Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Random Thought

A graphical depiction of a very simple css doc...Image via Wikipedia

I am starting a cycle of CSS wrangling for Betavine, the project I am working for. I am part of a usability team that does the full service stack for front ends, from concept all the way to final pixel pushing, which means that some weeks I am user-testing a prototype we all concepted on, and some weeks I am looking at 7 browser or so to do the CSS voodoo to make all our ideas look the same everywhere. Which is why styles and looks for web properties are on my mind, and the amazing amount of pain everyone in the web space goes through to make it all look super put-together and 'professional' and 'on brand'.

The early web was terrible at it, because it was a medium built for documents of information, not 'experiences'. We've had 15 years of adding technologies to change that, and 15 years of browsers all doing the technologies their own way, and the result is that making these experiences is like herding cats: it actually can be done, but you'd better have a good reason for it. It's funny how you can easily lose 3 days in meetings with a major enterprise discussing the Return on Investment [ROI] of hiring an intern to write a company blog and make customers feel listened to, while nobody seems to tally anymore whether it makes any sense to send money to an army of CSS coders and visual designers to make sure the logo floats on the left in every browser exactly the right amount of pixels as specified in the brand book made 3 years ago by some consulting company three countries away. (I probably shouldn't question it either: it keeps me partially fed.)

Still, I recently noticed something about my GMail window: like Craigslist, it is actually quite ugly. There's no grid. Things don't line up. If the Golden Ratio is being used anywhere, I am not seeing it. The buttons are all kinds of sizes. It still succeeds because it is so stripped down the imbalances aren't offensive, and it does what it has to do perfectly. Same with Craigslist: no visual designer is using words like 'integrity of the design' to tell us why those columns have to be just so but you can get around great on it. The former head designer of Google may have quit because everything was so 'data' driven instead of by 'aesthetics' or 'soul' but that doesn't seems to have stood in the way of attracting users by making the site really simple and deliver the best search results.

I opened Amazon and Barnes & Noble side by side and looked at them. B&N has all the gradients, the stripey background wallpaper, the feel of careful placement of elements, Amazon is still its fruit salad mess of saturated orange and blue high-contrasted against white. And, highly personally and subjective, I realized I put less trust in B&N's site. It's too produced, too corporate, to designed to be soothing and friendly, but these days a corporation with a smile scares me because I know that corporations in general only smile when they take my money. I go to a book website to buy a book, not to be told I should feel soothed for being on that website. Things got better once I clicked on an item, at least the item was on an item page, not a 'quiet oasis of media browsing evoking old world charm'.

Ok, here's my point: I think every adult in the capitalist world -- hell, every human from the age of 5 -- must have a developed sense of skepticism towards large corporations to be considered functional. We realize we get shafted by corporations the day it turns out a shrink-wrapped action figure is not hours of fun like promised, especially without the accessories that are sold separately, and life dealing with them barely gets any better after that. Newspapers get it wrong. The glossier the magazine the more it hems and haws about whether the products from their advertisers actually work.

So when a website goes balls out to look like a glossy -- fonts, arrangements, meticulous full bleed backgrounds, purpose-shot imagery with the right models, the whole thing screaming professional and brand and designed -- it may not envelope the user in a sense of familiarity and love. It may just arouse skepticism (after or during the irritation of trying to find the 'Skip Flash' button or the volume icon). It may instead raise the shields of skepticism that we all need to even survive the bullshit thrown at us in even a simple department store.

I think you actually can go too far in making a website beautiful and brand-perfect. I think beautiful gorgeous experiences from large brands evoke skepticism instead of lust, especially if the product or service it is selling is actually not that special. It ends up feeling like a cover-up. And also then, the websites that are most popular, facebook, twitter, myspace, are very careful about giving great functionality while not looking like a juggernaut corporation with an army of abused web-monkeys being commandeered by brand managers (even if they are).

Now, this isn't a very well worked-out framework I have here for evaluating trust vs design, just a thought. But I think I need to explore it further.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


There was this User eXperience meet-up last night in London which I missed, but did see some tweets from. The tweets were discussing content-scaling, which must have been a topic: how to repurpose and reformat the same content as the user goes from web to TV to mobile. And maybe it was because I was just coming back with a full stomach from going to a Curry place in Shoreditch with deliiiiiiiiicious food, but all the tweets about content made me think that approaching 'content' as a generic concept to adapt to situations makes about as much sense as talking that way about 'food'.

Food is a great big huge world of items, but its expressions are very bound to the time and place and experience the eater is in. Every moment and activity has its own food, and nobody treats food as if moving it from one space and time to the other is a technology question.

