Thursday, March 31, 2011

Squeezing the Most Out of Your Day

It has been quite some time since my last blog post, mostly due to other extra-curricular projects I have going at the moment. It is difficult to find time to write blog posts when family commitments, work, writing a novel for pre-teens, practicing my Akai EWI and resuming an exercise routine I had laid fallow for about half a year, all seem to get in the way.

Here's an interesting link to a website that describes how 25 famous people, such as Stephen King, Charles Darwin and Winston Churchill scheduled their day. The thing that strikes me about most of the daily routines described is that these people behaved as if the world revolved around them. Most of them even had a scheduled socializing hour - those friends who could not abide by it be damned!

I find that one of the most important skills in my job as a Technical Writer is to manage my time properly. On any given day I could find myself working on anything from proofing 300 page hardware specifications through to creating PowerPoint slides, drawing figures in Visio, teaching English grammar, coding VBA for my Access database, attending meetings and writing or editing any number of a wide range of documents. Fitting all of that into a work day is not easy. Short of stopping time so I can get more done (to stop time, do this), here are some ways I manage the ocean of work and its unpredictable nature:
  • I rely extensively on my self-made document and task tracking database to tell me what I need to do and by when it needs to be done
  • I schedule appointments with myself to work on specific tasks (and stick to it)
  • I speak to the document owners to find out what the real urgency of the work is, especially when the email arrives stamped with that obnoxious red exclamation point
  • I skim each document as it arrives in my inbox so that I can provide a realistic delivery date
  • I do everything in my power to stick to the delivery date
  • I have learned that it is acceptable to say "no" to certain requests (if they are unreasonable)
  • When I sit with customers to review their documents, I make sure to end the meeting at the scheduled time, even if the doc isn't finished (assuming no real urgency), and even if I don't have another appointment scheduled afterward
  • I am prepared to alter my schedule if the need arises
  • I often ignore my own advice and do more than one task at a time
  • I make sure to never miss lunch, which is scheduled in my calendar for 12:00 every day
What are some of your time and task management tricks?

Comments are most welcome!
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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Eat Your Own Dog Food

The joke goes that Bill Gates was once caught playing Windows Solitaire during work hours. When faced with raised eyebrows, Bill said, "What? Someone has to test it!"

I was in a meeting the other day where four people sat around the table to discuss the implementation of a particular technology into a consumer device. The way the technology was to be implemented had a direct effect on the user experience, so it was important to get it right.

It turns out that two of the four people have never actually used the device and one of the four has used it once or twice before. Only one person in the room regularly uses the technology that he develops.

"Yes," he repeated, "it might seem logical from a development point of view, but that's not how a typical user would use it. So it would be a bad idea to implement it like that!" I could see the frustration building in his face.

I was stunned. How is it possible to make important decisions about user experience in a consumer device if you never actually use the thing yourself?

This is not an isolated case. It is highly likely that the designers of my (major name brand) digital camera either don't own a camera, have never taken a photo, or (worse) only use manual SLRs! They failed miserably on a number of basic usability/UI issues. Here are a few examples:
  1. The user interface (on-screen, rather than via a dial) for switching between photo mode and movie mode is poorly designed. There are a number of seldom-used items between the photo-mode and movie-mode options, resulting in three extra button presses. This design has caused me to miss a few really good shots.
  2. The action of selecting an item from the various menus is counter-intuitive. Instead of pressing the OK button to select an option to dig deeper into the menu tree, you press the right-pointing arrow. I always forget this and press the OK button instead - it seems natural to do so because OK means "go for it",  it means "do it", it means "open it" - but not here. On this camera, OK means "go back to the beginning and wipe out the last four minutes you spent finding the correct menu option and start all over again". 
  3. There are no icons or other indicators on the camera for video playback. Sure, I could look it up in the manual (but who carries that around with the camera?) I could even try to comprehend the on-screen Help (but why would I want to put myself through that?) Would it hurt the designers to put some type of indication that the up button plays the video and that the down button stops playback?
It is clear that the manufacturer of this camera (which is actually a good camera, if you can get used to the quirks) never conducted a usability study.

The MSDN website contains an article entitled, "How to Design a Great User Experience". The last point on their list states (emphasis added):
You won't know if you've got it right until you've tested your program with real target users with a usability study. Most likely, you'll be (unpleasantly) surprised by the results. Be glad to have your UI criticized—that's required for you to do your best work. And be sure to collect feedback after your program ships.
Automated testing is not good enough - you have to use it! If that isn't practical, get your target users to test it for you. Microsoft, for one, has taken to crowd-sourced testing for some of its products. For example, Internet Explorer 9 was made available for public download as a Platform Preview, as a Beta version and then as a Release Candidate version. Give a million people free copies of the product on condition that they report bugs and usability issues, many of which you may never have found or thought of on your own - everyone uses software (and hardware) in different ways.

In a "Google Testing" blog  post of Wednesday, 23 March 2011, James Whittaker writes (emphasis added):
Google prefers to release often and leans toward getting a product out to users so we can get feedback and iterate. The general idea is that if we have developed some product or a new feature of an existing product we want to get it out to users as early as possible so they may benefit from it. This requires that we involve users and external developers early in the process so we have a good handle on whether what we are delivering is hitting the mark. 
I think that the best way to deliver a truly great user experience is not only to imagine yourself in the user's shoes, but to actually become a regular user. Only then will you really be able to come close to feeling what the user feels, be it love at first sight, or boiling frustration.

On the concept of using your own products, Wikipedia quotes Dvorak, John C. (15 November 2007). "The Problem with Eating Your Own Dog Food". PC Magazine and Ash, Lydia (2003). The Web testing companion: the insider's guide to efficient and effective tests: should allow employees to test the products in real, complex scenarios, and it gives management pre-launch a sense of progress as the product is being used in practice.

I am positive that Larry and Sergey chat about Google business on Android phones. I am certain that Steve Ballmer was using Windows 7 as his primary OS since way before it was released to market. There is no doubt that Steve Jobs relaxes in his lush garden and browses the Internet on his iPad2. And I bet that they all make sure their managers, architects, developers, testers, tech writers, salesmen and admin assistants eat their own dog food.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Review: Freakonomics

I found that some of the most interesting TED talks are those on the subject of human behavior. Dan Ariely's lectures about motivation, choice and morality are fascinating. Which is why I was thrilled to receive Freakonomics for my birthday.

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the authors of this book, treat the world like one big social experiment. They talk about what drives people to behave like they do. They discuss causality - the real factors that lead to the result. What makes this book so interesting is that the authors often overturn common perceptions and widely-held beliefs about how people behave, react, change and, most importantly, how they are incentivized.

The way I describe it makes this book sound like it was written by sociologists, rather than by economists (actually, one author is an economist, the other is a journalist.) The blurb on the back of the book explains:
...He studies the riddles of everyday life - from cheating and crime to parenting and sports...they show that economics is, at its root, the study of incentives - how people get what they want or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing.
Many years ago I studied economics (two years in high-school and one year at university) and it was never as interesting as the subjects in Freakonomics. And that is just it: You don't have to be an economist or have any training in analyzing data to appreciate the content in this book. The way the information is presented and the explanations of the findings are appealing across the board.

Freakonomics is an intelligent and entertaining read. The authors provide case-studies on a wide range of topics from the effect of the legalization of abortion on the crime rate, to cheating teachers, to sumo wrestlers, to the Klan and the organizational structure of drug gangs. All of the information presented is footnoted and backed-up by real data.

Freakonomics is very American-centric, although the principles and topics discussed can be used to describe most Western cultures, and probably many non-Western cultures, too. However, don't expect any great revelations on how to leverage the book's findings to maximize profits - this is not a business book. In the Q&A section at the back (I read the 2009 expanded edition) one of the questioners asks why the book does not provide any guidance for business. The answer: The questioner is correct - no guidance for business on how to use the lessons learned are provided; perhaps in a future book. As a public service, I'll distill the book down to three main points:
  • The cause of the result is not always obvious, though it might seem so
  • The human race is an incentive-based species
  • You can't trust schoolteachers
Catch the Freakonomics blog at (also in the blogroll on the right-hand side of this page.)

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Hanging on to Market Share: Can IE9 Keep Up With the Lads?

In my most recent post, I asked you which browser you use. The question was prompted by the news that Microsoft is actively encouraging the 12% of Internet users still running IE6 to upgrade to one of their more up-to-date browsers.

The following is from StatCounter, the service I use to monitor hits on this site. This graph depicts the breakdown of browsers accessing this blog (the numbers inside the bars indicate the browser version):

The majority of you access this blog via IE, followed by Firefox and then Chrome. These statistics are largely compliant with the worldwide browser usage numbers (see below).

In the early days of popular Internet, Internet Explorer killed Netscape Navigator (here's the story: "Netscape Navigator is Dead: The Rise and Fall of Our Favorite Browser".)  Surviving a lawsuit that sought to prevent MS from including IE as the default browser in Windows systems, IE held on to the lion's share of the market. However, the tide is shifting.

This from Wikipedia:

It would seem that IE is still solidly in the lead. However, all is not rosy for the veteran browser. IE has lost a ton of market share, especially to Chrome, which came from a market share of zero to nearly 11% in almost no time (Firefox has remained relatively flat in terms of market share.) According to this blog post on
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer market share bled for seven months continuously as the company struggles to convince users to pick Internet Explorer for their browsing needs.
Furthermore, a spectacular IE8 hack in this year's CanSecWest Pwn2Own security competition received much attention. Cnet News reports:
[Stephen] Fewer's IE exploit was the most impressive of the contest, according to Portnoy. "He had three different vulnerabilities he used in tandem to exploit IE and break out of IE's protected mode, which is Microsoft's equivalent to sandbox architecture," he said. "It was a unique technique he discovered."
To be fair, Safari, iPhone and Blackberry were also hacked; prepared hacks for Chrome, Firefox , Android and Win7 did not eventuate for a variety of reasons.

However, all does not seem to be lost. IE gained a few market share percentage points of late, increasing it's slice of the pie to approximately 56.77%.

The penny seems to have dropped at Microsoft's Redmond headquarters. To date, Windows has been the leading operating system and IE has almost always held top ranking. That's a nice situation for any company to be in. But MS has woken up to the fact that users are no longer in awe of Microsoft products simply because they bear the famous logo. Users are more savvy, they are more demanding and they are not scared to try other brands - they have a choice and they know it.

Among others, OSX, Linux, iOS, Android, Firefox, Chrome, and WebOS are all excellent alternatives to MS products, each in their own way. In recent years, consumers have clearly and loudly voiced their opinions about MS software. Windows Vista was a dismal failure. IE7 and IE8 did not help to increase, or even maintain, Microsoft's grip on the browser market. When faced with competition, MS was forced to pull up its socks and come through with top-quality, competitive products (Win7 for mobile notwithstanding.) Another Vista-like OS would have destroyed Microsoft's reputation in that market. Likewise, a slow, heavy, lumbering old-school browser would likely have caused the younger, sleeker browsers to boot IE out of the browser-war forever.

MS may have saved themselves. Windows 7 has been lauded as an excellent choice of operating system. IE9 beta (and now IE9 RC) has been downloaded more than 36 million times since it became available in September 2010. It has also been given a good rap by reviewers as being fast and feature-rich. In a February 2011 review of IE9 RC, Michael Muchmore of PCMag writes:
Though this is called version 9 of IE, in some ways it feels more like a version 1: it's a complete rebuild of Microsoft's browser...IE9 is the result of a massive effort by a large team of super smart people, and huge number of beta testers. And it's an impressive, innovative app that I'm sure will come to benefit millions of Web users, especially once graphics-heavy sites are common.
Michael Muchmore goes on to say that it is still too early to rate this browser. After all, it is still only a Release Candidate, but he indicates that it is a solid offering from Microsoft.

Microsoft must remain vigilant. As they make steady gains, Microsoft has to make sure that IE9 keeps up with the lads. Firefox 4, with a shiny new look-and-feel, is nearly here (the Firefox Release Candidate is already available) and Chrome 11 is purported to be the fastest browser on the market (at least on systems running OSX.)

We are yet to see if IE9 does for Microsoft's Internet browser what Windows 7 did for their operating system. Is IE9 good enough, fast enough and secure enough to keep Microsoft ahead, or will Firefox and Chrome et. al. relegate IE to the chronicles of Internet history?

