December 31, 2001

A better Word?
Interesting review of Word X for the Mac in BusinessWeek. It covers various interface improvements and oversights.

December 30, 2001

Linux needs focus not whiners
I recently read an article in LinuxWorld by a guy who I think is very representative of many Linux (and other open-source software) zealots. I'm sick of constantly hearing about the Evil Empire from Linux and Open Source zealots. Grow up! Are you saying "The Man" is keeping you down? Do you take no responsibility for your current condition? Are the rules of the game unfair?

The reason Linux is floundering, if at all, is that there is no unified Linux vision. There is no strategy, no marketing -- not even a targeted market segment. Who is leading product development for Linux? Who has identified and profiled the target users and their needs? Can anyone tell me, even in general terms, who Linux is designed for? So much Open Source development relies on the concept of evolution -- but evolution takes too long. In business, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there".

If success for Linux were defined as being a great, cheap, open source *NIX-like OS, then Linux has already succeeded many times over. The problem is that UNIX was never meant to be a broad-base desktop environment -- just like Cray's aren't built for gamers. So if you've defined Linux's success as domination of the desktop computing market, then you've probably started with the wrong product -- Linux was not designed as a desktop computing product for the masses. If Linux ever does become a Windows-killer for average computer users, then it will fail to deliver what most hard-core Linux users want today -- a free and powerful *NIX clone.

The question is not "Is Linux ready for Joe Sixpack?" nor "Are you ready for Linux on your desktop(s)?", but rather "Who's desktop is Linux designed for?". As far as I can tell, Linux is designed for people using Linux...since Linux developers add features they would like for themselves. Of course most business and home computer users are nothing like a highly technical software developer -- especially not in the ways they understand and use software.

The Linux community needs to determine what their goals are, get organized, and quit whining and blaming others for their situation. If all the energies of that community were focused, I'm sure they could make huge strides toward a better product and higher market share -- in whatever market they target.

Disclaimer: I'm not an MS hack -- I've installed and run both Slackware and Mandrake versions of Linux dating back to 1997...I use UNIX and Linux regularly. I was an OS/2 fan, and still crave the power of DOS and UNIX command line interfaces at times. I have seen the wonders that are PERL, awk, and grep and marveled at their beauty and power. And for all you conspiracy theorists: I also grimace at many of the things MS does. but Microsoft is an I/T vendor like all the others. I loved Netscape in the early days but was disappointed in them many times. I've seen both the up and down sides of IBM, Oracle, and other's always a love/hate relationship. When usability and security take back seat to profits and market share, the idealist in me cringes -- but the realist in me reminds me that I'm free to NOT buy MS products, and I'm free to build my own alternative if I so choose.
You matter more than you'll ever know
All kinds of people die every day. Paul Battaglia just happened to die in the World Trade Center attacks. His Web page, however, lives on, complete with photos of his now-crumbled office and the view he once had. Since Battaglia was killed, people, including his parents, friends and family , have been remembering him in his guestbook. See the tragedy from a personal story is incredibly powerful.

The powerful part of it is not how he died or who he was or what he did, but realizing how many lives we each touch every day -- and that we make a difference. Whether you know it or not, you are valued and cherished by others. It's just amazing how we never get around to expressing that until after the car crashes, the doctors fail, or the bomb drops.

December 29, 2001

Nazis and Napster, cookies and copyright, hackers and Bill Gates
A number of Very Important Things happened this year in Internet law.

December 28, 2001

Through a router darkly
5% of the 'Net is broken due to bad networking.
What do you get an avid gamer who has everything?
King Pong!...or maybe Kylie Minogue. :-)
From the demographics department...
33 million AOL users averaging 70 minutes online per day. Wow!
Die cheap!
Line up a $200 bamboo coffin. It can always double as a coffee table for your wicker furniture until you need it.
The Seven Wonders of the Web
No surprises here: Google, Amazon, Blogger...but the explanations why these things are head and shoulders above the rest contain the real insight.
My O'Reilly book cover
Here's the new cover of my book (currently in the works).

You can have your own book too...

