Archive for the 'software' Category

Consumer trends in business applications?

ERP software analyst Stephen Jannise from SoftwareAdvice.com ecently emailed me with a link to an interesting post about social and e-commerce software trends that could be implemented in business-based software.  Trends he highlights include Twitter-like feeds, the ‘like’ button on facebook, and Google’s search autocomplete.

I don’t necessarily agree with Stephen’s perspective on each of the features he covers, but I don’t want to post about why now, because he’s running a poll and I don’t want to screw up the results for him by introducing bias. Having said that, his post raises some really interesting ideas, so get over to his palce and read the post and vote in his poll–once he posts the results (which he is going to make public), I’ll comment on the features myself.

Help text: What it isn’t for

My life has been interesting lately: We’re implementing a new library catalogue which also means re-implementing most of the library web-site.  This has meant the need, in some cases, for new help text, and while I am not a technical writer, I have done some technical writing in the past, so I got the job (that, and I put my hand up for it since everyone is busy).

In preparation for writing the help text I needed to write, I reviewed a lot of other help text, and I found a pretty common mistake: Using help text to fix up  problems with an interface.

One of the help texts I reviewed was for the search history component of a search service.  This service automatically kept all the recent searches, and allowed users to save searches more permanently, and file these saved searches away in different folders for later recall.

The help text for this service explained to users what ‘this session’s queries’ and ‘saved queries’ were, and identified the non-standard icons used for moving searches between folders. Help text in this case is a band-aid for the mistakes made in system design: the word ‘searches’ should have been used in place of the word queries, and if the folder system could not be made drag-and-drop, the icons should probably have been replaced by words (or at least standard icons).  This would have dramatically cut down the need for help text, and more importantly (given that only a tiny minority of users read help text), improve the general usability of this feature.

Whiel the feature described above was a pretty clear example of using help text the wrong way, it was far from the only example I could draw on, and this is fairly disappointing. Help text is for systems that are genuinely complex, not for putting a band-aid over poor user interface design.  When was the last time you had to read the manual to do something simple?

Wikis: Not all that wiki

One of the 23 things is to put a photo of your pet on the wiki. As mentioned on some of the other 23 things blogs, there is a slight flaw in this task: Some people don’t have pets, and some don’t want them, either. I do have pets, however, and so that part of the task was easy for me (see the masters of my universe below).

Antonia Satchmo

The rest of the task, though, from uploading the file to putting the photo on the wiki, was absolutely painful. I’m a reasonably well skilled computer scientist. I know HTML, and I have been editing webpages for quite some time. I don’t use a wiki often enough, however, to ever remember wiki codes (especially for something like a table, which is pretty complicated).

The word wiki has its roots in the Hawaiian word wikiwiki which means fast. This is because wikis are meant to be a quicker and easier way to create collaborative web pages. Some things about wiki-ing are easier than standard HTML — creating links to pages that don’t yet exist, and writing in paragraphs for example. Nonetheless, though wiki code is awkward for those of us who do know HTML, and still significantly difficult for those who don’t — a kind of perverse worst-of-both-worlds compromise (clearly at least two of my colleagues feel the same). The compromise is made even worse by the use of obscure characters like ‘|’ — does that thing even have a name?

Of course my technocentric intuition is “let’s just use HTML, everbody knows it now anwyay”. This intuition is, of course, wrong; one quick look at MySpace (and the number of HTML customisation generators for it) will demonstrate that in fact most people still don’t know HTML, and nor should they have to. The interface I am typing in now automagically generates nice clean HTML for me — why can’t wikis do the same (especially since they are translating code anyway)? Well, it turns out some of them do, and if I were to suggest ways to invite more participation in our library wiki, investing in one of those would near the top of my list.

The video below shows how easy it should be — and too often isn’t — to contribute to a wiki.

Why blog?

One of my 23 Things compatriots has recently asked a very good question: What’s the use of blogs? Why, he or she asks, should we not just share our opinions with each other using email?

Satchmo, giving his opinion of my blogging abilitiesThe flippant answer to that is that without blogs people wouldn’t have the opportunity to fancy themselves authors and awe the world with their scintillating writing (which is clearly what Satchmo thinks of me — see left*). The real answer is not so far from the flip answer as you might think: the biggest advantage blogs have over email is that they can reach an audience you don’t know, and who you might not know are interested.

Admittedly a web page can also reach a wide, anonymous audience, but web pages require technical expertise to write, are relatively difficult to update, cannot host a discussion, are relatively formal, and are low visibility until they are indexed by search engines.

So, why blog?

