Must try this out…

25 April 2008

Overstream allows you to add captions/subtitles to your YouTube or other videos. Awesome. (UPDATE: Now YouTube allows you to add captions directly to YouTube videos — see the May 2009 blog post here on the topic.)


Accessibility article

25 April 2008

Opera developer James Edwards makes a point about AJAX and accessibility. I definitely see, and mostly agree with, his point. But one must consider the subtleties. If a particular user interaction makes a function significantly more simple for most users to understand or interact with, but it’s not accessible, the developer has to do a lot of soul searching. Is the solution as good? His Flickr remake example works, but it’s nowhere near as appealing as Flickr’s current interface. You have to edit all the fields at once. You have to take extra steps, as a sighted user, to work with the page. But most importantly, it looks nothing like your final product when you’re interacting with it. That’s the appeal of Flickr’s current interface…there’s no difference in the admin interface and the end-user interface. It just works.

So while the point is very well taken, there has to be some happy medium, for the sake of usability. We can’t throw away, or significantly dumb down, some ideal usability for mainstream users simply to make something ideally accessible. We should make it BOTH accessible AND usable at the same time. It can be done, but it’s hard.


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. 🙂


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.


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.


Another awesome service

11 January 2008

I like Macs. I really do. And I need a .Mac account for syncing my calendar and Yojimbo. But .Mac stinks. I try to keep three computers synced, and it always seems that one or more of them doesn’t sync properly. All the machines are up to date, all software on the same version, but I regularly have to delete my sync data or perform some other magic trick to get syncing to work.

I have some workarounds for that. I’ve started using Sandy (UPDATE: Sandy’s now gone. 😦 )to track my calendar entries, and I just have all my iCals subscribe to her syndicated version of my calendar. I try to make sure that I massage my .Mac periodically so my Yojimbo entries sync. I don’t worry about bookmarks, and Address Book contacts seem to sync eventually, so I’m usually OK.

But files. OH FILES. I hate carrying a thumb drive. I fear losing them. I worry I’ll forget them. But whenever I am connected to my iDisk and try to save something on my MacBookPro, the machine hangs. DotMac is just not my friend.

Enter Jungle Disk. On the one hand, it’s so simple, I shouldn’t have to pay for it. On the other hand, $20 for a lifetime of software support and upgrades as an interface to the gignormous Amazon S3 servers is kind of a no-brainer. I could spend a few hours figuring out how to tap into S3 myself, sure. I know I’d be able to do it eventually. But my time is worth more than $20 an hour, so why not outsource that? I did. I bought a Jungle Disk client license.

I used the service for a month. I took everything off of my .Mac account and moved it onto my Jungle Disk. At 10-cents-per-gig download and 18-cents-per-gig upload, it wasn’t a budget breaker. My first month’s bill from Amazon was 21 cents. I can work on Mechanical Turk for about five minutes and make that back.

Jungle Disk works just like a regular WebDav connection. It’s a bit slower than write-to-disk, but not so much so that it is annoying or anything. And today, Jungle Disk 1.5 was released. For $1 a month (first 12 months free), you can have web access to your files, encrypted or not (you decide).

If only there were a way to sync my Yojimbo data reliably, I’d be dumping that $99 annual .Mac fee.


Web services that work

20 November 2007

Remember years ago, that neat service that got a lot of press, Wildfire? It was one of those services that you could call, and it did voice recognition — a woman’s voice responded, and she was your personal assistant. But it was expensive and complicated, and the company went for enterprise-level. On the other hand, enter Jott. Free (at least for now) service that you can call — it transcribes and then forwards your voice messages to anyone else’s email or SMS. Now, that’s just dandy, and I probably wouldn’t use it just for that…I’m rarely away from my email for so long that I can’t wait to get someone a message, and if it’s that important, I’ll just call.

But now imagine if that service could send your messages not to other humans, but to other SERVICES. That’s where IWantSandy comes in. Sandy is your personal assistant, and to get her to do stuff or remember stuff, you just send her an email, or even cc: her on an email to someone else. Any date/time/event/contact information is extracted from the email, and added to your Sandy repository. Which is fine and dandy, except I already use iCal. Well. Sandy also syndicates your Sandy calendar, so you can subscribe to it in iCal, and then the events in your Sandy calendar show up as events in your everyday calendar — even syncing to your iPod or iPhone or other PDA that speaks iCal.

The other day, I had Sandy remember stuff about Thanksgiving. I even told her what I was going to need from the grocery store. Now, when I get to the store, I can drop Sandy a quick note (or call her through Jott) asking her for my grocery list, and she’ll email my grocery list to my phone.

When I started using these services, I wanted to dive in and figure out how they work, so that I could tweak them to within an inch of their lives. I started reading the developer API doc. Then Sandy sent me a reminder about an upcoming event, and I stopped reading. I have a basic enough understanding of how it works. But what’s more important is THAT it works. As Ben Schneiderman said at World Usability Day New England 2007, it’s not about what computers can do, it’s about what you can do with computers.

I was telling a colleague about these services this morning. He thought the confluence of these services was pretty cool, and then he asked if any of our ‘clients’ had been asking for this kind of support. I explained that, no, these are bleeding-edge kinds of uses, and only the earliest of adopters would be using them — and those folks can generally support themselves. But what if we set up Jott/Sandy accounts FOR them, and just told them how to use the services? Not how they work, not the ins and outs, just, “Call this number, say these things, and then in five minutes, sync your iPod, and it’ll show up.” We could even create our own wrapper around the services, so as to not make them scary and intimidating or disjointed, or even make them not seem Web 2.0 (which some folks DO find scary). Just, hey, here’s a cool thing. Call, wait, sync. Period.

I’m going to have to play with these some more.