Saturday, October 25, 2014

Apple: Yosemite's Transparency Effect Sucks

If I sound like a broken record, it's because I'm confronted with aspects of the stupidity that is the new Apple UI on a daily basis. Rather than getting used to it, each of these moments serve as a reminder that the design team has gone off the rails. I discussed a few of the elements in the Yosemite UI that drove me crazy in my post, Yosemite the Horror, and I'm still fighting the stupid redesign of Safari on a daily basis.

But here's another example of why this transparency look sucks. I happened to capture this screen while downloading a file.


I've blurred the file name, but you don't need to that to see that the screen is essentially unreadable. Thin dark gray type on a light gray (due to transparency) background equals a puddle of gray, inky colors. Functional? Hardly.

You might argue that this is designer narcissism, but I happened to see a colleague with an Android phone with similar image elements. Perhaps a better rename of this interface should be, when plagiarism attacks. It's kind of like the UI team at Apple saw somebody wearing 6" platform shoes with goldfish in them and said to themselves, "those are so cool, everyone should wear them."

If I could wish for one product to hit the market, it would be a tool that would enable me to reskin the entire interface back to the time before all of this design style took over. Skeumorphism be damned, I'd much rather put up with an electronic calendar with a fake binding that an unreadable screen using modern "flat" colors.

Perhaps the worst aspect of all of this crappy UI design is that, it makes you seriously question the underlying code and framework of the OS. Put differently, if this kind of crap gets through the design filters, what kind of crappy code is escaping through the technical teams?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Celebrity News: Lessons for a Polarlized World

Some time ago I was thinking about politics, our news media, and the stupider aspects of polarization. In politics, the news about politics, and the media that surrounds it, everything seems to pull to one pole or another. Often, this need to align with a pole will transform positions and reasoning into an idiotic farce. What I mean by that is, if you start with a basic story like "President Obama Kisses Baby", before ink has hit the presses groups of people will find the need to author "How dare he kiss a baby", "Presidential baby kissing is destroying our economy", or perhaps even "Obama kisses baby and ignores the dangers of Ebola pandemic". It's a constant game of "I'm Rubber, Your Glue" and for most of us, it can be exhausting.

It's particularly relevant as we swirl through the election season. As election season nears, the madness of all of this polarity comes to a boil. If one candidate uses a serial comma, there will be widespread backlash against serial commas and anyone that uses them. Soon you'll find yourself needing to align with the comma users or against them -- but choose carefully, because the other side is hell-bent on evil.

What makes it worse is that there are ecosystems devoted to echoing and amplifying the two poles. From the cable channels to the papers and the radio stations, the media aligns with an audience and, before you know it, your feed is saturated with one pole or the other. And these ideologies live like religions, with us in the midst of an epic, never-ending holy war. It's so pervasive, that it seems almost a natural part of our existence.

But it's not.

I realized that one day while reflecting on lessons from the celebrity/gossip media. In the celebrity gossip world, you don't really have poles. There is no liberal/conservative split in the news about celebrities. When you get "Justin Bieber Arrested for DUI in Florida," you don't see a knee-jerk response from some other side. There are lots of "Bieber is an asshole/jerk/idiot" stories. Perhaps some teen girls with the "Leave Justin Alone". Even a certain number of publicist-driven, "Ah come-on guys, it wasn't like that" stories. But there is no "other half" of the media saying, "Justin Bieber is not an asshole/jerk/idiot" or "Why do they always bust white Canadian men, nobody says anything about Rihanna being drunk" stories. Or even the "They're just trying to destroy our traditional street racing culture. This is a classic American value. Did everyone forget about American Graffiti? American Graffiti should be mandatory in every high school."

Regardless of where you look in the celebrity media coverage -- if you parse it by celebrity, by communications outlet, or even as a broader sort of survey -- you won't see the kind of polarization that you see in anything that touches politics. That's probably why politics and political news is so disheartening. Put a different way, if every time you opened a story about your favorite celebrity, you knew that somewhere, there was a corresponding series of stories from the side of a "competitive" celebrity" saying that you were an idiot for showing interest in the first celebrity. Odds are, you'd probably buy less product, go to fewer movies, download fewer songs -- and you'd certainly only want to buy, download, or support the appropriate side.

The world we live in... strange, but not as polar as you've been lead to believe.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Apple Yosemite Release: The Horror

So yesterday I went ahead and installed Yosemite on one of my systems. Normally, I'm skeptical of installing a newly released Apple OS as history tells us that critical functions tend to break (like printing a few releases back). In this case, however, I was drawn in by some of the continuity features. Even then, I did some research online and came across few people expressing concerns about the potential for buggy behavior.

