Archive for the 'General' Category

Door Handles and Usability

Friday, May 25th, 2012

I just finished watching "J. Crew & the Man Who Dressed America" on CNBC. I recommend it but then I love those sorts of pseudo documentaries. It's about Millard "Mickey" Drexler and mostly his time spent at the Gap and J. Crew. One interesting thing about him is that he is mostly responsible for the success of the Gap and quite possibly deserves a large amount of credit for the success of the Apple Store. He's a retail / fashion specialist.

So I'm watching this documentary about an incredibly smart micro-manager (in a good way) that turned the Gap around and is slaying it at J. Crew. He and the interviewer are in front of one of the J. Crew retail stores and Mickey Drexler spends 5 or 6 seconds trying to open the door for the store:

Mickey Drexler trying to open a door

Now I can't fault him because even though the tiny text above the handle says "push" the handle screams "pull." Donald Norman goes over this in The Design of Everyday Things (another in a long line of books I recommend highly). You can see some of his thoughts on door handle design here:

Door Handle Design

You may not be equally amused as I was at the idea of a design / fashion obsessed CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation not being able to open a door to his own store in under 6 seconds but for some reason the whole thing made me absolutely giddy, especially since it pointed to an example of the practical application of the lessons I had learned from Norman's book. This all has practical application potential in my day job as well: buttons need to simply look "pushable", there needs to be a visual cue for click to edit, the manual won't save you from poor design (see the small text above the door handle), and your poor user has no idea there's a context menu lurking behind that rather innocuous looking area of the UI. But, I digress.

Here's another instance that always makes me smile:

Intentionally Bad Usability

This is an instance where intentionally difficult usability is appropriate. The exit door for a school for handicapped children is made hard to operate. Making it extremely easy to use could have dire consequences (with no "undo" operation available to save the day).

I'll leave the "what we can learn from all of this" wrap up text as an exercise for the reader. For me it's just read more books and watch more non-fiction television. It helps me get my point across with what I consider to be cool phrases like: there are some doors that CEOs can't open.


I Think We're Going to Need a Bigger Box

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

I was reading this post on the Instagram buyout by Facebook today and it got me to thinking about the benefits of the cloud, DevOps, horizontal scalability (one of my favorites), and well thought out architectures and monitoring.

One of the more interesting things about the $1 billion purchase price is that Instagram has 13 employees and 35 million users. That's just so crazy to me. It also ends up being yet another argument against the "bigger box" method of solving scalability issues. Eventually you cannot simply add more RAM to fix things. Trying to solve your problems that way is like trying to solve world hunger by breeding a single, giant cow.


Geek TGI Friday's Flair

Monday, September 19th, 2011

TGI Friday's walls are littered with "vintage" wall decor. Red Lobster has old lobster traps and fish photos all over their walls. Then it hit me: geek hangouts need their own brand of wall flair. Why not outdated tech books?

I've got a ton of books on technologies that aren't in widespread use any more. I'd donate them but even Goodwill doesn't want stuff like that. When you think about it it makes sense. So where do they go? The landfill? I like to pretend I'm much more environmentally friendly than that.

Some hangout for geeks needs to step up and offer a free appetizer or something for anyone that brings in a tech book that was published before, say, 2000? That seems like a reasonable cutoff. Then all the geeky people can laugh at the titles lining the shelves above their tables. "PowerBuilder? Oh, shit! I wrote something in that once!" (Apologies to Sybase, but you really need to give up on that shit.)


MP3s and Ratings

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Don't you hate when you put ratings on most of the songs in your massive music library only to find that you need to do it again when you switch players? On Ubuntu I use Banshee which allows you to save ratings to the ID3 tag right in the MP3 file. That means those ratings are available from any Banshee player. Nice.

The problem is that I'm working a contract gig that sort of requires Windows (well, they think they do at least) and I don't fully trust the port in progress of Banshee to Windows. So, I'm using iTunes (which I hate). I think it'd be nice if other players could use that same custom ID3 tag to use the ratings but I realize that many people have an issue with subjective information (the ratings) being stored in a repository meant to store common supposedly objective information about the song itself. Then there's the whole issue of standardizing on the custom tag. In a perfect world more stuff would use a plugin based design and you could simply write an extension to get the ratings from wherever you wanted.

