Thursday, December 30, 2010

So This is the New Year

I'm at a stop light. It's 3 am. No one's coming. But I'm waiting anyway. And waiting. And, somehow, it's the light I'm angry at. #My2010
I Tweeted that last night. I did. And I have two reactions to it. (Yes. I'm about to react to something that I, myself, said. Blogging is a narcissistic little business as turns out.)

First, I'll forgo my usual fear of acknowledging my own strengths and say... damn. I'm pretty proud of that one. In another life maybe I could've been a writer. Who knows, maybe I'll find that life some day. Maybe I'll bump into it at the supermarket. Or maybe it'll stalk me down and club me over the head when I least expect it, forcing me to do its bidding. Either way: you go, me. Nice work.

Second, I have apparently turned 40 faster than any man in history. Seriously, who let this middle-aged man into my Twitter account? And will someone buy him a drink, for pity's sake? Frak; I'm much too young to feel this damn old. (Which is a country song, by the way. How's that for irony?)

Well, what better time to discuss it than at the most psychologically satisfying time of year to reinvent onesself? I fully agree with Ben Gibbard's observation that New Year's Resolutions tend to be "self-assigned penance for problems with easy solutions," but they can also be ways to inspire yourself to make real change in your life. I figure for that to happen, they can't be silly - they actually have to be... goals. As in, if you accomplish one of them, your life will actually have been changed in a noticeable way.

I've thought of a few things I'd like to get done before 2011 is over and done with. Some of them fit neatly into a list, others not so much. I'll share them here and write about them every so often, if only as a reminder to myself to keep working on them.
  • Music - I've spent 15 years playing with myself. Yeah, it's exactly as pathetic as it sounds. I sing and play lots of instruments - and not without some degree of aptitude - but I've never been in a band and it's been 7-8 years since I've outwardly displayed this talent. Something must be done.
    • Finish setting up my home studio. Luckily this isn't as complicated as it sounds as I have most of the equipment already. I just need to save up and buy Reason and I'm set.
    • Play an open mic.
    • Jam. Doesn't have to be part of a "band," per se, but I'd like to play with other human beings.
  • Travel - I have never been to Canada. Ever. There's a chance I could end up living there if I go to U Toronto, but before I leave the Northwest I need to see both Victoria and Vancouver.
    • Visit Vancouver this Spring
    • Visit Victoria this Summer
  • Meeting People - I am really bad at this. If a stranger starts talking to me or I'm introduced to someone, I'm fine. I am perfectly capable of being personable and carrying on an impromptu conversation. But starting that conversation on my own? I'm almost completely incapable of it. In fact, I'm so ridiculously bad at it I can't even think of a good action item to go about attacking this problem. But if I'm going to be moving to a new city, I need to make some attempt to solve this, lest I suddenly look in the mirror and find myself to be a lonely old man.
    • Become a Regular Somewhere. The idea is to become comfortable enough at a place where other people hang out that I don't feel intimidated out of striking up a conversation. It'll probably end up just costing me money, but hey, it's a start.

Then there are things that I can't quite put into a list. I've become somewhat more cynical this year, and I both love and hate it. There are parts that need to go and parts that need to stay. As much as I hate becoming disconnected, there's something incredibly powerful and freeing about coming to terms with the fact there's really no controlling anything beyond your own fingertips. It's all influence. And when you think about it that way, being constantly afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing is a pretty narcissistic exercise. My devil-may-care attitude will never blossom fully - I'm just not that person - but I feel like you have to learn to be an asshole at least a little if you're going to survive in this world. I'm still very much a beginner, but I feel like I'm finally learning to be an asshole in the ways that make sense; I'm learning to stick up for myself; I'm learning to own my successes and failures and not be apologetic about it; I'm learning to be more brutally honest (without the brutal delivery).

I'm learning... and I guess that's the most important thing. I hope to learn that 2011 turned out very different than 2010. And I hope your 2011 turns out the way you want it to as well. Happy New Year everybody.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tunesday, Vol XII: Vertical Horizon, Tool, Sanctus Real, more

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tippr: It Gets Worse

If you haven't read it, last week I skewered Tippr for some bad UX that kind of rode the line between thoughtless and willfully malicious; whether that user experience was bad accidentally or purposefully was a tough call. (If you haven't read it, you should. It's kind of necessary. We'll wait. [/elevator music]) Today, I finally got the email saying that my Tippr voucher was ready, and I'm ready to pick a side.

