1. ShareSite has finally returned

    Posted January 14, 2014 in projects, web  |  No Comments so far

    As mentioned last month, ShareSite has finally relaunched. You can find it at www.sharesite.org.uk.

    Rather than dumping the entire archive online, we’ll be publishing them one article at a time over the next few months, and in chronological order. It’ll give you a chance to relive the heady days of the dotcom boom, much like the Real Time World War 2 Twitter account.

    So the first one we’ve sent live is the first one we ever wrote – Chemical Steel shares hit by witch infestation – from 11th December 2000.

    A witch infestation can be a damning curse for any company. They present a physical hazard, knocking over apparatus and people with their brooms, swooping about the place and snagging loose clothing in delicate machinery. Additionally, they often use occult and magical techniques to purposefully sabotage a company’s showing on the stock markets, with negative spell-casting adversely affecting share prices.

    Read more over at the newly relaunched ShareSite.


  2. Smozzy for Android – the latest in a long tradition of accessing the net in messed-up ways

    Posted September 11, 2011 in web  |  No Comments so far

    Smozzy is a new Android app (for US T-Mobile customers only) with a novel approach to getting round prohibitive data costs. Instead of downloading web content in the traditional manner, the app uses SMS and MMS messaging to get websites on to your phone. So if you’ve got an unlimited SMS/MMS deal, you can browse the web for free.

    Of course, there are a couple of drawbacks. The first is that T-Mobile are almost certainly going to shut this party down as soon as they notice streams of MMS attachments, each packed with HTML, CSS and Javascript, hurtling across their network towards the phones of cheekily grinning customers. And the second is that the user experience will almost certainly be terrible.

    I feel qualified to say this because I’ve experienced something similar. Back in 1998, working in an office with email but no web access, I started using a bizarre method for looking at websites. It involved emailing requests for web pages to an email address which would then reply to you with a huge bunch of uuencoded data. You would then convert that data into HTML source, which you could then view as a web document in your browser.

    Uuencoding was an early way of embedding binary data in text-based communications, and it was probably the most low-tech method I’ve ever used to access the web. Often the desired web page’s source code would be split over multiple emails, meaning you’d have to stitch the data strings together to get to something a browser could load. It wasn’t as bad as having someone read HTML line-by-line to you down the phone, but it wasn’t much better either.

    This experimental, gruelling subversion of my company’s IT policy didn’t last long. But not because I was caught – because it sucked so much. Even now, thinking back to how slow and frustrating it was makes me feel sleepy. I returned to wasting my time by drawing cartoons, with the web left waiting until I got home.

    If you want to know more about this painstaking, archaic form of internet access, you should look at the website of www4mail, which might have been the service I used. It’s a very similar concept anyway.

    When I read about Smozzy I instantly thought of those days, browsing the web via email, and felt a kind of admiration for people who work to secure web access at all costs. Projects like Smozzy and www4mail are ambitious conceptually and technically, and that can’t be denied, even if the user experience is horrible.

    An even more ambitious project in this vein is IPoAC, or Internet Protocol over Avian Carriers – browsing the internet over carrier pigeon. Although it’s tongue-in-cheek, it was actually implemented by a group of Norwegian Linux users in 2001:

    The group transmitted a “ping” command, among the most basic operations of the Internet, in which one computer sends a signal to another, which in turn signals that it is attached to the network…

    The pigeon protocol didn’t mean the fastest of networks, though. Taking an hour and 42 minutes to transfer a 64-byte packet of information makes the pigeon network about 5 trillion times slower than today’s cutting-edge 40 gigabit-per-second optical fiber networks.

    That doesn’t sound much worse than my experience of web over email. I can only assume that Smozzy, as a smartphone-era update of this concept, will be smoother, faster, and less likely to leave white poo splattered over the user.


  3. “The ribbon” – a permanent new ingredient in interface design, or just flavour of the month?

    Posted January 10, 2011 in web  |  No Comments so far

    Over the last month I’ve been following a new(ish) trend in web design that I call “the ribbon”. I’ll show you some real-world examples shortly, but first here’s a mockup illustrating the basic idea.

