Posts tagged ‘user interface’


The path of least resistance: we humans aren’t discerning enough sometimes

04.02.2018

I came across a thread at Tedium where Christopher Marlow mentions Pandora Mail as an email client that took Eudora as a starting-point, and moved the game forward (e.g. building in Unicode support).
   As some of you know, I’ve been searching for an email client to use instead of Eudora (here’s something I wrote six years ago, almost to the day), but worked with the demands of the 2010s. I had feared that Eudora would be totally obsolete by now, in 2018, but for the most part it’s held up; I remember having to upgrade in 2008 from a 1999 version and wondering if I only had about nine years with the new one. Fortunately, it’s survived longer than that.
   Brana Bujenović’s Pandora Mail easily imported everything from Eudora, including the labels I had for the tables of contents, and the personalities I had, but it’s not 100 per cent perfect, e.g. I can’t resize type in my signature file. However, finally I’ve found an email client that does one thing that no other client does: I can resize the inbox and outbox to my liking, and have them next to each other. In the mid-1990s, this was one of Eudora’s default layouts, and it amazed me that this very efficient way of displaying emails never caught on. I was also heartened to learn from Tedium that Eudora was Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s email client of choice (‘The most important thing I use is Eudora, and that’s discontinued’). I’m in good company.
   However, this got me thinking how most users tolerate things, without regard, in my opinion, to what’s best for them. It’s the path of least resistance, except going down this path makes life harder for them.
   The three-panel layout is de rigueur for email clients today—all the ones I’ve downloaded and even paid good money for have followed this. Thunderbird, Mailbird, the oddly capitalized eM. All have had wonderful reviews and praise, but none allow you to configure the in- and outbox sizes. Hiri’s CEO says that’s something they’re looking at but right now, they’re not there, either. Twenty-plus years since I began using Eudora and no one has thought of doing this, and putting the power of customization with the user.
   But when did this three-panel layout become the standard? I can trace this back to Outlook Express, bundled with Windows in the late 1990s, and, if I’m not mistaken, with Macs as well. I remember working with Macs and Outlook was standard. I found the layout limiting because you could only see a few emails in the table of contents at any given time, and I usually have hundreds of messages come in. I didn’t want to scroll, and in the pre-mouse-wheel environment of the 1990s, neither would you. Yet most people put up with this, and everyone seems to have followed Outlook Express’s layout since. It’s a standard, but only one foisted on people who couldn’t be bothered thinking about their real requirements. It wasn’t efficient, but it was free (or, I should say, the licence fee was included in the purchase of the OS or the computer).
   ‘It was free’ is also the reason Microsoft Word overtook WordPerfect as the standard word processor of the 1990s, and rivals that followed, such as Libre Office and Open Office, had to make sure that they included Word converters. I could never understand Word and again, my (basic) needs were simple. I wanted a word processor where the fonts and margins would stay as they were set till I told it otherwise. Word could never handle that, and, from what I can tell, still can’t. Yet people tolerated Word’s quirks, its random decisions to change font and margins on you. I shudder to think how many hours were wasted on people editing their documents—Word can’t even handle columns very easily (the trick was usually to type things in a single column, then reformat—so much for a WYSIWYG environment then). I remember using WordPerfect as a layout programme, using its Reveal Codes feature—it was that powerful, even in DOS. Footnoting remains a breeze with WordPerfect. But Word overtook WordPerfect, which went from number one to a tiny, niche player, supported by a few diehards like myself who care about ease of use and efficiency. Computers, to me, are tools that should be practical, and of course the UI should look good, because that aids practicality. Neither Outlook nor Word are efficient. On a similar note I always found Quattro Pro superior to Excel.
   With Mac OS X going to 64-bit programs and ending support for 32-bit there isn’t much choice out there; I’ve encountered Mac Eudora users who are running out of options; and WordPerfect hasn’t been updated for Mac users for years. To a large degree this answers why the Windows environment remains my choice for office work, with Mac and Linux supporting OSs. Someone who comes up with a Unicode-supporting word processor that has the ease of use of WordPerfect could be on to something.
   Then you begin thinking what else we put up with. I find people readily forget or forgive the bugs on Facebook, for example. I remember one Twitter conversation where a netizen claimed I encountered more Facebook bugs than anyone else. I highly doubt that, because her statement is down to short or unreliable memories. I seem to recall she claimed she had never experienced an outage—when in fact everyone on the planet did, and it was widely reported in the media at the time. My regular complaints about Facebook are to do with how the website fails to get the basics right after so many years. Few, I’m willing to bet, will remember that no one’s wall updated on January 1, 2012 if you lived east of the US Pacific time zone, because the staff at Facebook hadn’t figured out that different time zones existed. So we already know people put up with websites commonly that fail them; and we also know that privacy invasions don’t concern hundreds of millions, maybe even thousands of millions, of people, and the default settings are “good enough”.
   Keyboards wider than 40 cm are bad for you as you reach unnecessarily far for the mouse, yet most people tolerate 46 cm unless they’re using their laptops. Does this also explain the prevalence of Toyota Camrys, which one friend suggested was the car you bought if you wanted to ‘tell everyone you had given up on life’? It probably does explain the prevalence of automatic-transmission vehicles out there: when I polled my friends, the automatic–manual divide was 50–50, with many in the manual camp saying, ‘But I own an automatic, because I had no choice.’ If I didn’t have the luxury of a “spare car”, then I may well have wound up with something less than satisfactory—but I wasn’t going to part with tens of thousands of dollars and be pissed off each time I got behind the wheel. We don’t demand, or we don’t make our voices heard, so we get what vendors decide we want.
   Equally, you can ask why many media buyers always buy with the same magazines, not because it did their clients any good, but because they were safe bets that wouldn’t get them into trouble with conservative bosses. Maybe the path of least resistance might also explain why in many democracies, we wind up with two main parties that attract the most voters—spurred by convention which even some media buy into. (This also plays into mayoral elections!)
   Often we have ourselves to blame when we put up with inferior products, because we haven’t demanded anything better, or we don’t know anything better exists, or simply told people what we’d be happiest with. Or that the search for that product costs us in time and effort. Pandora has had, as far as I can fathom, no press coverage (partly, Brana tells me, by design, as they don’t want to deal with the traffic just yet; it’s understandable since there are hosting costs involved, and he’d have to pay for it should it get very popular).
   About the only place where we have been discerning seems to be television consumption. So many people subscribe to cable, satellite, Amazon Prime, or Netflix, and in so doing, support some excellent programming. Perhaps that is ultimately our priority as a species. We’re happy to be entertained—and that explains those of us who invest time in social networking, too. Anything for that hit of positivity, or that escapism as we let our minds drift.

