Friday, January 18, 2013

You need consumer-grade usability

It’s interesting watching the English language evolve in response to technology and changing cultural ideas. Take the term “consumer-grade”, this used to (and sometimes still does) mean, lower quality, less robust construction.

Compare it to “weapons-grade”, a term commonly applied to uranium and plutonium, but simply meaning it is a substance pure enough to to be used to make a weapon or has properties that make it suitable for weapons use. “Export-grade” is similarly used to define food or beverage that is better than average, and worthy of consumption away from its place of production. Some people seem to confuse the two.

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So you might be confused by someone espousing “consumer-grade usability” as a good thing … confused that is, if you lived in 1999 and knew nothing about the history of consumer devices in the 21st century … you know, the whole iPod, iPhone, iPad, Alienware, LCD televisions, Android and “just google it” thing?

Now that we are living in an increasingly BYOD world it is obvious what the term means. It is a purity of user interface design that brings the essential features of the device or application to the fore, and frees anyone to use it with confidence and passion.

It’s easy to see how this came about, “consumers” includes everyone, “enterprise users” are a small subset of the working population, itself a subset. When creating for the consumer it has become obvious that success increasingly comes from great usability – even when competing in the budget end of the market. This means everyone gives usability lip-service, hence the rise in usability consultancies.

Consumers have access to free tools that are developed with such care that they make the average enterprise application look clunky in comparison – and they are beginning to get sick of it!!

The challenge as I see it is how do I as an enterprise product manager bring consumer-grade usability to my products, without making people see it as just a gimmick, or a band-aid fix?

Update: The Consumerization Revisited – Why Aesthetics Matter article from QlikTech points out that aesthetics matter when it comes to usability and user adoption.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Windows Live Writer ate my blogger login

Well thank you Microsoft.

The latest release of Windows Live Writer demands that I configure a blog when I start it up - fair enough, it does want to know my blog styles in order to show me formatted posts, so I go to login and ...BAM! Login fails.

Oops! Retry. Login fails.

Expand to full email rather than just username. Retry. Login fails.

Try every combo possible. Login fails, fails, fails ...

I finally worked out that because I use 2-step verification with Google authentication, and this app doesn't have an app-specific password, it will always fail. Now this is a failing of the Windows Live Writer devs, but I wonder how many other dev teams would think of this?

My solution? Fallback to online editing. Nowhere nears as nice as Windows Live Writer, nor as available, but it works*.

Although the damn thing did put in DIVS in place of P tags and I instead of EM tags ... sigh.

EDIT: Matt was right, using an app-specific password solved my problem – apologies Microsoft devs, not your problem (well, except for perhaps not providing nice help around the problem).

Friday, September 14, 2012

Why is social media so ... anti-social?

Perhaps this is a stupidly obvious question, but why is so much social media so anti-social? Let me expand that a bit before you deride my lack of Facebook ‘friends’, Twitter followers or Klout score (currently a healthy 46 thank you very much).

Sure, you can be social with your friends on these sites, and off-them thanks to mobile apps, but there are some key issues that I at least run into with them:

  1. If we don’t share a network then my friends don’t see my updates, share my life or catch my drift.
  2. Twitter and Facebook (at least), seem hell-bound on making third-party developers lives hard, they depend on you ending up on their apps, on their site to make advertising money.
  3. If I like the features of a new network better, I need to bring across my friendships or contacts, and re-apply my privacy settings and do a bunch of other work before I can use it fully.

Recently people have been comparing social platforms to early email clients and networks. Albert Wenger (a VC, ex-President of del.icio.us) wrote:

It would (be) a huge benefit to society if we can get with social networking to where we are with email today: it is fundamentally decentralized with nobody controlling who can email whom about what, anyone can use email essentially for free, there are opensource and commercial implementations available and third parties are offering value added services.

Thomas Baekdal (social media commentator) writes about the future of social media and makes the same comparison to email:

In the early 1980s, email worked pretty much as social services do today. Each email provider used their own proprietary protocols and systems, and each system was unable to communicate with any other.

So email didn't take off because the process was simply too complicated. It wasn't until every email provider finally decided on an open, non-proprietary format, that email started to work and became the massively popular communication mechanism that we know today.

The question is then, what is the next step? What is the future of social media? And the answer is painfully obvious because we have already seen it happen with email. The future is when social becomes a protocol.

More than just anti-social, the current networks lock up our content as Scott Hanselman (Microsoft employee and prolific blogger) recently pointed out:

You are not blogging enough. You are pouring your words into increasingly closed and often walled gardens. You are giving control - and sometimes ownership - of your content to social media companies that will SURELY fail. These companies are profoundly overvalued, don't care about permalinks, don't make your content portable, and have terms of service that are so complex and obtuse that there are entire websites dedicate to explaining them.

