Archive for April, 2006

An open letter to Google

Sunday, April 30th, 2006

I had an entertaining Google Maps search that gave me better-than-should-have-been results and then a failure, showing that one of your systems knows more than the other and they aren’t 100% tied together.

First I searched for an address…
and got back a page with one link on it to Maps, which is what I expected. I didn’t read it closely, or I would have discovered it was wrong, with the zip and state mismatched.
“Map of 1000 Lislin Court, Pittsburg, IL 94565″

I clicked it and went to,+Pittsburg,+IL+94565
which let me browse the map I wanted perfectly… never noticing that I was looking at California maps with an Illinois state label.
However, I clicked on the Driving Directions, entered my origin, and it refused to show me the directions since it was confused as to my destination. From this I draw three conclusions:

  1. Your main search is not as smart in geolocation to be zipcode-aware and find the right Pittsburg from the zip.
  2. Your Maps feature is pretty smart relative to finding the right results even when given some erratic information in the query.
  3. Your driving directions don’t inherit Maps’ good sense but take things much more literally.

You’re known for good user interface, and Maps made it work very well – enough to fool me that there was no bad data. I suggest you work on your interapplication handoffs so they meet the shining example of the rest of your features.

Best wishes,

The Advocate

Princess and the Pea Syndrome

Saturday, April 29th, 2006

Last week I received my first comment – evidence that at least one other person in the world hears what I’ve been saying this year. When I investigated, wary of comment spammers who had recently hammered my logs, I found there is an entire community of people like me writing – except they appear to have figured out how to make a living at improving usability.

One log had an entry about hypersensitivity to customer experience issues as an occupational hazard, coining it the “” or “PatPS”. He told a story about a problem experience and ended up feeling bad because of context unrelated to his experience. I admire his compassion, but I believe a business needs to be cognizant of the effects employees have when they’re having a bad day. It is essential to manage the employees so that issues like his are prevented. Move the employee off the counter, or give them time off, or figure out some other way to handle it.

It is important for him to not succumb to the inverse syndrome: “Oh it’s only a pea.” Too many businesses stop noticing peas and eventually the pile is big enough they keep customers away from that counter. Train your teams to see the peas.

And be thankful you have the ability to feel the peas… it is rare and should be valued.

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Security issues and social engineering

Friday, April 28th, 2006

A couple of articles about a CD handed out in London which users installed on their work computers and then a discussion of whether the workers or the technology were at fault for allowing the security breach ends up missing the point. Both are at fault.

Schneier asks how many employees need that access. We should ask instead why do they have that access? He starts to discuss that with an example of how he is not a heating system expert but he can still manage the temperature in his home, and reflects that “computers need to work more like that.”

Sort of.

Some computers need to work more like that. From a user’s point of view, a bank teller’s world should be very limited… there’s no legitimate need to install software. This control was once in place – it was called “mainframe access” and nobody could install software unless authorized. However, the operating systems in use today on teller machines are generic (usually Windows) and have opened up all kinds of security nightmares because of their advanced capabilities.

Have you ever tried locking down Windows? Really tightly? It’s impossible – something always breaks. Try to build a kid-proof interface and then imagine keeping reasonable adults within that as well. Making a specialized interface is possible – witness all the kiosks or ATMs that run Windows NT (and bluescreen in public view) – it is just hard and not cost-effective.

A user could be tremendously more effective and efficient if they only had access to what they needed, but you then must create that for each class of users… not only bank tellers, but bank accountants and bank loan officers and auto mechanics and on and on. Right now this isn’t cost effective, but an enterprising company could figure out a process to make this easier. After all, Tivo did.

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Too many bits

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

I was reading about neat Google Calendar stuff but didn’t really see anything interesting until the last paragraphs, where Mark Hurst reflects that people need a way to receive fewer bits – fewer messages, articles, alerts, and so forth. That is what I want… a filter. A personal agent that knows I don’t want to see my kids’ appointments on my daily calendar except if I am planning a vacation or trying to get home to catch their game. I want them there, and accessible immediately, but never shown unless needed.

