Month: <span>July 2007</span>

Isn’t it funny, sang Elton John. And he was right, about many many things.

But enough of such modern day philosophy, pop music is not what I want to discuss. Not today at least (although apparently, and somewhat unrelatedly, Crowded House are back together… who knew?).

Today I want to revist some of the posts and comments which appeared last week as, all told, it was all quite interesting. I’ll try and summarise but really you should go read the posts in question. Somehow from this post about a film trailer and a few (unrelated as it turns out) websites, my dearest dahling readers headed off into a discussion about video game violence, and prompted me to ponder the qualities and values in our society

Towards the end of the “video-games-corrupt” thread, Dragon said:

“I believe that video games today are villified in exactly the same way that television, pop music and comic books were in decades past. All of them were accused of lowering moral standards and corrupting the youth.”

And that neatly takes us into this quote, from Blue Witch, in the “good-society” thread:

“As I said, how one chooses to live one’s life today depends where one’s priorities and values reside, and how much one buys-in to consumerism.”

OK, maybe not all that neatly but there certainly seems to be a link there, more consumerism = more opportunity to villify?? OK, it’s a bit of a grasp.

Having just watched the last of the BBC’s documentaries on the History of Rock Music, the closing voxpops may shed some light on this… namely one from Stuart Marconie (yeah yeah, I know) but I have to agree with him that, currently, rock music is at the point where it’s happy to acknowledge those that have come before. Through the 60s, 70s and 80s, even the early 90s, rock music tried to be different, to steer itself in new directions. From the Beatles to the Stones, to Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden and through to (early) Oasis and Blur, rock music continued to evolve. The current crop of rock bands — Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs for example — are happy to build on the foundations already there, pulling from punk, funk, metal and everything in-between and crucial are happy to admit that they are doing just that.

Similarly you could argue that video games are beginning to reach that point as well, with their place in culture assured (for better or worse), they are now starting to pull from one another, with platform ideas mutating across into shooters, puzzles appearing in adventure games and so on. I wonder how long it will take before they are, or perhaps if they will ever, be well enough understood to be accepted into the mainstream?

Mind you, that does seem to suggest that, for that to happen, society needs to accept that (some level of) violence is part of everyday life. It is for a lot of people but should it be encouraged? I don’t think that video games are solely to blame for the “state of the youth today” (hello Daily Mail readers!), but I do think that more consideration about their content may be required.

On the other hand, it’s so easy to get hold of things these days that maybe video games are purely victims of their own success and hype. Slapping a label on a video game doesn’t mean that a 10 year old won’t play a game, just as it didn’t mean that a 10 year old wouldn’t be able to see an 18 rated movie. The difference, of course, is that movies used to have a physical barrier. You had to get inside the cinema (or wait a year until a video copy could be purloined and watched, whilst everyone else was out in the garden, on the single video player in the house).

With more people having more ‘stuff’, children frequently have access to a computer, their own TV and DVD player, not to mention a games console.

Stack them all up and any smart kid can download anything they want, and do it all in the “privacy” of their own bedroom. Consumerism isn’t to blame here though, some form of parental guidance and control must surely be expected.

Personally I don’t have kids, but I am a consumer, and all of this has left me wondering where I fit in. Am I a good member of society? I chat to my neighbours, offer to help on occasion, and buy gadgets (grown up toys) because I can afford them (well, technically I can manage my debt…). I live outside of my means on the basis that my lifestyle has little direct impact on others. The dichotomy arises when I look at that last sentence because I know it’s not true, yet it guides most of my life decisions.

But that’s for ME to deal with, and the more I think about it, the harder life seems until it becomes easier to take the “life is for living” line and wash away all those pesky morals.

And so my addled brain skips away from such difficult contemplations, for after all this is the age of the internet, the diversion, the overload. Instead I find myself wondering if this very kind of discussion is why blogging has grabbed the imagination, as we struggle to piece together the inter-linked and intricate facets that constitute life, is it any wonder we seem to need somewhere, anywhere, that we can cry out, in which we can shout and moan and wonder aloud?

A long time ago, on this very blog, I linked to someone (sorry can’t find the post in question) that said that blogging was “very much like standing at the edge of a cliff, and screaming your lungs out”.

I couldn’t agree more.

Further reading: Modern Communities.

Personal Musings Work

Over the past few years, I’ve linked to various new web applications and many of them were created by 37signals (Basecamp, TaDa, BackPack and so on). I still use some of their apps but not as frequently as those offered by that other small web app company, Google.

Now I’ve contacted them about this in the past, but I think they need to better “productise” their applications. By that I mean, almost solely, that they need to provide icons, distinct well designed icons, for their applications.

Why?

Well this came to light recently as I tried, yet again, to tweak and streamline my browser (the application I use more frequently than any other). It also highlighted why I’m still using Firefox, namely because I’ve yet to find a need that a Firefox extension won’t scratch… meet.. whatever.