Before I explain, let's do a little mental exercise. If you've already closed the previous post or haven't opened it yet, open it up in a new tab/window and take a good look at the first picture of the Tacos Guaymas deal. Now imagine that you are buying it. What are you getting? What are you expecting to be delivered to you? How are you expecting to be able to use it?

Now look at this image of the resulting voucher download link:

So far so good, right? When you click on the (partially redacted and kind of hard to find even when it isn't) vouchers link, what do you expect to get? Really think about it: when you print this thing out, what's it going to look like? Get a picture in your head. Got it?


Was this it?

Probably not, right? I know I was surprised. I was fully expecting to get one voucher for $22. Neither the page selling the deal, the email receipt of the deal, the email informing me the voucher was ready, nor the voucher preview page at all prepared me for the fact that I'd be getting one voucher for $20 and one voucher for $2, which is quite a bit less useful than one for $22 and, by the way, can't be used together. Plus, now that I know the original deal value and the difference between that and the "tipped" value are issued as separate vouchers, withholding the original $20 voucher for 5 days makes absolutely no sense at all.

I believe this to be a purposeful bait-and-switch (there are many more grievous examples of the bait-and-switch dark pattern, but this still qualifies.) Why didn't they tell people right up front they'd be getting two coupons? I suspect it's because they thought fewer people would buy it if they knew it was split up that way - and they're probably right.

As a guy who believes in math and statistics, I try not to shirk a business just because I've had a bad experience. One bad experience doesn't necessarily mean that every experience will be bad, after all. But I I'm done with Tippr, especially since Groupon and LivingSocial offer deals that are just as good and don't pull this kind of stuff. The sad part is, the actual deal is really great, and even the way they decided to split up the coupons isn't really that big a deal. The big deal is that they misled me every step of the way: before I laid money down, there was no indication that I'd have to wait 5 days to use what I bought; after I realized I had to wait, there was no way to back out and get my money back; and there was no way for me to have anticipated what it was they were eventually going to give me. All of that just makes me completely unwilling to trust them with my money again. So, goodbye, Tippr. I hardly knew ye.

P.S. Hah. I can't delete my account. I can't even zero out most of the personal information. Awesome. I can unsubscribe from the email deals, but that's about it. Brb, I have to go wash the sleeze off my hands now.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Facebook's New Profile

Facebook, as I'm sure many of you have heard, is in the process of rolling out it's new profile design. Before I talk about some of the things I feel they got wrong - some of which are incredibly obvious, unfortunately - I'll give credit where credit is due and discuss what I like about it. One thing I will definitely credit them for is not making it radical a departure from the old design. It's an adjustment, but not a huge one, which should greatly lessen the amount shell shock (and whining) when the rest of the 500 million are eventually force-fed the change.

Another thing I like is the "Your Friendship" section they've added in the upper right. What it looks like greatly depends on the two people in question, but here's one of the better examples I've found with one of my friends:

This looks much like one might expect. If you did a Venn diagram with one circle being the data that Facebook has about me and the other the data Facebook has about my friend, what you're seeing is a formatted representation of (some of) the overlap. It's really about time Facebook added this, as there have been a plethora of 3rd party applications all attempting to present this information to people with varying degrees of terribleness. (Perhaps some aren't that bad, but none of the ones I've seen ended up being terribly compelling.) I especially like that Facebook tries to include some timely data here, like the next event you can expect to see each other at. All of it is potential conversation fodder, which I kind of like, and will no doubt be a useful way for all those as-yet-silent profile stalkers to get their foot in the door [/tongue-firmly-in-cheek].

My only complaint about that particular piece is that their choice of formatting is a little odd for a person of Western culture (aka: me and likely all of you reading this). Since we read left-to-right, top-to-bottom, I think that the descriptions of what those pictures are would be better placed above them instead of below them. That way the most-probable interaction goes more like: "Photos of me and my friend... and there they are," instead of "What are these photos of? Oh, me and my friend." It's not a big deal as long as most people figure it out as quickly as I did, but I still feel it's worth a mention.

