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(This was originally posted on Google+ itself. I’m also keeping it here, for easy reference.)

A friend of mine notes that one of the problems of the current Google+ “real names policy” is that “Google is attempting to deal with (I’m assuming) manufacturing a community of 1-to-1 RL presence-to-online presence” — in particular, he says that while he does have questions about how Google is attempting to do this, he also has a lot of respect for the fact that they are trying to.

I’m not so sure that I do. Partly because I’m not convinced that there’s any value in creating a community of 1-to-1 real-life presence to online presence.

That’s partly because I’m not convinced that there’s any such thing as a 1-to-1 correspondence between real-life presence and real-life presence. I mean, seriously, are you the same person at work as you are when you’re down at the bar with friends? As when you’re having dinner in a nice restaurant with your lover? As when you’re in bed with him or her?

The idea of a 1-to-1 correspondence between real life presence and online presence is based on the idea that there’s a 1-to-1 correspondence between identities (personalities) and physical bodies. That idea is wrong. We all shift identities based on who we’re interacting with and what situation we’re in. That’s part of why we even shift our names based on that:

  • My fiancée calls me “Darling”, “Sweetheart”, “Dear”, “Love”, or “Honey”, according to her whim at the time. (We like variety, and we like to avoid getting too canalized to one particular term of endearment.)
  • My co-workers usually call me Kagan.
  • My friends usually call me Kai.
  • My siblings usually call me Kai, but my brother sometimes calls me “brother” or “bro” — and, truth be told, I like this occasional familiarity.
  • Sales people and waitrons and so on call me “Sir”. And this is not an outlying data point, because I answer to it, and I expect them to call me by this name. We all consider it right and proper.
  • Telemarketers and professional service people (bankers and whatnot) would do well to call me “Mister MacTane”. They often presume that they can call me “Kagan” — but this is a mistake on their part, because they are presuming a level of familiarity which (unlike my brother) they have not earned and do not deserve.

All of these different names, and different reactions to them, are signs that indicate that I enact different identities in different contexts. We all do.

And a social network that tries to straitjacket me into a single identity is doomed to omit huge chunks of who I really am. In so doing, it fails to serve my needs. It makes it harder for me to engage with the network at all… which makes it much more likely that I’ll leave.

I understand that Facebook is very deliberately built to enforce a single-identity model, because (as I’ve posted here before) Mark Zuckerberg actually believes that “[h]aving two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” But Google doesn’t have to subscribe to Zuckerberg’s delusion.

Sadly, I see little hope that they’ll deviate from the “one physical body, one online identity” model that Google+ currently tries to operate under (and can never successfully enforce without causing even more problems).

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

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Only a year ago, I was against infinite scroll. In design meetings, I’d point out the way it breaks various aspects of the scroll bar. (You can’t tell how far through the full data-set you are; dragging the “thumb” down causes it to suddenly change place, etc.)

But now, I almost expect it when I’m scrolling through certain types of web pages. It’s slightly disorienting to me when I bump into the bottom of a page and have to manually click “next” or whatever.

What happened? In a word: New Twitter.

Okay, it’s not really “new” Twitter any more (it was rolled out from September through October of 2010 — less than a year ago, but those 9 months are an eternity in Internet time). But still, that roll-out was the impetus for my change in opinion. Twitter, a site I use every day, changed its UI and started doing infinite scroll. And now that interaction is a part of my daily life, and somewhere along the way, I got used to it. And now I expect it, at least in certain cases.

And it’s because one site changed its interface. And because that one site is one I use many times every day.

Logically speaking, there’s no reason why I should expect, for example, Google’s search results or my Dreamwidth reading page or TechCrunch’s front page to behave like Twitter does. One site’s UI shouldn’t — and doesn’t — have a damn thing to do with any other site. But the things we use frequently shape our habits, and that includes habits of thought.

As a side effect of my having gotten used to Twitter’s infinite scroll, I’ve gotten far less inclined to check the position of the scroll-bar “thumb” to see how far through the page I am… except on the kinds of pages that I expect to not have infinite scroll. For example, an article or story has a natural end, and it just makes sense for a calendar to be paginated.

But blogs? Or search results? Or anything that doesn’t have a natural break-point in it? There’s no reason why these things should require me to find the “load more” link. And there’s really no reason why that link should load stuff in a whole new page. Dynamic pagination with URL parameters like “?skip=40″ was always a kind of awkward idea; it’s just that there didn’t used to be anything better. But now there is.

Right? I mean, that really is the case, isn’t it? I don’t just think so because one of the sites I use every day has retrained the way I think… right?