A simple import / export to an agreed upon format could also sort of solve the problem but you can't get people to agree on things and you would then have some annoying synchronization issues. I think it'd be swell if something like acted as that song and ratings repository since they're a bit of a de facto standard supported by most MP3 players. It seems simple to stick the rating in there when you scrobble whatever you're listening to. Then it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to an import / export to get up and running. It also feels like it'd add some value to their existing service. Somebody get on that…


The Tech That Should Not Be

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

I just read this post about a thing called the Espresso Book Machine that allows a bookstore to print a fully bound book in minutes. The idea is that they could print an out of stock book for you rather than ordering it.

I have mixed emotions about this. Nothing pisses me off more than going to an old fashioned bookstore in search of some instant gratification only to find that they don't have the book I'm looking for. "We can order it for you," they say. Well, I can order it for me too. Only, when I order it for me it comes to my house and not to your stupid little store (and I don't pay sales tax (or shipping fees usually (nested parens FTW))). This print on demand idea seems pretty boner inducing on the surface.

Unfortunately the kinds of technology that make this dream possible also instantly make it unnecessary. In a world where this machine can acquire and store the number of books required to make it useful it has already been replaced by the ability to instantly purchase, download, and read the book on an e-reader without leaving my precious home or touching any dirty, sweaty money. Sure it will probably still be successful but only because of the Luddite fetishists that insist on consuming their information the old fashioned way.

This whole thing reminds me of those stupid redbox DVD dispensaries. In any sane world they would have never existed. I have a relatively high speed Internet connection and an abundance of digital cash. Can't I just instantly stream those movies directly to my viewer of choice for a the same reasonable price? Ah, the devil's in the (bold) details. I have a variety of ways to pseudo instantly watch movies but the only reasonably priced option is Netflix. Unfortunately their instant queue selection needs a little work. Knock down that barrier and the only benefit of redbox is to satisfy weirdos that reached for the technological dream and missed, coming up with a beer in one hand and their disk in the other.

I digress. To sum up, in a perfect world everything would be peer reviewed, indexed, searchable, remixable, and digitally available from the comfort of my own home. I could watch new movies on my own television without someone kicking the back of my seat or mistaking the theater for open mic night at the Laughatorium. "And I wanna be rich. You know, someone important … like an actor."


Job Postmortem #2

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

About the Company

Now that I'm done with my current job it's again time to reflect on what I learned and what went wrong. I've changed the names to protect the innocent. I spent about 2 years at "Company V." They make a retirement planning tool. It allows you to do some nice "what if" scenarios to determine whether or not you're on track to do all those things you dream of someday doing after you retire. It's much more sophisticated than the crappy one or two question forms on the website of most financial planning companies.

It's a great idea in my opinion. It has a lot of potential. For the record, I like the people at Company V and I love the product idea. I just think things could be better.

Now for the lessons. I won't bother talking about the many issues I had about software development methodology at Company V. Instead I'll just talk about the product side of things.

Analytics, Stupid

The first is a simple one: collect some fucking analytics. Any discussion about how important a feature is, why people aren't signing up, which type of sign up button is more attractive are all bullshit if you don't have some way of collecting data about your visitors. We collected almost zero data about our visitors. What was our conversion rate? Fuck if I know. How many people abandoned the sign up process once they saw all of the data we required? Fuck if I know. That's the answer to every one of those questions because there's no goddamn data.

I can't talk about analytics as well as these two videos: Startup Metrics for Pirates and Web App Marketing Metrics. They're pretty short and definitely worth a few minutes of your time.

Multiple Masters

Company V has two very different target customers. Home users and financial advisors. If you are serving two very disparate customer types you will wind up with some very serious conflicts. Each customer type is a reason not to do something for the other customer or a great way to more than double your effort in the rare case you actually get to work on a feature.

In the case of Company V it was that they have a feature called "offline mode." This allowed financial advisors to take their laptop to locations where they don't have an Internet connection and sit down with a customer, going over their retirement plan. This was accomplished via a desktop application written in Java.

Getting Java working on someone's computer is an unnecessary hurdle and places without Internet connections only exists in movies. Offline mode is not useful to the home user. I would argue that it's not sufficiently useful to the financial advisor either. However, it was a feature that kept us from doing a lot of cool stuff because we had to have it. Yes, this feature could be accomplished in a better way but the need to keep the feature presented unnecessary overhead and complexity in my opinion.