Overall, the install went smoothly -- I didn't encounter any hick-ups -- and so far, I haven't come across anything that you would consider a bug. And yet, I have no glowingly positive things to say about Apple's Yosemite release. Instead, and let this be a warning to you before you update, my list of really stupid, sucky stuff that Apple is doing continues to expand.

Here are just a few of the things that are wrong with Yosemite:
It's a reskinned OS that looks a lot like iOS7/8. While somebody somewhere may like this design, it makes me wretch every time I look at the screen. It looks like somebody stole the color palette from a pastel parrot. Apple and much of the publishing world refer to this as a more modern, flatter look. But for me, if it doesn't do anything else, the desktop version really magnifies and drives home how terrible this approach is.

When they rolled it out on iOS, the bullshit that they were spewing was that "it's designed to show off the awesomeness of our Retina displays." But it doesn't. That's why they came back around with bigger fonts and stronger colors post iOS7 release. With the desktop version, what you get is a wash of white, washed out colors. There is no contrast, no definition. When I fired up my laptop this morning, my Apple email client made the screen look like one big white screen.

Contrast this interface design with virtually any video game you've seen. The majority incorporate 3D graphic elements designed to add to an encapsulated, immersive experience. The problem with the current interface -- regardless of how they push it -- is that it's not easy to distinguish different elements in the interface. Your eyes don't know where to go. You can't just tell the difference between one element and another. The bullshit that they want to tell you is that, "you get used to it", but we've have over a year of iOS7 to disprove that notion. With Yosemite, they've doubled down on this line and it's horrible for the desktop experience.

When Steve Jobs passed and they put Jony Ive in charge of software design, one of the things that they talked about was more of a unified hardware/software design. To me, this feels like designer sans editor. If I didn't know better, I'd think that the purpose of the interface design is to show off how elegant that the hardware design is -- rather than a platform that makes interacting with software easier.

But, beyond the overall interface rant, let's dive into a few specifics.
A simplified Safari interface. I guess the browser interface has just become too crowded or too complicated for some people. With Yosemite, they've removed all of the old bookmarks, search windows and other stuff associated with it. It's so empty that, when you first look at it, you'll swear that important stuff is missing, like you've been popped into one of those windows where you no longer have navigation control.

But for me, the worst thing about it is the way that they've changed private browsing. On most of my systems, once I launch Safari, I turn on private browsing. I use this to prevent cookies. I also use the "reset Safari" regularly to purge the browser of any auto-executed chunks of code that I might have picked up. Now, you can selectively launch either a normal Safari window or a private window, but it's harder to launch a private window. Even if you are in private browsing, if you open a new window, it's not private. While there is a preference pane that tells Safari to launch with a private window, it appears that that only works on launch. After that, you're back to tracked. Brilliant.

Put into more basic terms, you need to actively monitor your state or you may find yourself surprised by an unintended state change.

Another one that, admittedly, is a carry-over from Mavericks version is this idea of getting rid of scroll bars on windows. It's as if, after 20 years of computing and using this tool that helped us get through extended pages of content, some genius designer said, "I hate them. They are ugly. They ugly up my beautiful window design. Let's make them go away. Damn the utility." Fortunately, this is one of those features that you can change behavior on in the interface controls, but why we had to go there is really beyond me. What is it with scroll bars that seems so maddening that the designers just keep wanting to change it?

Transparency is kind of overrated. A perfect example of this is in Safari, again. Opening multiple tabs in Safari now means that you have several transparent tabs at the top of the window, but with the active one just a bit more white than the rest. While some might argue that it makes the tabs more background, what it also does it make it more difficult to tell which one is active. At a glance, it's not exactly straightforward which window you are in -- and that means you're concentrating on the interface instead of using it as a tool.

Perhaps equally annoying, somebody decided that Safari should simplify the URL shown in the navigation/search window. Instead of showing the full URL of the page you are on, the browser window only shows the top level domain -- in case you forgot what it was. It's like "web browser brought to you by the branding board of the Internet". Let's not forget that monitoring your prage URL is not only a good security practice, it's one of those things that's kind of essential for a lot of web development work. Fortunately, there's a check box to disable this bit of brilliance. Come to think of it, I think the guys over at Mozilla first started doing this and I had to disable it in Firefox as well. So -- original idea, no... doing the same stupid thing when somebody else already did it... again, Apple, I expect better.