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

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When should you ask a user “Are you sure you want to do that?” Bear in mind that asking this question when you don’t have to has more than one bad effect:

  1. Obviously, it wastes the user’s time and may even annoy them.
  2. It also contributes to the general problem of “too damned many dialog boxes in computing”. This is subtly but importantly different from the previous point: It trains the user to unthinkingly click the default option in any dialog box, just to keep it from wasting their time.
  3. Finally, it may actually hinder the user’s ability to leave your program. Look at this page by Joel Spolsky, and search for “exit Juno”. A user thought the “Are you sure you want to exit?” dialog meant that the computer was advising her that there were ill effects from doing so.

Okay, that last one seems like sort of an edge case, right? But even the first two items are enough reason to pay attention to when you should — and shouldn’t — ask the user to confirm something.

My proposal: Only ask a user for confirmation when the action was initiated by a single click or keystroke, and it has some kind of bad effects. Yes, this means that any time you ask someone to confirm whether they want to exit your program, and they have already saved all their work, you just wasted their time. This one’s particularly prevalent in the gaming world, I’ve noticed: Even if you’re in between games, and your scores are all saved — meaning the worst possible consequence of exiting the game is that you’ll have to start the application again — most games will show you a “Do you really want to exit Game Name?” dialog anyway.

MS Word gets this exactly right. If your document hasn’t been changed since the last time you saved it, then exiting the program has no ill effects. If you click the little X, or press Alt+F4, MS Word won’t even bother to ask you “Are you sure?”; it’ll just exit with no muss and no fuss. It’s only if you have some unsaved work that you’ll see the “Do you want to save your changes?” dialog. And if your document already has a filename, Word doesn’t bother to prompt you for a new one; you only get the “Save As…” dialog if the document doesn’t yet have a filename.

The program only bothers the user if it has to; if it can figure things out on its own, it does. Just the way it should be.

If you’re writing another application — I don’t care whether it’s whether it’s a web application, Rich Internet Application, desktop application, or smartphone application — please take a hint from the way MS Word handles confirmation questions. Don’t make your app be the software equivalent of “that guy”.

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

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A few nights ago, my Palm Prē got dropped, causing a hairline fracture in the touch-screen. Since it would no longer take any screen input, it was suddenly an even less useful device than usual. I’d been thinking of switching to an Android phone anyway, so I am now the (proud?) owner of a shiny, new Samsung Epic 4G (one of their Galaxy S line).

Getting used to it has occupied a fair bit of my time, but here are a few early impressions. Obviously, some of these are impressions of the Android OS, and others are about the phone’s hardware.

  • The Android calendar will let me set alarms anywhere from 1-99 units in advance of events, where the units can be minutes, hours, days, or even weeks. This actually beats what the old PalmOS used to let me do (and the webOS replaced by a simple drop-down of 5, 10, 15, and 30 minutes, 1 hour, and 1 day — not very useful; sometimes I want 3 hours’ warning).
  • The Epic is a much bigger, chunkier device than the Prē was. It still fits in my pants pocket, but not so smoothly. Not only is it just plain larger than the Prē, it also has less-rounded corners. Also, the protective case I got for the Epic is the rubberized kind, noticeably thicker than the “invisible skin” I had on my Prē.
  • What’s with the battery gauge not giving an actual percent? That seems so… naff. I’ve found a nice app to give me usable information: Modded Logic’s Battery Status Bar.
  • Live Wallpaper is cool as anything. It also seems to eat batteries like a very hungry thing. I’m still trying to decide if it’s worth it or not.
  • Read the rest of this entry »

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

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Long before I learned to program — and long before the World-Wide Web was even a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye — I was introduced to typography by Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas. In his chapter “Variations on a Theme as the Crux of Creativity”, Hofstadter presents a full-page figure that shows 56 different versions of the letter “A”. The 56 fonts he uses show versions of “A” ranging from the spare to the ornate, with every other variation in between.

I’d never realized there was so much variation just in one letter. I was converted into a fontaholic on the spot (though not so completely as my sister, who now designs typefaces professionally for a prestigious font foundry — way to go, sis!). But it’s easy to get too absorbed in the letters.

Like Debussy, who noted that “music is the space between the notes”, I’ve become enamored with the kind of typography that happens between the letters. It’s more important than you think it is, because: It makes your text easier for people to read.

Read the rest of this entry »

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?




Read the rest of this entry »

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

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For backward-compatibility testing, I’ve just installed a few versions of WordPress ranging back to version 2.0. It’s kind of fascinating to see a sort of fast-rewind retrospective of the software. Even just looking at the installation experience, it’s like watching HAL 9000 descend into childish incoherence as Dave Bowman yanks his memory chips.

By the time you get back to WordPress 2.0 and try hitting the blog installation directory in your web browser, all you get is a plain, unstyled page that says:

It doesn’t look like you’ve installed WP yet. Try running install.php.

The funny thing is, that page works just fine. You click the link, it takes you to install.php, and… that’s really just a splash page, which talks about what you’re going to do, and requires that you click on a big link that says “First Step” in order to proceed. So, while it does “work”, it does so at the expense of making the user click the mouse twice, unnecessarily.

In the past 4 years, the WordPress team has made the install process look sleeker and more styled. But I think the real improvement in user experience isn’t the visuals — it’s the removal of those two unnecesary, time-wasting mouse clicks.

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

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The more I play with OpenOffice.org’s Writer, the more confused I am by some of the odd UI/UX warts in it. Here are the ones that are on my mind this morning:

  • When I press F11 to bring up the Style Picker list, why does typing letters not navigate me through that list? Why do I have to use the down-arrow to navigate to “Heading 1″, rather than just typing “he” and then Enter?
  • Once I do hit Enter to apply the style I’ve chosen, why does the picker window remain open even though my cursor focus has returned to the document? This is the worst of both worlds: part of the document I’m working with is obscured by the picker window, and now I have to hit F11 twice in order to apply another style. If the window went away, I could just hit F11 once to bring it up the next time I wanted to apply a style.

    Read the rest of this entry »

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

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We’ll see if anything useful comes of this… I wasn’t too happy with the rep’s cluefulness at 2:55, I must admit.

2:50 PM Connecting to Rescue Gateway: control.app51.logmeinrescue.com…
2:50 PM Connected to Rescue Gateway. A support representative will be with you shortly.
2:51 PM Support session established with Kade.

2:51 PM Kade: Hello.
2:51 PM Kagan MacTane: Hi.
2:51 PM Kade: I understand that you are getting signed out and erase all data screen.
2:51 PM Kade: Am I correct ?
2:51 PM Kagan MacTane: Yes.
2:51 PM Kagan MacTane: And when I press “Just Restart”, the phone restarts and then shows that same “Signed Out” screen again.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

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In his latest entry on Coding Horror, “Windows 7: The Best Vista Service Pack Ever”, Jeff Atwood says:

I want the world to get the hell off Windows XP. A world where people regularly use 9 year old operating systems is not a healthy computing ecosystem.

I find this terribly, painfully wrong. The unintended consequence that comes from that mindset is: “Let’s make all the user’s hard-won experience and knowledge totally useless every few years.”

There are lots of reasons why I didn’t bother upgrading to Windows Vista (if you can call it an “upgrade”), but the one that’s relevant for this article is simple: I already know how to use Windows XP. I know how to use applications with menu bars. I don’t know how to use the Ribbon, and I don’t feel that I need to throw away my existing skills.

Maybe that means I’m not on the leading edge of the tech curve any more. Fine, so be it, but retraining habits and muscle-memory is an annoying, inconvenient task. There are times when the benefits are worth it.

Nobody has made a convincing case that Windows Vista’s blithe discarding of one of the four pillars of GUI design that’s been stable since the early ’80s — windows, icons, menus, and pointers — is one of those cases. In fact, the legions of people who bought computers with Vista pre-installed, and then paid more money just to use XP instead, argues pretty convincingly against such a move.

Mr. Atwood posits a world where people don’t use operating systems for more than, say 7 or 8 years. I’d like to counter with a world where the basic design of your car’s controls and interface changed every 7 years. Instead of a steering wheel, a pair of foot pedals, and a shift lever, suppose that the 2010 line of cars used a tiller lever and a single forward/back foot-slider. Or a joystick and throttle system, like a jet fighter.

Do you suppose the accident rate might spike?

I don’t know of any field besides computing where people think that it’s acceptable to completely redesign user interfaces every couple of years. In the terms of Kathy Sierra’s wonderful post, “Attenuation and the Suck Threshold”, redesigning your interface is a way of forcibly smacking all your users back down under the suck threshold. Instead of being able to continue to use your program, and gradually learn the new features, they have to drop everything they were planning on doing this week, and instead devote their time to re-learning how to use something they already learned before.

This is simply cruel. Please, don’t do it to your users.

There is a kind of fool who says, “This is old, and therefore good.” And another type of fool who says, “This is new, and therefore better!” But what kind of fool does it take to want everything to be new, or renewed, every few years?