The new profile header, however, needs quite a bit of work. Here's mine:
Let's start with the demographic info. It used to be thrown in the left-hand margin and is now front-and-center:
Is this a good placement? I don't know. I can think of arguments both for and against, but I don't personally mind it. What I do know is that this is the laziest possible way to format that information and, as a result, is totally self defeating. I mean, I have to assume moving it from halfway down the left-hand margin to front-and-center on the profile page is a deliberate attempt to make the information more visible on the page. In which case, presenting it as a Block-O-Text really defeats the point. 2 steps forward, 2 steps back. Don't believe me? Check out how much easier that info is to read if I format it like this (I removed the formatting options to show you what it'd look like to anyone but me):
The other huge problem is the seemingly-random, computer-selected group of photos immediately beneath the demographics. Seriously, Facebook, how often have you had egg on your face over accidentally showing the wrong photo at the wrong time? If you cut the user out of this selection process and just decide for them, you're bound to piss someone off - and with 500 million users, you're bound to piss off the equivalent of a small country. Case in point, the 2nd photo from the right is a photo of me and an ex-girlfriend.
Awk... ward.
Luckily for Facebook, I'm purposely exaggerating the issue to illustrate a point - she and I are still really good friends and I actually don't mind that picture showing up there at all - but take any random person and surprise them with a front-and-center photo of them and any random ex and they are very likely to be very unhappy. Facebook even has all the information they need to specifically avoid choosing this picture, they apparently just didn't think of it.

Attention Facebook: photos are very personal; a user should be allowed to be as involved in this process as they'd like and you should default to making this process completely inclusive. It's really not that hard to do. Simply present a screen full of photos and let them pick the 5 they want - allowing them to page through multiple screens if they wish - and include options to defer the activity for later or to let you do it for them. This is the most delicate and respectful way to do this and it took me about 5 seconds to come up with.

Photos were your bread-and-butter for a long time - your raison d'etre - and are still a big part of your user experience. It's just plain sad that you still don't know how to handle this stuff. For instance, some people are extremely sensitive about photos and might prefer to have as few photos as possible on their main page, but it's impossible for those users to show no photos at all (at least without jumping through a lot of hoops and making said users extremely hateful in the process). You can remove a photo if you don't want it there, but you still don't get any say in the photo Facebook chooses to replace it.

And so, with its latest update, Facebook continues to be like the proverbial hamster in the wheel: always moving forward, but never really getting anywhere.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

All About the New Job at Zaaz

This is an informational post for all those friends and family of mine that have shown interest about the new position I just attained.

It's at a nifty company called Zaaz. They're a software design agency, specializing on rich, interactive experiences (click the little "Open" button above the search bar for their sales pitch). They work predominantly on websites for clients, but also dabble other in things (like mobile apps) from time to time.

I got hired on as a quality assurance tester - it's kind of like the job I had at Microsoft, but muss less rigid, with a culture that suits me better, and with a lot less emphasis on programming and automation (which makes me very happy). They also seem keen on allowing me to occasionally help out in other disciplines as needed, allowing me to get tiny nuggets of UX and client-side web dev experience over time. Oh, and my round-trip commute will be about 10 minutes. I live, like, 6 blocks away.

On the downside, technically I'm not actually working for Zaaz just yet. I got the job through a recruiting agency called CampusPoint (whose website could use a little of Zaaz's expertise, incidently) and the position is a "Contract2Career" position. Basically that means that CampusPoint is actually the one paying me for a as-yet-undefined probationary period and they offer absolutely no fringe benefits. No healthcare, no 401k, not even a bus pass; all I get is a paycheck and shit to do. Still, it's better than unemployment, and if I can manage to work an hour or two of overtime a week (which is highly likely at a tech firm) that'll help offset my healthcare coverage at least.

