Tag Archives: Spy

Design: It’s All About Alarm Clocks

Business writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin throws out product ideas like other people throw out orange juice cartons:

For twenty cents or so, alarm clock manufacturers can add a chip that not only knows the time (via a radio signal) but knows what day it is too. Which means that they can add a switch that says “weekends.” Which means that the 98% of the population that doesn’t want to wake up on the same time on weekends as they do on weekdays will be happier (and better rested.)

But he’s not touting a new alarm clock, he’s making a point: “So why doesn’t every alarm clock have this feature?” he asks. “Because most people in that business are busy doing their jobs (distribution, promotion, pricing, etc.), not busy making products that people actually want to buy–and talk about.”

Indeed, companies are always far too busy doing what they’re doing to think about what they’re doing and wonder whether they can do it better. And, as Seth points out, this is because companies are compartmentalized into responsibilities, and brave is the person who tries to straddle departments.

The weekend alarm clock won’t be made by a big alarm clock company, it’ll be designed by someone like Gauri Nanda, who I mentioned a few weeks back as the inventor of Clocky, the alarm clock that goes walkabout. Gauri, needless to say, was working on her own.

Actually what I suspect happens in companies is that they just ignore the user entirely. This is partly because technical products are built (and much of them designed) by programmers and engineers. I hate to generalize, but these people thrive on complexity, not on usability. For them creating and mastering the opaque is an achievement, not a symptom of failure.

What usually happens is that there are two sides to product development: the people in the company who think it’s a good idea and the people who have to build it. But in my limited experience there’s no one in between who speaks both languages, and, most importantly, can see what the customer might expect and want.

This is the hardest bit: it’s called usability and it seems to be the last thing people think about. If you’ve ever grappled with an alarm clock, to continue Seth’s example, you’ll know what I mean.

My favorite is the alarm clock that makes a beep every time you press a button: not so useful if you’re trying to quietly set the alarm but not wake your loved one. One clock I have, despite being sophisticated enough to tell me the temperature, the time in Lima and how many thous in a furlong, even makes a beep when I hit the backlight button. And no, it can’t be switched off without a PhD in molecular biophysics.

I wish I could say that this is confined to alarm clocks, but it’s not. Nearly every device or program is dumb in its own way. But there are bright spots. One of the things I love about Web 2.0 is that the people designing the tools really seem to understand usability.

Of course, given the fact that Web 2.0 is one big feedback loop, where new versions pop up like mushroom after rain, it’s inevitable. But the result is websites that are easy to navigate and to figure out.

Apple, of course, figured this out long ago, But everyone else seems to be having problems understanding it. I tried out a website the other day which was supposed to help me find the best form of transportation between two places. The search engine was not smart enough to know a building’s earlier name, or even to recommend alternatives if I got the name slightly wrong.

The internal calculator was not smart enough to get the distances right (one walk I was asked to make between bus-stops would have taken me into the sea and halfway to the next country); neither was it smart enough to realize that was an error. All should have been spotted by any usability tests. All undermine the whole point of the website, which is to make it easy to figure out a way to get from A to B.

I won’t bore you with more examples: You are users, and you come across this stuff all the time. What worries me more is that we’re not listened to, at least in a way in that makes sense.

I was sitting in a seminar the other day listening to an employee of a global cellphone operator talking about she and her colleagues have been canvassing opinions about how consumers use cellphones. This is good, and what should be done, but I was surprised by how she went about it: Getting users together and asking them to make collages about how they use technology.

Frankly, I don’t think making collages is the right way to go about things. We need to get out on the streets, into the offices, bars and clubs, into the villages and factories, and observe how people actually use technology. Don’t expect people to fill in forms or do collages for you: Follow them around. Spy on them. I do.

One of the side-effects of the cellphone revolution is that it’s taken technology out of the usual places (office, den) and into every other room in the house (texting in the bath, watching mobile TV in bed) and beyond, into the bus stops, the subways, the village gazebo. Technology is now a seamless part of our lives. Researchers need to get out more.

The sad truth is that we’ve moved on and the geeks need to catch up. Because, lame as the alarm clock that beeps all the time and doesn’t know it’s the weekend is, nearly all our devices are no better: They’re too smart in the sense of feature density and too stupid in the interface that lets us use those features.

So, companies: Hire a usability consultant to tell you about your products and how they might be better. Or just try your own products: sleep in on a weekend or let your spouse try to find the alarm light button in the middle of the night and see how you like being woken up.

Then rub your eyes, get out of bed and head for the design table.

Seth’s Blog: Alarm clocks

Gmail Is Weird

An ordinary business email yielded the following contextual Google ads. Don’t click on the first one if you’ve just eaten and don’t click on the second on principle.

clipped from mail.google.com
Sponsored Links
 

Photos: That’s in my Gut?
This site guarantees to remove really gross stuff from your gut.
www.BlessedHerbs.com

 

Spy earpieces
Special equipment from Russia. All exams without preparation!
www.wintec.ru

Can We Trust Anti-Spy Software?

Who watches over the watchers? In software, it seems, it’s often the same folk.
 
Reading a press release for X-Cleaner, “a privacy tool suite that detects and removes installed spyware and adware components”, it sounded interesting enough for a mention. After all, it “includes tools to securely delete files, edit the registry, disable startup programs”, as well as “IE home page protection, cookie, cache and history cleaning, built-in password generator and more”. What’s more, there’s a free version with some features disabled. Not a bad tool for those folk worried about keylogging phisher trojans and whatnot.
 
But when I tried to find out who the company is behind it — never easy with companies working outside the U.S., I find — I saw some of the other software sold by the same company. The company is called XKee, it does not reveal where it’s based (and the WHOIS registrant information for the website contains a UK-based email address and a half-complete New York mailing address). XKee says (and I reproduce the original formatting here) “WE DO NOT MAKE ANY OF THE SOFTWARE! EACH PRODUCT IS SUBMITTED BY A SOFTWARE COMPANY OR DEVELOPER, OR IS PICKED FROM THE INTERNET BY OUR EDITORS. WHAT WE DO IS REVIEW AND RATE THE SOFTWARE, CATEGORIZE IT AND MAKE IT AVAILABLE TO YOU.”
 
Among those products are:
  •  iSpyNOW, “the critically acclaimed, award winning remotely deployable computer monitoring application. iSpyNOW is first of its kind – offering users the ability to remotely monitor a machine via a web interface without ever having physical access to that PC. iSpyNOW 3.0 now sets a standard in the remote monitoring and surveillance market. Read below to see why iSpyNOW 3.0 is the most powerful remote surveillance software offered anywhere!”
  • SpyBuddy,  ”the award-winning, powerful spy software and computer monitoring product for monitoring spouses, children, co-workers, or just about anyone else! SpyBuddy allows you to monitor all areas of your PC, tracking every action down the last keystroke pressed or the last file deleted! SpyBuddy comes equipped with the functionality to record all AOL/ICQ/MSN/AIM/Yahoo chat conversations, all websites visited, all windows opened and interacted with, every application executed, every document printed, every file or folder renamed and/or modified, all text and images sent to the clipboard, every keystroke pressed, every password typed, and more!”

Now, I know that software sites such as this are not unusual, and it’s also not unusual that they’re going to sell software that plays both sides of the fence — snooping, and anti-snooping — but it made me wonder: In these days of sophisticated fakery, how do we know the anti-snooping software does what it says it does? How do we know the software is not doing its own kind of snooping, like the other products on sale? If a company is happily selling snooping software, how far can we trust them to sell us something that does what it says it does?

The answer in the case of X-Cleaner is this: Despite the similar sounding names, it does not appear that X-Cleaner is related to XKee. X-Cleaner, from what I can see, is a bona fide anti-spyware program produced in Belgium by a company called Xblock. It has been reviewed in PCWorld and elsewhere, so is probably kosher. But there’s no easy way of telling any of this by visiting the websites of XKee, X-Cleaner or Xblock. I could find no useful company page, nothing to identify the folk behind it and an address or something to grab a hold of.

My feeling is this: I’m sure XKee and companies are not into anything sleazy, but nowadays I think they have got be much more upfront about who they are if they want to be credible: Especially if they’re selling potentially law-breaking software like spyware and mass-mailers. We need a physical address, some names, a corporate identity that stands up to scrutiny and customer queries. For the user, I’d say this: Be wary of any software that promises to keep your privacy unless you’ve read a review by someone you respect, and you have a pretty good idea of who’s behind it. For columnists like me, I’m going to be more careful about what software I recommend in future. End of sermon.

News: Norton Chips In

 I should have known, given the whole virus thing is big business, that if one company announces a new product, its rival down the street isn’t likely to stay silent. Hot on the heels (or maybe before, who knows) of McAfee’s upgrade to its VirusScan, Symantec Corp.announced Norton AntiVirus 2004, although tellingly it’s not ‘widely available’ until early September. (Not trying to muddy McAfee’s launch, are we lads?)
 
 
Norton AntiVirus 2004 takes a slightly different approach to the growing threat of worms, rather than viruses (worms jump aboard without the user doing anything like loading a file, while viruses depend on the user actually doing something). Norton AntiVirus 2004 will include scans for programs on the user’s computer that can be used with malicious intent to compromise the security of a system, spy on the user’s private data, or track users’ online behavior. AntiVirus will identify and block these threats at the point of entry to the system, detecting the threats during scans of email and instant message attachments, or during scheduled or on-demand system scans. This seems a little different to McAfee, although on the surface this all doesn’t sound that new. I’ll take a closer look and get back to you.
 
Norton AntiVirus 2004 and Norton AntiVirus 2004 Professional will be available for an estimated retail price of US$49.95 and US$69.95

Update: A Close Shave

 Further to my column about RFID, and the privacy issues of having tags attached to products that may contain more info about you than you’d like to know, a group called CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) is calling for a worldwide boycott of Gillette products since the company failed to renounce what they call “a Gillette Mach3 “smart shelf” spy system”.
 
 
My two cents? I’m not sure a boycott is a good way to explore this issue, but if it helps get people talking, then so be it.

News: Buy Some Razor Blades And Get Your Photo Taken!

 Yes, it’s true! All you need to do is pick up a packet of Gillette Mach3 razor blades at Tesco’s in Cambridge, England, and you’ll trigger a CCTV camera. A second camera takes a picture at the checkout and security staff then compare the two images. Apparently the aim of the trial, The Guardian reports, is to provide stock information, but the manager of the store has already described how he presented photos of a thief to police.
 
 
Retailers have hailed the technology as the “holy grail” of supply chain management but civil liberties groups argue that the so-called “spy chips” are an invasion of consumers’ privacy and could be used as a covert surveillance device.