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

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Note, Added A Few Days Later: This post does not tell the whole story. This is a wail of anguish, and is not intended to be balanced. For a more balanced look at the Palm Prē, read my later, and broader, evaluation of it as well as this post.


There are a lot of good things about the Prē, but right now, they’re almost all being overshadowed by the catastrophic mistake the webOS developers made with the Memo Pad and Task List. They appear to have been swayed by the general Google-based philosophy that “If you’ve got really good search, you don’t need any internal structure or divisions.”

This idea is completely wrong.

Not allowing me to divide things into categories and subcategories is a painful thing. The excuse that “you can find anything you want, just by searching”, misses the point that I don’t always want to search at all — sometimes I want to browse.

Sometimes, I don’t want to select a single item. Instead, I want to see which items are available. Dividing things into categories is also an exploration of the ways that things are connected to one another. Allowing access only by searching demolishes those interconnections.

The only thing that’s more wrong than denying the user the ability to sort things into categories from the beginning, as Gmail does, is to take away the categories a user has already set up. And that’s what the Memo Pad and Task List in webOS did with my imported data from PalmOS.

I used to have 237 memos, sorted into 11 different categories that relate to various hobbies and interests, projects I’m working on, my girlfriend, and so on. And within each category, memos were automatically sorted alphabetically by title. And I had 50 To-Do items arranged in 11 other categories, these ranging from locations (i.e., “things that can only be done at home”) to types of shopping trip (e.g., “things to pick up at the supermarket” vs. “things to pick up at Fry’s”).

These internal divisions are now completely gone. My 237 memos are now arranged in the order they were created in, which is absolutely useless to me. I can, apparently, assign each memo one of four colors, and I can drag them to reorder them, but I’d still be stuck trying to deal with a list of 237 items, where previously no category had more than about 2 dozen. This is the difference between a manageable list, and one that is completely unmanageable.

(As you might guess, I also had a bunch of categories in my Date Book — only 10, as it turns out. But categories aren’t quite as indispensable there, because a calendar app has a natural way of organizing data that’s more primary. Months and weeks even subdivide time for you automatically. So while I sorely miss the categories in my Date Book, their lack isn’t a complete, crippling, deal-breaker.)

To add to the difficulty of a 237-item list, webOS doesn’t seem to have scrollbars. The content will scroll just fine, but there’s nothing to indicate where you are in the list. Are you right at the top? Halfway through? There is no way to know. There is also no way to go quickly or easily from one end to the other; you have to laboriously traverse all the territory in between.

Confronted with such a nightmare, my first thought is, “What if I just throw away all my old memos and start fresh?” Admittedly, there is some cruft in there. (In fact, I do occasionally archive stale memos to my computer’s hard drive and then delete them. It could be worse; it’s not like I’ve kept everything.)

The mere fact that I’m considering nuking all my old data, just because the new system can’t handle it, is a tragedy of poor software design and backward incompatibility. But honestly, even that wouldn’t really help:

The very nature of the new memo pad means that it cannot handle very many memos before it becomes unwieldy. With no scroll bar and no way to filter the view, the user is forced to confront all of the information that’s present, instead of having any way of interacting with a reasonable subset of it.

Once there are more than, say, three or four dozen memos in the new memo-pad system, it will be unusable again.

And this means I’m going to have to find a new way to organize my stuff. My notes. My thoughts. My ways of remembering stuff when I’m on the go.

Maybe Palm will eventually put categories back in. I dearly hope so, because their lack is a calamity for me. But by the time they do such a thing, I’ll probably have found some completely new way to keep myself organized.

I am very upset right now. And this has all just been about one particular problem; it’s not like the Prē doesn’t have some other flaws. (The lack of a D-pad is pretty annoying.)

It has some nice features, and I really ought to write about them at some point, just for balance. But right now, confronting the complete breakdown of my organizational system, it’s hard for me to see any of the good stuff that lies beyond.

Edited to Add: It seems the To-Do List or Task List app actually does have a feature that effectively allows a single-level category grouping. It’s just somewhat easy to overlook at first. The Calendar will color-code items based on their source — for example, all items derived from Google Calendar might be blue, while ones from MS Exchange might be red. I think this is silly; I’d rather have, for example, parties in red, work tasks in blue, social appointments in green, and what-have-you.

Right now, all my items are green, indicating that they all came from the same source. I really hope later ones don’t pick up some other color; I’d rather have no categorization than color-coding that doesn’t match my thoughts and that I can’t turn off.

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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