Business Letters and Web Site Design

May 19, 2011

I’ve been trying to find a simple explanation of effective user interface design for web sites. I think this captures the tone:

You put your left foot in / You put your left foot out

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Hated the Book. Loved the Kindle

April 25, 2011

From the “You Can’t Please all of the People all of the Time” department:

The book in question is the Booker Award-winning The Sea, by John Banville.

Most of the 142 customer reviews on Amazon are positive, but those who dislike the book are vocal. Among the negative headlines:

  • Dull as toothpaste
  • This won an award?
  • Exquisite languor
  • eh?
  • Most boring book I have ever tried to read
  • Conned by Booker Prize

From the “Loved the Book. Hated the Kindle” department:

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Think Good Thoughts About Adobe Acrobat

February 11, 2011

(The title of this post is inspired by one of my favorite books of cartoons by one of my favorite New Yorker cartoonists, George Booth: Think Good Thoughts About a Pussycat.)

I’ve been using Adobe’s Acrobat technology forever, and I’m a huge fan of the underlying technology. The user-facing software, however, stinks.

It’s the same problem that you find in Microsoft Word, or in web portals: when you try to be all things to all people you end up being valuable to none.

This is now a big intractable problem for the folks at Adobe and at Microsoft and at Yahoo. The future of software is dedicated apps, just as the future of publishing is targeted, contextualized content. The days of all-purpose software are evolving to a close.

Right now I’m trying to scan a nasty IRS income tax notice into Acrobat X (pronounced “Ten”). The #1 reported feature of Acrobat X is its new, simplified user interface. I always have trouble when engineers decide to simplify interfaces. One person’s simplification in another person’s leap into the obscure.

I’m trying to use Acrobat “Actions” to scan. Actions simplify the interface by combining several steps into a single action. Good idea! But there’s no preprogrammed action for scanning. There are actions for several things I’ll never do, so I decide to create a scanning action. Of course the Action interface is relatively complex. AND I can’t find even the menu item for scanning as it’s now buried deeply under the simplified UI.

Oh well. There are simple and free third-party tools to achieve the same goal. Adobe is a great company with great technology and some powerful but tough-to-learn software. Which third parties greatly appreciate.

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If you can type, you can make movies…

December 5, 2010

Part of why the glass is more than half-full at The Future of Publishing: Xtranormal. If you can type, you can make movies…a very nifty site. I was going to make you a nice movie to prove it, but one runs into payment demands very quickly:

  1. The default actors and set for any Showpak (i.e. those that come with the starting scene) are free.
  2. You may use whatever actors, sets, and sounds you like and preview with them, for free.
  3. If you use premium (payable) actors or sets, you will see the points widget above the preview to indicate that they cost money.
  4. To publish and share your creations, you will need to pay for the premium actors & sets that you are using, or switch to free ones.
  5. You can buy actors and sets using Xtranormal Points, our new virtual currency, by clicking the blue ‘Buy more points’ button, or by publishing your movie.
  6. Points are available in value bundles of various sizes according to your needs.
  7. Buy a points bundle with a credit card, and then use the points to pay for your assets and publish your movie.

So instead I’ll show you someone else’s movie called, So You Want to Write a Novel (which I can’t find on Xtranormal, as there’s not a search feature. Google points of course to the YouTube version).

Voice of Reason: “You do realize it takes years of honing your craft before you’ll be ready to produce a publishable book? And that’s assuming you’ve spent the last twenty years reading hundreds of novels.”

Hopeful Writer: “I’ve been living my life. Not wasting my time reading. What do you think I am? Some kind of dork?”

The same Google search points also to a popular guidebook on this topic, by Lou Stanek, PhD.

UPDATE: January 10, 2011, A long-winded entry on eBooks, showing off another format, and the ability to ruin an animation through failure to edit:

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When Bad Institutional Websites Happen to Good People

November 10, 2010

In Vancouver the public transit is operated by Translink. There are lots of good things to say about Translink. The buses are clean and fairly punctual and the drivers are generally friendly and helpful, sometimes exceptionally so. The routes are well-planned and the service frequent. The SkyTrains are a marvel of efficiency and comfort. The train service to the airport, launched during this year’s Vancouver Winter Olympics works brilliantly. It takes you to the airport in record time and the price is a bargain.

Translink’s website sucks.

Of course “sucks” is relative. It doesn’t suck as bad as many other public transportation websites. And it does some things well. But it sucks in two important categories:

1. Passwords.

Unlike nearly every other website in the universe, your password for Translink must include not just letters, not just letters and numbers, but “must contain a minimum of 8 characters, at least 1 non alpha numeric character, and at least 1 numeric character.”

Then you must enter a Google reCAPTCHA. I’ve written about these sometimes-nifty check-if-you’re-human utilities before. More recently I’ve been collecting some crazy samples of inscrutable reCAPTCHAs. Here are a few from my collection, blended into a single image:

recaptchas

My reCAPTCHA Collection

An outcome of Translink’s registration process is that it took me about 20 minutes last week to register, and so I was 20 minutes late for the launch of Daniel Francis’s new book. Yes, if I’d just read the fine print I’d have registered more quickly. But, like you, I’ve now registered for hundreds of sites, I no longer read the fine print, and by default register with an alpha-numeric password, which nearly always works. I was left wondering why a bus schedule website would insist on such draconian security, and posed that question in a comment form on site.

2. Typing your address to find the next bus.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Many of the streets in Vancouver are numbered: the major east-west thoroughfares number from First Ave. to 73rd Ave. But don’t try typing those numbers as words, and don’t forget whether the address is east or west. The form on the site tries to make an informed guess. In my experience it usually just gets baffled, or guesses wrong.

Say What?

Say What?

Then when you finally do enter the right address the system looks for every possible combination of bus routes that can bring you near your destination, with the default sort being total travel time in a moving vehicle.

And the best choice is?

And the best choice is?

So, nobody’s perfect, and few websites are. But can’t these problems be fixed?

To Translink’s credit, a genuine human telephoned me yesterday to respond to my criticism about the password. I was told that the reason for the complex password is that two years from now the site will link to payment information, at which point the extra security will prove valuable. I did not ask why Translink does not follow S.O.P. and ask customers to change their passwords if and when it becomes necessary to do so.

I did take advantage of the human to ask about the buggy address recognition system. I was told that the original programming for the site was very expensive, and would now be prohibitively expensive to fix. Many aspects of the site work well, so why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Hmm. Interesting rhetoric. It’s possibly a plausible argument to make to folks who complain about how tough life can be living in Western countries. “Well, try living in Africa,” some respond.

I don’t think the rhetoric applies to websites. If a core function doesn’t function the programmer should be asked to fix it. Someone at Translink signed off on this project perhaps without fully testing it first.

And if all else fails, there’s always tactic #2 for those who complain about the usability of your site. “Well, it works fine for me,” I was told yesterday. “I don’t know why you’re having a problem.”

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