Joy! to use

I’m in a certain mood for simplicity after the past few months of wrapping my brain around complex software solutions and coding at school.

I’ve just finished reading Don’t Make me Think (quick rundown: the best web usability primer, by Steve Krug). I’m now on to the Design of Everyday Things (quick rundown: a fun and informative introduction to the design of simple objects and the psychology of how humans learn how to use them, by Don Norman).

Both of these texts praise the value of removing barriers to the experience of interacting with a particular thing. Norman says that a door should be implicitly easy to use, and you shouldn’t have to consciously think, “push or pull?”. Krug says that the search feature of a website should be nothing more than an open box with a ‘go’ button, without filters or decisions or drop-down options. Both of these declarations seem obvious and straightforward, but often times these two simple tasks are aggravatingly convoluted. To boot, the negative feedback (which is what happens when you actually perform this task incorrectly) is usually subconscious and directed at oneself (i.e. “gosh I’m silly for not knowing how to…”).

But, when you hit an experience that is simplistically brilliant, do you notice? Do you have an iPod and appreciate its subtle but effective design? Or do you ignore the shape and features entirely and absentmindedly hit play before you slide it in your pocket? Either way, you win.

I have a juicer that is made up of 8 removable parts. Not only do I have to hand wash all those parts every time I use it, I also have to remember how they assemble each time I put it back together, all the while trying not to self-mutilate myself with the juicer’s blades and cutters. Why? I dread and avoid the otherwise useful tool, and I lose out on fresh juice.

The idea of user experience, or user-focused design, is a central component of the web 2.0 experience. It even has its own really great descriptive term – joy of use. I like the idea of making things more human-friendly and undemanding. We, the Public, are getting tired of multiple-release versions with new and improved! features and bible-size manuals.

For a rare glimpse of the joy of use, check out the iPhone release experience last week. Wish I was there.

July 6, 2007 at 12:42 pm Leave a comment

Is Second Life the second coming?

Humans have always desired an escape. When work gets too hectic, we retreat into web surfing, celebrity trash, personal Facebook stalking. In the midst of a heavy family situation, what better response than to sink into a mindless movie or b a voyeur into someone’s (seemingly) more interesting life via their personal blog, thereby avoiding the situation entirely? It’s why video games, Dungeons and Dragons and Solitaire is so popular and addictive. It’s better than real life.

And that’s where Second Life comes in.

If you don’t know Second Life, you’ve missed the media frenzy that a lot of companies have jumped on in the past year or so to make some real world dollars in a virtual environment. While ‘everybody’s doing it’ isn’t the best reason to jump on the bandwagon, the opportunity to run your business in a virtual, 3D world where inhibitions are removed and creativity is limited only by your own imagination is very attractive for a small company toiling in the real world.

Working with a small t-shirt company, we’re trying to launch an online presence ‘in-world’. That’s what it’s called when you log in and the full screen of vivid, 3D images take over your computer screen. For most people, I assume it feels like falling into Alice’s rabbit hole. For me, not so much. For my client, I’m considering how I can break my news to him – that Second Life seems pretty second rate to me.

First of all, I can’t get past the tutorial. To experience the fullness of Second Life, you actually have to have your ‘license’ – the completion of a series of tutorials that prove you can navigate around, chat, and dress yourself. I’m a competent computer user and I’m literate, which should be the only qualifications required to pass. Apparently, time is another ingredient for success – you need a lot of it to get around.

Secondly, there are a lot of people selling t-shirts in-world already. Is it possible that we’re too late to the party? Overexposure and saturation is a problem everywhere. Second Life seems to have been infected by corporate names and brands in record time. Sadly, people are entering Second Life to escape their first and they’re encountering the same level of bombardment. Eroding your brand by pushing sales in a hostile environment may not be worth the bits and bytes and effort.

At the end of the day, successful companies have clarity of focus, allowing them to achieve their well-defined goals. This will be my conversation starter. Focus on your first life! Thankfully, someone else shares my sentiments.

July 4, 2007 at 1:16 pm Leave a comment

Couch potato brain

I explored the idea of folksonomy in my last post. A further thought.

I will admit that I’m in love with the internet and all of the crazily ingenious sites and applications being developed these days. And the power of tagging content is a great advantage for companies with interesting things to say.

But, I am worried. I am worried about losing my ability to think on my own. I’ve already sacrificed my right-hand muscles and my ability to write properly because I do pretty much everything with a keyboard, and nothing with a pencil and paper (my grocery list is in Excel). Is brain the next muscle to go?

Two sites I’ve been using quite a bit lately have given me reason to pause and wonder this question aloud.

Allconsuming.net is a sharing site that lets you catalog books, music, movies, meals and more. Based on your pattern of likes and dislikes, others recommend new books, music, movies, meals and more for you to consume. I haven’t thought about what I’m going to rent from the video store or borrow from the library in months.

Last.fm
is an online radio station that picks up on your loves and hates (by banning or skipping songs that you don’t like) and plays music that it predicts you’ll enjoy. With it playing in the background almost constantly at home, I’ve lost touch with whom I’m actually listening to. Artists, song titles and record compilations are no longer important and I’m beginning to recognize songs by rhythm and tone alone. I’ve been caught bouncing along to what I’ve later found out was a Barry Manilow song; are my tastes showing their true colours?

I can picture the next cocktail party interaction – “What are you listening to these days?” “Uhhhhhhh…I don’t know…”. “What books can you recommend?” “Uhhhh, I don’t think about what I read, a website tells me”.

June 22, 2007 at 10:47 am Leave a comment

The Web – Anyone can do it!

There’s a really great presentation made by a professor from Kansas State University. Watching it will, I think, solidify some really simple but powerful ideas about online culture, if you were having a bit of a time understanding why Web 2.0 is anything but another over-hyped bubble waiting to burst. Watch it. The most salient clip, for me, is a highlighted piece of text based on a Wired magazine article back in August 2005:

“When we post and then tag content, we are teaching the machine. Each time we forge a link, we teach it an idea…100 billion times per day humans click on a web page.”

How can you use your product or idea to influence how content is prioritized and shared? Anyone can create original, meaningful and helpful content based on a company’s particular expertise. If your company creates a natural food product using acai berries, you :
– write health treatises on its benefits in a blog
– post that same content to Wikipedia
– create and share recipes on a recipe website
– post photos of your product on a photo-sharing site.

All of that content, tagged (see previous post on tagging) with your product’s name and a few other meaningful descriptive words, can then enter the web properly indexed, ready to be found and attributed back to you as the generator of that content.

Anyone can do any of this work with a simple internet connection, with the only real cost being the time spent to develop the content and monitor feedback. It’s this ability to actively participate in shaping the internet’s content that is flattening the competitive playing field – it gives individuals and small businesses equal advantage over large companies with large websites, flashy Flash, and intrusive web banner ads. Flattening the playing field is also making for a better quality web world.

June 17, 2007 at 4:31 pm Leave a comment

Web democracy – live free and tag stuff

Folksonomy is one of those weirdly out-of-place terms on the web. Online culture usually doesn’t support the formality of a definition rooted in Greek and sounding so academic. It certainly doesn’t sound like a typical internet-born word – a down-to-business acronym, or a half-nonsensical word beginning with ‘e’ or ‘I’.

In fairness, it actually refers to something called tagging, so I guess that’s probably why not many have heard of the formal term. Heck, I’m not sure how many people are really aware of tagging itself (not the graffiti kind of tagging, though remarkably similar in principle). Like learning how to right-click a mouse or use email, I think it’s a task people just learn and absorb into regular routine that it’s second nature.

And if it’s not yet second nature, it’s because you haven’t become a regular user of any of the following sites. I think once you give them a try just once, you may just be hooked into a whole new way to interact with the web (the 2.0 way).

Del.icio.us – this is a website that lets you build, manage and share bookmarks. Instead of having your favourite sites chained to your browser, where you can only access them from your own computer, a site like del.icio.us lets you log in and view your bookmarks from anywhere. It also lets you share them with other people. The best thing about this ‘new’ way to bookmark is that you can assign tags – intuitive words that help you categorize and lump similar sites together. And, you can assign (‘tag’) a site or page with any number of tags. Come across a website featuring the latest mullet styles, as well as blog on the topic? Well, you can tag the site any way you choose, but I’d recommend ‘mullet’, ‘blog’, and ‘weird’.

Digg.com – this is a user-driven content website. You can read any number of articles, indexed by topic and voted on by users. Like something? Digg it (same as ‘tag it’). Don’t love something or consider something to be spam? Bury it. If enough people agree, it will be buried!

Flickr is a photo-sharing site. Last.fm is an online radio. Wikipedia is, of course, the largest example and an extremely popular encyclopedia. Facebook is a people networking site. They’re all examples of sites that are driven by users’ input (photos, music, personal information, written passages, news stories, blog entries, videos, you name it) and categorized by those same users so you can actually find what you’re looking for by topic.

The whole concept of tagging content is actually one of the fundamental pillars of web 2.0. There is a tremendous amount of information on hundreds of millions of websites that anyone can create and serve to the masses. It’s both a liberating feeling to be able to control the content you see and share, and it’s reassuring to know that several million people are helping to contribute to cleaning up the vast mess that current exists online.

