Thursday, August 26, 2004

Wired News: RSS Attracts Really Serious Money
Technorati get $6.5m - for indexing blogs only. See some of the project work done here, and some of the new ideas, for some really cool approaches to blogs, wikis and so on. In fact, don't look here - I'm running off to the venture capitalists myself with the ideas. The only problem is - what is their business model? How will they make any money at this, especially if you don't buy into the vision that having lots of pageviews = lots of customers willing to pay.

Expectation management
I'm off shortly to head south to compete in the national championships - a sailing regatta. With a crew of 8, one of the key things to do is to set expectations as to how we will do, and then attempt to perform to those expectations. It may be that we should win - or that we we should be in the top 10, or not last, or whatever, but part of successfully progressing in sport is to be able to appraise your abilities and work towards improving them, so that even a 19th place may be a perfectly reasonable result given the current context.

Changing these expectations is cognitively difficult - we were going into this with a core crew and a plan for top 5, with at least 2 top 3 results. But crew injury and illness and hassles has meant some major changes, and now we're much more likely to be middle or bottom 2/3, and this is hard for all to adjust to.

All this ramble is relevant - the same is true for learning and using systems - we need to know what we expect to get out of them, how much we should expect to know, and so on - and the systems should support us in developing these models. How to assist them do this is hard, however. Or maybe I'm preoccupied with going sailing - I'm not sure. There's certainly a lot that can be gaiend from reading coaching manuals in terms of pedagogical theories and supporting people developing their skills.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Quality versus choice in broadcasting - lessons for interactivity?
The Sunday Times has a couple of pieces that are strongly critical of the BBC's coverage of the Olympics, mainly focussing on the admittedly banal interviewing profered by the likes of Craig Doyle. Whilst he's not offensive, the stupid questions that reflect a major dumbing down (the BBC claim it is 'widening appeal', but I think we're talking the same thing) are indeed annoying ("Wow, a silver medal, great, well done" is not what a professional sportsperson expects as a probing interview question). But it got me to thinking why I wasn't as annoyed about it as the journalist in question - I mean, a lot of things usually annoy me and I write about some of them here. And I've come to the conclusion that part of the reason is that I forgive them their terrible clangers because I can choose different parts of the Olympics to watch, and so am not so tied into the director's decisions as to what is the most important. If I didn't have this choice, then I'd be more critical of what I'd been forced to watch - but instead of listening to crass interviews, I can flick across to another feed and watch something more interesting.

Does this effect feed into other interactive systems? If we choose to give users choice, will they be more tolerant of each individual offering? Can we trade quality for quantity? My experiences this past Olympic week suggest that this may indeed be an option. So searching for the best interface design may be a mistake - we maybe should be looking for a variety of options and not worrying about getting each one perfect. Perhaps we should employ a number of average designers and use all their ideas, rather than paying the same to one crack team to come up with the 'best' solution.....

Friday, August 20, 2004

BBCi and the jitters
BBC's interactive service, available to satellite viewers (4 additional feeds) and freeview ones (2 feeds), is pretty good, apart from it's Eurosport-like nature of not running to time, and having all sorts of problems with the schedule not being adhered to. It means that I can see much of the sailing, for example, without having to watch wrestling or darts.....

But it effects a strange pattern of behaviour in me, especially if there are a few quite interesting things but nothing I'm desperate to see. I settle down, choose one, and start to watch. And then I wonder if perhaps I'm not missing something rather better on another channel, so hop back up and try that. And because it takes time to dump the data over the satellite link, there are long pauses whilst pages load. And this behaviour continues..... Now, I don't get it so much between channels, since they usually offer very different things - but the choice between sports channels with similar levels of interest provkes a stressed, short attention span response which I'm sure is not just evident in me. Isn't it?

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Real vs Apple

Apple are a bit cross with Real for 'hacking' their digital rights management system so that music bought from the Real store will now play on Apple's iPod. Personally, I'm with Real - any monopoly is a bad one, even if it's held by a company as forward-thinking as Apple. But it's just occurred to me that Apple's huffing and puffing over this might all be for show. They have recently admitted that they don't actually make any money from the iTunes store, so besides a humanitarian aim of promoting cheap digital music for all, the whole thing is about selling more iPods. Now that Real are selling tunes that play on iPods as well, surely that can only lead to even more sales?