If you can't say something nice...
In one of the creative writing classes that I took, the teacher insisted that we open our comments about a specific piece by saying something positive about the work. Since I've already opened and commented, I'll close with a positive. I like aspects of the way that they've updated they've updated the dock in Yosemite. Now, it's easier to actually tell if an application is open. Before, they used a white dot underneath the app to indicate open, now they use a black dot. Finally, something I can see.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Dreamforce 2015: Just Visiting

So we're headed up to Dreamforce today, getting ready to battle the conference crowds along with the bonus Giants' game crowd. Taking Caltrain again. If you remember my previous post, My Terrible, Awful Day at Dreamforce 2013, you'll probably have some sense of why I'm not looking forward to this.

This year, I decided to skip spending the money on the full conference pass. Instead, we're keynote and exhibits only -- adding to the crowd and not much else. We'll see how that works out. There's a part of me that feels like I'm missing stuff by not going to the full conference, but I think it's probably one of those things like not booking a United flight -- your gut telling you one thing, but your brain telling you the ROI isn't there. I shoulda used the Salesforce.com guy's ROI calculator.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Heroes of Customer Service - 1Password

I write a lot about bad actors, those businesses and individuals who demonstrate really bad customer service. It's one of those things -- sometimes there are those experiences that are so bad or stand out so significantly -- you feel like you need to share them. But the reality is that we often go through the day with hundreds of customer service interactions, that are all just okay. But what about the amazingly good one?

When I get the chance, I like to call those out too. I think it's a reminder that good customer service can save a relationship. Consider this story of my experience with 1Password and their incredible customer service team.

After the theft of my laptop, I needed to change all of my passwords. I didn't want to use any password patterns that I might have used in the past. I also wanted to change the way that I stored my passwords. After discussing various password vaults with colleagues and reading reviews online, I decided to try 1Password by Agilebits.

1Password had some very strong reviews. It enabled you to sync and carry all of your passwords across multiple devices, Mac and iPhone. It did cost some money, but it also seemed to have some helpful security features as well. Thinking that it was a reasonable software to try, I purchased it through the Apple App Store, and installed it on the Friday beginning the Labor day weekend.

Installation was pretty straightforward and before long, I entered about a dozen passwords into 1Password and was able to see and sync them between my Mac and my iPhone. Everything seemed to be good.

1Password uses a single 'Master Password' to unlock your vault. When I woke up the next morning, I needed to get into 1Password for a login. When I entered my Master Password, 1Password rejected it. I checked the caps lock key. I tried reentering it several times. I even entered it using a text editor, then copy and pasting it in. Nada.

I searched the 1Password site, but I couldn't find any helpful guidance. Using the site, I was finally able to submit a ticket to 1Password customer support. I got a response back in less than 15 minutes. When I say a response back, I don't just mean a generic auto-response, but an actual response from Eva, the "Good Witch of the Pacific Northwest".

Eva worked with me through email through the day on Saturday attempting to correct the issue, running a diagnostic tool for their software, and evaluating the results. In the end, we wound up needed to blow out the old version and reinstall. Unfortunately, because of the cloud-based sync, the corrupted master password rewrote the wrong data when I tried to reinstall. It was Saturday evening and I still wasn't up and running. At what worked out to be 3:00am my time (my guess is east coast office), Steve, the "Ninth Inning Closer" joined in, emailing instructions about how to correct the syncing problem. And, by the time I got going on Sunday, I was up and running again.

Since that time, I've had no hassles with 1Password. The application has run flawlessly. While I had to essentially do a completely clean restart, I felt like I owed it to Eva and to Steve to give the software one more try and the product has performed as promised. When you consider that, on that Saturday morning I extremely angry and frustrated, with more thoughts on refund than on repair, Agilebits' customer service saved their business. I went from being someone who was on the verge of being a very negative word of mouth to being... a customer.

People like Eva and Steve can be the unsung heroes of your brand, but you need to empower them and to recognize what an important part of the customer experience they can play. Odds are, if they had not been able to revive me as a customer, no amount of new features or marketing incentives could have brought me back.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

United and MileagePlus Fail to Win My Business

So we're going through the process of booking flights for another trip to Japan. As I mentioned previously, I have Premier status on United and my fiancee has status on American. As we try to coordinate the best flight for this trip -- one that's mostly business for her -- we considered a number of factors in selecting our flight or flights. Here are some of our factors, in no particular order:
  • Cost of the ticket
  • Departing and arriving airport
  • Miles and status on the airline
  • Number of stops
  • Fare codes on the various tickets
  • The potential benefits of miles on said airline
  • The potential to upgrade
On our last trip, we actually took different airlines just so that we could both benefit from our respective mileage programs. This time, however, after considering all of the factors, United has lost. Not only has United lost, but MileagePlus and my experiences with the program earlier this year have basically essentially downgraded the airline in our decision process.