  • You can reach a wide audience, and they can pick up your updates without waiting for search engines to catch up, especially if your blog has an RSS feed — most blogs do by default. (To learn more about RSS, you can watch this video, or skip ahead to week 5 of 23 Things).
  • If you allow comments, you can get a discussion going. Be aware that sometimes it might take a bit of work to get people commenting (Emily Clasper writes about her experiences with comments on library blogs here, and there are some tips on getting more comments here).
  • You can put pictures (and video and sound, if you want) in context in a blog post without too much technical expertise. In email the pictures may not appear where you want them to in someone else’s email program, and in a web page you often have have quite a bit of technical knowledge to get the image in the right place.
  • Blogs are informal, easy to update, and easy to write — you don’t have to worry about when the search engine is going to go looking for you next, or getting rid of old content — new content always sits at the top. You also don’t need to know anything about HTML to publish a blog (though it can help).

Now, none of those four items might be useful to you, and that’s okay. I have a whole host of other reasons for blogging, for example this blog is to create an online web presence, to complete 23 Things, and most importantly to share my knowledge and thoughts on user experience in a way that others will hopefully find useful. Other blogs I am involved in have different purposes, for example keeping in touch, keeping track of my PhD, sharing pictures of my beadwork, sharing links with selected friends, and just for the sheer joy of writing. Some of these blogs are password protected and private, and others are merely obscure — either way the certainly aren’t intended to be widely read. Those blogs are blogs because the technology encourages writing and sharing, and because it is web-based and therefore easy to access.

In the end though, you might have no reason to blog for traditional reasons, and no inclination to blog for personal reasons, and that is fine, if blogs are not useful to you, then there is no reason to move away from email and web pages or whatever communication medium suits the task at hand (Annoyed Librarian writes well, if controversially, about this — not everything need be web 2.0). After all, a huge part of a good user experience (or good usability, for that matter) is that the tool you’re using matches the job you need to do — hammering in a nail with a tube of toothpaste is never going to be enjoyable, after all.

* This is my funny image generator effort. I did not particularly enjoy this task, and I struggled to create an image that I felt comfortable putting on this blog. In the end I made Satchmo, one of my masters, into a lolcat with an image generator that uploaded my image to its own site without my permission — I didn’t like its appropriation of my copyright and I am not linking it.

WordPress is more pressure

I decided to use WordPress for this blog for two reasons:

  1. I wanted to try out a different piece of software, and I already know blogger
  2. This is a professional blog, and everyone uses WordPress for their professional blogs, right?

I have to say, I’m somewhat disappointed by WordPress. It is techie software, and it shows. Now, sure, I am a techie. I have two degrees in computer science, and I have worked on web software intermittently for the past six years. I am also a usability person, and I am someone who wants life to be easy where it doesn’t need to be difficult, which is why I was not impressed to have to figure out format strings in PHP (or even know that WordPress is written in PHP) to set the format for the timestamp on this blog. I was also not impressed that I had to do the math myself to figure out the time difference between my location and UTC. Sure, I can do all of this (and tough cookies if I couldn’t), but why should I have to? These are things that it is easy for a programmer to build in, but that cost WordPress users time every time they set up a blog (or change their settings).

Even more disappointing was the discovery that unless I was willing to pay, I could use one of the WordPress themes (with whatever minor modifications the theme author allows), or I could use a different hosting service. Not only would I have to pay to customise the appearance of this blog, I am required to know CSS–there is no WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) sandbox, nor any easily readable stylesheets. If you’re not a techie, and you don’t want to learn CSS, I really hope you like one of the existing themes, because pretty much all you are going to be able to change is the picture on your blog.

Now, to be fair, Blogger has only recently added some of the WYSIWYG CSS features, and is owned by Google, (considered to be the great privacy bogeyman of our age by some), so perhaps I am expecting a bit much of a smaller company. Not only are some of the toys in Blogger recent, there are a couple of things in WordPress that seem nicer at first taste, notably the text editor I am typing in now (more than 3 style edits in blogger and you are for sure going to need to edit the HTML), and the fact that the make-a-link dialog doesn’t grab control of my browser (which is a real pain if you forgot to copy that web address before you clicked the ‘make me a link’ button). WordPress also offered me more up-front publicity options than Blogger did, but Blogger may have changed since the last time I set up a blog (about three years ago).

Unless WordPress wows me with some feature I haven’t yet seen, though (and remember this is only day one), Blogger is a winner for me–it is easier to use, it is easier and cheaper (read: free) to customise, and it integrates well with Google’s other services (making it easy to add pictures and other multimedia to your blog, and keeping you logged in when you are logged in to gmail, for example). I would urge anyone concerned with the privacy ‘risk’ of blogging with Blogger to consider whether they really want to blog at all; nothing on the internet is ever really private (and that includes your email, unless you run your own server and PGP encryption).

I have to assume that the kudos associated with WordPress comes partly from its early entry into the market, and partly from the techie requirements it imposes on its users–Blogger is the gauche new WYSIWYG kid on the blog, meaning everyone can blog* . Frankly, at the end of the day, I would rather use blog software that lets everyone blog, because it is easier for me to use as well.

* And what is wrong with everyone blogging, if they want to? You don’t have to read it. However, if you’re still really worried about being an everyone blogger, you can always get your own domain name and customise that Blogger look out of existence.


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