March 27, 2002

Hobbits on Soapboxes
After watching the Oscars a few nights ago, I thought folks might get a kick out of this post from the archives. Compare Jakob Nielsen to a hobbit and Peter Merholz to an be the judge. Personally I think it's evidence of another government cover-up.
Modeling the user, the business model and the interface
Came across this diagram via's that whole "picture says a thousand words" kinda thing...or something. I'm guessing Jeffrey Veen is the master modeler. Reminds me a lot of my dot com days.

(see also articles by Jeffrey.)

March 26, 2002

People and Hierarchies
SAP Design Guild covers hierarchies in depth. Part one of their series has an especially good reminder on considerations to bear in mind when designing anything with a hierarchy -- like a typical site map.

"people have problems with abstract hierarchies. They cannot create a suitable mental model for them because the system seems artificial, and often they do not understand what the categories mean. Deeply nested hierarchies cause even more problems because people get disorientated. People already get confused in mazes, where they only have to remember a larger number of binary left or right decisions. It is even easier to get lost in complex application structures, hypertexts, Websites, or the Web as a whole, if there are no "anchor points" where they can regain their orientation. People need to know where they are, why they are there, where they came from, and where they can go."

[via InfoDesign]
Breadcrumbs > Breadcrumbs > Breadcrumbs
Keith Instone, previously thought to be hiding out in a cave in Afghanistan due to his silence, surfaces once again to provide the usual "Instone Insight". Keith recently made a few of the goodies from his poster at IA Summit 2002 available. He does a good job of cataloging different types of breadcrumbs, what they're used for, and examples of each. Here are the 3 types he covers:
  1. Location Breadcrumbs: show the position of the page in the site hierarchy. Tell the user "where" they are in the site.
  2. Path Breadcrumbs: show the path the user has taken within the site to get to the current page. Help the user navigation "back" the way the came.
  3. Attribute Breadcrumbs: provide meta-information and navigation to related areas/products. Also used in search results to help explain what type of thing a particular result represents.
Attribute breadcrumbs were a type I've never seen well explained, so I found that especially interesting. Keith also asked a very good question about Path breadcrumbs, basically whether or not we need to manage the user's history on a site since web browsers already provide a history and a "back" function. An exception might be when you're using faceted classification and a page doesn't really have one specific residence in a hierarchy -- navigation is dynamically created based on metadata.

(Keith Instone is the owner and mastermind behind the highly useful Usable Web.)

March 24, 2002

Eating your own dog food doesn't work if you're a cow
AOL finally realized that corporate use of email is different than personal or small business use of email. All I can say is "Duh!" Here's what happens when you disregard your users' unique needs and go chasing after false cost savings:

Bad corporate mandates trap users in a bad situation:
Not all corporate mandates are bad. Homogenity and standards within a company can save money and create a healthy environment for good user support, reuse of code, and less training and re-training. BUT you have to pick the right product based on the business and user needs. AOL obviously didn't do that:

"management got months of complaints from both senior and junior executives in the divisions involved, who said the e-mail system, initially designed for consumers, wasn’t appropriate for business use. Among the problems cited: The e-mail software frequently crashed, staffers weren’t able to send messages with large attachments, they were often kicked offline without warning, and if they tried to send messages to large groups of users they were labeled as spammers and locked out of the system. Sometimes, e-mails were just plain lost in the AOL etherworld and never found. And if there was an out-of-office reply function, most people couldn’t find it."

AOL was clearly focused on cutting software licensing costs by using their own product. In doing so they also figured they'd quit helping out their competitors like Microsoft by not buying their software. While they were at it they should've just switched all their business users over to AOL dial-up accounts using a 56K modem. Of course, with no better, more usable option, AOL employees searched for ways around the horrible product that some myopic decision makers cursed them with:

"The e-mail problems have led many staffers to resume pre-Internet habits. Employees say they are faxing and using Federal Express more than before. They also are picking up the phone or wandering down the corridors in search of human contact. “If all goes well, we’ll never have to use e-mail and we’ll have to start talking to each other again,” says one magazine writer."

Businesses that allow decisions to be driven solely by false cost savings at the expense of business productivity and user needs will only drive costs up. One can only guess what this has cost AOL. Think about that in terms of real dollars, personal careers, inside political implications, employee turnover, and end user pain. Now instead of moving to one good unified solution, they'll have multiple products in use. One bad corporate mandate can spoil the appetite for any future mandates and the possibility of any corporate standard.

While it may be a good idea to eat your own dog food sometimes, you shouldn't make your business and thousands of employees suffer when your product won't work for them. If you represent a large herd of cows, making them eat your dog food is just plain stupid. If your product's target market is dogs, then just make it the best dog food you can. If AOL wanted to compete with Microsoft Outlook for the corporate email market, then they should have improved their product to compete in that space. Once they had a competitive product, then and only then should they have considered deploying it across their whole company.
Quite interesting: Kartoo is a meta search engine which presents its results on a map.