December 27, 2001

User centered design sells products
My wife wanted a new TV for the kitchen for Christmas, so I hit the usual electronics outlets to see what my options were. She had an old 13" TV, but it was a dinosaur. I found many 13" sets for around $90 (USD), and they ranged up to about $150 without much real difference in features. Let's face it 13" TVs are not where innovation is happening... At the third store I went to I noticed a set initially because it was white...which would match our kitchen appliances and decor pretty nicely. This wasn't the first white TV I'd seen, but it was very different in a subtle way I'd soon discover. The product info card the retail store provided didn't say much about the TV, just that it had a remote, AV jacks, a comb filter (like your average Joe knows what that does) and a couple other "so what" bullet points. In order to differentiate between products, my comparison process involved playing with the set for a while, going through the various options on the remote and on-screen menus to get a feel of what features the set had. This particular set from Phillips has one killer feature. In the end that one feature coaxed me into coughing up an additional $30 (33%) for this set.

The key feature was the remote control. It was more user-centered in its design. It was, in a way, personalizable! Phillips calls it "QuadraSurf". It allows you to effectively save your favorite channels so that you can quickly cycle through them. You have four colored buttons, each capable of storing 10 channels. So, you can have one button be for news stations, one for mom's daytime favorites, one for kids programming, and another for dad's weekend sports surfing. I've often thought, while surfing stations, that the "previous channel button" should work more like a browser history: allowing you to go back or at least cycle through more than two of your recently visited channels. This was almost the same thing; it accomplished the same user goal: avoiding cycling through about 60 cable channels of which half are usually worthless. Phillips obviously did some user research, and used it to differentiate their product. This resulted in a 33% increase in the price I paid compared to other sets -- I probably would have even paid more for it just to get that feature.

What kills me is that Phillips does a horrible job of explaining product features and benefits of them on its product pages. The description of QuadraSurf remotes, available on many of their TVs, is hard to find and poorly worded. It doesn't really convey the benefits to the potential buyer. The best description I found was in the Time magazine 2001 Shopping Guide..."QuadraSurf remote lets you group your favorite channels together by genre and flip through them with a single button". Phillips also had a press release that I found on CNet that did a better job of describing this feature.

Bottom line: When we spend time and money to develop differentiating features that are user-centered, we have to market those features to make them pay off. Use usability as a competitive advantage. Having a more usable product doesn't guarantee success; you have to point out the fact that your product is more usable, that you understand your customers and are designing for them. That creates rabid customer loyalty; look at Google -- they told everyone that they were solving OUR problem, made search better, made it simpler, removed the clutter, listened to users, and marketed the hell out of the fact that they were doing these things. It worked, and it created zealots and fans who told their friends to forget about all other search engines and just start with Google.
You can't buy M&M's where I live (?)
Example of stupid crap companies put on the web: Mars (huge candy company) has a product locator on their corporate site. According to this rather costly dynamic application, you can't buy plain M&M's (in regular or king size packages) anywhere within 15 miles of where I live. Of course they evidently don't want to acknowledge the existence of gas stations or my local grocery store. What idiot thought someone would hit the web to find out where to buy a Snickers bar when they get the munchies?

December 26, 2001

Recipes don't make you a chef...
Even Dilbert realizes that sometimes you need more than instructions or "methods" for success. The number of bikes that parents can't get properly assembled at Christmas would also provide additional proof. (Dilbert link via Webword)

December 22, 2001

Hey Beavis, frames still suck
Huh, huh...looks like someone over at WebReview couldn't come up with a good [insert topic] for dummies article, so they dusted off the old HTML topic of frames -- claiming that inline frames are somehow a newer, better, now-okay-since-Netscape-6.0-supports-them kinda thing. When will people realize that Server Side Includes (SSI) yield almost every benefit of Frames without all the bad karma?

Next week, Butthead will write an article about the merits of the BLINK tag...

December 21, 2001

Power to the people!
Experienced bad customer service? Fight back! Check out this awesome (and very funny) message to a hotel chain (found via Creative Good's newsletter). Something tells me "Mike" is now a McDonald's Sandwich Maker.
Peter Merholz is really an Elf...
Watching Lord of the Rings, I couldn't stop wondering who Elrond looked like...then it hit me. Peter Merholz, IA extraordinaire, finally hit the big time. Compare the photographic evidence below:
Peterme Elrond

I can see why they cast him as the Elf Lord: notice the slightly pointed ears and brightly colored clothing? I'm sure in the near future he'll be promoting Elrond action figures alongside the other cool products on his site.

