Archive for the ‘General’ Category

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User interface is king

24 April 2008

This morning, it was 68 degrees before 8 a.m. My son dressed in shorts for the first time this year. And he knew it was going to be the best recess of the season so far. But he had a paper for school (fifth grade) that he had hand-written, and needed to type up before handing it in this afternoon. He’d forgotten to do it last night, and if he didn’t have it done this morning, he was going to have to stay in at recess and type it up then.

So he scrambled to type it up this morning before we left the house. He didn’t finish. He was heading to Mimi’s house for breakfast, though, and might have some time there, so I suggested he email it to himself, then check his email at Mimi’s, and finish typing it there. Then he could email the final copy to himself (to pick up at school), and I told him to send it to me, too, just in case.

I dropped him off at Mimi’s, and  headed up to work. When I sat down at my desk, there was email from the little guy — with an attachment (in .rtf) of his paper. Some of the people I work with can’t even attach a document to an email, but he pulled it off. (And he did it all by himself, without help.)

Now, of course, part of the reason is that he’s a super genius. 🙂 But the other part is that some folks have really figured out conceptual UI design. My little guy uses GMail, and GMail really makes it hard to go wrong. It’s got a top-down format, which makes you go step by step. No horizontal toolbars, no bevy of options, just a straightforward process, so easy, a ten-year-old can grok it. Only eight things to think about. To, CC, BCC, subject, formatting, spelling, attach a file, event invitation, and then you’re off. (OK, event invitation? Meh.)

Compare that to about a dozen or so (depending on your preferences) in Mail.app (chat? If I want to chat with someone, I’ll go to iChat, thanks) and OWA (Outlook Web Access) — and do note that several of the OWA options are icons, so you have no idea what they mean…

I have a phone on my desk. It has 38 buttons on it. I have only ever used 12 of them. I suppose if I were some fancy phone-nerd, I’d use the 38 buttons, but someone like me doesn’t need 38 buttons. I need 12. I also need a smaller phone. 🙂

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Watch your words

10 March 2008

SXSW Interactive continues in Texas, and amid the announcements of party attendance, hangovers, and meetups, some insightful stuff does bubble to the top. Tiff Fehr, a smart and talented Digital Web Magazine staffer, posted about her experiences on day three of the conference. The final point she makes is an excellent one for anyone in the public eye, whether a writer, a software developer, or even a curmudgeon — you are your brand. Remember this when you post to social networks.

People who are interested in your work will look at your blog, sure. But they’ll also look at your Flickr pictures, your Facebook comments, your Twitter tweets. All those together build onto any brand that you intentionally try to develop for yourself. That can work really well for you, supplementing your corporate identity with a bit of humanity or humor or dynamism. But it can also torpedo the hard work you’ve done to establish a brand in the first place. Sure, you might look respectable on your blog, but when your Flickr feed is full of dog fights and you shoot off your foul mouth in your YouTube phonecam videos, you’re not doing your brand any favors. And by extension, you’re not helping your business, whether you work for yourself or someone else.

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When social networks die…

7 March 2008

I found myself saying to a colleague this morning, “Orkut has gone the way of Friendster.” We were mulling over the reasons why certain social networks last, while others go the way of the summer fling.

I’ll admit it, I join every social network I see, more or less. If there’s anything particularly intriguing about a site, I’ll throw my hat into the ring. And I’ve found that the networks that I continue to use are the ones that offer me something other than social networking as a primary draw. Why do I still use Flickr? Because no matter what computer I’m on, no matter where in the world I am, I can find my pictures. While I’m not a knitter, I have learned from Ravelry members that it’s the bees knees, not primarily because of the other people, but because it offers tools to knitters that they’ve not had before — at least not at this level. The fact that there are other people in the Ravelry world to share with is just the proverbial icing.

Having things in common isn’t enough to sustain a social networking relationship. Perhaps it is in the real world — you can sit down over coffee and talk about the finale of The Wire, or the silly Olympics logo. But asynchronous relationships based on two-dimensional interactions are transient. There’s not much to hold your interest, and plenty of other shiny things to distract you.

For a social network to be really meaningful, it has to first be in service to the individual member somehow. It has to draw the user to it for a reason other than connecting with other people. Interest in Facebook (or is it facebook?) is waning, but it hasn’t tanked as quickly as Friendster (or mySpace) because someone is always sending you a new app, or a Zombie Bite, or an invitation to a game of Scrabble. But I sense even that will lose its appeal soon enough.

