Tag Archives: software developers

Software, Slowly, Gets Better

Is it just me, or are software developers beginning to get their users? For a long time I’ve felt the only real innovation in software has been in online applications, Web 2.0 non-apps—simple services that exist in your browser—but now it seems that ordinary apps are getting better too.

Evernote, I feel, is one that’s really leading the charge. They’ve taken the feedback that us users have been giving them and have added, incremental release by incremental release, some really cool features. For example: now you can save searches in the Windows version. Reminds me of the old Enfish Tracker Pro, whose departure I still mourn. In fact, Evernote isn’t far off becoming a real database instead of a dumping ground for things you’ll read one day. Maybe.

Skype, too, have pulled their socks up. I hated 4.0  beta, not least for its big bumbling footprint. But the new version is better—a lot better. The main improvement is the option to make it look like your old Skype. But it has some nice new touches, including a chronology scroller that might interest Evernote’s legal department (Skype on the left, Evernote on the right):

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Move the bar on the right and you can move easily through old chats. Legal niceties aside, I think this kind of innovation is great to see, and almost restores my faith in designers realising that we don’t just use software in the here and now, but also as repositories of past heres and nows, if you know what I mean.

In short, our decision to commit to software is largely based on how much we will be able to get out of it. Not just in terms of hours saved in what we do now, but in what past information we’ll be able to get out of it. We have been using computers long enough now to have built up a huge repository of interactions and memos, and we want, nay we insist, to be able to get that stuff back. Quickly and easily. And, increasingly, to be able to move it to other places should we wish.

Google understands this relatively well. A chat in GTalk, for example, can be readily accessed via Gmail. And, now, we can also see and search our other data held within Google’s silos, right within Gmail, via some widgets from Google’s Gmail Labs. Here are two widgets that let you view your calendar:

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and here’s one to see your documents within Google Docs:

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Note the window at the top for searching through your document titles. This means one less step to access your data.

All these things have some basic concepts in common:

As I’ve mentioned, it’s about being able to get what you’ve put in out. Skype have listened to their customers and realised it’s less about the interface and more about the information the interface gives access to. If they were smart they’d find an easy way to send old chats to your email account or at least make it easy to search all your chats from one box. (I’m told that, or something like it, is coming in the ‘Gold’ version of  Skype 4.0 next year. Until now only group chats—three or more people can be saved to your contact list.)

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Secondly, software should, where possible, work with other people’s software. Emusic’s new download manager (above), for example, does something that has been missing ever since the service launched. Previously, if you wanted to include MP3 files you’d bought from the service in iTunes, you’d need to either drag them across into iTunes or re-introduce the folder into iTunes. The new version of the downloader tool now synchronizes automatically with iTunes, meaning you don’t need to do anything. Thank God for that.

There are tons of other things that software needs to do that it presently doesn’t. I could start listing them but I need to go to bed. But maybe in this downturn developers could take a note from some of these examples, and use the time to look more carefully at what users need, at how they use your software, and explore new and better ways for them to use it for what they do, not what you think they should do.

Word Processing: Still in the Dark Ages

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I’m amazed by how word processing is still in the dark ages, considering it’s what we spend most of our day doing. Case in point is Microsoft Word 2007, which throws all sorts of weirdness—artefacts, I guess we’d call them—in text. Try scrolling through a longish document—anything over 5,000 words—and you get this kind of thing (see above) where three lines repeat themselves. And it’s not just a brief, trick of the eye type thing. It sits there like a dumb duck until you fiddle with it and it goes away.

I’m very surprised that this kind of thing happens, and that it happens on such a regular basis. These are not complicated files that contain big tables or fancy graphics, or imported ones. They’re normal Word files.

It tends to confirm my suspicion that software developers rarely concentrate honing the functions that we actually spend most time in. There’s a tendency to add features, or change interfaces, or in some ways to count value, not in terms of making sure the basics work well, but in the stuff around it. (And no, sadly OpenOffice.org isn’t a whole lot better.

I guess what I’d like to see is someone come up with a real word processor: something that really processes words properly. So far I don’t think we’re there.