Scott is more railing against social media than suggesting an alternative (FWIW, I think RSS is great, but it provably does not solve all the issues here). I do think he’s right about not stopping blogging, and I said it myself back in 2009 too.

So if the future of social is to be a protocol, how will this happen? Google tried something like this with Google Wave, which morphed into Google+, but nobody trusts them anymore it seems, so it kinda died before it could be really interesting.

How could this happen with social media?

  • Facebook could die, and then people pick up the pieces with smaller shared networks. But Zuckerberg has nailed that one with the successful IPO.
  • Twitter could die, and then on the way out offer its data and API to the world for free. More likely than Facebook going, but again not hugely likely.
  • A dominant OS, browser or device vendor could introduce the ability to use such a protocol without caring about controlling it. Microsoft could give this a shot with WIndows 8, but that will have its own issues to face before then. Google+ as a service is trying to be this, and might just be there if they bake it into Android.
  • Amazon could surprise everyone by creating a platform for it and being open about it. It would probably generate huge storage and bandwidth revenue for them.
  • Yahoo! could be a surprise player in this area, Marissa Mayer needs to give them something to aim for, and they have form in creating useful technical solutions for others (Yahoo! Pipes, Yahoo! Developer Network, YUI Library).

Baekdal is the most bullish that social must become a protocol, but he doesn’t offer us a way forward, other than pointing to the need for social to be an activity we do, not a place we go.

I think there might be a surprising way forward, but that can wait for another post.

Friday, May 18, 2012

AusCloud Forum May 2012

I had the pleasure this week of being OrionVM’s guest on the panel for this month’s AusCloud Forum (see tweets).

The panel I was on followed the three keynote speakers:
  1. David Yuile, CEO of AAPT on Powering the Cloud
  2. David Werdiger, CEO of Billing Brureau on SmartBilling
  3. Sheng Yeo, CEO of OrionVM on Carrier Clouds
The speakers were interesting in the most part, I think David had us the most entertained, but unfortunately he was in the dark for most of it (and really needs to read Beyond Bulletpoints as his first slide had tiny icons I couldn’t even read from the 5th row.
The panel was about “Enterprise in the Cloud” and put me in some very flattering company:
We had several great questions to answer, and some interesting variances in opinion. I wasn’t tracking well enough to keep everything in order, but some of the high points from my point of view were:

Cloud Has Arrived

It is clear that enterprises are switching to use the cloud, at least on new/internal projects. This was backed up at yesterday’s AWS Summit where News Ltd and Realestate.com.au both shared they have moved their development/test environments over to Amazon’s cloud. This is what we’re doing at Elcom. Our release testing now occurs on servers at OrionVM that get spinned up when we need them and archived  in between.

Hardware Must Be Sweated

Both Roger Lawrence and David Yuile were emphatic that enterprises have significant hardware (and skill) investments that need to be sweated before they will feel free to move to the cloud. Sometimes these can be re-tasked for other duties, but all too often they can’t be (few banks are moving their mainframe code just yet (although MicroFocus and Heirloom Computing both offer COBOL in the cloud).

Give Me Standards

David Yuile was heavy on the need for cloud standards, and he thinks that larger players should put some money up to ensure standards get worked on properly. He likened the current trepidation about cloud to the same feelings enterprises had about VLAN – and in a similar fashion he thinks some standards will help it go mainstream.
Roger pointed out that there’s a difference between standards and certifications, with the later being what most enterprises care about. I agree to a point, as a small ISV we can’t always afford to get all the certifications we’d like to, and being able to assure customers we can adhere to a standard is often all we need to do.

CIOs See New Savings, CEOs See New Possibilities

Roger had a very interesting point to make about how different occupants of the C-suite tend to approach cloud. CIOs tend to see the cost savings and efficiencies to be gained, whilst CEOs come from the point of view of what new possibilities the cloud offers their business. A case in point was that of a large construction company where IT costs were around 1% of revenue – any saving being negligible – but being able to reduce the wait between delivery of goods to clients and payment of invoices from 27 to 26 days was worth $34M in extra cashflow.

We Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

I think we have barely seen what the real effect of the cloud will be in the enterprise arena. Most technology shifts are not really embraced until the generation that grows up with it gets the chance to flex their muscles in the workforce and for the cloud that is still 5 years or so away. When you have grown up with streaming media as the norm, mobile access the primary means of internet access, true ubiquitous computing and commoditised cloud services how differently will you regard the problems enterprises (and countries) face today?

Cloud Helps Startups, But Not That Much

There is some lurking optimism that if we just commoditise the cloud and computing enough then startups will suddenly multiply and change the world. Unfortunately for that rather utopian idea the lowering of the barriers to entry helps everyone, big enterprise innovator and  garage startup alike – it also means more competition and noise to rise above.
An example comes from my wife’s cousin who has worked in the Australia games industry for over 15 years. The industry is currently deep in recession, but it looks like it’s healthy because so many developers are trying their hands at mobile games. The problem is that few (if any) of them are making any money (Halfbrick being a notable exception).

Microsoft’s Future (bonus)

Not particularly cloud related, but a subject dear to Roger and my heart and something that came out of one of the questions asked. We both have strong opinions on this, but what it boiled down to was the success of Windows 8 will define how much affect Microsoft has on the future.
Roger pointed out that Microsoft might lose it’s way, but like IBM, still remain a giant in the IT space. He also noted that Microsoft’s partners, as heavily invested as they are in its success, are a mighty (not so) secret weapon when it comes to their success in the business world.
Personally I think their Windows 8 Metro UI is inspired, and will probably be a great hit on tablets and mobile devices … it’s penetration into the business world will be limited by old non-touch LCD monitors (see “Hardware Must Be Sweated” above). However, Microsoft will both find ways to maximise the switch, and will care less than it used to if it can wrest majority control of the mobile/tablet space from Apple/Android.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My geek origin story

Delicate Genius (aka Microsoft’s Michael Kordahi) tweeted me a while ago about putting this up, and in the interest of historical accuracy, here it is! Other geek origin stories can be found from his blog post.

I wasn’t terribly geeky as a young lad, except I loved Lego and got into roleplaying games in a big way. At university I fell into a crowd that were much geekier than I (hat tip to Justin McLean), and along the way got pulled into doing an Information Systems major for my Bachelors of Commerce degree.

Something must have happened because by the time I met and married my lovely wife I looked like a true geek! (gotta love the Doc Martens)

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Looking back I think the same qualities that caused me to fail Accounting Financial Management 1B led to my success as a geek. Things like:

  • Always wanting to improve the system,
  • Searching for truth,
  • Wanting my work to matter.

None of those things applied to rote learning T accounts and double entry accounting, but they sure do matter when you are building fantastic tools for web developers to build awesome, award-winning sites with.

So that’s how I ended up becoming the geek t-shirt wearer I am today – although I no longer have those DMs ...

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Context may be key to blended learning

I have been reading two excellent books recently, John Medina’s Brain Rules

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why web will win the mobile app race

Everyone wants a mobile app, banks, health funds, airlines, pubs and all sorts of marketers want us interacting, playing with and using their mobile apps. This is fine and dandy, and is a Good Thing for the future of humanity, but … which OS do you want to target?

Is your app going to target iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7 or (heavens!) Symbian?

The right answer will, of course, be all of the above. It really isn’t hard to figure out, and there is a precedent you see.

What do you do if you want to target users on MacOS, Windows 7, Linux (a bazillion flavours itself), Google OS or (heavens!) Unix?

The answer to that question is you created a web app, because the browser environment was designed to be (reasonably) neutral between vendors. The same paradigm exists in the mobile world. Creating a specific OS version just limits your app to that OS, and who wants that?

However there is one big difference, the mobile app needs to deal with being occasionally (dis)connected, right? Solving that problem has been hard enough that mobile apps are still sprouting up that basically show content offline.

Riding to the rescue of the beleaguered user comes HTML5 with its cache manifest offering to give web apps a completely sane way of specifying what content should be held offline and what resides online. The  only problem is the memory limits most browsers place on the cache – except for Opera they all only let you have 5MB (or 10MB if you are on IE) – and in these days of fast connections and rich media that simply isn’t enough to get the job done.

There are various ways around this, with Google Gears, Microsoft Sync Framework and Flash also offering ways of getting offline storage to work, and there are some jQuery plugins that hint at the promise of getting this working in a framework that leaves the browser sensitivities to someone else (although I’m always leary of potentially leaky abstraction layers).

Personally I don’t care how we solve the problem of sufficiently large offline storage, but I think the future of web development demands that solve it we must.

In the meantime we will continue to see niche agencies offering native applications for various phone OSs, but not necessarily delivering the value the business needs because the cost is so high to develop cross-platform apps – and some other applications that target specific OS flavours, most notably Apple iOS or Android, and get away with that because the user base can be targeted that way (for now).

EDIT – 23rd Jun 2011

GigaOM recently weighed in, telling us that native mobile apps were beating HTML5 ones. One commenter, Roshan Shrestha, mentioned that:

“I see that many of the apps are just a wrapper against an HTML browser component. Most of them do not store much data locally and require internet connection, so these are basically web apps.”

I agree that most apps could be web apps, and I think it will end up there, but not yet. In the meantime everyone needs an Android app, wants an iPhone app and should have a Windows Phone 7 app.