    Bunsen's website, using straightforward boxes

    Here’s the homepage of Bunsen’s. The designer has separated the list of links (“log in”, “sign up”, etc) from the main content of the page by putting them in a little box. This is fairly standard practise, and works well enough.

    But now let’s imagine Bunsen’s wants to refresh their site design. “Can we make it a bit more 2010”, they ask the designer, “without really changing anything”? It’s at this point that the designer might reach for the ribbon and produce something like this:

    The ribbon to the rescue

    It’s nothing more than a positioning adjustment, drop shadow, and a little triangle, but it makes the “links” box look like it’s been draped over the larger one. The design has a bit more depth to it even though the change is purely at the visual layer (as opposed to structural or functional).

    Now that we’ve seen “the ribbon” in its basic form, let’s look at some screenshots of real “ribbons” found in the wild.

    Avaaz.org

    The first is from online activism site Avaaz.org. The “ribbon” is used for the box’s title, “Sign the petition”, and probably helps it compete for the user’s attention with the main image to its left:

    And here’s a close-up:

    Vodafone

    The next one is from Vodafone, and was used on their “12 Days of Smiles” campaign site in the run-up to Christmas. You might remember this campaign for its ill-fated #mademesmile Twitter stunt. After all it generated more press than this ribbon did:

    Vodafone's festive campaign site

    Close-up:

    A decidedly festive ribbon

    What’s interesting about this ribbon is that it definitely has a seasonal dimension. The cut-out triangle at the edge intentionally references festive ribbons (wrapped-up presents, mistletoe, etc) to make the campaign site more Christmassy. I guess that working with Vodafone, you can’t evoke a yuletide atmosphere the easy way by using lots of red: it’s their main colour after all. So “the ribbon” is a handy gimmick here.

    Western Union

    This ribbon example from Western Union is also intended to have festive connotations, I think, but it’s not as explicit. You’ll notice that that isn’t from a website but from a poster campaign (yes, this is my attempt at being “cross-media”):

    Western Union poster near Kensington Olympia

    The final two examples aren’t festive, but instead show the ribbon being used by companies that want to appeal to an early-adopter, urban, techie kind of audience. If “the ribbon” is to the early 2010s what the curved-border gradient button was to the “Web 2.0” mid-2000s, these sites are at least partly to blame.

    Foursquare

    The first is Foursquare, who have used “the ribbon” pretty sparingly. It makes an arrow leap out of the screen slightly, but it’s not very prominent:

    The Foursquare "arrow" ribbon

    The next example is far less subtle, however, and is the most extreme use of “the ribbon” that I’ve found so far.

    Notion Ink

    Here’s the website of Notion Ink, the company behind the forthcoming Android-based Adam tablet. They’ve had a lot of attention over the last year and its old Flash-based site was rightly criticised for looking like a bit of a relic. So they launched this new site shortly before making their product available for pre-order:

    Click the image to see in full size

    A fairly normal “ribbon” crosses the header of the page, acting as a backdrop for the primary navigation links, but after that it goes out of control, bouncing around the page’s background like a 3D game of “Snake”. In fact the ribbon pretty much is the design – apart from the slightly discordant bird, there is no graphical (e.g. not text or video) element on this page that is not part of the ribbon.

    Here’s another page from the Notion Ink site that shows the “ribbon” off to maximum effect:

    Hyper-ribbon!

    This ribbon seems to extend very far into the space of the screen, emerging from the distance to jut in front of the Adam tablet and the main text box. The page title (“The Philosophy”) is the only element that remains in front of the ribbon. This is the most extreme use of the ribbon I’ve found so far.

    Conclusion

    Is the ribbon a good or bad thing? I can see why some designers like it – it helps situate screen elements in a quasi-3D space, contributing to “user illusions” of spatiality that computer interface designers have been relying on for decades. But it could also become a modish gimmick, something designers lazily reach for when asked for “something that looks a bit more Web 3.0”. Maybe there’ll be a ribbon backlash. Or maybe it’ll become a strictly seasonal piece of design frippery, used only for festive campaigns as in the Vodafone example.

    What do you think about the ribbon? Is it something you’ve noticed yourself? And if you know of any more examples of it, let me know in the comments.


