Envisioning the disconnected movement

I remember a few years ago reading about some official from the FCC stating that, in the future, people will no longer have what we think of as home phones, but will all have their personal phones/numbers. I also remember thinking that this sounded utterly ridiculous and unthinkable. And yet, of course, then came mobile phones, and today I find myself on a monthly basis rationalizing having both a land line and a cell phone. The idea of not having a land line would have seemed unthinkable to me only a few years ago. But I can imagine, only a few short years from now, the idea of a land line seeming a bit quaint.

A few years before that (as in ca 1994), the idea of The Web was still pretty much alien to me. I remember going into Border’s books on Liberty and State in Ann Arbor, and picking up books on the Internet and the World Wide Web, just to figure out what the difference was between the two. Looking back, it seems so pedantic. This was the age of Mosaic and Gopher and the web as the techno-utopian Savior. And then came Amazon and eBay and Yahoo! (considering that they still are three of the biggest sites on web, you have to wonder how much really has changed since then), and the web lost some its innocence (ok, the innocence thing was pretty much out the door as soon as UseNet got overrun with porn, and I am not sure if UseNet ever was not overrun with porn.)

These were the days when you’d take surveys asking how much time you spend online: “Do you spend more than an hour per week online?”  Today, or not too far from today, that is almost like asking “How much time in a day do you spend using electricity?” Being online was an active decision. You logged onto the Internet, tried not to use up all your precious minutes, and then got off the Internet.

Today, I hit the space bar on my laptop and if there is a wireless network within range, I’m connected. And as wireless networks become cheaper and more pervasive (as in the death of  the “hotspot”), I think the whole idea of being online will vanish. Instead, turning on your computer (or your PDA or whatever) is synonymous with being online.  Everything will be turned on its head and being off-line will be the extraordinary state, just like a power outage is an extraordinary event.

Aside from the sociological responses to this, which we see already sprouting up here and there today, such as the “No Cell Phones” sign at Brooklyn Social, one of my favorite local hangouts, equivalent to a No Smoking section, except what you’re forbidding isn’t so much unhealthy biologically as it might be psychologically.  As technology and connectivity become increasingly pervasive, and increasingly intimate, as in the phone going from being something you used at the post office (yes, making a call was once akin to going out for groceries) to something you had in the hallway of your home, to something in your kitchen, to something on your bedside table that could wake you at any hour, to this little thing we now carry around that vibrates in our pants.

It will likely end up being something implanted in your body. Yup, that might sound scary, but having a communication device implant may not be something out of a paranoid Philip K. Dick story but a reality before too long, and there is the inevitability of a reaction to this, akin to the Slow Foods movement which attracts urban types seeking to counter the fast pace of city life, such as what I would call the Disconnected Movement, where you would go offline, maybe pay money to be able to disconnect The Leash that is what always-on wireless connectivity effectively becomes.

Sort of ironic. I wonder if there will be “No Internet” cafes, in which connectivity is blocked out, or “Disconnected Cruises” where there will be no email or cell phones. It might seem far-fetched, though I can imagine myself going on such a cruise a few years from now.

Google desktop 2 and streaming email

I’ve only had the new version 2 of Google Desktop installed for a few days and already it’s had a transformative effect, not in terms of desktop search (which I don’t use a lot), but in terms of the email aggregation feature. Since email is such a central aspect of everyday computing, it really is quite significant when a single tool suddenly shifts you away from the various tools you previous were clicking around in on your desktop to check webmail or Outlook mail or whatever. Now, it’s just like another feed that I’m checking in the Sidebar – it took me a day or so to get used to the concept. At first, I wanted to keep deleting new mails that appeared in the sidebar, and was actually a bit annoyed at Google for not only making it hard to remove email appearing in the side, but also realizing that you still needed to go into the email to delete it there as well. But I then realized that there really is no need to delete anything – it’s just a feed, and it allows you to not have to keep switching to your email client all the time. Instead, you get just enough information to make a determination if you want to actually go to the file. As an aggregator app, google desktop also shows me email from both outlook and gmail in a single stream, which I love – I don’t care where it came from, I just want to see a running list of my messages. One huge bonus is that I get to see all the messages from lists, which I have set in gmail to be filtered into their corresponding categories and not show up in the inbox, since that creates too much clutter, but seeing them in a stream is fine. Another thing I love about the sidebar is the scratch pad – I typed this blog entry into the scratch pad while waiting for a file to download.