Finally, more people talking about the real problem and how to address the information overload so common these days…

Progress but Net Neutrality still threatened

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

News yesterday out of Washington about the tighter than expected vote on Network Neutrality, the essential concept of the Internet – that all sites are served equally.  This is vitally important to everyone who uses or works with the Internet in their lives.

The breadth of people talking about it is amazing – look at the Daily Kos, Gun Owners of America, American Library Association, Professor Lawrence Lessig, and even Alyssa Milano. This is getting traction in the mainstream press and now we need to fight it in the Senate.

Why is this posted on a user advocacy/usability weblog?  Because every user will get a different behavior based on their ISP’s interpretation of “important traffic”, and that is a horrible idea for those of us who try to improve daily life.

I don’t have flowery words to add – everyone linked above says it very well, or read additional detailed accounts of the danger. 

This is important.  Take action now.

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Another Performancing dataloss bug

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

When I was writing a new entry and wanted to look back at an older post in my log (all the way back to yesterday), I thought I would pull it up very quickly within Performancing For Firefox to see when it was posted. There wasn’t a date on the list item, so I clicked on the entry – and it overwrote everything in my editor. No save, no Undo, no warning dialog.

Bad! Always give warning!

Hopefully they fixed this in version 1.2

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IE as a business failure?

Tuesday, April 25th, 2006

I have always hated how internet Explorer did not follow standards and early versions broke perfectly formed HTML code.  However, John C. Dvorak argues the bad design that I resent has had severe business implications.

This Dvorak rant has got to be the weirdest yet very compelling argument I’ve heard all year – that Microsoft made a mistake creating Internet Exploder.  Considering the problems I’ve always had with it, I would not be surprised if it was a net loss to Microsoft financials.  To point that out as a strategic mistake is a strange kind of insight…

Corner Cases cause concerns

Monday, April 24th, 2006

I’ve started using and fallen in love with Performancing For Firefox (PFF) for my weblogging. However…

I have found a couple XML API oddnesses that emphasize the importance of thorough testing. Otherwise known as bugs. One is particularly nasty since it causes failure-with-no-warning, the worst possible software misstep. Both errors are encapsulation problems, based on characters that were not anticipated or cleansed before using them in the log-post process.

The first is that one of my web logs has an apostrophe in the title, which makes the code believe a string has ended prematurely. It lists the issue as a javascript error in my debugger but does not (apparently) fail to do anything I expect… but the question I have is what should it be doing that it is not?

The second, more insidious, issue comes from one of my categories. The error reads:

unexpected end of XML entity (line 1)

When you try and submit a post, it just does nothing. No feedback, no error.  Turns out it is caused by my category ‘Tips & Tricks’ which has an ampersand… and XML thinks it is the start of an entity. Now keep in mind that these categories are pulled from the weblog by PFF automatically, and you have no way of editing them. Now, PFF can’t handle the information that it created when you are posting. Bad bad bad.

The obvious ways to fix this are to

  • escape the strings before using them
  • or show the user a different string than the application utilizes

In either case, the ’sanitize all input’ rule applies… but the most important rule in a software developer’s toolkit – fail loudly – was ignored. If you’re not preserving the data you’ve been given (in this example by not posting it to the log) or at least yelling that you failed, you’re a problem. The user may close the browser and poof – instant data loss.

One last cleanup annoyance

Friday, April 7th, 2006

So a few posts ago I tried to help Outlook avoid bad behavior and data destruction, and in return it gave me another bad error message. Here you see an empty folder, with a dire warning about all items in it being on the brink of destruction:

Trimmed Permanently Delete Error Message

It’s enough to make you cry. If there’s nothing in the folder, don’t talk about there being items and subfolders!

A great Gmail-vs-Pine analysis

Friday, April 7th, 2006

Far too few actually can explain coherently the reasons they like or dislike a piece of software, but here’s a great Gmail-vs-Pine analysis on with details and recommendations for fixes.  I currently use Eudora at home and Outlook at work (no that’s not by choice, though the calendaring is really pretty handy), and I can tell you that there are elements he mentions that I would love to see in all email programs.  Specifically, filtering is never detailed enough with condition combinations, and I really want to be able to bounce emails.

It’s great to see someone else actually thinking about user interaction instead of just saying something stinks…