Welcome to facebook

Check out the first line of the facebook terms & conditions pages:

“Welcome to Facebook, a social utility that connects you with the people around you.”

Nice touch.

I’m guessing that most people who click through to this type of page never bother reading much beyond the first sentence, so it’s a good idea to make it friendly, rather than jumping straight into the intimidating legalese.

You wouldn’t let your accountant write the copy on your pricing page so don’t let your lawyer write all of the copy on your terms.

[Blogged from SuperHappyDevHouse Aotearoa!]

Mac-curious

I’ve been Mac-curious for a while, I guess.

All of the cool kids have one.

At Kiwi Foo Camp earlier this year there were so many Apples it was like an orchard!

What was I missing out on?

I’ve been using Windows ever since I bought my first PC in 19961994. I didn’t (and don’t) consider Windows to be broken. On top of that I was obviously at the back of the queue when they handed out the Apple kool-aid … I still don’t even own an iPod.

But, they say a change is as good as a holiday, so I took the opportunity when I moved to Xero to try switching.

A month in and I’m hooked.

I have found that most of my assumptions were wrong.

For starters, I was surprised to find that it didn’t cost much more. I priced up a Dell and sent the details to a couple of Apple fanboys. The challenge for them was to convince me to buy an Apple instead. Actually it was pretty easy for them. I’d always assumed that Macs were more expensive. While it’s true that you can buy a much cheaper PC, when you compare like with like (Apples with not-Apples?) there is not a great difference.

OS X has been a surprise too.

I didn’t expect to rave about an operating system.

And I know that there are lots of people who don’t like it. Phil for one has taken the time to document the specific things that frustrated him.

But, I love it. It took me a few weeks to get through the valley of despair – or more accurately the valley of unfamiliar keyboard shortcuts. But, now I’m there I find I’m spending much less time fighting with software and more time getting on with things. It feels like the operating system has melted into the background compared to what I’m used to.

And I haven’t had any trouble finding software to use. Like Nic I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover a healthy industry of small application developers creating great software for OS X. My favourites so far are Yojimbo (which has replaced my hitherto dependence on OneNote), VLC, and Quicksilver. And of course Firefox (I’ve also tried Camino, but in the end went back to Firefox for the add-ons). If you’re into Getting Things Done then Actiontastic is also worth keeping an eye on (although it’s not quite there yet for me). I’m also keeping an eye out for VMWare and Pixelmator.

The switch has also highlighted to me how much of my software now resides on the net and so is independent of the operating system – Gmail, Google Reader, WordPress, Xero, etc etc.

I’ve heard a number of people say that OS X isn’t suitable for business use. Now I can understand why.

Microsoft Office for the Mac is a pale imitation of the Windows equivalent. Entourage is especially painful. I’ve failed to get our Exchange server working with OS X Mail, so for now I’m stuck with it.

I’ve started to learn Omni Graffle and Keynote, but I’m still a bit of a novice with both, so I’m not as productive.

So, until the new Mac version of Microsoft Office comes out I’m resorting to running Vista on Parallels for some of this stuff. It’s a bit of a security blanket, but I’m cool with that. It’s a feature. As Marc Andreessen points out, with a Mac you effectively get three operating systems in one (OS X, Unix under the covers, and Windows in Parallels/BootCamp). Or, for a slightly more fanboy spin on the same point: “… all computers can run Windows, but some, the special ones from Apple, also run Mac OS X.” (from John Gruber).

I haven’t tried to do any development yet – although I know plenty of great developers who are Mac users, so I don’t expect any problems and again, with Parallels and/or BootCamp the development languages and environments I am more familiar with are only a mouse click away.

Of course, the hardware itself is super sexy. As Amnon said about the Dell when I sent him the comparison: “How will you live with yourself with that monstrosity in the house?” The only downside is I have had to upgrade my laptop bag to match!

