The New MTA Email Alert System – Replacing a real flood with an email flood

About a year ago, we had a deluge of rain that flooded the New York City subway system and basically shut several lines down completely for a day or more. The already crumbling NYC Transit’s infrastructure was simply unable to handle this amount of sudden rainfall. Soon after, the authority promised to make significant improvements, to be able to better handle an event like this in the future. One of these improvements was to better inform travelers of any possible issues with the subway service, so that they could plan accordingly. A week or so ago, with great fanfare, the MTA announced a new alert system that people could subscribe to, which would provide up-to-the-minute alerts about issues with the subway service.

So far so good.

I signed up for the new alert system and quickly discovered that the solution, aside from being fairly archaic in terms of how people subscribe and make their selections, simply is not the right fit for the problem. The reason for this is the somewhat tragic reality of New York’s subway system: it is effectively in a continual state of emergency. In other words, there are *always* a number of ongoing problems, such as a signal problem, a sick passenger, and on and on. Here is a sampling of alerts I received recently:

Smoke condition at 42nd St, Euclid C trains running exp from 59th St to Canal St and WTC E trains running exp from 42nd St to Canal St.

Police investigation at 86th St; Crown Heights 4 and Brooklyn Bridge 6 trains running express from 125th St to 42nd St.

Sick customer at Roosevelt Avenue, Jamaica bound E and 179th St bound F running local Roosevelt to Continental.

Now, imagine getting alerts like this in your inbox on a continual basis. Even if it may just be once a day (though these alerts are popping into my inbox throughout the day), you will eventually start to just ignore them or get sick of them and unsubscribe from the alerts. The problem here is that I am receiving a continual stream of information that most of the time is irrelevant to me, and would only be relevant to me at the particular point in time when I plan to ride the subway. For that reason, I think a pull rather than the current push model would make more sense. In other words, whenever I plan to ride the subway, I’d have a bookmarked link or whatever that would take me a to a page summarizing what was happening at that moment. Or, if I wanted to get even fancier, I’d have something like an iPhone app (or a Crackberry app, though I don’t know if they have GPS), which would automatically customize the info displayed based on my current location.

I am hoping that the initial version of the system is only just that, an initial version, and that there are plans to provide information in a way that is more timely and relevant.

Twitter’s Reply Weirdness

One thing about Twitter that I’ve never really understood is the way that the reply to feature works, i.e. the ability to precede your tweet with @[username] of the person whose tweet you’re replying to.

Replying to another tweet in Twitter

Let’s say the person I’m replying to happens to be a user that I’m following but they’re not following me. In that situation, shouldn’t Twitter let me know that the user I think I am going to reply to isn’t going to see my reply? In other words, when using @reply, won’t users think that their reply will actually be seen by the intended recipient? The reality, of course, is that the only person who sees my reply is me and those that are following me. Maybe there is something about Twitter that I just don’t get, but it would seem as if, when someone clicks on the reply-to link, that Twitter should check to see if that person is following you, and if they are not, display a message to the effect of that this person won’t see your reply.

Is it just me, or is not having a message like this a ui screwup?

Some Thoughts About the Balsamiq Mockup Tool

There is, of course, a slight irony in that only a few days ago, I was writing about why I don’t use prototyping tools, and here I am writing a review of a prototyping tool. Well, not quite. I think Balsamiq is actually more of a sketching tool, partly because the artifacts generated from the tool don’t try to fool viewers that it’s a representation of the real thing. Some prototyping tools, particularly the higher end editions, pride themselves in being able to mimic the user experience of the actual application. Unless that simulation really truly mimics the actual user experience of the not-yet-built production version of the application, the feedback you get from users may actually be completely irrelevant. For that reason, I really like the Balsamiq approach of being overtly sketch-like, a constant reminder that this is an idea in progress, and an invitation to tear it apart as necessary.