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

IE6 is Dead. Long Live IE9

Internet Explorer 6 is dead. In fact, Microsoft has been trying to tell us that for a while. Not only that, they are actively encouraging all of its users to dump the insecure browser in favor of one of the newer versions. Zack Whittaker explains why in this article:
Frankly, the fact that Internet Explorer 6 still has a 12% browser share, it makes Microsoft look bad compared to these younger, better looking and more advanced browsers like Chrome and Firefox.
IE9 is currently available as a public release candidate version. Then you have IE8 and IE7. I still use IE7 at work because I'm on Windows XP.  I use Firefox at home, but it is starting to feel heavy compared to Chrome, which I'm starting to like.

Which browser do you use, and why? Would you consider switching to a different browser?

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Monday, March 7, 2011

The Internet is Exhausted

The Internet has run out of space. For the last 30 years or so we have been happily using up the 4 billion available IP addresses. Who would ever have thought that human kind had enough stuff to put up there to use all those addresses? Yet, somehow we managed to exhaust them all. Oops.

According to the IPv4 Exhaustion Counter (above and from here), we have until August 2011 until the world crumbles and the skies fall when we run out of addresses. The Mayans were only off by a year and a couple of months.

Mayan Cartoon
But, have no fear. According to this article in Businessweek we are prepared. IPv6 is finally here and is in the process of being very, very carefully rolled out. IPv6 uses 128-bit addresses, which will provide approximately 11 undecillion new IP addresses. How many is that?
Well, to put it in perspective, there will now be enough addresses for every person who's ever lived each to have 1 trillion IP addresses.
According to Wikipedia, an undecillion is either 1036 or 1066 depending on whether you live in the US/modern Britain or Europe/archaic Britain, respectively.

While looking up the word "undecillion", I came across this interesting fact: The name of the largest number is googolplex, which is 10Googol . Wikipedia says:
In 1938, Edward Kasner's nine-year-old nephew, Milton Sirotta, coined the term googol, then proposed the further term googolplex to be "one, followed by writing zeroes until you get tired". 
Kasner then defined a Googol as the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes. That's a lot of zeroes.

What young Milton didn't realize was that his term would subsequently be used in the Sci-Fi classic "Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy", nor did he ever imagine that "googol" would be the inspiration for the name of the company that is most famous for searching the seemingly googolplex of websites (actually, just under 1 trillion) out there in Internet land.

Alas, we do not yet have the capacity for 1010100 IPv6 addresses, only 11 undecillion. But hopefully that will last us a few more years until IPv7 is unleashed onto the cyber-world.

Who said more was less?

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Login to Happiness

What makes you happy? Sunshine? Ice cream? Watching YouTube videos of people hurting themselves?

Apparently, what really makes you happy is Facebook. According to a completely impartial study undertaken by none other than Facebook themselves:
We discovered that the more people use Facebook, the better they feel and that those who share and communicate the most with their friends feel even better.
So the more you post, the more you get involved with Facebook, the better you feel.  That's 500 million people who swallow the free and legal Facebook happiness pill every day.

There's a bit of Facebook sunshine for most of us. Unfortunately, Facebook wasn't such a thrilling ride for Kamisha Richards who was stabbed and killed by her friend, Kayla Henriques, following a spat on Facebook over a $20 loan. Not such happy times.

MoodViews, a Dutch company, doesn't track the mood of individuals. That would be too easy. They track the mood of the entire Internet. Their software gathers data from 150,000 blogs and 10 million LiveJournal accounts. It uses its own algorithm to determine how the Internet is feeling today. Just for the record, I tried out the site and waited for about half an hour for the Moodgrapher to display results. It turns out that the Internet's frustration rate is up by one.

This May 2010 article on claims that studies by a UK team have shown that people with Internet access are happier than people without:
Overall, the study found that access to the Internet leads people to feel better about their lives. "Put simply, people with IT access are more satisfied with life even when taking account of income," said Michael Willmott, the social scientist who authored the study, at a press conference. "Our analysis suggests that IT has an enabling and empowering role in people's lives, by increasing their sense of freedom and control, which has a positive impact on well-being or happiness."
Apparently, the researches analyzed data from 35,000 people worldwide. Obviously, those 35,000 people simply spent their time friending each other on Facebook.

I suppose that knowing that a long-lost friend stubbed his toe this morning doesn't necessarily enhance your sense of purpose, identity or self-worth. But, on the other hand, cute videos of cats and kids does have a way of brightening up your day.

Happy Wednesday/Thursday, everyone!

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