  4. Google’s guinea pig

    Posted September 6, 2010 in user centred design, web  |  No Comments so far

    Google is testing a new feature on its main search page, and I seem to have become an unwitting guinea pig.

    The feature is called “streaming” (edit: it was actually Google Instant, which went live a few days later) and the idea is that the search results page is dynamically generated as you type into the search box. You don’t have to click “Search” for the results to appear. You could think of it as the “suggested results” box on steroids.

    Initially, the results page is completely blank waiting for your input:

    Then, as soon as you type something, Google starts to run a search. I had to move quickly to get this screenshot:

    A few milliseconds later Google has come up with some results, which then appear on the search results page:

    At this point I’ve yet to click “search”, but doing so will only clear the auto-suggest box – the results are there already. And the whole thing happens so quickly you don’t really notice it, as your focus is on the search box you’re typing into.

    Does it improve Google? It’s difficult to say. Fast Company were sceptical about it when it was announced back in August. It certainly doesn’t mar the experience, once the initial surprise has worn off, but it doesn’t really enhance it either. In fact it’s mildly frustrating to see your desired result on the screen, but to have it obscured by the auto-suggest menu until you click return.

    Maybe the main benefit is the slightly extended life your keyboard will enjoy if this feature becomes official, as you’ll be hitting the return key far less frequently.


  5. Bookmarks versus Favorites

    Posted June 25, 2010 in software, web  |  No Comments so far

    Back when Microsoft was winning the browser wars and all but a committed few were using Internet Explorer, the word “Bookmarks” was at risk of becoming a forgotten Netscape-ism. IE’s equivalent, “Favorites”, seemed set to become the generic label for saved URLs.

    Netscape and IE

    IE versus Netscape

    Today, Microsoft is losing the browser wars again with Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera eroding its market share. And interestingly enough, they all use “bookmarks” rather than “favorites”. Why is that?

    On the face of it there’s nothing wrong with “favorites”. Of course, it was slightly annoying that Microsoft didn’t use the then current “bookmark” convention, possibly in the interests of creating a proprietary user experience. But so what? “Favorites” did the job.

    Internet Explorer eventually annihilated Netscape, picking up over 90% of the browser market. With that level of penetration it’s surprising that “favorites” didn’t become the generic term for stored links.

    It’s not because Microsoft claimed legal ownership of the word. And it’s not because people find it confusing either. Maybe the revival of “bookmark” is actually more to do with linguistics.

    Languages allow us to assign different states to objects as our relationships with them change. And in real life, objects change state all the time. A person becomes your friend, or a piece of music becomes one of your favourites. Usually these states are reached gradually: you do nothing specific to the person or the music, your affection just grows over time.

    But when these states are replicated in computer systems, that gradation is no longer possible. Changes in state must be made by single, deliberate actions on the part of the user. This means that the changes in state become binary – and language has to accommodate this.

    These binary state changes introduce a particular challenge for the language used in computer interfaces. In real life you might stop liking a piece of music, but you wouldn’t have to do anything about it. But in a system where you had “liked” that music by clicking a button, another button is needed for you to reverse that action, and that button needs a meaningful label. This is why we end up with words like “unlike” or the OUP’s word of the year for 2009, “unfriend”.

    So for “favorite” to have supplanted “bookmark” as a genericism, it would have had to go through this process, becoming not only a noun but a verb for a binary change in state. We should have felt as comfortable saying “favorite my site” as “here are my favorites”. And in fact this doesn’t work too badly:

    Bookmark or favorite my site!

    But what doesn’t work is when you try to use the verb “favorite” in its past tense – try saying “I favorited your site” and you’ll see what I mean. And the same goes for the continuous aspect. “Favoriting” is a dogs dinner of a word.

    “Bookmark” doesn’t have that problem – just compare saying “I bookmarked it” to “I favourited it”. Phonologically, “bookmark” is better equipped to work as both noun and verb than “favorite”.

    So maybe the failure of “favorite” over time has less to do with design strategy or the browser wars, and more to do with its basic phonological awkwardness. Who knows? At least it’s something to think about while lazily favoriting websites on a sunny Friday afternoon.