Too Many Hurdles

There's just too much shit for someone to do before they can use the product. They have to sign up for an account, install the Java plug-in, download the application (or launch the applet) which is over 100 megabytes, and figure out how to use your product.

The more of those steps you can eliminate the better. Each one of those steps throws away half of your potential users. They just go bye-bye. The observant reader will realize that I just pulled that number out of my ass since Company V doesn't collect that kind of data. Prove me wrong.

The Things I'd Do

Short and sweet. Here's a list of things I would have done that I firmly believe would make for a better product for Company V.

Web App

Easy. Ditch the desktop application and make it a web application. Use something like GWT so you can get some good use out of your current Java development staff and have a relatively rich UI for your user. No installation on your computer, no downloading. Nice. You could even use Gears to get some workable solution for offline mode.

Use It Before You Register

If you have that nice web application, let people start making their retirement plan without even signing up. Just start using the product. Of course it would be nice if your product guided people through unfamiliar territory, but that's a given.

Once you've proven your value to them then you can try and get them to create an account if that's really your sort of thing.

Don't Even Register

Even better is to let them sign in with their Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, or OpenID login. Create an imperfect, incomplete profile off of whatever data you've got and bug them later to fill in the blanks. So what if you don't have their email address? Why the hell do you want to email them anyway?

Stop Emailing People

We collected email as part of the registration so we could bother our customers. Why? If you have a product announcement or a change in your training schedule why not just Tweet it? Or post an update on your product's Facebook page? Fine, let them put in their email if they want to be updated that way or need a password reminder (assuming they aren't using a 3rd partly authentication mechanism), but don't demand it.

Be the Tool

With retirement planning there are a lot of financial advisors that blog about how cool they are and how huge their planning penises are. We should have helped them do that. Our web app should have allowed embedding of whole or partial plans into web pages. If you want to show the benefits of a 529 savings plan create a couple of portfolios and embed the relevant portions into your blog. Company V would have a teeny tiny link in there so they get a little free press and the financial planner gets a tool that makes displaying unwieldy information a little easier. It's one of those win-win things I hear so much about.

Be the Tool Part 2

If you go to a financial planner they need to ask you roughly 3500 questions (I made that up) to determine the current state of your financial clusterfuck. Company V helped them do this by creating a PDF that was 10 megabytes and 40 pages long. The advisor would email it to the potential customer, pray it doesn't bounce because it's fucking huge, the customer would print it out, fill out the relevant portions, take it to the financial advisor who then hands it off to some data entry monkey to type into our desktop application. Simple, no?

Yeah, to hell with that. Use the no registration web application to allow the financial advisor to email, host, whatever a guided process to determine the relevant data and collect it directly from the user and dump it straight into the Company V application. The advisor has access to it immediately and the end user doesn't see most of those irrelevant questions. Throw in some tracking codes so the advisor can see the ROI for different ad campaigns. Let the advisor create a special URL that they can include in every email signature or even print right on their business card that takes the potential customer right to where they need to go. You get the idea.

Nice Ideas, But…

In fairness Company V thought some of my ideas were good. They just weren't good enough to actually do. There was no shortage of excuses. We have to keep offline mode, there are more important features to work on, who's going to pay for the development, etc. I still think each of these is potentially a great idea in general and for Company V especially. My next task is to find a place to work that agrees with me.


Linux in the (Wannabe) Enterprise

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

The footholds of Linux in small Windows shops are skunkworks projects and discarded hardware. Inevitably the old mail server or the equivalent is considered woefully underpowered and gets replaced. The old hardware sits in a corner of the server room and collects dust. That is until I need a "no money down" VMWare solution.

Of course the downside of this is that you will find yourself installing on frequently inadequate, old hardware that may or may not work–no one ever seems to be sure. When something goes wrong it's Linux's fault. Such was the case when I had to install on an old Dell PowerEdge 600SC. Of course, the install didn't work right off the bat.

The install hung with the last message being "Uniform CD-ROM driver Revision: 3.20". I randomly upgraded the BIOS hoping it's some weird problem with the on-board IDE and see the same problem. Then I noticed that the CD-ROM is attached to the tertiary channel. I can't recall ever having that setup before so I moved the CD-ROM drive from the tertiary to the secondary channel (by accident because the order of the IDE connectors from bottom to top of the motherboard appears to be secondary, primary, tertiary).