So, what explains the popularity and sustained success of LinkedIn? I’m still not sure how it fits into the paradigm. LinkedIn is different things for different people. For me, it’s a place to keep a skeleton copy of my c.v., and a place to keep track of people I am not regularly in touch with — so if someone’s email address changes, I’ll still be able to find her. For recruiters, it has very little to do with the social networking, and a lot about the résumé. Perhaps that’s the answer, then — it’s the Flickr of résumés. It’s a place for me to maintain a pointer to me, in case anyone’s looking for me. My relationships with others on LinkedIn are less important to me than my own details…but it sure is fun to find old friends from high school, and see where they ended up.

I guess the lesson learned here is, social networking for the sake of it, simply to exploit similarities in relationships, will always be short-lived. Anticipation, then excitement, then early adoption, then critical mass, then waning. It’s the relationships based on more than just proximity (even virtual proximity) that really seem to last.

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It’s all about the user, dear.

25 September 2007

I find it interesting how web publishing so clearly mirrors print publishing. Perhaps not the advertising model — that’s still in flux in both camps — but the user model. Newspaper editors are concerned with two types of stories: the ones that the readers want to read, and the ones that the readers need to read.

Then I think about my local newspaper. There’s the police log, the fire log, the public notices, the school lunch menus — all the stuff I want, available when I want to find it. I already know it’s there. It’s referenced in the page index of the paper, so I know right where to flip. It’s always in the same font, the same size, easily recognizable. It’s easy for the user, who anticipates its existence, to locate it when she wants to.

But then there’s the stuff we need to know, but don’t know to look for. That’s the stuff on the front page, the news well, the feature well — the stuff we don’t even know to ask about, because we don’t know what we don’t know. The editors have a handle on the content. They know what they’ve got, and we readers entrust them to judge the important items, and stick them where we can’t help but see them. We need to know, even if we didn’t ask (because we didn’t know to ask, so didn’t come awanting).

As web publishers, we show our users what we think they need to read — someone has to do the information architecture, make decisions about what goes where, and frame the user’s first impression. We also need to provide users with what they want to read; we are rightly inclined to include search functionality, site maps, and other navigational aids to expose content at the user’s behest.

What drives the need? For a local paper, perhaps good citizenship. For a trade pub, something important to our careers or our businesses. For a web project…whatever you, as the content wrangler, decide to be the most important. (If you make a glaringly wrong decision — well, either you didn’t have enough information, or you’re in the wrong line of work.)

Experience in conventional publishing is a boon for anyone who’s a web developer, because although the media is somewhat different, the users are the same, and they’re looking for the same stuff. As a consumer, I don’t care if I’m reading the school committee meeting minutes on a screen or on a page. I’m the same person, looking for the same information.

As web developers, it’s our job to make sure our users can get what they need as easily and intuitively as possible. User interfaces should be developed by people who know how to develop user interfaces (e.g. editors and art directors), not database developers who have no such experience. But too often, the UI follows the backend. (Here’s a fun real-world example. Well, fun, as in, horrifying.) A clock asymptotically approaches useless if you can’t figure out how to set it — I can more easily look at my watch than dig the manual out of the glove box and profess some mysterious incantation over the trip odometer — something that I’ll not remember six months later when I need to reset the clock. Make it easy, or I’m not going to be able to get what I want or what I need.

People forget. We’re busy. And I feel rather disrespected when something that could have been made so obvious is not. As a web developer, I’m in the service of my users. It’s my job to give them what they need, to give them what they want, and facilitate their getting it. I feel pretty maternal towards my users. I wish more content owners did.

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The Cool Table

31 August 2007

What do Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; manners expert Letitia Baldrige; astronomer Carl Sagan; author Robin Cook, M.D.; Senator Patrick Moynihan; writer Molly Ivins; the late actor Tony Randall; novelist Erica Jong; and NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg have in common?

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Am I a Journalist?

23 August 2007

There’s been a good bit of discussion these days regarding journalism — what is it, who’s doing it, are bloggers ‘journalists’ — and it’s got me thinking. OK, honestly, my first thought was, “It’s a semantic discussion, and that’s stupid.” And that’s true. Call yourself what you want, people will nitpick over syntax, and I will sit over here and drink my coffee. And I’ll still believe that is the answer to the question of whether or not bloggers are journalists.

But I don’t think that’s the real question. I think the real question is, “Is the writing/reporting done by bloggers as important/useful/respectable/etc. as that of reporters and editors working in the conventional news business?” The answer to this is much more complex. One point to get out of the way right off is that the conventional news business has sunk to a profoundly low level in many places. If a blogger wants to associate herself with what mainstream media has become, then good for her. But let’s consider also that there is, in fact, some really good journalism going on in some places. That there are reporters, editors, and photographers who really do want to write well for the communities they serve. That there really are journalists out there who aren’t manipulated by advertisers, who work very hard to avoid bias, who are trustworthy, and as such, have good connections. There are journalists who are willing to spend time at libraries, in archives, in people’s offices, and out on the street to really get news — and not just news, but news and context. Then we pair these journalists up with editors and fact-checkers, and there we have some serious media. Excellent reportage, good storytelling, clean grammar. This is sort of the pinnacle of journalism — what society seems to want journalists to be. (Certainly what I wish the media was today in greater measure.)

Some of these journalists blog. The fact that they blog doesn’t make them journalists, but journalists who blog. There may also be bloggers who do the sort of stuff I mention above, even though they don’t work in the mainstream media. I can’t think of any good examples right now, but I do leave open the possibility that such a person exists. (Feel free to comment with suggestions.) But we still haven’t touched on another important definition of a journalist, and that is, what is a journalist’s role in her community? Whether her community is Peoria, Illinois, or the reality-distortion field that is the blogosphere, she brings a certain value to that community by doing what she does, and has a certain obligation to the community that she serves. Some folks have articulated quite nicely what those roles and responsibilities are. In the introduction to their book The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel list “some clear principles that journalists agree on — and that citizens have a right to expect.”

  1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
  2. Its first loyalty is to citizens.
  3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.
  4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
  5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
  6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
  7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
  8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
  9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

Do most bloggers do this? No. A vast number of self-proclaimed citizen journalists don’t, in fact, meet most of these precepts (especially 2, 3, and 8 — even TalkingPointsMemo doesn’t allow public comments on its feature articles as far as I can tell, only on its blog posts). Does that mean these bloggers aren’t journalists? Nope. A blogger can surely be a journalist. Some blog posts on some blogs are definitely good examples of solid journalism. But as I have told my son on occasion, “You’re not a bad boy, you’re a good boy who did a pretty rotten thing.” Or remember the old apothegm, “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.” You don’t have to go to J-school to be a journalist. You don’t even have to work for someone who pays you and reads your stuff and then publishes it. But you do have to ensure that your writing consistently adheres to journalistic principles (including, but not limited to, the Sigma Delta Chi code of ethics).

Journalism doesn’t sell, though. It’s not sexy. When done right, it requires an investment of time and thought on the part of the consumer, and lots of people simply don’t care to think anymore. Kind of like public schools — everyone knows they have value, but no one’s really willing to pay for them. Other stuff’s more important, right? Like a fancy iPhone. So I can read my blogs on the go. (No, I don’t really have an iPhone. But I have been known to read blogs on my mobile phone. It is 2007, after all.)

So, to finally answer my own question that I posed in the title of this post. Am I a journalist? Yeah. Yes, I think I am. I spent ten years working for newspapers and magazines in various editorial capacities — from ‘abstracter of press releases’ to ‘reporter’ to ‘fact-checker’ to ‘features editor’ to ‘editor’ (and a few titles in between). I understand the importance of journalistic ethics, and responsibility to readers. But my blog isn’t a place where I try to practice journalism. I rant and rave about my wacky opinions. Sure, there might be a fact or two in there, but really, I’m just shilling for my perspective on the mortal coil. And journalism that ain’t. Even when it’s done by a journalist.

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Vacation

23 August 2007

It’s been quite a while since we’ve had a proper vacation — a few years, in fact. And while our upcoming trip to Banff isn’t going to be a proper vacation (two days of traveling, two days of vacationing), it’s really going to be nice to get away for a little while. Leaving tomorrow morning, coming home Monday night. I haven’t even thought of packing yet. However, the video camera is all juiced up and ready to go. With any luck, there’ll be a great deal of relaxing, seeing as T-Mobile plans to charge me forty-nine cents a minute for a phone call, and fifteen cents a text message, and some ridiculous per-kb usage charge for data. Off to find me a paperback.