  6. Is RSS the “vinyl” of digital media?

    Posted January 26, 2010 in media, web  |  No Comments so far

    For large stretches of my life, I’ve allowed my obsession with music to burn up huge chunks of my time as well as my money. Illness, poverty, hangovers, rain – none of these things would stop me leaving the house and spending whole weekends wandering London, going from record shop to record shop. Over time my vinyl collection grew while my bank balance fell, but I didn’t mind – because that collection of vinyl was (and still is) valuable in lots of ways. I didn’t just enjoy listening to those records – I also enjoyed playing them out. I played in clubs, made compilation tapes and distributed mixes over the internet.

    My vinyl collection helped me evangelise the music I loved to like-minded people. And before the worlds of music and the internet collided back in 1999, this sort of behaviour occupied a useful niche in the music ecosystem. Vast numbers of releases, especially in genres that flew under the radar of mainstream promotion, were filtered, curated and recompiled, helping normal people – who had better things to do than waste their lives exploring dusty record shops or compiling mixtapes in their bedrooms – explore obscure fields of new music. In this way vinyl kept influencing the public’s relationship with music long after it stopped being a mainstream format.

    Some records

    It’s a common mistake, especially when thinking about media formats, to see things in a binary way where the only two states are ubiquity and death. Many made this mistake when vinyl was eclipsed by the CD, thinking that its death was just around the corner. But this thinking was wrong. Although vinyl sales fell, its role remained important and it still is today – in fact, vinyl sales in the US actually increased by 33% in 2009.

    RSS, unlike vinyl, isn’t a formerly dominant format that’s finding a smaller niche. Instead, it’s a new format that’s failed to go mainstream: usage of RSS readers is in decline and Twitter is supplanting it as a mass-market feed delivery channel. But there are definitely similarities between the formats, and the role they play in their respective ecosystems.

    You can’t ask mainstream users whether or not they use RSS in their daily course of Internet usage any more than you can ask the average couch potato whether or not they use Cathode Ray Tubes or Liquid Crystal Displays – Mashable, October 2008

    Not everyone wants to get to grips with concepts like Atom or OPML, learn how to use an RSS reader and incorporate it into their daily routine. That’s understandable: I know lots of voracious online readers who’ve never got to grips with RSS. Similarly, many people in the 1990s, despite loving music genres that released mainly on vinyl, didn’t want to join the anorak-wearing record shop brigade and start buying expensive import 12″s.

    But for media owners (whether websites or record labels) that vinyl-buying, RSS-reading audience is worth reaching if only because they’re in the habit of evangelising. A heavy RSS user is more likely to run their own website on which they’ll compile and re-publish that content, just as turntable owners are more likely to create mixes that showcase obscure records to a larger audience. RSS heavily influences how information moves online, and plays an indirect role in shaping the online experiences even of those who have no idea what it is.

    So even if RSS is never destined to become a mainstream format for delivering content online, reports of its death will prove to be greatly exaggerated. The internet needs a format which, like vinyl, appeals to the obsessives and whose very nature encourages compilation and re-transmission.


  7. Kicking Google Knol when it’s down

    Posted August 12, 2009 in web  |  1 Comment so far

    You might not have heard of Google Knol, the service Google launched in an attempt to eclipse Wikipedia as a world-accessible font of knowledge. In a post last year I included it in a list of reasons why Google might be thought to have jumped the shark, and asked in vain if anyone reading this blog actually used it.

    The resulting silence probably said more about my obscurity than Google Knol’s, but it turns out that Google Knol is indeed floundering. As TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfield wrote yesterday:

    [Knol’s] model doesn’t work so well if nobody bothers to read the articles… Quantcast estimates that only 174,000 people visited the site in the past month.

    And Knol is seeking to counter this evident public apathy by repositioning itself as a competitor to Craigslist. But Schonfield doesn’t see this working out:

    Google should just end its misery, just like it did when it killed other under-performing projects such as Lively and Google Notebooks. Knol will never come close to Wikipedia. It can’t even cut it as a classifieds listing site.

    Ouch!


  8. The dregs of e-commerce

    Posted September 26, 2008 in research, web  |  1 Comment so far

    http://www.eioclothing.com/mens/t-shirts/till-death-do-us-party-white.htmlI’m currently carrying out some research into open-source e-commerce platforms. The research is at a pretty early stage and I’m still putting together the list of packages that we’ll then go on to assess in detail.