Bagging grocerices and software feature bloat

So I’m standing in the checkout line at Whole Foods at Union Square in New York City, where they’ve basically got long lines from open until close, and then I finally get to the always-friendly cashier, who rings up my groceries, and then proceeds to bag them. Having lived much of my life in Europe, it’s always struck me as unfortunate that, in most U.S. supermarkets, cashiers or someone assisting them, will provide grocery bags and bag your groceries for you, while in Europe (at least in Stockholm, Berlin, and Brussels), you will almost certainly have to bag your own groceries, as well as either bring your own bag, or pay extra for supermarkets bags.

I think the reasons for this difference is likely tied to all kinds of cultural, sociological, and market factors, but, ultimately, I think customers are done a disservice by being provided this extra “free” service. Aside from coming home to discover that your canned preserves were placed on top of your bananas, having cashiers do the bagging actually slows down lines, which means more cashiers or assistants need to be hired, which means more overhead. And then, of course, there is the environmental side to the equation, by requiring customers to bag their own groceries and charging them for supermarket bags, you encourage that they bring their own bags (this is very common in Stockholm.) I usually bring my own bag when I go to Whole Foods, and even at this generally progressive establishment, I often get a confused look by the cashiers who often are not quite sure what to do with this alien variable that has been inserted into their process.

In the world of user experience design, I would call the cashier-bags-groceries feature an example of feature bloat. One of the more notoriously feature-bloated applications is MS Word. While users of this app may not be familiar with this term, they have almost certainly experienced its detriments, which basically takes the form of wading through all kinds of features you either never use or don’t really understand (when did you last do a mail merge?) to get to the 10% or so of the features that you use all the time.

The origin of feature bloat are slightly less complex than the cashiers doing the bagging in supermarkets, but may be driven by similar forces. They mostly have to do with justifying a new version of the application every few years. Just like software marketers need new exciting-sounding features that they can splash across their ads, supermarkets need to sell convenience, which often can take the shape of giving customers things they never really asked for but which it is expected will help selling the product. And this really is at the core of the issue giving users stuff they never really explicitly asked for (Do you really think a customer in a supermarket just one day refused to bag their own groceries, and so supermarket owners were forced to start bagging them? Ok, I jest, but you get my point.)

In the world of software development, every design decision implies some form of trade-off; you get one thing, you are likely giving up something else. By giving users features they haven’t explicitly asked for, they may need to either cut corners elsewhere or completely forego features that may be more important to them. In MS Word, most users just want to write whatever they need to write and print it or email it or whatever and be done with it; in supermarkets, customers just want to get their groceries and get out of there. Aware of this issue, Microsoft has in recent versions begun to for the first time reduce the number of features in MS Word; some U.S. supermarkets have actually also begun to (inadvertently?) also address the issue by having self-serve checkouts (there is one at the Kmart at Astor Place in NYC), which require customers to bag their own groceries, but is also churning up a host of new user experience issues relating to the touch screens and other devices used when doing a self-serve checkout, but I’ll save that for another posting.

A few nails in the coffin for using Visio to specify web pages

To say Visio is the wrong tool for specifying web pages just doesn’t seem to make any sense. After all, Visio is probably the software most commonly used among information architects for communicating content and interaction on web pages. But after years of using Visio, I have found it to be an increasingly unreasonable choice for specifying evermore sophisticated websites, to the point where Visio (or drawing-based programs in general) no longer is my tool of choice for specifying web pages. Here are some reasons why:

Sorry, no recycling

Rework (not to be confused with iteration) is about as close as you can get to a deadly sin in software development. By producing wireframes in Visio, which generally are delivered as images (perhaps embedded in a Word document or in a PDF file), the IA is essentially guaranteeing rework. Nothing produced in Visio can (easily) be reused by other team members, meaning that they have to waste time recreating everything already produced by the information architect. This means that content such as labels and interface copy included in the wireframe will need to be retyped by the developer and/or the visual designer, which inevitably leads to typos and more rework.

Do you speak wireframe?

Many IAs proclaim the virtues of wireframes by calling them blueprints, evoking the precisely drawn schematics used in the world of physical architecture. Unfortunately, while blueprints are based on a standardized notation, virtually every IA has their own flavor of wireframe. This, in turn, means that team members are tasked with interpreting wireframes and translating their content into the world of the web. In some cases, this is pretty straightforward, such as producing a basic form from a wireframe. But too often, this means that what the IA meant and what in fact gets built turn out to be two very different things, which essentially defeats the fundamental purpose of the specification, in which a core principal is to be as unambiguous as possible.

Design compfusion

Ever received a question from a team member to the effect of “should I refer to the wireframe or the comp when building this feature?” What they’re really telling you is that there is redundancy problem. One likely reason you are being asked this is because wireframes, since they are visual representations, inherently will contain some form of layout information, and that layout information may or may not be the same as what is appearing in the comp. This seemingly innocent question begs a larger and more fundamental question regarding the role of information architects: should information architects be in the business of specifying visual design at all? Aren’t they first forcing the visual designers hand by, say, using a 3-column layout in their wireframe? Wouldn’t it be better if wireframes contained no layout information, and that was instead defined only in the design comp? This question, of course, flies in the face of the idea behind a wireframe, but it is one that needs to be asked. Regardless of the answer, continuing to use wireframes as a specification reference after comps have been produced almost guarantees confusion among team members. Once the comp has been produced, those annotations are better served referencing the comp.

Undefined is ill defined

Wireframes do not easily allow for specifying a lot of elements that, in my view, should be specified by the information architect, such as window properties (what should happen when the user resizes the window?), and content types (this one is more doable, but can become arduous to keep consistent across multiple templates in Visio.) Some might say that this information does not belong in a wireframe, or that it is not the job of the IA to define it. Whether or not it’s the job of the IA is less important than whether or not it belongs in a wireframe.  A good specification of a web page or template should be comprehensives, i.e. everything that the person implementing that page needs to know should either be contained directly in that specification, or there should be cross-reference to the additional specification information, such as for global elements.

Think about information architecture, not about Visio

Maintaining Visio wireframes, despite efforts to modularize and streamline, can be seriously hard work – and much of that time is spent wasting your time tackling the notoriously buggy and quirky Visio software. How Visio works has nothing to do with your information architecture. Yes, there are alternatives to Visio like Omnigraffle, but you’re still spending your time thinking about how to use Omnigraffle than about information architecture.In light of the issues raised here, I am increasingly mystified by why so many information architects still cling to Visio. Is it just because that is what they assume everyone else is using so they figure they have to use it too? Or is it because they think that is what their organization requires or expects that they use? My hunch is that many information architects are using Visio because that is the tool they are comfortable with and may not really be aware of the above-described havoc they are wreaking. I am far from the first to proclaim that wireframes should cease and desist. Christina Wodtke, Nate Koechley, Thomas Vander Wal, and others, have been pleading with information architects to stop making wireframes for some time. And to be clear, I am not talking about Visio as a design tool (a personal choice), or as a tool for producing flowcharts and site maps. That is a separate discussion. This is specifically about wireframes, web pages, specifications. As web sites become increasingly sophisticated, in turn raising the bar of expectations of user experience quality, all while project lifecycles continue to grow shorter and simultaneously more demanding, I think it will become increasingly difficult for IAs to continue using Visio and still remain competitive.

Feature dependency and context of use

Imagine buying a new (and expensive) car and discovering that the car will only run if the air conditioning is turned on. You take the car back to the dealer and ask them to fix the problem. But to your surprise, the dealer informs you that that this is how the car has been designed. This seemingly surreal analogy is not too far off the mark from my experience purchasing (and later returning) the Bose Quiet Comfort 2 Headphones.

Bose Headphones

I received the headphones and was immediately impressed by their compact and light design. I plugged them into my notebook and fired up iTunes. Unfortunately, all I got was silence. No music. I called customer support to report the problem and was informed, to my surprise and great dismay, that the only way to be able to hear music is if the noise canceling is turned on.

So why is this a problem? Well, first of all, the noise canceling requires a battery, meaning that if the battery that goes into the headphones is dead, I will not be able to listen to music, even though hearing that music does not require a power source.  Second, the noise canceling is so good that a person can be standing next to you talking fairly loudly and you can’t hear a thing.  Worse, it is probably highly unsafe to be walking around in NYC with the noise cancelling on, since you would, for example, have no ability to hear an oncoming car or bus. In fact, and somewhat ironically, the insulation of the headphones is so good that you almost don’t even need to turn on the noise canceling for the headphones to reduce noise.

Why is this bad, from a design perspective? Recalling the car analogy, just as driving is the primary function of a car, listening can generally be seen as the primary function of headphones (not to be confused with the earmuffs you might see people wearing at a noisy construction site, which will become relevant in a moment.)  Just as air conditioning is a secondary feature in a car (you can have a car without air-conditioning,, but not vice versa), so noise canceling is a secondary function of headphones.

But wait a minute, you say, isn’t the primary function of these headphones to cancel out noise? Possibly, but that still doesn’t justify any kind of dependency between these features. Listening to music should not require having noise canceling turned on. there is no logical dependency between these features.  instead, the dependency has very unfortunately been manufactured into the design. And in reality it’s probably a legacy problem (for those who think that computer systems hold a monopoly on being hampered by bad design due to legacy issues, take heed.)  The Bose QC2 are the offspring of industrial grade headsets Bose designed for US Military helicopter pilots, to shut out the extremely loud noise of the chopper engines and allow the pilot to hear what was being said in their headphone intercom units.

Similarly to how the Humvee was sold to civilians in the form of the Hummer, Bose discovered a market for these headsets among business travelers sick of the drone of jet engines on passenger planes, and the Bose QC1 (bulkier than the QC2 and with a separate noise canceling box and power pack) was born.  I’m guessing that the original military headsets were drawing power for both the noise canceling and the intercom from the same source, and when the civilian version was designed, this was maybe not even have been considered as something needing to be addressed.

Would the noise-canceling/audio dependency issue not have been uncovered with some simple usability testing with civilian users? Or did Bose decide that all the rigorous testing that inevitably had been required for the headphones to pass muster in the military was sufficient, and that the (supposedly) lesser needs of civilians meant that no further testing was necessary? This, perhaps, is at the core of the issue: civilian use is obviously a completely different context from military use, which means all bets are off as to whether the design intended for the original context will be valid in the new one.

Current TV, the new M(y)TV

Current TV has been on the air for less than 48 hours, and I’m already addicted! Every piece (or ‘pod’ as they call it – one of their few less-than-great creative choices) has been intriguing, well-crafted, sometimes just simple and beautiful, sometimes just beautiful, sometimes teaching me something new – I just learned about the new and very cool kit houses – you can buy a beautifully designed and airy home for about $35,000 and have it up in less than a month, and about the very sweet and smart founder of the company that builds them. Even the ads are cool (I was actually watching a Converse ad, thinking it was a pod, and then there was just the Converse logo at the end), somehow reminiscent of the very simple but informative ads used by public broadcasting. But some of their pieces (I just can’t bring myself to referring to them as pods – I hope they decide to drop that one), are far more serious – such as the one about underground teen parties in Iran, or the suicide rate among Japanese youth. As I see it Current TV is a kind of thinking man’s MTV – it definitely has the MTV feel, but without the over-the-top cooler-than-thou glitz, with a continual flow of homemade albeit well-made programs, each of which teach you something on basically any subject – it’s strange, but the seeming randomness, and the short duration of each piece, is part of what makes it addictive – there is something enticing to think that I could actually video film something, submit it to them, and if it passed muster, they would put it on the air. While I do love the Google search highlights – they tell you what some of the most popular searches are on Google, in specific categories that is – if I had to guess, I’d say that the overall most popular searches on Google probably contain the letter s, e, and x, and all the synonyms and four-letter words – in other words, searches for porn sites, but what can you do – I love the feature. It’ll be interesting to see if they can sustain this kind of quality, and if others find the channel as addictive (and original) as I did…