June 15, 2007 at 8:12 pm 1 comment

Web 2.0: A primer

So, what the heck does Web 2.0 mean? Is it an overheated, overused term? A phrase, like ‘synergy’ or ‘weapons of mass destruction’, that someone forgot to attach meaning to? I’m actually a bit disappointed that’s its status has so quickly deteriorated into another internet buzzword, because personally I really do dig what is happening in the online world these days. (The fact that it’s starting to feel a bit like 1999 all over again is besides the point right now, and a good topic for another day.)

Anyhoo, back to the original question. I’ve found plenty of blog posts and articles asking the same question, circa 2005. I feel so behind, but at the same time I think the past couple of years have helped generate clarity on the idea. It’s nicely gelled and worth mulling now that it’s got some veracity and consensus.

For the best definition possible, the source of the term is your best bet. Tim O’Reilly is credited with coining the phrase and his article provides a stellar description of what it really is. I won’t do justice to his explanation by rehashing it, so I’d suggest everyone read the original article in its entirety (good ideas take a while to explain; his article is five pages and worth every word).

So, welcome back. Now that you’ve read the article, you know that the idea of Web 2.0 encapsulates a few fundamental ideas:
•    User-generated content and organization of information.
•    Open source development and perpetual improvement (beta) of services.
•    A participatory culture of collaboration.

To further solidify the idea of Web 2.0 in your head, a visual could help.

So, that basically sums it up. These are pretty simple concepts. It’s all very let’s play-fair-in-the-sandbox together.

And that’s what I like about this concept. It’s about meritocracy, where all good ideas worth considering are given equal play just by being good, because if indeed it is ‘good’, it will catch on. As a small business owner, you can come up with a great idea to share music online. You can build it, launch it, use a long list of websites and applications to promote its existence, and ask for feedback from your users in order to improve it further.

What I don’t like these days is the mass consolidation that seems to be going on. My favourite Web 2.0 tool, last.fm, was just bought by CBS. Google is averaging one acquisition a week to add great ideas and strong talent to the monolithic company.

Just for fun, take a screenshot of the currently known Web 2.0 companies and services out there. Let’s meet back this time next year, and we’ll see how many were bought by Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Microsoft, or even Facebook.

June 7, 2007 at 8:26 am Leave a comment

Majestic plural, be banned

Using passive voice versus active voice. It’s a problem in writing, but also in speaking. It doesn’t always play out in the same way (in writing, the trouble is usually a missing verb; in speaking, an incorrect pronoun is committing the crime), but it’s similarly heinous.

I don’t have many pet peeves but this one is particularly burdensome. Someone suggesting that “we” should do something is pretty much nails on a chalkboard for me. Typically the person making the request is not, in fact, including him or herself in the requested action. The result is degrading, or, at the very least just a bit nauseating.

Yes, I’m speaking of the “royal we”, luralis majestatis, or the “majestic plural”.

The most unfortunate manifestation of the “royal we” is in the workplace. A manager telling a direct report that “we should have caught that typo before it went to print” or “we should have known the client would react that way” is twisty and creates confusion. It diffuses blame, but more than likely there is still blame being laid in the masked comment. The person laying the blame just doesn’t have the conviction to be direct about it.

Perhaps it’s a consequence of more offices working in an open, team environment that’s not conducive to confrontation. Perhaps it’s the litigious culture we’ve created, where people don’t feel able to call individuals out when they deserve to be. Maybe this is a purely Canadian plague and a side effect of our compulsion to be nice all the time.

Case in point – I’ve met some people who’ve moved here from other regions and cultures and they didn’t have this problem. However, some times their tone and body language comes across as too harsh or direct, even downright mean. I worked with several wonderful and extremely bright people from several eastern European countries who’ve initially scared the crap out of me but after a while I adjusted to their approach. Once I did it became really refreshing to work with them, because a new level of honesty flourished and everyone felt much more comfortable that they were getting sincere, candid feedback.

I think we all appreciate working with direct individuals who express responsibility and accountability through their words and actions. I think work would be a bit less stressful in this environment, which means we’d all be a little more productive.

I strive to be very purposeful about my language, especially in the workplace, to ensure that I’m being inclusive, supportive and encouraging of my colleagues and direct reports. It’s very easy to become busy, get caught up in the minutiae and slip into passive aggressive mode. I can be accused of writing too long, run-on sentences. I’m also an adjective junkie. I’m a compulsive synonym searcher. But, I hope never to have the ‘royal we’ finger pointed at me, ever. Why, I’d just as soon speak in the third person. Julessea thinks this is is good advice for everyone.

May 25, 2007 at 4:25 pm Leave a comment

Older Posts


June 2017
M T W T F S S
« Jul    
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
2627282930