is a copy of what I just posted on the Palm Prē forums:

I woke up this morning to find that the webOS 1.2 upgrade had been pushed to my Prē automatically. I was happy, until the reboot finished and I saw:

Signed Out

You are no longer signed in to your Palm Profile on this phone.

If you plan to use this phone again, you can leave the files on your USB drive intact.

If you’re done using this phone, you can erase all your data on the phone and return to its factory default.

[Just Restart]
[Erase All Data]

The [things in brackets] represent buttons.

Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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So, Palm was recently caught spying on its users. Major kudos, by the way, to Joey Hess, who initially broke this story. For those who haven’t kept up, various other news outlets and blogs have also been reporting on it.

Palm’s response to this problem is a single paragraph of corporate PR-speak:

Palm takes privacy very seriously, and offers users ways to turn data collecting services on and off. Our privacy policy is like many policies in the industry and includes very detailed language about potential scenarios in which we might use a customer’s information, all toward a goal of offering a great user experience. For instance, when location based services are used, we collect their information to give them relevant local results in Google Maps. We appreciate the trust that users give us with their information, and have no intention to violate that trust.

The problems with this statement are:

  1. There is no indication of how to turn off this particular piece of data collection. Not on Palm’s web site, not in the user manual that came with the Prē, and not in the Prē’s user interface.
  2. For all the “detailed language” in Palm’s privacy policy, there is no slightest indication — anywhere — that they collect information about what applications the user runs.

It’s particularly interesting to look at the “On-Device Services” part of the privacy policy: It mentions types of data that will be collected “If you use services we provide” (emphasis added). For example, they say, “When you use a remote diagnostics or software update service, we will collect information related to your device (including serial number, diagnostic information, crash logs, or application configurations)”. This is the only mention of collection data about a user’s applications, and it clearly starts with “when you use a diagnostic service”.

It doesn’t say “once per day, no matter what”.

Other items under “On-Device Services” start with “When you use a back-up and restore service…” and “When you use location based services”.

All of this suggests that users have some sort of control over what gets sent and when. The Palm Prē’s “Location Services” preferences item has a control labeled “Background Data Collection”, with the caption: “Allows Google to automatically collect anonymous location data to improve the quality of location services.” (This is after other controls labeled “Auto Locate”, “Use GPS”, as shown at right. If you turn on Auto Locate, you also get a control labeled “Geotag Photos”.)

It doesn’t say that Google (or anyone else) will collect data on what apps a user is running. And it strongly implies that this data will only be collected when I actually run an app that uses location services — for example, Google Maps, or OpenTable (which wants to know where I am so it can try to find nearby restaurants).

And it blatantly claims that if I turn off that switch, it won’t send my data off to big corporations any more.

So far, I’ve verified a few things:

  1. The application data log includes installs, uninstalls, and launch and close times for all apps, not just Palm’s official ones. Homebrew and third-party apps are included.
  2. Flipping the Background Data Collection switch does not turn off the contextupload process that’s responsible for sending the information to Palm’s servers.
  3. Nor does it stop logging application launch and close times. I’ll repeat that: My Prē is still logging application launch and close times into /var/context/contextfile, even though I have Background Data Collection turned off.

We in the technology business have a technical term for what Palm is doing when it claims that it “offers users ways to turn data collecting services on and off” in the context of this particular data. That term is: lying. Palm is lying to us, pure and simple.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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I found an interesting UI problem today, on a site that I will be kind enough not to actually link to. Instead, I’ll just reproduce the general concept and problem here:



The links all just link straight to the nav bar itself, so if you scroll your browser view so that the list isn’t right at the top, you’ll be able to tell when you’ve clicked one of the links. See what happens?

You roll over one of the list items, and you get an immediate visual reaction: not only does the background change color, but the mouse cursor even becomes a pointer. It’s not just suggesting that your cursor is over a clickable item; it’s flat-out asserting that to be the case.

And it’s lying.

The clickable area is nothing but the text in the very center of the nav bar item, and the only feedback you’ll get when you hover over that is the destination URL appearing in your browser’s status bar — if you have that turned on; many browsers leave the status bar off by default.

I’m fairly sure the people at Anonycorp didn’t mean to do this. I think it was just an ill-considered (and poorly QA-ed!) mistake in choosing which CSS rules to apply on which elements. But it’s a horrible, cruel UI trick to play on your visitors and users. Don’t do this.

Originally published at Coyote Tracks. You can comment here or there.

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