-- "So we make all these four course meals with soup and a cheese platter, how do we make our skills useful when our fine-dining consumer goes to the movies? A bag with compartments?"
-- "OK, we're giving them fries, burger, and a shake in 5 minutes or less when they come into our joint, but how the hell do we manage to keep this consumer when they are at a cocktail party?"
-- "This tub of microwave popcorn with real butter we sell for TV watching, can we scale it for commuters? Drivers in a car?"
-- "Marathon-runners really enjoy our gel-packs. Surely there's a way to extend our brand loyalty to their other leisure moments."

Nobody expects these questions to be answered with one scaling technology, or a complicated set of heuristics, or even a single philosophy. Yet in the mobile UX world many smart thinkers actually do try this when approaching the problem of how the astonishing amount of types of content we have all created now over the years needs to be transformed to be seen on a tablet or phone or computer screen or TV.

It is not only the context of the user that changes during their day, although 'context' is what a lot of UX practitioners get stuck on, but, more encompassing than context, it is their needs and desires that changes, tied to where they are and what they are doing. I don't want a Thanksgiving Turkey dinner at 4PM on my workday even if you could deliver it in a way I could carry to work and eat surreptitiously at my desk, I simply want my tea cake. Or whatever 4PM snack you are into.

So yes, maybe the content of our hard disks should be looked at as ingredients that need to be cooked with specifically for every time, place, and need, instead of seen as meals that simply need to be transformed 'right', and all the talk of transcoders and scalers are just complete doom that will at best serve bland, mediocre, ill-fitting media experiences that seem to miss the point, or at worst try to pack a three course meal in chewing gum -- and we all saw how that ended up for Willy Wonka's prototype tester.

And I felt I was really on to something deep here. Or maybe it was the chicken Tikka-Massala talking.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Getting Out The Vote

Recently I was part of a conversation about basic voter apathy leading to extreme parties having representatives in local coucils, that ended with "but of course those people can't go to the polls but they will all vote for [X-Factor / American Idol / Big Brother / Strictly Come Dancing / Dancing With The Stars winner]" Well, yes, and if you look at voting as a usability issue, it's very clear why:
  1. The alternatives are presented very clearly and together. All contestants are together at a predictable time, attacking the same problem (singing a song by a composer, entertaining, being an amusing idiot) with the same tools.
  2. There is guiding meta-commentary. Ok, maybe you do not like the judging panel, but they at least focus on what the issues are, don't let people get away with mediocrity or handwaving, and help voters to focus on the issues at hand, (or at the very least make viewers tune in watch the Vicodin trainwreck).
  3. Following the 'debate' is pleasant. The shows employ the best people to make sure the 'debate' is something you want to see. The camera work is top-notch, the director keeps the rhythm going, the set is exciting, everyone does their best not to put the viewers to sleep and keep them involved, pumping them up to vote.
  4. Voting is comfortable. You do it from your own home with your own tools that you know.
  5. Voting is presented clearly. The absolutely best people at explaining technology to uncommitted users are employed to make short eye-catching video segments with glitz and animation to show people how to text for a specific winner. These segments are repeated often.
  6. Voting is made fun. The whole atmosphere around getting the vote out and the voting itself is full of enthusiasm and joy.
Now, the results of the voting are actually not that good; not every winner has fulfilled their promise as a celebrity or entertainer. Plenty of them have, though, so the voting public is not too bad at this actually. But if you look at the problem of voter apathy as a usability professional, as someone with the mindset of "What do I need to do to get people to fulfill this task?", (how do I present the task, how do I structure the task, what messaging do I need to put around the task, how do I influence the attitudes around the task) it really seems like the whole environment of going to the polls, of voting in local or national politics, actually does a lot of work to drive people away from participating by making the environment boring, the debate hard to understand, and the process difficult.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Electronic Friendship Regrettably Is Too Often An All Or Nothing Proposition

I have many asymmetrical human-to-human relationships. People who are more interested in my time and thoughts and presence than I am in theirs, and people whom I would like to get to know better and spend more time with who are not as interested in that as I am. We are a jumble of ideas and experiences and ways of expressing ourselves, and to create a good relationship of any kind, they have to match on some level. And often they don't.

We have centuries of rules, customs, and collective experience on how to manage this. It is an essential lesson of socialization to recognize the balance in a relationship, how it is shifting, and how to maintain it, at the comfort level of all participants, without being either too passive or aggressive. We can't evaluate relationships yearly with a questionnaire and a 1 to 5 scale like happens at jobs ("Well, the amount of texts you send is optimal, but the amount you cling around me at gatherings really is a 3: Needs Improvement") so we rely on cues. Most people's egos are not strong enough to handle direct communication on this level about how welcome they are, to the point that "He's just not that into you" as a sentence required a book and a movie to be celebrated properly as an idea. Nobody likes to be rejected, so people who blatanty reject get labeled 'mean', and the rest of us try to be gentle.