What Your Product Does You Might Not Know About

Vodka

Empty vodka bottles used for selling petrol, Bali

Tools often serve purposes the designers didn’t necessarily intend — increasing their stickiness for users but in a way not clearly understood by the creator.

Take the System Tray in Windows for example (and in the bar, whatever it’s called, in Macs.) And this array currently sitting in my overburdened laptop:

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These icons usually either notify the user if something happens, by changing color, animating itself or popping up some balloon message, or they will be quick launch icons: double click or right click to launch the program, or some function within it. Or they can be both. Or, sometimes neither, sitting there like lame ducks taking up screen real estate. (These ones should, like all lame ducks, be shot.)

Skype-tickBut the thing is that for users these icons actually sometimes do something else, acting as useful sources of more important information. I’ve noticed, for example, a lot of people — including myself — use the Skype icon (left) as the best, most visible way of telling whether their computer is connected.

First off, Skype is better and quicker at establishing a connection than most other connection-based programs with icons in the system tray. Secondly, the icon is a uncomplicated but appealing green, with tick in it — an obvious and intuitive signal to even the most untutored user. (It helps that the Skype icon is a dull gray when there’s no connection — once again, intuitive to most users.) When the Skype button turns green, users know they’re good to go.

Za-tray2Another good example of this is the Zone Alarm icon which alternates between the Zone Alarm logo and a gauge, red on the left and green on the right, to indicate traffic going in and out (see left). Another useful tool to see whether your computer is actually connected, and like the Skype icon, much more visible and obvious than the regular Windows connectivity icon — with the two computer screens flashing blue. I’ve gotten so used to having the Zone Alarm icon tell me what’s going on I have not been able to switch to other firewall programs, or Windows own, because they don’t have the same abundance of visual information to offer.

Za-logo3ZA-iconI’m not convinced that Zone Alarm’s new owners CheckPoint get this: They have dropped the disctinctive yellow and red ZA logo in the system tray for a bland and easily missable Z (left). The ZA icon  was an easy and prominent way to know your firewall was working and they’d be smart to resurrect it.

What does all this mean? Well, Skype have been smart to create a simple icon that not only does things like tell you your online status (available, away) but has also become a tool to help folk know whether they’re online or not — not always clear in this world of WiFi and 3G connectivity. In fact, for many users I’m guessing the green tick is more recognisable a Skype logo than the blue S Skype logo itself.

I don’t know whether Skype knows this, or whether the Zone Alarm guys realise their icon and gauge are much more useful to users as a data transfer measure than Windows’ own. But it’s a lesson to other software developers that the system tray icon could do a whole lot more than it presently does, with a bit of forethought. And if it can’t justify its existence, just sitting there saying, then maybe it shouldn’t be there?

Beyond that, we’d be smart to keep an eye out for how folk use our products, and to build on the opportunities that offers.

Software’s Opportunity Cost

I’ve never seen this properly studied, and only rarely taken into account by software developers: the opportunity cost of committing to one service or program over another. In a word: Why is it software that’s in charge, not the data itself?

An obvious one is Twitter vs Jaiku. Which one to embrace? Jaiku actually has more features in a way than Twitter, but more people are on Twitter. And, perversely, because one of Jaiku’s features is being able to easily include your Twitter stream into Jaiku, it makes more sense to stick with Twitter as your main presence/communication service, since those updates will automatically feed into Jaiku. Jaiku loses out because it’s better.

But usually it’s a starker choice: choose one program or service over another, and you’ll find it harder and harder to reverse engines and try another. I’ve had two versions of this blog going, one on TypePad and one on WordPress, because I can’t decide which is the better service. It’s a lousy solution and often ends up confusing people and diluting the conversation. I haven’t committed to either yet, a makeshift solution made easier by tools like BlogJet, which allow me to post to both blogs, and the import/export tools that both blogging services provide. But it’s still a dumb compromise.

Worse is the commitment one makes to software. I love PersonalBrain, but I also love mindmapping tools like Freemind. And outliners like MyInfo. I also want to explore stuff like Topicscape. ConnectedText has potential too. But because I want to use them in the real world, with a real project, I don’t want to find that by committing to one I’m foregoing using the others. But that’s inevitable. There are import and export tools available to make it easier for these kinds of about turns (or occasionally starting out in one simple program and then moving the data to something heftier when the data gets too big).