That's right. Depending upon the route that we selected, a United flight actually offered a lower priced flight but we opted against taking it. All of those 'benefits' that I've accumulated, lounge access, the theoretical option to upgrade, and the potential flight miles from the trip were not enough -- even with the lowest price. Here's why.

With their new MilieagePlus qualifying dollar requirement, even thought I spent the first half of the year flying on United -- and even with the cost of this ticket to Japan -- it's still unlikely that I would have met the dollars spent requirement. Hey, the company demands that we attempt to purchase the lowest cost fares. I can't do anything about that.

Based on my experiences expecting an automatic upgrade to Economy Plus combined with a new note on their site that says, 'automatic upgrade for Premier Exec with minimum class ticket', I now know that I can't expect an automatic upgrade. I also know from my experiences that the idea of using my accumulated miles to buy a class upgrade is, similarly, a pipedream.

But even if all of those things weren't the case, the low price fares are actually a ticket class that you can't upgrade. C'est la vie.

Practically speaking, what that means is that even with all of the miles that I've spent in United Airlines seats over the years, for all of the customer loyalty that I may have built with the airline, my reward is to be treated as though I was a customer that traveled only once every couple of years.

Similarly, even though my fiancee has status on American Airlines, we won't be flying on them either. In this case, a direct flight and a newer 787-class plane were more important that status. In short, as I mentioned in my previous posts on this topic, the mileage loyalty program has become so diluted that it's not enough to incentivize loyalty.

And the ironic thing is that, if everything goes according to schedule for next year, I have a busy year of travel coming up. Lots of tickets, lots of domestic travel. In the old days I probably would have booked all of that on United and been a happy Premier passenger riding along in Economy Plus. Now, I'll be surprised if I find myself on a single United flight.

The really crazy part is that, with all of experiences in the past, there is a part of me that holds onto the pipedream, deluding a part of my brain into thinking that there is the potential for special, better treatment and that I'm somehow missing it. Even in the face of my experiences in the past year, there is a part of me that feels like I'm leaving something on the table by not choosing United. That's some seriously mad Pavlovian shit there. Even crazier that a business would sit back and just torch that kind of thing.

Friday, October 10, 2014

LinkedIn Search and the Illusion of Continuity on the Web

For several years now I've had a set of saved job searches on LinkedIn. Recently, I discovered that LinkedIn had made changes to their search system and that, when I looked at the results of my saved search, the results I thought I was seeing did not match the criteria that defined my saved search for several years. Put simply, LinkedIn broke saved search in such a subtle way that I only realized it recently and I'm not even sure how long it has been broken.

So here's what happened...

A saved job search is a pretty straightforward query. The odds are pretty high that you know what you are looking for and that what you are looking for doesn't change much day to day (except for those days when you think, I wonder what the job situation is like in Hawaii -- I could totally work in Hawaii). If you build a saved search, rather than rebuilding that job query each time you need to use it, you can just run the query and scan through your results. Many job sites will even email you the results so that you don't need to visit their site.

When you're running that kind of a search, it's probably most helpful to view the list with the most recent listings first. Instead of giving you repeats, it's the kind of thing that makes it easier to see what's new. Scroll down until you get to what you saw previously and you're done. It's the way blogs work, news feeds, you name it.

But when LinkedIn revamped their search, suddenly all of those saved searches that used to be sorted by most recent became sort by relevance.

Relevance is helpful if you want somebody to think that the search results are closely aligned with what you were looking for, but it's not very useful for determining changes because the same results will keep ranking near the top.

This is how I realized what happened. I ran my saved search a week or so after the previous time and the job listings were the same. Some of them appeared near the top for nearly a month. I began to look more carefully at why the results looked the way that they did and, low and behold, LinkedIn had changed recent to relevance. You killed my Saved Search! You Bastards!

While my instinct is to blame it on the accidental fall out of a software upgrade, part of me can't escape the idea that it is intentional -- that somebody felt like always defaulting to relevance would make their product look better. Or smarter. And while part of me wants to get angry, another part of me feels like this is the kind of thing that companies just do, like Adobe and their code bloat (when you realize that, with all of the modern faster processor speeds, memory, and drive interfaces, Adobe Photoshop still takes longer to launch now than it did when we were at version 3.5, there is a part of you that wants to rage!).

Anyway, bottom line. LinkedIn sucks. If you have saved searches, you may be seeing results by relevance now. Caveat Emptor.