I’m a big fan of maximising space, particularly as I use a lot of web-based applications these days, and the more space they can get the better. However, those self-same, often used, web-based apps provide a problem. How do I quickly and easily access them? Well Firefox has a bookmark toolbar which you can customise to your own needs (right-click an existing link to delete, drag from the address bar (or any web link) to create a new link in the toolbar), and so I have my most often used applications linked from there.

For the record, those applications are:

  1. Google Mail
  2. Google Reader
  3. Google Calendar
  4. Google Docs & Sheets
  5. Google Calendar
  6. Remember the Milk
  7. 37signals TaDa List
  8. Side Job Track
  9. 37signals Highrise
  10. 37signals Basecamp for current project
  11. Google Reader Subscribe favelet

And here they are (with thanks to the Smart Bookmarks Bar and Favicon Picker extensions):

Firefox Bookmarks Bar

And yes, the order is quite specific. I use Mail and Reader multiple times a day, the Calendar and Docs & Sheets, and Remember the Milk a few times a week, the Ta Da list once a week or less. Side Job Track is used ad-hoc, I’m still testing Highrise, and the Basecamp link isn’t permanent. The Subscribe link on the far-right lets me “one-click” to add an RSS feed to Google Reader, and it’s easy to hit as it’s on the end of the list.

Ohh and the Smart Bookmarks Bar extension expands to show the text next to the icon, in case you were wondering.

So, having setup that toolbar, I immediately noticed that none of the 37signals links had icons attached to them. This is purely because they don’t have “favicons” assigned to their website, but it made me realise that Google are certainly taking the whole “product” thing seriously. There are plenty of rumours around that with a couple of extra purchases they will soon be placed, and may formally start to bundle, an Office equivalent. All free, all online.

Whilst the 37signals apps are all excellent, I think they are missing that leap. The leap that pulls people from their desktop apps, and it may just be that a simple icon is all that it takes.

If you start to think about your browser as a web desktop, then the bookmark toolbar becomes the place where your desktop icons live. It’s not a huge leap, and not an original thought either, I know others have pondered the same.

Whilst there is a mindshift required and a couple of missing applications to be created (drag and drop files to… where? if you are in a web browser that is pretending to your desktop??), it is feasible to think that your local computer will only ever really be used as a storage device, with all your applications running online. Certainly for most general tasks that is already possible.

Not everyone will embrace this idea, in fact I’d guess that most people are still against moving to web apps at all, but for those that have bitten the bullet, these small details could be all it takes between adoption and desertion. If another web app comes along that offers similar functionality, but makes its play from a “product” point of view then maybe the 37signals guys may have a bit of a fight on their hands.

For now though, they are still the best around at what they choose to do, and if you don’t read either of their blogs, then you should. Plus the Official Google Blog, obv.

Tech Work

Note: This has been sitting around in my drafts for ages, I consider it unfinished but that’s never stopped me from posting something before…

A while ago Adrian mused (lusted?) over Apple TV sets and in the comment to that post, he rightly states that

“Technology should serve it’s purpose and technology should be as simple as it can be without breaking it’s purpose.”

Now, before I go any further I will confirm that what Adrian was really saying was that

“Technology should serve it’s purpose and technology should be as USABLE as it can be without breaking it’s purpose.”

Which is very different from “technology should be simple”. After all, it takes a long time for technology to evolve to a point where it’s considered “simple”. Or maybe it’s the other way around, maybe it’s the time it takes the population to get to grips with a new technology that defines whether something is considered simple, or not.

Anyway, let’s go with the opening statement(s); technology should be simple, it should be open to all who want to use it and should be designed to be usable by whoever buys it.

Nothing much of contention there. Or is there?

By it’s nature, modern consumer technology (and I’m referring directly to the underlying workings of the myriad of electronic gadgets you have in your house) is hugely complex, and I’d suggest that the internals of most of these are both highly technical and likely quite scarily off-putting if presented to the layman. Of course that doesn’t really matter these days as most consumer electrics are considered to be throw away items. That computer printer that isn’t working anymore? Just go and get a new one, they are only £30… that broken DVD player? £25 for a new one, so why bother trying to get the case open to check if there is a loose wire? Technology has shrunk so much that unless you are happy working on tiny circuit boards you are unlikely to even bother trying to fix anything. At that level, the technicality of the product is a barrier that is deemed acceptable by most, a line across which the general punter won’t even consider stepping across.

Ohh and to all my lovely readers who are shaking their heads at this point, remember, you are not a ‘general punter’. You are most likely a geek and bemoan the fact that, these days, most electronic gadgets are completely sealed and glued shut, I hear you, I feel your pain.

At that technical level, most of us are happy to ignore the technology completely. If it’s broken it’s either someone else’s problem, or we replace it. Simple.