But surely there’s a better way of doing this — by making data so open that we can easily move it between programs without these hurdles? Instead of the programs being the dominant tool, they become servant to the data? A case in point: I want to look through all the blog postings I’ve written in the past five years. I want them somewhere I can see them, but also some way I can index them, and view them in different ways. I want to be able throw them at a Bayesian filter to look at the language I use, the topics I choose, the arguments I present. I want to be able to view all the data as a big mind map, or a treemap, with the categories and tags as branches. I want to be able throw them at a Wiki builder so it becomes one big Wiki without me having to do anything fiddly. I want to throw all the posts into a PersonalBrain, where the links between articles turn into links between thoughts. Then I want to throw all my emails into the mix and see what pattern they make. I want to move between all these ways of looking and manipulating my stuff without me having to worry I can’t ever go back.

In short, I don’t want to commit to one program. I want my data to be in charge, and the programs themselves conform to the data, not the other way around. Perhaps this is impossible. But why should it be?

It’s Not Always About Online

Software developers used to write programs that looked and worked great on their big-monitored, big-powered, big-hard drived computers, forgetting that most of us have small screens, weak computers and no disk space. Now, with Web 2.0, they’re writing programs that assume we’re always online. Well, we’re not. Cameron Reilly of The Podcast Network, trying to retrieve his flight booking in a hurry, highlights the dangers of relying on something like Gmail when either you, or it, isn’t always online:  

Pull up Gmail to check my booking. Gmail down. GMAIL DOWN??!??!?!?! Get a message saying “sorry, gmail is down. we’re trying to fix it. please check back in a few minutes.”I don’t have a few minutes. Need to get my ass to the airport or miss my flight. Jump in car. Check Gmail again from my mobile while I’m driving (don’t crash don’t crash oh don’t crash) – still down.

Yes, he probably should have printed it out at the time. Yes, he should have saved a copy to his hard drive/phone in case. Yes, we shouldn’t rely on free email services, however big and snazzy the company. But the truth is that (a) Cameron is as human as the rest of us and (b) we use these services as if they are a service, which they’re not. They’re a luxury that only exist as long as the company want them to exist, and as long as we’re online. 

This second lesson is easier to remember if you live in a part of the world where most of the people are not online for most of the day. This is partly because it’s not that kind of culture, and it’s partly because the quality of cable Internet here is so low. But this is a good thing, because it means I never rely on online email for important stuff, and because it means that whenever I find something good I save it somewhere I can retrieve it whether or not I’m online.

Bottom line: I love web-based applications like Basecamp. But I’m never going to build critical tasks around them so long as I can’t access them, or a recent backup of them, when I’m offline. This is one area where the likes of Groove have an edge. And while the argument may follow that one day everyone will be online, I’m betting that one day, too, everything will come to a shuddering halt when the Internet fries one day and we’re all scrambling for our offline backups.

Oh, Cameron made his flight ok, by peering into his offline backup. In this case his brain.  

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A Lesson From the Underground

Security is as much about giving people information as it is about building security systems. That’s the message from the managing director of the London Undergound, Tim O’Toole, but it could as easily apply to personal computer security. Don Phillips’ piece in today’s International Herald Tribune could offer useful lessons to software developers and anyone trying to keep trojans, viruses and spyware at bay:

Tim O’Toole, the managing director of the London Underground, who said a terrorist attack last summer was the greatest Underground crisis since the Nazi blitz of World War II, was telling U.S. transit and rail officials they should avoid the temptation to spend lavishly on new security systems just to reassure the riding public.

Instead, he said, spend first on human resources, including constant training and a system to lavish fresh information continually on every employee in the system during a crisis, even if there is a chance some information could fall into the wrong hands.

O’Toole’s message may not have gone down very well since, “outside the hall where he spoke were many exhibits of expensive new equipment to battle terrorism on transit and rail systems.” One could imagine the same thing happening at a computer security conference. But here, I think, a difference emerges. What I think firewall and antivirus vendors need to think about is this: giving timely, useful and intelligible information to users so they can make good decisions. It’s not about locking everything out, because that’s clearly impossible.