We handle the asymmetry by the amount of time we give, how long we take to call back, how often we actually do go over to watch the slide show, how much effort we do to see someone when they come through town. We can manage our exposure to each-other, how much time we invest, because physical life allows us to create gradations (and when it doesn't, well, there's always the assertivity training to learn to set boundaries, or the restraining order.) But electronic life really does not.

The current juggernauts of connecting, Twitter and Facebook, are really all-or-nothing relationships. There are millions of levels of friendship in physical life, yet Facebook really knows only one, and has limited controls about how you expose yourself, of which the results are really quite blatant to the follower. While setting them up last night I had to wonder if agreeing to friend someone but then putting them in a very limited group that couldn't see my stream of status updates isn't almost a snub worse than ignoring the friend-request altogether. (But no, 15 y.o. nephew, you really don't get that much access to my life.)

Twitter understands relationship are asymmetrical, where Facebook does not, but then expects them to be all-or-nothing. Yes, you are following my stream, and I know you in real life, but I am not sure I want to read every URL you find in your daily Net Grazing, crowding out the more seldom items from my friends. Third-party tools are trying to fill in this usability gap by allowing Twitter feeds to be grouped so you can keep the high-value Tweeters close to your heart while relegating the less valuable ones to the group you may check once in a while, while seemingly being a great social butterfly mediator person who is connected to everyone and everything. But I have to say that when I get a heartfelt invitation to "Follow me on my Twitter feed!" that already has 16.000 followers, I wonder how much value I will be able to bring to this relationship. Especially if I then get followed back among the 14.000 people this account follows. That is why I find email that I am being followed by what turns out to be an Affiliate Marketing robot so soothing: pretty much nothing is expected from me, and I get to look as if I am more interesting with that extra follower: WIN!

Most blogging have equally or even less sophisticated systems of privacy and mediation of relationship. LiveJournal and DreamWidth have a very sophisticated system for grouping followers for who can see what. The other blogging systems seem are all-or-nothing, and seem built for people who want everything they have to go out there to everyone in what are write-only systems with primitive comment fields attached. Blogs really are about publishing, not relationships.

And this mismatch between how electronic and away-from-keyboard relationships end up being conducted is really curious, because the software world is really good at filtering. Filtering by name, time, content, exposure, it's all in a context-switch's work, yet these things are not there. This could be because filters add complexity, and users actually do gravitate to simplicity over looks or features (see, respectively: Craigslist, 1st generation iPods).

I keep wondering if this is because these systems of connection grew up together with all-you-can-eat broadband in the centers where they were created. Back in the Usenet1 days, when IP connectivity was indeed metered, there were pretty sophisticated filtering systems for the stream of articles created globally by participants, and they acted on the server side before the article was transported, character by character, down to the reader. There actually was a monetary incentive to not receive too much crap, and computers assisted users -- if primitively -- in making that happen, instead of being open pipes to everything. But even then I was glancing at the amount of characters on my screen, together with the content in the From: and Subject: headers, to make a snap judgment on whether to hit the space-bar before even reading the first sentence an awful lot.

If broadband had always been metered, like it was early on mobile phones, would the systems created have allowed us to manage how much our new friends take over our time better? The early history of data applications on mobile phones, when data usage charges ended up on our bills measured in kilobytes, points to this being a moot question: like mobile application stores only took off when people didn't have to worry about how much data would cost on their iPhones, in a pennies-per-kb world the Web would simply have not taken off as it has, and electronic communications would have remained a beep-beep-doot-doot-modems-in-basements hobby, and I would still be sitting down with a travel agent to book an airplane ticket.

Instead, the Web took off, we will have to use our brains to navigate what the networks bring us full-blast 24/7, and hope for some model to arise that is much like the people who have to fiercely guard access to their time and person use: a personal assistant that trudges through the information and passes on only the best, a sort of human spam filter that keeps all the balls in the air, and writes coherent and targeted answers back while the celebrity in question gets to bark out strategy commands, and then gets to vacation in Hawaii again to escape the stress. The rest of us just get to hope we do not bruise egos too much when we click "Ignore" on a friend request, or remove a stream that is just not interesting.

1Yes, I was on Usenet. Indeed, I passed my 20-years-on-the-Internet a few months ago, which means I am a Question 2 social media expert outlier. I am still not sure of what it means that I looked at most of that article thinking 'My gawd, are you serious? I could get paid for this? Or do I have to only talk about margarine on Margarine blogs?'