The real problems start when technology isn’t designed around the customer, isn’t designed with the user in mind, and that is when the statement that Adrian made – Technology should serve it’s purpose – needs to be revisited. Quite simply a lot of everyday technology isn’t designed with the main purpose in mind. Let’s take an everyday example.

My TV has an internal signal regulator switch which allows it to handle multiple inputs of an Audio/Video nature. It’s smart enough to detect when one of the inputs is turned on, and switches itself to the correct channel to show whatever it is receiving from that input. I can then, with the push of a button, change which input I am viewing. Simple. One little button.

Ohh I’m sorry, too technical? Right, if I’m watching Sky and I turn on my DVD player, the TV switches over to the DVD player, but if I want I can switch back to Sky with the push of a button.

And what is that button called, the one that lets me switch between Sky and my DVD player? If you are lucky it’s usually labelled “A/V”. Well I say lucky, but it’s not hugely obvious what that means, is it? Not to a lot of people at least. Sure you can learn what it means, but ultimately you’ll store that information as “pushing that button changes between Sky and my DVD player”. You may remember that it means Audio/Video, but why should you have to? Re-labelling this as “Switch Inputs” would be best but that’s a bit cumbersome for a remote control, but even S/I might be better? I don’t have a good answer for this but A/V just isn’t right… but mind you, the weird symbol I have on my TV isn’t right either, in fact it’s so wrong I had to check the documentation to find out what it meant!

But, just to flip this all on it’s head, maybe, just maybe, A/V IS the right label for that button.

I suggested, in a comment to Adrian’s post, that perhaps technology needed to retain some barriers in an effort to minimise the impact of unleashing technology on non-techie type people. Gosh, how horrible am I. How exculsive. What a techno-snob!

Let me be slightly more specific then, I think in certain instances, barriers are required and should remain long past the ‘early adopter’ stages and into the life of a technology. A good example, in my opinion, is the trend towards convergence shown by most of the large ‘gadget’ manufacturers over the past few years. Do I really need a kettle that can talk to my fridge, and a fridge that can re-ordered milk when my supplies run low (ok, the latter might be useful, I’m always forgetting to remember the milk… I should really note that down in my to do list you know…)

During the life of most technologies a central equilibrium is found and that will suit the majority of consumers (even if it isn’t the ‘best’ technology). The most obvious example is the, now ubiquitous, iPod. It is not as feature rich as other MP3 players but being well-designed (and well marketed) it is usually what most consumers think of when you say “MP3 player” (remember, dearest blog reader, that you are probably more technically aware than most). The very fact that the iPod DOESN’T have a radio, and DOESN’T let you record are barriers. Adding those features would raise the technical level for usage to a point that, I can only presume, Apple aren’t comfortable with. OK, maybe it’s just because it doesn’t fit with their business plan for the iPod.

I guess what I’m really arguing here is that early adopters are good things, and that products don’t (shouldn’t?) always have to be simple and usable until they reach a critical mass.

I could also say that I’m arguing that product design should be left to designers, not techies, but that to get a product to the point of being easily accepted then sometimes it’s good to have a few barriers in the way, then once the kinks are ironed out THEN it can become a consumer product??

Of course it all really depends on what you class as technology.

Work

YAY! Miniblog comments are back, just click that hash mark (the #). Yes it’s a bit clunky, and I don’t like the formatting but… it’ll do for now. It’s better than just pulling from my delicious account.. sort of…

Blogging

Blogging

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Fighting email overload with Sentenc.es.

“… with email, often times the sender will ask two or three open-ended one sentence questions which elicit multi-paragraph answers. In these cases, the sender spends one minute and the receiver is asked, implicitly, to spend maybe an hour.”

Blogging

Proof, if more proof were needed that keeping the user in mind when designing a product, document or website really does work.

Renewing a support contract with a client, I was asking them if the website had been beneficial and if there was anything about it that had worked well. The response wasn’t quite what I’d expected, so I can’t take full credit for this, but it’s worth bearing in mind. Amongst various comments, one stuck out:

“… and a lot of people have commented on the fact the photos aren’t ‘glossed up’, you get a real sense of the workmanship that way”

For example, if you look at this photo page you can see that the photos used were taken by the client on a small digital camera. When I received these photos I pulled them into PhotoShop and started filtering and tweaking them, but no matter what I did to them the end result was the same.

They didn’t feel “honest”.

It’s hard to elaborate on this without sounding rather twee but ultimately I liked the fact that the photos LOOKED real, they didn’t looked staged and lit like a professionals photograph. Unwittingly I was wearing my user cap and seeing things from that point of view.

I wish I could say it was a conscious decision but it wasn’t, but it does seem that after spending many years wearing many different professional caps as part of my job as a Technical Writer, I can now flit between them without even realising!

I guess there even may be a lesson here for anyone selling something online. The more “real” you can make your product appear on your website, the better. Which reminds me, I’ve got some stuff to sell on eBay, maybe a video would help?

Work

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