Neither is it about ‘educating the user’. Vendors usually complain that they try to do this but fail, so go the other way — software that does everything silently, behind the scenes, and automatically, with an interface that gives only the barest information or choice to the user. Neither option — education or invisibility — works. Instead, the secret is like the Underground lesson: let people know what’s happening in the context of the situation and threat.

Back to Don’s piece:

O’Toole said the greatest mistake the London Underground had made after the bomb attacks of July 7 was its “poor performance” in keeping employees fully informed of everything that was happening even if that information is sensitive and could not be released to the public right away. In an information vacuum, employees may grow suspicious of authorities just at the time they need to be full members of a crisis team, he said. Management did a “poor job” of information flow during last summer’s attacks, he said. In the future, “We will be pumping everything we know out internally. Some of it may get out, but that’s O.K.”

There’s a clear parallel, in my mind, to Internet threats. Don’t hide knowledge about newly discovered vulnerabilities — newly found holes in existing software that might let bad guys in, if they knew about it — until a fix is found. It’s clear that attacks happen too quickly for antivirus vendors and software developers to be able to cover all contingencies, so better to inform customers and let them assess the risk. The trick is, how to do this?

I would suggest the following guidelines:

  • Most people now have firewalls installed on their desktop computers. These programs — or anti-virus programs, or antispyware programs, or combinations thereof — could become a sort of signalling service giving timely information to the user. For example, the current Kama Sutra worm, Nyxem.E or Grew.A, could be flagged with a small pop-up message informing the user of the danger and offering suggestions.
  • Make the information relevant to the situation. How do I know whether the new updates to my firewall keep me safe from the WinAmp bug identified by Secunia? If something big is happening, letting people know quickly might be more worthwhile than feverishly working on an update which doesn’t reach the user in time. Worst case scenario, the user can just unplug their computer for the rest of the day. Let them make that decision, but give them the information first.
  • The text of such alerts or advisories has got to be useful and clear. ZoneAlarm and other vendors often leave their messages too vague to be meaningful for us ordinary folk, scaring us out of our wits the first few times and then, gradually, just like the wolf crying scenario, we get blasé.

Sadly we’ve become accustomed to ignoring messages we don’t understand. This needs to change. Just like in the ordinary world, we’ve become both numb and constantly terrorized at the same time because of poor or insufficient information. We need to learn lessons about security from other fields. I don’t recommend bombarding users with alerts, but if they are used sparingly, judiciously and with good solid guidance contained inside, I think they are the best way to keep the user in the loop.

The Art of the Uninstall

I’ve just spent an hour removing programs from my Windows XP machine. I have far too many programs anyway, but removing them is not made any easier by a lack of basic standards among software developers, who seem to consider software removal as a chance for some creative licence and a last-gasp effort to suck more out of the already exhausted customer. Here are some don’ts for developers who want to retain the faintest goodwill among users who are uinstalling their software:

  • Include an uninstall link in the StartUp menu and in the Add or Remove Programs section of the Control Panel. This makes it easier to remove stuff; not doing so doesn’t raise the chance the user will keep using your program;
  • Don’t open a browser link without warning at the end of the uninstallation begging for feedback. You’re just asking for insults. Removing a program means the user is removing the program. If they want to give you feedback, you’re bound to hear from them. Assume the customer has as little time to spare as you have;
  • Don’t insist the customer reboots after uninstallation. This is sloppy programming, and it’s hard to imagine any software that absolutely needs to reboot immediately to uninstall completely or for the computer to continue functioning. Nokia, sadly, seems particularly egregious in this sin.
  • Do a good job of clearing everything out. Don’t leave rubbish in the Registry or subfolders in the sneaking hope the customer may come back.
  • Make sure the installation process is clean and doesn’t involve lots of access to installation files that may have moved. If the program is already gone, and only the link remains, remove that;
  • If the StartUp menu link has moved – because the user, shock, indulges in a bit of shortcut management — be smart enough to find and remove those links upon installation. Uninstall that leaves dead links are silly.