As a long time ThinkPad user I wondered how I’d go with the track pad (I always thought I was more of a nipple man!) but I haven’t had any problems adjusting. I’m now addicted to the two-finger scroll.

Downsides?

Choosing the right time to buy seems to be a secret art. I was all ready to go until a friend pointed out that there would be a new version out shortly. I realise that Apple manage to generate a lot of buzz via their rumour mill. But, I have to wonder if they don’t create a fair bit of bad-will (is that a word?) when they make sudden leaps forward in their product lines. Take, as an example, this comment from the MacRumours.com forums following the announcement of the new MacBookPro range:

“NOOOOOOOOO! I’ve just bought my new Macbook Pro! Loving it alot. But now……. a little less.”

To get around this I got a temporary machine from Rentamac for a couple of months until the new model was released. This would also be a good option if you’re not totally sure that you’ll want to stick with a Mac.

Would I recommend it?

Definitely give it a try.

I can also recommend a Mac to anybody who is looking to opt out of providing tech support to their extended family. I got an iMac to replace Mum & Dad’s old PC, and I can now honestly say I don’t know how to fix any problems they have when they call. Although, so far to be fair there haven’t been any to fix!

Now, about that iPod … :-)

Cartoon from: Hugh McLeod

[Blogged from SuperHappyDevHouse Aotearoa!]

Design matters

Do you remember what MP3 players were like before the iPod was invented?

I wonder if the same will be true of the smart phone:

“The iPhone won’t do anything that can’t be done with devices that are currently on the market. For that reason it won’t appeal to gadget freaks, but the Apple’s innovations on the user interface will ensure that the iPhone appeals to those who would otherwise not have considered buying a smart device.

Remember that digital music players already existed long before the iPod, but the iPod has been hugely successful because everything before it was perceived as being awkward to use and best left to those with a good understanding of the underlying technology.”

From: http://www.geekzone.co.nz/forums.asp?forumid=40&topicid=14275

As it happens, design matters.

If people don’t think it’s easy to use it’s unlikely to be used.

Giving people what they want

Andy Lark has a nice post on The Power of Community.

This quote of his has stuck in my head:

“Marketing programs, clever PR and community activation aside, nothing really beats giving people what they want.”

Too true!

As I’ve noted before, one way to market a product or service is to build something that people love to use and happily tell their friends about.

He also maks an interesting point about how much of the iPhone story has been told in community-driven sites like Digg et al:

“Apple is launching the iPhone at a time when content aggregation sites like Digg, Techmeme, and even Google News can put a potential customer before hundreds, if not thousands, of possibly interesting stories about the product. All Apple has to do is trickle out information every now and then, as it has done in the weeks leading up to Friday’s launch, and watch the frenzy take hold.”

Here’s an interesting comparison along those lines:

The Official Nokia N95 site

A pretty standard marketing site: slick, flash-based, but doesn’t really tell me much about the product that I really believe.

The Nokia N95 page on Wikipedia

A pretty good summary of the phone and it’s features, including some of its flaws:

“Nokia N95 handsets supplied by Orange and Vodafone in the UK have had the VoIP facility removed from the phone to the annoyance of many users. Vodafone’s explanation for removing the facility was that ‘it doesn’t believe it’s a mature technology’.”

“It should be noted that the N95 does not support US based versions of UMTS/HSDPA; UMTS features in the US versions of this phone are disabled by default (but can be reactivated if needed).”

Which is more useful to somebody considering a purchase?

Bring on the Bose!

After a bit of faffing around I finally got Parallels up and running earlier in the week.

So, with access to IE7 again for the first time in a while I decided to try again to buy the Blackbox M-14 headphones I’ve had my eye on (see my previous post for the back story).

I hit their homepage, already anticipating the enhanced quietness that was now only a few clicks away …

Install Flash 8

Sigh!

So, I installed Flash 8 and, held my breath as I tried again to get through the check-out pages.

Woo hoo, it worked.

But then, this:

System Busy

Enough!

The next day I walked into the Bose store (which is dangerously close to the Xero office!) and walked out with a pair of QC3s. It was too easy. Offline shopping just works so well.

I don’t want to completely bag the guys working on this site. I got a comment back from Leon at Oktobor to say that they were onto the problems I pointed out last time and were working to make it better. It wasn’t just words – they have re-labeled the buttons on the check-out form to make them more intuitive. And, I got an email from them later in the day to say they had been having some technical problems and I should try again, which at least shows that they are now tracking abandoned orders. But, by then it was too late.

Yellow is the new black

Yellow Pages have put up a beta of their new website:

www.yellow.co.nz

As previously noted they seem to have dropped the “pages” part of their name.

As far as I can tell, apart from a bit of lipstick, the site is the same old site we all don’t love:

It’s still just an online version of the printed directory. Most listings contain only a phone number and an address, not even a description of the business. You actually get more information from the hard-copy where at least they allow graphics etc (although you can view the ad from the printed directory by clicking on the ‘view ad’ link).

There is so much more useful information that businesses could include in their online listing. Imagine, for example, if they allowed restaurants to list their menu.

They don’t cater for browse dominant users. To view the category hierarchy I need to click a link and then I end up in a horrible control which lists every leaf category alphabetically.

Their category hierarchy continues to be a complete dogs breakfast. There are too many leaf categories and consequently the structure is too deep and too fragmented. The structure is also unbalanced. ‘Business Services’ is a top-level category – covering everything from ‘Accountants’ to ‘Security Guards’. ‘Funeral Arrangements’ is also a top-level category, although it has only seven sub-categories which hare all leaf categories.

I can’t list a new ad online. Hello?

The search is still way more complex than it needs to be. Google allows me to find any page on the whole internet using a single text box. That should be the benchmark. Really, who is going to search for businesses “within 100 kms”?

They’ve added “My Address Book” functionality, but don’t allow me to add comments. I’m completely disconnected from all of the other people searching on the site. Where is the “other people searching for this found these listings useful” functionality?

Oh well. Maybe in the next version?

Designing for blind users

In the comments to my recent post about XHTML Scott Mayo asks an interesting question:

“How many complaints you have had about the usability of your website by blind, site impaired or other-wise impaired users. Surely as NZ’s site with the broadest coverage you would have a lot of exposure to such feedback?”

I have to admit that I haven’t had any direct feedback, or any first-hand experience using Trade Me with a screen reader.

I’d be interested to hear from anybody who does.

At TechEd last year we used Trade Me in a demo of the speech recognition features built into Windows Vista, and it worked great.

Amongst all of the other things to consider when creating a new site or page, it can sometimes be hard to get excited about accessibility.

But don’t forget that the single most important visitor to your site is effectively blind (a.k.a GoogleBot).

Design for accessibility and you’ll often get search engine optimisation for no additional charge!

Make it work, then make it look good

Here is a simple rule: if you’re building a web site make sure it:

(1) works; and

(2) looks good.

The order here is important.

What does it profit someone to have a site which looks like a million dollars but which doesn’t actually work?

Here is my theory: the better a given web site looks the less likely it is to actually work.

A recent example …

Both Rod and Nic have raved about their Blackbox M-14 headphones, made by NZ company Phitek.

I figured I’d get me some of that noise canceling goodness.

(and, in case you’re reading this Larissa, this purchase decision was not influenced by sitting beside you this week! ;-)

I had an uneasy feeling from the moment I hit their home page. The main navigation links unfurl onto the page in a very pretty (but otherwise pointless) Flash animation.

The real fun started when I got to the check-out.

There are pretty well understood conventions now for how an online check-out should work. Don’t make me think.

Instead, here is the Blackbox check-out page:

Blackbox Check-out

So, I select the product I want and click the “Go To Payments Page” button.

An error message is displayed: “Please check your personal details”.

Eh?

It turns out that all three steps are contained on one page – with the second and third steps hidden in collapsed sections at the bottom of the form. To get to the second step I need to click on the “Review Purchase Summary” bar, although there is nothing to indicate that it’s a link. It doesn’t look clickable, and the mouse cursor doesn’t even change to a hand when I hover over it.

Then, having made it through the form I get this:

Blackbox Check-out Payment Page Re-direct

Unfortunately, the re-direct doesn’t work. And there is no obvious way to click-thru manually. I can’t get to the page where I enter my credit card details.

The net result: I haven’t purchased the headphones and my confidence in their brand is dented.

I wonder how many sales they miss because of a website which looks great but which doesn’t work?

Enhanced metafiles

How hard is it to copy a diagram into a PowerPoint presentation in a reliable format?

Copy and paste is a pretty fundamental operation. When you copy and paste a file, the file that is created is a new file with no relationship to the file that was copied, apart from the fact that it is initially a copy. Any changes you make to the new copy are not applied to the original and vice versa.

But, for a reason that I cannot explain, Office messes with that simple model. Instead the default paste tries to embed the original file.

Why is this the default?

Is this really what most people expect to happen when they click paste?

I doubt it.

To get around this broken default you need to select the ‘Paste Special’ option. And then, God help you!

There are seven different options to choose from:

Enhanced metafile dialogue

I have a Computer Science degree and the only ones that make sense to me are the four that appear to map to different image formats (Bitmap, GIF, PNG, JPEG). Even then it’s not clear to me which of these formats would make the best choice.

What the hell is an ‘Enhanced Metafile’? Why would I choose a ‘Windows Metafile’ format when I could have the enhanced version? Should I prefer the Windows flavour of Metafiles or the Enhanced ones (how exactly are they enhanced)? And, while I’m at it, what is the sort order on this list?

The picture below is taken from a random Google image search.

Marjorie

I don’t know this women. But for arguments sake let’s call her Marjorie and think for a second what she would make of this dialogue.

When are those of us who build these tools going to start putting ourselves in the shoes of people that don’t speak C#?

Recently closed tabs

As of this morning I have a new favourite Firefox feature:

History > Recently closed tabs

As the name suggests it lists any tabs that have been closed in the last wee while. It’s like an undo button for when you accidentally close the wrong tab.

Simple, but brilliant!

(extra: there is even an extension available which allows you to add this function directly to the toolbar)

Fat homes

Matt from 37signals recently posted some excerpts from “The Eight Step Home Cure”. They are well worth a read.

This one especially jumped out at me:

But when we take something new into our home, we rarely let go of something else. This is how our home gains weight, grows unhealthy, and begins to nag at us…Most of us aren’t in need of more organizing; we need to manage our consumption, let go of our stuff, and learn how to restore life to our homes.

As a reformed hoarder, I love the analogy of a house slowly getting fat as you fill it with more and more stuff.

As an aside, I actually think that hoarding might be a genetic condition. The good news is that it isn’t necessarily terminal. I recently got my parents hooked on Trade Me (hey, it only took 7 years!) They are now enthusiastically selling off lots of their junk stuff and are well on the way to a full recovery. :-)

Fat software

If you can think of your home as a “living organism” which needs a healthy diet and regular exercise then software is surely the same.

Applications that have been around for a while and through a number of versions are typically obese with features.

A classic example is Microsoft Office. When the team planning the most recent version asked people what features they would like to have added many of the things people suggested were actually already in the product. The problem was not too few features but the opposite – there were so many features that people were struggling to find them and use them effectively.

To solve this they came up with their new ribbon UI.

As more and more functionality is added to Trade Me we have started to run into the same sort of problems. We recently added a Seller Acceleration Centre to our help to make it easier for big sellers to find the existing features they can use to make their lives easier.

In addition we haven’t been scared to take the “liposuction” approach and remove functionality altogether when it isn’t used enough to justify its place in the UI. For example, a few months back we removed Trust Webs, which allowed us to give extra prominence to a members Blacklist.

So, next time you adding a feature to your application ask yourself what you can remove to keep things in balance.

Like somebody who holds on to every nick-nack that is choking their house on the assumption that it might be useful one day, it is harder to do than it sounds.

Don’t click here

A really simple thing, but a really common mistake:

Make hyperlinks contextual.

A link like this makes me think:

Click here to register

When I look at this my eye is drawn to the bit that is blue and underlined (your links are all blue and underlined … right?) But that part doesn’t give me the context of the link.

If a user is quickly scanning a page trying to find something useful to click on, which is how people typically read web pages, then using this sort of design will slow them down considerably.

Even the most novice web users quickly learns that links are clickable, you don’t need to tell them where to click – unless, of course, you’re obfuscating your links by not underlining them and/or making them a colour that isn’t blue.

So, put the context in the link.

This is much better:

Register now

Once you know this rule you will find hundreds of pages which could be so much better if it was used.

Broadband usage still under 50%

Whenever I present to a group of technical people I always ask for a show of hands and ask these questions:

  • Who is using Internet Explorer
  • Who is using a monitor with a resolution of 800×600?
  • Who uses a dial-up connection at home?

There are usually a handful of IE users, but never any 800×600 users or dial-up users.

I do this to point out how poorly most technical people relate to “normal” users.

Meanwhile out in the real world …

According to the latest Trade Me server stats about 83% of people use one of the variants of Internet Explorer (including 1.2% on IE5.x – who are these people and don’t they know somebody, ANYBODY, who can help them to upgrade)

On the screen resolution front, there are still about 14% of people out there using an 800×600 monitor. I assume many of these people have hardware which is capable of more, but they just don’t know how to make the change, or don’t care to?

And, according to statistics reported last week over 50% of people in NZ are still on dial-up.

It depressing! But, let’s not pretend that the audience is something that it’s not.

Zopto, and a comparison of mapping URLs

Ben Nolan’s presentation from last years Where 2.0 conference is now online at IT conversations.

http://www.itconversations.com/shows/detail1719.html

He talks about “zopto”, which is the name given to the URL addressing scheme created by ProjectX and used on zoomin.co.nz and smaps.co.nz.

Implementing URLs which can be easily spidered by search engines is a great idea.

Perhaps more importantly, having short human-readable (sort of!) URLs which can easily be pasted into an email makes the site much more usable and much more likely to spread via word of mouth.

Here are some links to the Trade Me office on some alternative mapping sites.

smaps.co.nz
http://smaps.co.nz/nz/wellington/wellington+wharf/cable+street/11/

maps.google.com
http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&q=11+cable+street,+wellington,
+new+zealand&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=46.630055,82.265625&
layer=&ie=UTF8&z=16&om=1&iwloc=addr

local.live.com
http://local.live.com/?v=2&sp=Point.83jh45zjyf51_11%2520Cable%2520
St%252c%2520Wellington%25206001%252c%2520New%2520Zealand___

maps.yahoo.com
It found Wellington, but couldn’t find the specific street address.

Perhaps X needs to spend some more time with Y and teach them a little bit about our country. :-)

wises.co.nz
http://www.wises.co.nz/?point=-41.289148_174.778663|1

Finding this URL was not easy. Here’s what I had to do:

  1. Locate the ‘mail’ icon which is hidden away at the bottom of the map;
  2. Send it to myself (they provide a form and don’t actually let you see the URL at this point);
  3. Click on the link in the resulting email;
  4. Manually fix it in the browser, because the “|” character causes problems in Firefox which appears to use this to break URLs across separate tabs.

Painful!

Wises is currently the most popular mapping site in NZ. They had 290,000 unique visitors in January compared to just over 100,000 for Smaps. This time last year they had 226,000 unique visitors and smaps didn’t exist. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next 12 months.

aamaps.co.nz
I gave up!

If anybody can work out how to get the URL for one of their maps please let me know how you did it and I’ll update this post. I won’t hold my breath.