Like McCain might’ve said, “the fundamentals of Balsamiq are sound.” No, but seriously, I think the fundamental concept of a light-weight tool with ready-made sketch-like widgets can be a very effective model for quickly roughing out and sharing ideas. Overall, I think Balsamiq is a tool with a lot of potential, and certainly a worthy competitor to Gliffy (or a complement, since Gliffy seems to focus more on diagramming.) In its current form (I was trying version 1.5), I think I’d definitely add it to my toolbox, but for reasons I list below, the times when it would make sense for me to use it would likely be narrow.


Having to download an application like this feels a little old-skool. Seems like it should be possible to use the tool directly within a browser (and I’m guessing that’s something we’ll see in a future version.)

User Interface

Somewhat ironically, one area that really could use improvement is the user interface of the tool itself. The need to scroll horizontally to access widgets, for example, is simply not great. Additionally, a lot of basic UI issues, such as the affordances of the widget categories (both in terms of text size and “I’m-clickable” quality) really could use some work. The good news is that this is probably something that wouldn’t be that hard to fix. Here is quick mockup I created with Balsamiq of one possible idea for a redesign:

My proposed redesign of Balsamiq

My proposed redesign of Balsamiq (click image for larger view)

The main change I am making here: Applying a more standard application structure. Let’s keep the experimentation on the art board, and not force users to figure out the UI of the application itself. Additionally, I think the look and feel of the application UI should be obviously different from user-created sketch widgets – currently, it’s all a bit of a blur.

Actual Drawing/Sketching

Not being able to just draw freeform is almost a show-stopper for me. This just seems so fundamental to the idea of sketching, and becomes particularly critical for a tool like this, in which (as I discussed in my earlier post about prototyping tools) you will inevitably and possibly quite commonly need to add something for which there simply is not a good ready-made widget.


I wasn’t able to try sharing or embedding the tool, but from my experience using Gliffy with Confluence, if Balsamiq is anything like that, I think that definitely adds value to the tool.

Widget Library

I found the organization of widgets confusing, seeming to always be clicking between the Layout and Containers categories or whatever, hunting for the right widget. I think the ability to toggle a full-screen gallery of widgets might be the way to go. Also, despite being at the top of the page, the widget search feature is not obvious (possibly an affordance issue due to the lack of a search button.)

Paper Prototyping Template Maker?

One great use for this tool would be to create paper prototyping foundations. In other words, one would perhaps produce an application wrapper, and then print multiple copies of that to then physically draw application sketches.

Feature Wishlist

Some things I’d like see in Balsamiq (aside from freeform drawing) is the ability to define my own favorite widgets. Additionally, I’d like to be able to upload widgets I’ve created in other tools and not only add them to my library, but also post them to a community library, in which I would be able to browse widgets created by others. I also think the sketch pad background is cute, but not very practical. Would want to be able to turn it off, or create my own sharable background, such as a browser window shell.

Overall, I think Peldi and the Balsamiq team have done great work. Keep it up!

Re-discovering the ProtoNotes Prototype Annotation Tool

Todd Warfel, by way of a comment he made on my recent article on B&A, re-introduced me to ProtoNotes. I remember hearing of it a year or so ago and thought it seemed an interesting concept, but then sort of wrote it off because it only worked in IE 🙁

But apparently ProtoNotes was re-launched a few months back, and now seems to be a far more palatable and potentially useful service. On the plus side, it’s a very simple concept. You essentially register with the website, after which they send you a JavaScript snippet that you can then just drop into the header of your XHTML prototype. Then, when viewing your prototype, you get a nice toolboar on top, where you can add new notes, view current notes, as well is view a list of all notes applied to that template. And maybe most important of all, you can hide the toolbar, so as to not confuse non-technical users who might think that the ProtoNotes toolbar is part of your design. There are also a few customization options, including the ability to store your notes in your MySQL database.

The one huge drawback that I see with the current version of the concept is that it is a hosted service. In other words, let’s say I’m showing my prototype to a client and, for whatever reason, the ProtoNotes site is down, and without warning my annotations aren’t accessible. Not good. For that reason, it seems me that ProtoNotes should optionally be made available as downloadable and locally installable package, eliminating the dependency on the service.

I also think there could be a non-branded version that would be available for purchase. (I.e. that doesn’t have the ProtoNotes logo on it.)

Overall, though, I think it’s a really great concept.