This may not be the last your customer sees of your software, but the manner of its departure is likely to influence whether or not the customer comes back. Make uninstall smooth, intuitive and fast. No tricks, no gimmicks. They may simply be temporarily removing your software for reasons of space, not because they don’t like it. The faster they can get rid of your software, the less of a drama you make it for them, the more grateful they’ll be and the more likely they’ll invite you back onto their computer.

Wikipedians, And Why They Do It

For Wikipedians, and folk wanting to understand why they do what they do, here’s a survey that aims to explore  the motivation of contributors to Wikipedia:

Joachim Schroer writes “We are a research team at the University of Wuerzburg (Germany) interested in the reasons and motives why participants are involved in Wikipedia as authors, administrators, or software developers. We hope this study will provide statistical data and insight about Wikipedia which go beyond previous reports in the media, encourage a helpful discussion between participants and reveal best practices for Wikipedia as well as related Open Content projects.

We would like to invite everyone who contributes to Wikipedia at least once in a while to take our online survey. The questionnaire will be available until August 3 at http://www.unipark.de/uc/wikipedia/.

Should be interesting to see the results.

Loose Wire — Click Here

Loose Wire — Click Here to Read Summary

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 21 February 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

If you work for a corporation, institution or any set-up which considers a vision statement to be worthy of its resources, chances are you’ll be required to file regular reports on your comings, goings and sitting-still-and-doing-nothing sessions. And the chances are that no one will ever read these documents top to bottom. In fact, chances are that no one will read them at all. Heck, you probably don’t even read them. But they have to be done, or someone will notice and fire you.

But where does all this stuff go? In the old days we’d say with confidence, “landfill,” but in the digital age, no such luck. It all gets stored on some hard disk somewhere, no easier to find than its hard-copy forebears. Luckily, no one shows a pressing urge to want to find it, but what happens if they do? The sad truth is that all these zillions of e-mails, Word documents, Acrobat files, PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets we produce don’t build us a supply of wisdom; they just get lost. In the lingo of the information game, it’s called unstructured data and unlike its rich cousin, structured data, which gets sifted by sophisticated programs wearing tin hats called data miners, it sits idle and largely inaccessible, unnoticed.

But there are signs that software developers are taking a closer look at this forgotten corner of the information superhighway and figuring out ways of imposing order on this unruly mass.


Logik, from Coredge Software Inc. (www.coredge.com), will take a document, or a whole directory, or hard drive, and sift — or parse — the contents, extracting the most important phrases, or themes as Logik calls them. Logik also generates a summary of the document. It does all this remarkably well, giving you a sense of the document in question along with a list of themes, from names and concepts to phrases like “vision statement” — all in less time than it takes to say: “What exactly is a vision statement and why do we need one?”

This process is great for handling large numbers of documents that you might need to retrieve at some point, but may not have the time to read all the way through. A keyword search for a phrase or theme will throw up a list of files that include that phrase. And if you select one of those documents you get a summary. Logik will also translate documents between major European languages and Japanese. I was impressed by the intuitive, uncluttered feel of this software.

But while automatic summarizing is a great concept which has come a long way in recent years, it’s by no means the main function users want to see in programs that organize their documents for them. To me the most important part of the process is a simple one: Can I find the document I’m looking for quickly, and can I view it immediately? While users can view the original document in Logik, it opens in a new window, making it less seamless than the rest of the program’s functions.

Document Search

For this kind of feature — finding quickly and viewing — you need Enfish Corp’s (www.enfish.com) Find, which indexes your hard drive and lets you find anything from a single word to a complex Boolean string quickly. Another program that offers a similar feature is 80-20 Software’s Retriever (www.80-20.com/products/retriever/) though at present it doesn’t let you preview the whole document (future versions will).

For software that does straight summarizing, check out Copernic Technologies’ Summarizer (www.copernic.com/products/summarizer), which does a great job of abridging anything on the fly, whether it’s a Web page, a Microsoft document or next door’s cat.

These programs make digging up any document you mislaid — or keeping track of colleagues’ documents — a whole lot easier. None of them comes cheap, however-Retriever is $50, Summarizer is $60 and Enfish Find is $70, while the standard version of Logik sells for $150. But to me that’s a good thing: These companies are aiming at a more discerning market with deeper pockets — in fact at exactly the sort of guys who spend their days writing reports that their bosses will never read.