    While putting this short-list together I’m visiting quite a lot of ‘showcase’ sites for each package on my long-list. And sheesh, some of them are bad.

    I don’t mean “bad” in the sense of bad user experience design, even though it’s fair to say that many of them are guilty of that. I mean “bad” in that the products themselves are bad, some of them really bad.

    It’s a consequence, I suppose, of the barriers to entry for e-commerce being so low these days. In fact, my preliminary exploration of open source e-commerce options has established that they’re even lower than I’d assumed them to be.

    http://www.weirdo.com.au/media/catalog/product/cache/1/small_image/228x228/5e06319eda06f020e43594a9c230972d/W/e/Weirdo-T-Shirt-First-Rule-of-Kite-Club-Design_1.png

    For example, I’ve come across an Australian site that sells t-shirts saying “The first rule about Kite Club is never talk about Kite Club”. Erk. It reminds me of a t-shirt I saw in Paris once, which I still think of as the worst t-shirt I’ve ever seen. It said, “the first rule about computer club is that you don’t talk about computer club”.

    But aside from bad t-shirt slogans, of which there are plenty, the biggest culprits are the numerous arts’n’crafts retailers.

    Before the internet, a lot of this stuff – the results of amateur pottery classes and the like – would have just been given to relatives or left to accumulate in cupboards and boxes. But now, the arguments against creating an online retail site for these efforts get weaker all the time as e-commerce gets easier. And it seems as though there’s a market out there for a lot of this twee, throwaway kind of stuff. That’s the “long tail” for you, I guess!

    However critical I might sound in this post, though, I should point out that I’m not advocating the eradication of such sites from the internet. I’m just noting my vague fascination with this underbelly of online retail that I hadn’t really explored until today.


  9. Image Source – redesigned website live

    Posted September 1, 2008 in projects, web  |  2 Comments so far

    Since October 2007 I’ve been working on a redesign project for Image Source, a stock photo provider not unlike Getty Images or Corbis. The site went live last night.

    My company was initially hired to help flesh out the information architecture and design concepts. The central aim of the project was to build something that functioned more like a software application than a straightforward website, but without using Flash or Java. We went on to produce detailed specifications, site maps, activity flows and the full visual design for the site.

    http://www.imagesource.com/IS/C.aspx?VP3=Renderer_VPage&ID=IS0P8

    One of the design principles was that “image is king” – the interface design needed to be clean and minimal so as not to stand between the user and the site’s images. The above homepage screenshot gives a sense of how we achieved this.

    The new site also makes use of horizontal scrolling, which is quite a radical departure from convention.

    http://www.imagesource.com/

    We were engaged to carry out over forty user testing sessions in Cologne and London to validate this concept and ensure that users wouldn’t find it too baffling. I conducted these sessions myself and went on to produce the analysis document that led to a series of final refinements being made.

    From a technical point of view the project has been really ambitious. If you work in web presentation technologies, I urge you to go and have a play – I think you’ll be impressed with the quality of the coding and the adaptibility of the interface. The company that built the site, Orange Logic, did an amazing job. When we were handing over the functional specification back in November 2007, I was worried that the site was just too complex to be delivered without resorting to Flash. I’m glad to have been proved wrong!


  10. Brands that suck on Twitter

    Posted August 13, 2008 in social media, strategy, web  |  No Comments so far

    Here in the UK, Twitter has yet to seriously catch on although many organisations are attempting to make use of it. But the marketing and communications departments of large US companies are becoming increasingly aware of the need to establish a brand presence in Twitter.

    The case of Janet, who masqueraded as an ExxonMobil spokesperson on Twitter before being unmasked as a fraud, demonsrates how even doing nothing can be damaging. Your brand can get hijacked and dragged through the mud while you’re busy formulating your micro-blogging communications strategy.

    Here’s a list of brands that suck on, or simply don’t get, Twitter. It’s an evolving list – Starbucks, for example, got removed after responding to the blog post, showing that their Twitter account wasn’t merely “parked”.

    Better commentary than my own can be found at Jeremiah Owyang’s web strategy blog.