Istanbul from the Bosphurus. See the whole set on my photography site.

Surfing the Information Tsunami

Jul 15 | Comments (0)

Recently, I was part of a presentation to the team about social media. It's interesting to see how widely varied our knowledge and perceptions as a company of fifty people are. We bring to the equation the biases and limitations of our experience. "Social" means interacting with people; and just because it's interacting online, doesn't mean we're necessarily any better at it—or more comfortable with it—then we are in person.

But that's not really my point. During the discussion following the presentation, one of my colleagues asked about keeping up with and participating in the the ever increasing sources of conversation. It's a problem that I have been wrestling with for the last few months, especially as my focus has turned increasingly toward social media. The textbook answer, and the one I suggested to my colleague, is that we must each decide what is important to us and focus on that. I further suggested that it is ok for a company or a brand or an individual to only participate in those networks and conversations that best engages with their core audience.

That answer, of course, is somewhat glib and facile and ignores the fact that even when culling down the signals to only the most relevant, the flood of data is still more then we can process. So what next? Are better tools the answer? Perhaps. But it is far more likely that fighting the information overload battle with better tools is at best an arms race of cold war proportions. Information is increasing at an exponential rate and new tools are not really keeping up. So what next?

One idea (and it's certainly not a new one) is the concept of editors and curators. Steve Rubel wrote about this a few years ago on MicroPersuasions. In his post Rubel suggests that the difference between a curator and an editor, is that the editor must fill a finite space and the curator seeks only to unearth treasures that fit a purpose or viewpoint. I might extend this to suggest that the editor seeks those things that are timely, while the curator seeks those which are timeless. John Gruber, the noted Mac philospher and pundit, is an editor. His posts are always timely and generally insightful, even when they are short and pithy—or perhaps most often when they are short and pithy. Jason Kottke, on the other hand, is a curator of the "liberal arts 2.0" and a shining example of how a good curator can provide a steady stream of new and relevant content.

Shaun Inman recently launched a new feedreader, Fever, which purports to take "the temperature of your slice of the web and show you what's hot." Based on your personal collection of feeds, Fever calculates which posts are most relevant to you by looking at how many other sites are linking to a particular topic. While an interesting idea, I believe that Fever suffers from two fundamental flaws. One technical and one existential. The technical problem comes from Shaun's decision to make Fever a server based app, thus limiting its utility to programmers, developers and other fellow geeks with the necessary skills and infrastructure to use it. Second, and more importantly, it attempts to determine relevance based on mathematics and relevance is a much fuzzier proposition.

Fever does, however, represent an important step on the journey to machines as editors and curators. But until the singularity, I'll continue to look for the Gruber's and Kottke's to keep me informed and safe from drowning in the information ocean.

Broadband’s Utility

Jun 08 | Comments (4)

There are certainly many things in this country that need to be fixed or improved. The recession has opened the floodgates of public works projects to improve or repair infrastructure across the country. It's The New Deal for a new century. One key piece of infrastructure that hasn't benefited, however, is broadband internet access. Perhaps overlooked is the wrong word since, in our current environment, broadband is private enterprise. Unlike our physical highways, sewers, water and electricity, internet access has remained the purview of deregulated telephone and television carriers. Is it any wonder, then that the United States ranks 15th in a recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development study? Worse, yet are the frequent pockets of households where high-speed internet access is available, but only from one carrier, creating a mini-virtual monopoly. So, it is with great interest that I read a recent MediaPost article reporting that a Minnesota appeals court has "ruled that Web service is a utility that towns may finance with bonds." This ruling is in response to a 2007 bond issue from the town of Monticello, Minnesota for a municipal owned fiber optic network. While this ruling only effects towns in Minnesota, it's another step in the path to building sufficient case law to support similar efforts across the country. Of course, this is only one plank in the universal broadband platform. The federal government needs to make it a priority, like universal healthcare. Until the issue is addressed with the same weight as these other social issues, our national communications infrastructure will remain at the whim of business.

Are You Qualified to be a Professional?

Jul 07 | Comments (0)

I don't remember where I originally found this, but I find it very amusing. Your mileage may vary!

The following short quiz consists of 4 questions and will tell you whether you are qualified to be a professional. The questions are NOT that difficult.

1. How do you put a giraffe into a refrigerator?

Correct Answer: Open the refrigerator, put in the giraffe, and close the door. This question tests whether you tend to do simple things in an overly complicated way.

2. How do you put an elephant into a refrigerator?

Did you say, Open the refrigerator, put in the elephant, and close the refrigerator? Wrong Answer.

Correct Answer: Open the refrigerator, take out the giraffe, put in the elephant and close the door. This tests your ability to think through the repercussions of your previous actions.

3. The Lion King is hosting an animal conference. All the animals attend.... except one. Which animal does not attend?

Correct Answer: The Elephant. The elephant is in the refrigerator. You just put him in there. This tests your memory.

Okay, even if you did not answer the first three questions correctly, you still have one more chance to show your true abilities.

4. There is a river you must cross but it is used by crocodiles, and you do not have a boat. How do you manage it?

Correct Answer: You jump into the river and swim across. Have you not been listening? All the crocodiles are attending the Animal Meeting. This tests whether you learn quickly from your mistakes.

I realize this is only slightly better than fifth grade humor, but we can all use the opportunity to get in touch with our inner child.

Paying the Bills: Sweating the Details in User Interaction

May 31 | Comments (0)

Every month as I pay bills online I am plagued by a number of very small but crucial details that cause me to stumble. This article isn't about calling out the designers and developers who built the online billpay tools I use. I understand the process these developers go through and the circumstances under which they labor. I have nothing but admiration for them. I am interested, rather, in educating you, the business stakeholder.

Usability testing is not a dirty word. Providing adequate time and resources to do build elegant and usable web applications is not the place to trim costs if customer satisfaction, error reduction and customer retention are your goals. And most of all, you are not a designer or usability expert. Please hire the right people, give them the resources to do their job and stay out of their way.

Of course, if one of these issues is the result of a design decision -- please pick up a copy of Luke Wroblewski's book, "Web Form Design:Filling in the Blanks" and "Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability" by Steve Krug.

Before I jump into the nits, a quick overview of paying bills the 2008 way. Or at least my way. My process begins with a spreadsheet in Google Docs. I used to use Excel, but Google Docs does everything I need and let's me use whichever computer I happen to be in front of at the moment. It also means crucial data is automatically saved "in the cloud" instead of on a machine that may fail or get stolen. And yes, I do backup the Google Docs file to my machine. I'm not that trusting. My Google Docs spreadsheet contains a list of all of my recurring bills with the amount I've paid each months. Pretty basic. The value of this system is that I don't miss any bills — they're all in the list; plus I can see what I've been paying over the last year which helps me catch any bills that change dramatically.

My next step is to open a folder of tabs in Firefox. I have one folder of tabs on my bookmark bar devoted to bills and I can open these all at once by choosing "Open all in tabs" at the bottom of the menu. With all of my tabs open and my spreadsheet ready and start by visiting my online bank site to mark off those bills that are auto paid — crucial bills like the car payment and mortgage. Generally I avoid auto pay; I like to have a little more control than that.

On to nit #1. Logging in. Websites the world over allow you to save your username and password via cookie, or at the very least don't actively block the password manager built into most browsers. Regions Bank does. I believe this is a misguided attempt at "increasing security." Personally, I'd like to have a little more control. At least the option of using my browsers built-in password manager — like every other site I know. Also, while we're talking about logging in. Try testing your site's functionality in a mobile environment like an iPhone. Region's login fields have default text in them which in a desktop browser is automatically removed via Javascript when you click in the field. Not so on the iPhone. There I have to click in the field. Navigate my cursor to the end of the field and then backspace to delete the phrase "Enter Login ID". Not cool.

Regions Bank Login Screen

Nit #2. Not having online billpay. I'm looking at you CitiFinancial. How can you be part of the world's largest financial institution and not offer a way to pay bills online. Now you know why I no longer have an account with you.

Nit #3. Antiquated bill pay system. This problem seems particularly endemic to public utilities. AmerenUE and Laclede Gas use MyCheckFree, which is an adequate system most of the time. Metro Sewer has an out-dated system that is difficult to navigate and makes it virtually impossible to tell if you've paid your bill or not. Heaven forbid if you pay your bill in person or by mail one month. The system has no idea. Missouri American Water is the worst offender in this category, however. Their system is only a step better then paying by mail. There is no history and the system has no knowledge of your past or current bills. You must have your bill in front of you to enter your acount number and to enter the amount you owe. You must also have your checkbook in front of you to enter a check number, bank id and account number. At least they have a system!

Best Buy "Make a Payment" link

Nit #4. This is really two nits in one. Links should do what they say. If the link at the bottom of your page says "Make a payment," it should not take me to a page that offers me the opportunity to sign-up for a card. The very card I'm tyring to pay. Furthermore, once I click on the link, please don't open a popup window. I don't care that you use a third-party company to process the payments. Your branding is all over the new page. I am not mystified and I am certainly not going to close this window and then decide my experience was so wonderful paying my bill that I will buy a few more things. If I do, I'm perfectly capable of getting back to your website. And while we're on the topic, opening yet another window after declining to make a "Rush Payment" is just egregious. Figure out a way to handle rush payments with the same system.

Best Buy "Make a Payment" landing page

Nit #5. Unnecssary, non-standard information inputs. SallieMae hits the trifecta if you need to pay on a student loan. First, notice the checkbox at the beginning of the line. SallieMae helpfully allows you to choose which of your loans you're going to pay. Unfortunately, if you only have one, you still have to check this vestigal, un-identified box. Second, notice the payment amount conveniently divided into dollars and cents. Guaranteed to cause an error since every other site allows you to input the entire amount in one field. Couldn't we also have a button to automatically choose the "Pay this amount" amount? Third. Notice the date selector. Fortunately for me, I always check the "Pay Today" button. Of course, if you don't check either which is not that difficult to do, you'll be experiencing a lovely assortment of error messages. Thanks for paying.

Sallie May Payment Input Fields

Had I written this article a few months ago as I had intended, I might have had a lot more to say. Over the last few months I have noticed an improvement in the payment systems for a number of companies. AT&T most notably. I have also noticed a significant increase in annoying "security" measures like the constant barrage of little Site ID pictures and personal questions like my first girlfriend or the name of my favorite band. Some of these questions are useless (anyone can find out where I was born or what my mother's maiden name is). Other's are impossible. I'm a designer, my favorite color changes with the seasons!

All in all, for me, this system is a whole lot better then the old fashioned way. I an almost hear the voice of the computer in Wargames, "Want to pay a bill?"

Work in Progress, Mind the 45MPH Speed Limit

May 03 | Comments (0)

Everything depends on something else. I'm convinced that life would be perfect if I could knock over the right dominoe. Everything else would fall into place. In the meantime, I've decided to just start pushing over the dominoes one by one until it starts to click. My team at Paradowski is clicking. The calls keep coming and we're looking for some additional help. Ping me if you know someone (or are someone.) This blog is officially happening. Of course, I'm building this thing in the open so mind the dust.

If you're curious, it's powered by my favorite things. ExpressionEngine, Macbook Air and a few of these.

Stay tuned. More coming. Soon. Ish.

Page 3 of 5 pages  < 1 2 3 4 5 >