Speaking of which, did you ever wonder if Jakob Nielsen is really a hobbit?
Jakob Nielsen - Web Usability Guru Bilbo Baggins...a hobbit
Could be a Baggins, but a Proudfoot heritage is more likely. :-)

December 20, 2001

Lord of the Rings...see it twice.
Went to the premiere of the Lord of the Rings movie with a bunch of people from work last night. Everyone said they really liked the movie. As a fan of the books, I was very impressed...can't imagine how anyone could do a better job with a great classic tale. Only letdown if any is having to wait 12 months for the next one (The Two Towers) for the story to continue. Cast was excellent, especially for Boromir and Gandalf. Expect Tolkein to be at the top of most best seller lists for a number of months hence.

December 17, 2001

School of economy at the University of Mouthfuls in Italy
Machine translation doesn't work -- Italian government comes off looking like a bunch of "Augustos of the Walnuts". The lesson (that most Europeans should already know) is that translation worth doing is worth doing right.

Wouldn't you love it if your web site read like this?:
The bears do playoffs
The monsters of half of the way centraa hooked a bunk of playoff for the first time from ' 94. Its offense of the lack-luster even handled to put above for some ends (27) whereas the defense was implacable as usual. Not counting on any wonderful aspect of the source bowl, but surely enjoying the stroll... He is too long. The Bears Go!
(original Bears text here... Double translation courtesy of Babelfish)
Make it secure, or else!
Judges are showing no tolerance for sites that have inadequate security. You can't plead innocence by reason of security incompetence. The penalties could also be pretty severe for both businesses and ISPs. That is, if you think having your server connected to the Internet is important.

The Crypto-gram newsletter also has a pretty good analysis on why National ID cards are a Big Government Dumb Idea.
A familiar tune
Very good and reasonable article in Business 2.0 called Dotcom Inferno: Money to Burn talks about working with consultants on large projects. Not your typical dot-com failure story. It takes a hard look at why engagements with consultants can be dangerous -- and how to manage them. Just about every line in this article resonates with my experiences on very large projects (I'm talking millions of dollars in budget). Clients are unrealistic in demands, consultants say they can work miracles and everyone's usually pissed off at each other at the end of the project.

Tip: Want to have a good vendor manager on a project? Look for someone who's lived through a nightmare of a project with a vendor. These people know what can go wrong and will work to avoid those landmines the second time around. Don't look for the guy with "inside connections" to the vendor or who gets along really well with the rep...butt kissers can't hardly bark, let alone bite when lines get crossed.

December 16, 2001

Bears make the playoffs
The Monsters of the Midway clinched a playoff berth for the first time since '94. Their lack-luster offense even managed to put up some points (27) while the defense was relentless as usual. Not expecting any Super Bowl appearance, but sure enjoying the ride... It's been too long.

Go Bears!

December 14, 2001

Roll your own nightmare
Do-it-yourself works for minor home repairs, but not for ecommerce security. Even if you have a huge brand, lots of money, cool software, and hire some "smart people" you're still likely to make the same stupid-as-heck mistakes everyone else makes.
Tip 1: Good hackers know way more about security than all your "smart people".
Tip 2: SSL is not security.
Tip 3: Your systems have tons of holes in them.

Security audits, usability tests, heuristic evaluations, and eXtreme Programming (XP) are all based on the principle that a second set of eyes sees many things. Sometimes you need experts or hired guns to sleep comfortably at night. My own experience with security audits of transactional systems is that they help you find all kinds of potential problems. Just the process of walking someone through the application architecture and design is very valuable.
Whither (or wither) the WaSP?
Looks like the sting has gone out of WaSP. The pro-standards group has conceded that even if browser makers provide bullet-proof support for standards like HTML, CSS and the DOM the problem of a broken web is a much bigger nut to crack.

The argument used to be that the software companies provided broken browsers and hence developers couldn't build sites that work for most users. Now that we have better (but not ideal) browsers, the reality has hit that leading development tools (can you say Dreamweaver, Frontpage and Go Live) are generating horrible code. Designers and developers also don't know, don't test, and don't care. Validation? That's what you do for free parking, right?