Testing isn't exactly what I'm aiming for, but testing roles are not all the same, and this one seems to be a better fit for a UX-driven person than the one at Microsoft was. We'll see how it goes, but for now I'm optimistic. :)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Examining the New York Times Paywall

I recently watched The Soloist - and enjoyed it, wonderful film - and it got me (re)thinking about the state of the journalism profession in today's information-enabled world. I was once all for tearing down the walled gardens of the news media (and confess that I still find that to be a beautiful idea in a certain light) but the now older and wiser me realizes that it's really important that a profession wherein people are payed to investigate, to dig up the truth at any cost, and to report those findings dispassionately is one worth keeping around. I really wish money could stay out of the equation altogether since, after all, what the public is willing to buy isn't always what qualifies as good journalism, but it's the system of reward that we've decided for ourselves, so I guess I have to work with it.

Don't get me wrong - blogs and bloggers are great (if I do say so myself) and I get a lot of information from them but, by and large, it's almost impossible for someone to be a professional blogger. There are stories I've wanted to write, but never will just because they require more effort than I'm willing to put in to do them justice without some kind of payoff. You need absurd amounts of traffic to get the amount of click-throughs necessary to generate even a modest income. I mean, just ask the New York Times. They get more traffic than any blog will ever get some 200M pageviews every month, but they'd need something like 1.3B/mo in order to stay solvent in the long term while still keeping their paper free (source). (Granted they have way more overhead than a blog does, but you see my point.)

So I'm softly in favor of paywalls because of the people-should-get-paid-for-a-job-well-done thing, and also because of something my friend Ray said on Facebook a bit ago: "If you are getting a service for free you're not the consumer, you're the product being sold." Digging into that is an entire other post, I think, but doesn't that idea skeeve you out just a little bit? [/shudders]

Anyway, speaking of paywalls and the New York Times, I'm sure everyone knows that they're going to be putting up a paywall starting next year. I also found some discussions about the proposed New York Times paywall wherein they are divining what the structure might look like from some of the surveys the Times has commissioned. I don't have access to their user data or their research - in fact all I have access to is my own common sense and some random stuff I can find on Google - but I'm not entirely convinced that their model is going to work, at least not for the industry as a whole.

Clearly, the Times is going to see a drop in readership, and they're expecting that. They're hoping what virtually every other news organization watching this experiment is hoping: that a smaller group of subscribers will generate more revenue than a larger group of ad-supported readers. They have smartly recognized that reader behavior is complicated. For instance, there are people that read them regularly, who go out of their way to visit the New York Times site independently, and then there are people that find New York Times articles by happenstance, via blog links and Twitter posts and Facebook statuses, etc. (There's also a squishy middle I realize, but, since I don't have any real data to work with, I hope you'll allow me the conceit of ignoring them for the purposes of this discussion.)

In recognition of these two groups, they have decided on a preferential access system. Subscribers get unlimited access for a nominal fee (as yet undecided upon), and occasional readers will get limited access. This neatly keeps the same two groups in the same two piles; most of the regulars will convert to subscribers (they hope) and the ones that don't will likely become occasional readers. Some of both groups will probably ditch completely, but I would think that anyone who reads them on a "regular" basis must enjoy/need the content and so would gladly take the crumbs if they can't get the cookie.

At our currently 30,000 foot view, this design makes a lot of sense. However, as it so often is, the devil is in the details. It seems like they're going to make every user create a username, regardless of frequency of use. Well, I don't have to speculate anymore, the paywall went up as I was writing this post (which is kind of spooky). I'm not sure if they're actually taking money yet, but there's definitely a login barrier, so they are going with usernames for everybody. Look for yourself:

Frankly, I think they chose the worst possible option. The majority of the occasional users, the users who only show up because they got linked over to it, are probably going to turn right back around and go home at this point. Some will grin and bear it if they really really wanted to read that article, or if they have the foresight to realize that they may want to read more articles at some point in the future, but I'm betting that most won't. It seems like they're trying to get people to create accounts first and then later they'll dole out the payment structure (I didn't see any payment options when I clicked through to the account creation pages), which says to me that someone there seems to understand this user behavior and is attempting to mitigate it by phasing in the paywall. But there are two options I can think of that are better than this:

  1. Use of federated login systems. Facebook, Twitter, OpenID, etc. are all incredibly popular and successful examples. If they login page allowed you to sign up with any of those, that would simply be a one-time extra hurdle that I think a lot more people would be likely to jump.
  2. Target information gatekeepers. This is something I thought up on the bus today. In short, the Times (or whatever entity) could create their own URL shortening service - say,, for example. Subscribers would get full access to all articles no matter how they were accessed, and they would be able to share the articles with friends via a convenient sharing button on every article that would create the special shortened link (which could be wrapped in another if need be). Non-subscribers would only get access via these shortened urls and would see standard ad-supported pages. The sessions would time-out after xx minutes and wouldn't allow the same IP/MAC address to use the same link twice in the same xx period of time in order to discourage gaming the system. Suddenly all those self-professed social media gurus actually have a way to get all that power they claim to have (in their own minds, anyway) and will likely pay a fairly good fee to get that privilege. All everyone else has to do is follow them on Twitter or Facebook or subscribe to their blog, which they're probably doing already if said people really are Connectors or Mavens. This system mimics the way the paper works in real life. Someone buys it, reads it, then leaves it in the coffee shop for someone else to pick up and read later. (Note: mimicking real life with digital technology isn't always a good idea, so this may actually work realllllly terribly, but it sounds good in my head.)
We'll see how the paywall pans out, but I'm not convinced that it will as it's currently implemented.

The Tippr Backstab

Tippr, like it's compatriots Groupon and LivingSocial, offers insanely good deals on local stuff. This morning, I get this deal in my inbox:
I think to myself "Oh, nice - they have one in Fremont and I'm going there today to have lunch with friends. How perfect is this?"

So I buy it, thinking that my friend and I will eat like kings for $5 each. After I buy it, I go into the "My Account" section of the website to print out the deal. This is what I see:
Pending. For how long? I'm not sure. I'm hoping not that long because I'm hoping to use the thing in about 90 minutes. I check for the confirmation email and here's what it says:
Hi Dustin,
Thank you for purchasing this great deal from Tacos Guaymas.
Your credit card ([redacted]) will be charged within 24 hours of the offer ending (Monday, December 06 2010), at which time you will receive another email notifying you that your voucher is ready. When you receive that email, simply click on the provided link, go to the "My Account" section of our website, and then click on the voucher number to print it. Remember to take your voucher with you when you visit Tacos Guaymas.
I take great pains not to "bash" when I do these little UX reviews, because I know people work hard on this stuff and sometimes you can't get it all right, but... fuck you, Tippr. The deal I thought I was buying and using today won't actually be ready to use until Tuesday? That's bullshit. Want to know what's even more bullshit? Now that I know what's going on, I don't want the deal. I want to cancel. I don't actually have the deal - and I haven't actually been charged any money yet - so canceling should be easy, right? Do you see a cancel button up there? Nope. You don't. So I've managed to buy something I didn't want, and there's no way for me to correct it (short of calling and yelling at someone).

I went back and re-read all the text on the deal page (the first image up there)  - which no sane user can ever be expected to do, btw - and it says I have 4 days left to still buy this deal but there is nothing - nothing - that says the deal won't be available to use until after the sale closes. I only get told that on the back end of the deal, after I've already ponied up. This is dangerously close to a dark pattern and is really not a very polite thing to do to users.

At this point, someone from Tippr reading this (which will probably happen - companies tend to find this inconsequential little blog somehow) is probably about to spout off some excuse about how I just don't understand how their system works. First of all: yes, that's my point. I wasn't able to discern what would happen before it did happen. It's your job to make sure that I can. Second of all, now that I've been slapped, my eyes are open: because the savings is dependent on how many people buy the deal - whether the deal "tips", as you say - you don't issue the voucher until the deal is closed. But here's the thing (as you all can clearly see in the screengrab up there): it's already tipped. It's done. You can now safely issue the vouchers. But, of course, you won't.

What makes me particularly pissed about this is that I also happened to buy a Groupon today. Check it out:

And would you look at that. I can use it right now. Today - the instant I bought it, in fact. That's exactly what I expected, because that's how eCommerce is expected to work. It's ok if it sometimes doesn't work like that - like, say, when Amazon has to ship something to you - but that expectation needs to be made crystal clear and in advance of the transaction.

I won't say I'll never use Tippr again - they do have good deals - but I really wish there was another way for me to learn that lesson.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Who's Responsible?

Tonight I went to a gathering at Town Hall Seattle entitled "What the State Won't Tell you About the Deep Bore Tunnel," sponsored by The Stranger. All sorts of interesting things and topics were discussed there. The Seattle Channel will soon host the video of the ~90 minute session and I invite you to take it in at your leisure and come to your own conclusions about what was said there if you are so inclined. (As an aside, if you aren't from Seattle or otherwise have no idea what I'm talking about, here's a great series by the so-well-informed-there-is-cause-for-concern Eric de Place cataloging and examining Seattle's decade-long argument over what to do with our waterfront.)

During the public question-and-answer period, immediately following Dominic Holden playing devil's advocate to a panel of tunnel opponents, a lady got up to the mic. As often occurs amongst people brave enough to ask questions in public forums like this, she gave a long, rambling, comment/question hybrid (quomment? cestion?) that was a tour de force of social justice issues. One thing she said stood out to me - and it probably wasn't one of the things she wanted to stand out. At one point she was talking about her commute, making either a cars-are-still-necessary argument (which no one on the panel argued against - in fact both Mayor McGinn and Councilmember O'Brien said as much) or a transit-is-not-sufficient argument (which everyone on the panel would agree with), when she said that she lived in Ballard and worked in Rainier Valley. (Note: links are to map points so those unfamiliar with Seattle's geography can see where those places are.)

In a discussion like this, a lot is said about the responsibility of various governments and authorities and leaders - and rightly so. Who's accountable for what, what process was taken to get to these results, what process should have been taken, where do we go from here, etc., etc. All good points. All worth talking about. But where does personal responsibility come in? That seemed to be absent from the discussion tonight. I don't mean to slander this lady - she seemed nice enough, and I'll give her the benefit of the doubt as far as her personal choices go so as to not judge what I don't know - but her work and her home are awfully far apart; I wonder if she's at all considered doing something about that?

Does Seattle have a responsibility to make it possible to commute from Ballard to Rainier Valley? Yes. Both of those places are within city limits and, if only from a social justice standpoint, I firmly believe that the city has the responsibility to do everything in it's power to allow every citizen to be able to travel from any one point in the city to any other, including those who are precluded from being able to operate an automobile. I would hope such thinking is common sense.

Is everyone who lives far from where they work, or other places they go frequently, irresponsible? No. Quite frankly, some people just don't have a lot of options - especially the poor, the elderly, and the disabled - and I'm not about to begrudge them doing what they need to do to make ends meet.

Those two points made, I also firmly believe that if we as individuals are going to make demands of our government, or any system for that matter; if we as individuals are going to expect a system to tend to our needs; if we intend to hold said system accountable for failing to attend to those needs; then we as individuals have a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable for the burdens we place on that system and to constantly evaluate whether we can safely and comfortably lessen that burden. It seems only fair, especially since others must also rely on that system for their needs, and you would hope that they were doing the same for you.

UX Quickie: You Want Me to Buy What, Now?

I got an email today from I bought a few calendars from them last year, so they're helpfully suggesting I restock now that the year has ended. That makes sense, and I'll probably even eat that piece of bacn in the next few days. But I have to share with you the things they're "recommending just for me:"
First thought: "Outhouse calendars? These exist? And people buy them?"

Second thought: "The person who would buy all 3 of these calendars is probably... very interesting."

Third, panicked, thought: "... oh, shit, they think that I'm that interesting! Gah!"

Want to know what calendars I bought last year? Scenic Pacific Northwest, space photos, Obama quotes, Word-of-the-Day, and one with editorial cartoons. So clearly I like outhouses. And burlesque. And skiing. All at once. In fact, if they have calendars of burlesque dancers using outhouses in the snow whilst wearing ski goggles, I'll take seven.

Lesson: Recommendation systems need data - lots of it - from both the specific customer you're serving and from a large database of other customers. If you don't have that, don't bother, because bad recommendations - especially when they're so obviously, laughably bad - are worse than none at all.

Tunesday, Vol XI: Cave In, Pseudosix, A Fine Frenzy, more