After the install it appears that I can't get either DHCP or a static IP to work. Everybody assures me that it's not the IP address they gave me or our DHCP server. I try a different network card with the same effect. Finally, I figure out that it is in fact the network of the IP address they gave me that is to blame (and our DHCP server seems to have crapped out at the same time, and no it isn't running on Linux). But, people stubbornly insist that it's Linux's fault until I waste my time proving otherwise. While I'm gathering evidence they make a point of wandering by my desk and asking why I'm not just using Windows. When society collapses they've got a special place on my post apocalyptic TODO list.

I finally get it all working with a fresh install of VMWare 2.0 (hate the new management web app, by the way) and a migrated VM from my desktop that has a copy of Zenoss Core happily monitoring our new production environment on EC2. Everything in that setup is new from the point of view of this organization. Of course while I'm patting myself on the back over a job well done, someone asks how to get to the desktop UI. Although it probably won't help them much I go ahead and install GNOME, VNC, and Webmin on the box even though I consider it a waste.

Now I get to sit back and eagerly await the opportunity to bask in the criticism the next time anything goes wrong with the box. I'm sure it'll be the fault of that darn Linux.


Clearing Cached Authentication Info in Windows

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

This comes up every now and then for me and I can never remember how to do it so I'm sticking it here to make it easier for me to find. The problem happens when I'm using Windows Explorer to open or browse a Windows share / Samba share / SMB mount point / etc. Windows Explorer has a tendency to cache the authentication information for the share and doesn't re-present the opportunity to provide authentication information in the event that the cached credentials have become invalid. This happened to me again today when the account I had used in the past had become disabled. You can find and clear the cached authentication(s) by doing the following:

Click Start, Run and type Control keymgr.dll
Remove the entries from the list


Click Start, Run and type Control Userpasswords2
Click Advanced, Manage Passwords

The information is also in the Registry but these worked well enough for me to not go poking around in that rat's nest.


The Cluelessness of Sales People

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

I recently got the task of finding a hosted monitoring solution for our production web site. There are quite a few options out there, so I decided to find a source listing a few of the options out there and sign up for some trial accounts. Most all of these sites are horny for your contact information. I'm fine with being contacted by email, but I don't particularly want to fill in the mandatory phone number field. I don't need to spend my day jawing with some glad-handing sales monkey. I write code for a living. So, I usually just put a 555 number in there (lazy developers never validate that shit). That way they can only get a hold of me if all of this is actually a movie, cleverly disguised to look like reality.

Not just one but two of the sales morons at these companies decided that my 555 number must be a cry for help. I want to talk to them and have them give me the hard sell, I was just confused about my real phone number. Not a problem. They used directory assistance and the rest of my real contact information to look up my company, find out our main number, and call several times. You would think that these idiots would realize that they were only going to piss me off by doing that.

The ultimate irony of it is that the site I was going to recommend was one of the ones that pulled this stunt. Unfortunately for them I'm a petty, angry developer. I'll be doing everything within my power to make sure they are the last solution we seriously consider. Now that's some sales job!


CodeGreen Labs

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

I've been listening to back episodes of the Agile Toolkit Podcast. One of the things that really caught my attention was the frequent mentioning of something called CodeGreen Labs. From elsewhere on the internet:

We are dedicated to creating a unique training experience that uses real projects with real deliverables. Labs work on projects that make a difference in the world, benefiting organizations that are working to improve the environment, human rights, social justice, health and economic development. By marrying the efforts of dedicated professionals learning Agile Development techniques with not for profit and research communities that need high quality software, we hope to be a small part of a positive change. Each training class will work on a specific software project for a specific cause.

It's volunteering to work on a real software project that is, hopefully, well run so that you can get real world experience. Sure, they get something out of it, but who cares about the other guy? I imagine they get mainly students. A few of the people in my work circles and I have been talking about something exactly like this. The head of my current company has mentioned to me numerous times that he's seeing disturbingly bad candidates coming to him fresh out of college CS programs. I can't comment as to the overall quality of CS programs around the country, but something like CodeGreen Labs seems like a brilliant idea on many levels. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed at how unfriendly their home page was: