Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Online Interface Fail: Accidental or Intentional

This morning I was trying to purchase a couple of items from the online store. Everything was proceeding well, until I tried to complete the checkout process. Unfortunately, my browser wouldn't allow me to get to the checkout. Part of this was predictable -- I keep my browser locked down using plug-ins to block javascript, tracking cookies and cross-site scripting elements. But, try as I might to enable the page elements that would allow me to complete the transaction, I couldn't seem to find the element that was preventing me from moving to the checkout and completing the transaction. In the end, I gave up. Cart abandoned.

Every day, as we work with stuff in the online world, we apply a level of real-world experience and expectations to our online interactions. When we click on buttons, we expect them to work. When they don't work, or when things don't behave as we might expect, we believe that they are broken. In the real world, you click a button and you expect the light to come on. If not, you think that maybe the light is burnt out. But what happens when those problems that you experience are by design?

It's easy to assume that the reason something doesn't work is because it's broken or poorly designed. This morning the checkout button didn't work, but the continue shopping button did. Over the weekend we were watching some online videos and when the video switched to the ad, there were artifacts left on the screen but when you tried to clear them, the result was an ad clickthrough. In that way, the result was similar to some of those mobile ads that appeared in places that made you likely to accidentally click them.

An ad clickthrough is one example of where someone benefits from your interaction with a 'broken' interface, but the range of possibilities is broad. And the thing is, it may be happening to you without you even realizing it. So, the next time you find yourself dealing with a broken interface, ask yourself, "is there someone who benefits from this behavior?" If so, it could be by design.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Weekend Shopping and the Challenges of Brick and Mortar

We were out and about this weekend with a couple of trips to the mall. It was an interesting reminder about how some stores still wrestle with brick and mortar versus online.

It may be because it's been a while since we'd been there, but the Sony store has a new home and a new style -- more like the Apple store. It seems targeted more around the showrooming experience now, which seems appropriate. We didn't go in, but from the outside it looked better.

I'd been looking for something online at Williams Sonoma, but I thought it would be worth checking the store to see if they matched the same price and 'gift' offer as online. While their web site says that they can't always do that, I was pleased to see them do that for the product that I was looking for. Unfortunately, they didn't have it in stock and checking their inventory system showed some IS/POS system problems. Fortunately for us, we live in an area with multiple Williams Sonoma locations, so we were able to buy the item at another store (which also had problems with their POS system), but I was equally surprised that the first store didn't offer to check stock in nearby locations. And, for all of you retail people out there, don't ask me if I'd like to order it online when I just came in and asked if your retail offer matched your online one.

I was also doing some book shopping over the weekend. Amazon didn't have stock. I thought, what the heck, I'll check Barnes and Noble. Sure enough, they had stock and a better price. Oh, and the offer in store pickup. Having been burned by their pricing approach in the past, I was curious if they'd updated their pricing to support online match in-store. I called. Nope. That might not be a big deal when you're talking about a paperback or a $20 book, but when you start getting up over $100 and a $50 price delta, it's over. Their brick and mortar just lost the sale -- for the B&M and the online business.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Deathstar Fail: How the White House Laughed at Serious Economics

With the recent news of the White House's response to the petition to build a Death Star, perhaps -- if you're like me -- you got a chuckle over aspects of the actual response. What started out as something that might have seemed like an Onion news story turned out to be real. With everything from the title of the response, This isn't the petition response you're looking for, to quotes like:
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?
It's hard not to find humor in the response. Still, there's an aspect of the response that fundamentally missed the mark -- the underlying economic argument.

If you just touch the surface of most of the stories on this topic, the petition and response were all about placating some crazy Star Wars fans who assembled enough online interest. But what's missing from this story, both in the White House's response and in the lack of follow up in the media, is a deeper look at the underlying premise that drove this.

If this was simply an exercise in Star Wars fan fun, you'd probably see lots of petitions for things like protecting endangered wookies on Endor or Star Trek fans requesting research into transparent aluminum. But you don't. While I'm sure that some people might have signed the petition for fan fun, I think that you have to recognize that there was something deeper driving this thing.

Prepare for the Alien Invasion
At the heart of this proposal is it's re-spin of one path that economists like Paul Krugman say is the path out of the economic depression that we are in. His recipe to escape the current economic malaise revolves around government spending on stuff -- any stuff -- to help reignite the economy. Notably in this case, if scientists predicted that we were about to be attacked by aliens and we began spending to prepare for an alien invasion, that spending would revive the economy. Of course, that premise created some level of outrage that Krugman later addressed on his blog.

Doesn't all of this sound remarkably similar to 'building a Death Star'? Could it be, could it possibly be that this petition was about macro-economics and addressing the broader issues of the economy?

So while on some level, the White House deserves credit for elements of humor, redirecting the focus of the response to a half-assed promo for the space station and for a career in science strikes me as bad enough to warrant this post. To me, it's almost as if a woman walks into a hardware store and asks for directions to the power tools and the clerk responds with, "vacuum cleaners are on aisle 7 and housewares are on aisle 8, but we don't have any power-mops."

The title of their response is, This Isn't the Petition Response You're Looking For. At least that part was on mark.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Misfits, Mutant Powers and Brilliant Story Telling

If there ever was a golden age for broadcast television, that day has long passed. For all of the channels of content available, most of it is virtually unwatchable. Beyond the endless reality shows and voyeuristic adventures in train wreck family soap operas, the crafted story shows invariably combine recycled ideas with unimaginative vision and predictable story exposition.

But it's not like that everywhere. Consider some of the television shows that we get as spill-overs from the UK, shows that were so good that the US entertainment industry takes them, rehashes them, and serves them back as pabulum. The Office, Being Human, and Sherlock are three perfect examples. You could probably lump movies like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo into that category too.

Misfits probably falls into a different category. While the show is awesome, it's hard to imagine it being rehashed for television here in the States. Beyond the language and the adult themes, there's a level of Britishness that seems essential to the feel of the show.

One aspect of the show that also seems very British is the killing off of main characters and cycling through new sets of actors in the show. The show is currently airing season four and the cast looks quite different from season one. For audiences that grow attached to actors, characters and story-arcs, this can be challenging.

Personally, I feel like season four is struggling, hampered in ways that also left season three a bit weak, and not simply because some of the cast has changed. For me, it's more about some underlying aspects of the story. In season one, we have our cast imbued with mutant powers. While this is pretty common story line, these powers are part of what really carries the story.
  • The heroes are essentially young delinquents, improbable heroes
  • The powers are not classic super-powers, instead they tend to be odd, sometimes bordering on useless
  • The powers tend to be manifestations of personal issues or dreams, from the probation worker with anger issues to the old woman who dreams of reliving her younger days. Part of the magic of this is that element of character reflection and development -- what does this power say about the underlying issues that the character has, and how does power over that effect their behavior.
Season one is all about the characters discovering their powers and coming to terms with them. It's the classic story of coming to terms with new found power, but with a wonderful overlay of comedy and realism. Season two continues along those lines, with characters and personalities evolving, but with an increasingly public presence to the aspect of powers. By the end of season two, they essentially ran the series through a reboot, resetting some of the characters and their powers.

Fundamentally, this aspect of changing powers disrupts what I think is an important aspect of the story. Where once you had a potentially interesting window into the underlying character, the mutant power as a story-telling vehicle becomes more of an accessory with potential for good and bad. In season three, the Misfits team was able to use the accessory fairly effectively, juxtaposing powers in some hilarious ways -- I can't recall any story that explored the downside of being a brilliant rocket scientist in such a unique way. And yet, since aspects of these powers were essentially arbitrarily assigned, there's a disconnect.

With season four, powers have become an almost throw-away element in the show. Recognition of powers and exposure to them seems like it's become commonplace, lacking surprise. And since it's treated that way, it seems like it's lost that powerful thematic character exposition element. What does weak telekinesis say about a character?

One of the good and bad aspects of Misfits is that the series is short by US standards. The first season is only six episodes, seven in the second, and eight in the third. This probably helps keep them from beating an idea beating an idea to death just to support a story arc, and when it's good, we always feel like we could have used more episodes. But short may not save them from hitting the cliche wall. We're up to episode seven in season four, so by historical standards we're closing in on the end of the runway. Me, I'm still waiting and hoping for this season to really take off. 

I started writing this post while I was still watching the season. Since that time, we reached episode eight for season four, and that appears to be the end of season four. In that way, season four was a bit of a letdown. I expected more. I don't know what the future holds for this series, but I'm worried that we may have already jumped the shark. All that being said, it's a great show and I recommend it highly.