Know your user

It's probably a fairly reasonable assumption that nearly everyone registering on the Huggies website would be a mother rather than a father, but I'm sure I indicated my sex on the form and a check against that or a names database could detect that there's something wrong with their email that begins "Hi Peter, Who'd have thought it? You're a new mum..."

I wonder what other interesting gender-specific emails I'll get from them.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Intangible Computing

Oh, the joys of download-only software installs. One year and 3 days ago, we paid a rather hefty sum of money for a piece of software that today is telling me it cannot load such-and-such library, and suggests that I try re-installing it. So, I dig out the email I have which has the download details in it, only to find that the username and password don't work anymore. I don't have a CD, we went for the download-only option. I need to use this software today, how do I re-install it? I've emailed the support team, but they're in Australia and as such won't read the mail until earliest tomorrow. Why doesn't my password work anymore? I can understand them denying me any more upgrades after a certain period of time, but surely I ought to still have access to the piece of software I originally paid for? This model of software purchase is broken, and I think I'll try and get hold of install disks in the future.

Update: I've had a response from the software company, and they tell me my subscription has expired, and so I cannot download the software. So we didn't actually buy this software, we just leased it for a year. Nowhere in the original emails did it stress the need to keep the original installer files to hand. What kind of a distribution model is that?

BBC NEWS | Technology | An internet to go, please

Bill Thompson bemoans the continuing need for technical know-how in order to solve problems involved in getting and staying online. I think he's right to argue for the need for internet devices to be more like kitchen appliances, in that we just switch them on and go, without needing to worry about whether our new toaster is compatible with the newest FastToast protocol. But making internet appliances this easy to use has been tried, and they just didn't catch on with consumers. I've wondering about why that might be the case, and I guess it comes back to the addage "Build a system that even a fool can use, and only a fool will want to use it". Maybe it's possible to make things just too simple. We've seen TVs with built-in internet, and phones with built-in email... but they didn't really take-off in the way you'd expect if there was a desperate market need for these things. Or maybe they were just marketed badly, or maybe despite their apparent simplicity they actually weren't any easier to use. I don't have the answers, I'm just wondering, like Thompson, why it is that we haven't seen any real 'internet appliances'. I think companies have tried, and it's turned out that the rapidly changing face of internet computing means that any ready-to-go internet box is by design unable to cope with the upgrades and changing configurations needed to keep it up to date with modern internet developments. That makes me wonder if maybe the internet itself has become far too baroque, and the equipment required to read it has become far too specific. I guess it's probably a bit of a chicken and egg situation too: if everyone had internet TV boxes, the people who make the web pages would have to design accordingly. as it is, most of us have IE6, and so the pages are designed for this. Will the internet ever experience a 'back to basics' drive, or will we all just stop moaning as we drift off into retirement and our much more technically-minded offspring take over the PC?

Friday, August 13, 2004

"Where's my stuff?"

I've got a couple of things for sale on Amazon's Marketplace at the moment, and I received an email from someone asking me where their order was, claiming they had ordered it a week or so ago. Anyone familiar with Marketplace will know that Amazon mediate the buying & selling, so any order should have been forwarded to me from Amazon direct. I knew this, and I found I hadn't received an order, so I checked into it with Amazon, and they say they didn't get an order. There are of course 2 possibilities, firstly that someone was trying to scam me, and hadn't placed an order at all, or that Amazon's system for some reason failed to register an order. I asked the buyer if he'd received anything from them, but he hasn't replied.

What struck about this situation is that my very first instant reaction was to feel apologetic and want to get this item to the buyer - I thought I must have missed the email and that I should endeavour to get it dispatched. Despite being 'new' on Amazon, I have managed sales before for someone else, and so I know how it works. Someone who was genuinely 'new' might not, and might have asked for an address, and then gone to the post office... Whether this was a scam or not, it got me thinking about how we respond to certain queries in inappropriate ways, like answering the question "Do you know what your PIN is?" with "yes, it's 1234". Hackers would have a lot to say about this - in fact they have a term for the variety of techniques used to persuade or trick people into giving out passwords, security privileges etc - they call it social engineering. So maybe someone just tried to socially engineer me, or maybe Amazon screwed up. I'd go with either, but I plan on practicing being cautious first, and helpful later.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Old computers never die...