Hopefully WaSP will be reincarnated in the future or some other group with a nasty sounding name wielding a sword of virtue will rise from the ashes and starting kicking some sense into development tool makers. I have great faith in market pressure, and I think WaSP focused a lot of the frustration that key customers of browsers were experiencing. They championed ideas for the causes of usability, accessibility and compatibility. Thanks made a difference.
Pen vs. Paper...Which will win?
In this corner wearing blue ink and expensive refills...the wireless pen! And in this corner weighing in at 12 ounces, 8 and one-half by 11 paper!

Why should people be excited about this? A wireless pen needs a network...tell me how that will work on an airplane. It's easy to lose and there's no system feedback to show what was stored on the network. Sure I can see what I wrote on paper, but I don't know what was captured electronically.

A good typist can type up to 90 words per minute. I can't read my own writing and write much slower than I type: about 35 wpm last time I checked which is nothing to write home about (pun intended).

IBM's "Smart paper" looks more promising than a really expensive pen with no on-board storage. It captures sketches and other scribblings so all those doodles created in droning lecture classes or committee meetings can some day be recognized for the works of art they really are. It also could more easily accomplish more functionality like cut and paste that become accelerators for application users. I could see this type of device being useful to designers developing paper prototypes and capturing diagrams and ideas from brainstorming meetings.

The tech industry is obviously streching out with research to try and find the next great user input technology. For example, much hope has also been put in speech recognition in the past, but the main competition, the keyboard, still offers a lot in terms of efficiency, feedback and simplicity. One pen or one voice just doesn't offer the output capacity of ten highly trained fingers...
Style Guides, Schmyle Guides?
A new book called "Language and the Internet sounds pretty interesting. Pooh-Poohing the Purists, a Scholar Revels in Netspeak from the New York Times says the author thinks a lack of conformity to guidelines is okay. I don't know anyone who, in college or elsewhere, really ever wrote reports or papers that strictly conformed to any style guides -- unless we're talking about English 101.

His point is that Internet writers and communicators modify their style for the medium, urgency, immediacy, synchronicity and audience. Wow! What a discovery -- I guess the days of leaving Mom notes on the table in APA style doesn't translate to todays hurried world of email.

Okay, even so, it could be an interesting book for anyone who has to write for online medium. Just a good survey of styles with some analysis could be very useful for helping us select a style in the future.
Sick health care sites
The "cranky user" cranks it up by going after health care and insurance sites.

"Users come to a site looking for a doctor because they are in need of medical attention; they want to find out if they have a serious condition, not watch your logo spin for five minutes."

"The end result of this is that I don't use the company Web page -- I call in." "I don't know how much that costs, but it's probably a lot; it seems like the company would get a better return on investment by doing a simpler site."

The cranky user is always right...

December 13, 2001

Patterns becoming more vogue
Patterns and Pathways: New Ways of Approaching Web Design proves once again that the guys at Adaptive Path rock! Great presentation on patterns and how they apply to web design.

More info on patterns in UI design:
Quit running around like a...
I heard via the rumor mill Monday that was going belly up. Checked out the site Tuesday AM and noticed that the content was days old (unusual in good times). As I was poking around on the site, they pulled the there's just a home page with a virtual epitaph.

I worked on the incubation project before it had a name. We only had four people on the project and a lot of ideas that evolved about 50 different ways. I never thought a "business plan" could change so much in such a short time. In the end, it was a brutal, fast-paced 12 months of hard work that taught me a lot. Now I feel I've gained a new membership to a community of people that defined the dawn of the millenium -- those who slaved away on failed dot-coms.

I guess I can say I was there to witness the very beginning and the very end.
My, Oh My, and Why (not)
Reading an article by Peter Merholz, I was reminded of familiar debates on past projects about the use of "My" in web sites a la My Yahoo!, myIntranet, etc. Peter does a good job of presenting his case that using "My" is confusing and even somewhat juvenile...answering the question of Whose "My" Is It Anyway?

"Think about it. What products, in the real world, use the possessive "My" in their names? Products for small children, like "My First Sony." How foolish would it sound, say, to buy something called "My Telephone" or "My VCR". Obviously, they're yours--you own it! Using "My" on a Web site encourages this childish sense of propriety"