I've been trying to recapture my youth and find out what made those old computer games so great by setting myself up with a few emulators and downloaded games. I've known for a while that this kind of thing was out there, but getting into this in a bit more depth (I'm now running a Commodore 64, a BBC Model B, and an Amiga on my laptop) I have been amazed at the sheer size of the community dedicated to preserving and lovingly recreating these older platforms. I've spent some time tracking down a copy of a game I was particularly fond of, only to find that web sites devoted to it and how to get it playing as well as possible using an emulator. I can honestly say this is more than just nostalgia - there's a quality to the games that I think is missing from the more recent wave of 'console' entertainment. Don't get me wrong, I think consoles are great, as my hours on my PS2 will testify. But the sheer addictive quality and sense of groundbreaking, classic gameplay? That's something I haven't seen since my Amiga. These machines, especially the 8-bits, really were pushed to their limit to deliver new and innovative titles. I guess my thought for today is that this relentless advancement of hardware takes away the game programmer's need to perform a minor miracle in code, and addictive gameplay elements all too often give way to enhanced lighting and shading effects. All my old favourites demand the exercise of my imagination because, put simply, the graphics are crap. But I still enjoy playing them. Some might sayI'm just a nostalgic geek, but others will understand (won't you?) :)

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Share your snaps - whether you want to or not...

Another example of how we leave traces of personal data everywhere, often without realising. It would seem that at least one Kodak photo printing kiosk (you know the sort - insert memory card and print) has been letting punters select "Previous Pictures" and hey presto, serving up the snaps taken by the person who last used the machine. Kodak claim that this feature shoud be disabled, and that the branch of Boots in question must have re-enabled it, but why did the kiosks ever have this function in the first place? Why would the kiosk ever need to store the pictures it just printed? Why would it ever need to re-use them? Why would this feature ever be enabled for public use? Kodak try and shift the blame, but I have serious concerns about the original design. It hardly seems as if the privacy and security of the user are being treated with the utmost respect, does it? And if one machine does this, it's likely there are more out there doing the same thing. Taking your pictures somewhere to be developed or printed is one of those trust relationships that we count on without giving it too much thought. We'd be outraged if we thought the developing staff were passing out copies of our holiday snaps to the next customer. We should be able to count on the same kind of trust when using an automated service.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Grabbed by the virtual scruff of the neck

ah, those folks at Natwest bank have obviously realised I keep skipping past their "warning: bogus emails on the loose" page without reading it. I'd started to wonder what would happen if they did actually want to use this page to try and tell me anything important. well, today they grabbed my attention by refusing to enable the 'next' button until I'd clicked on a checkbox marked 'I've read this page' or something similar. so I read the page, this time. next time I'll just be ready to click the checkbox. so next time they want to grab my attention, they'll have to do something different. maybe a mini quiz on the content of the page?

y'see, clicking that checkbox doesn't actually mean I've read the page... but I'm sure that legally they feel much more at ease.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

TheFeature :: Why Mobile Services Fail
I'm busy at the moment trying to beef-up the methodology section for a research proposal, looking around for work that's been done on new metaphors for mobile services. I came across this feature by Howard Rheingold, who cites the work of Scott Jenson, talking about why mobile services, like MMS and WAP, have largely failed to take off because the designers (or maybe marketers) of these services are still looking backwards at what has worked before, rather than forwards at what might work next. MMS is not the same as sending a text message, so selling it in the same way doesn't work. WAP is not like browsing the web on a small screen, so again it just doesn't work. The strengths of these technologies (and there are some) lie just ahead of us, buried in ways of interacting that we haven't quite taken up yet. Jenson identifies 4 killer apps - I'll let you go and read about them yourself. my favourite is the textless text message: blank message with no text and only a time of sending still carries information to someone who is expecting it.

Jenson's own piece, Default Thinking, is due to appear in Harper, R. Palen, L.. & Taylor, A. (Eds), (Forthcoming 2004) The Inside Text; Social perspectives on SMS in the mobile age, Kluwer, Dordrecht, Netherlands

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Yoof and mobiles
Mizuko Ito presents her research showing how young people involve the mobile phone as part of their co-located social interactions, especially involving text messages as part of their interactive discourse. The less socially intrusive text message allows them to continue their face-to-face interactions, and is often incorporated into those discussions - however, the voice call which requires their full attention, is much more of a distraction and social faux pas.

It reminds me that I really must continue the work on triggers and time design that models this..... I presented a different perspective on the same issues wascolumn in usability news recently that covered virtual absence, rather than augmented presence, but some of the underlying principles are the same.

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