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Posted in business, cars, culture, design, internet, politics, publishing, technology, USA | 2 Comments »


This is not your Granddad’s Myspace

26.09.2012

The new Myspace from Myspace on Vimeo

Justin Timberlake may have played Sean Parker in The Social Network, but he’s had a real-life social networking role to play as an investor as Myspace (sans intercapitalized S) showed off its new look yesterday.
   And I like it.
   After being frustrated with another attempt at ordering photos in a Facebook album (viz. it doesn’t work any more), seeing that fan page views had gone way down (as Facebook forces us to pay for promoted statuses), and noticing that I was largely using Facebook as a glorified version of Digg, it dawned on me: there must be a better way. As I told Facebook in a survey tonight:

These are actually reasons to leave Facebook or to find an alternative—and right now, the MySpace reboot is looking way better. Facebook is little more to me than a glorified Digg now where I share some bookmarks, but not where I share my real statuses. And we all know what happened to Digg.

It’s a slight exaggeration as some of my closer friends get some status updates, but the majority come via Twitter, and that’s plugged in to my Facebook.
   Twitter, too, no longer has the effectiveness it once had in itself, unless you are directly contacting someone.
   About the only newer (2007 and on) platform I get any pleasure out of is Tumblr, but that’s not what I call a social network.
   It’s funny, because one year ago, I was raving about Facebook Timeline. How Facebook gave me instant gratification through “likes” and how it looked so clever. But then, as with the Oldsmobile Toronado, designers tinkered with it. They added unnecessary features, such as the second friends’ box. Anything that was ingenious about the original Timeline, such as the way it could guess your most significant past moments, disappeared or was pushed down—or rendered useless. The fact that fan pages still don’t update on the 1st of each month—a bug that existed when Facebook first created Timeline—suggests to me that the company doesn’t really care any more about the user experience. It’s all about the money, and when that happens, the lovin’ feeling’s gone—just as it had with Google, which I also used to rave about.
   While the pundits are saying that Myspace is great because it focuses on music, they are missing the other angle. Based on the preview, it’s a visual delight. It makes updating your social network look good, and you have a fleeting moment of pride as you see the next status go live. We’re so spoiled with technology now that we like those experiences—and the new Myspace user interface, created by Australian firm Josephmark, captures that part of us. I can dig updating in News Gothic.
   Freed from the clutches of the Murdoch Press, Myspace might come good again—at the perfect time as Facebook fatigue—and even a bit of Twitter fatigue—sets in. I never thought I would say that.
   I just hope the new management keep the website clean: don’t do a Facebook.
   And I still have more friends on Myspace than I do on Google Plus, so I am starting from a bigger number than I did on Facebook all those years ago.

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Posted in business, design, interests, internet, media, technology, USA | 4 Comments »


How I’m consuming social media: the October 2011 edition

29.10.2011

I realize I’ve blogged less in general this year. Once upon a time, when I blogged less here, I was over at Vox (when it worked), writing personal, cathartic posts, sometimes directed at a limited audience. But now, and I never thought I would say this: Facebook seems to be where I’m directing some of my activity.
   The big attraction came on September 25, when I upgraded to Facebook Timeline. Since I’ve worked in visual communications for most of my life, Timeline’s look appeals to me, and, like others who favoured the revamp, I spent some time experimenting with it. Naturally, I also rechecked my privacy settings—a must whenever Facebook makes a change. And, I am sure Mr Zuckerberg will be happy to hear, I began sharing more.
   It’s that human trait of wanting instant gratification from what you’ve shared. Vox was good for that: you regularly got feedback to the limited-audience posts from your closest “friends” (many of whom have become real-life friends). Facebook, which has, since I joined in 2007, allowed us to share different things to different audiences (I’m surprised when people think that this was a recent addition to the service) offers something similar, but till recently its user interface did not appeal to me.
   Tumblr was one of the few places that was more graphically driven, but there’s such a culture of reblogging there, and I never felt too comfortable sharing anything more than a few original photos and some pithy thoughts.
   Facebook became the service between writing long blog posts (here) and pithy reblogs on Tumblr. I could share photos with select audience members. If I had queries, I could direct them to one of the circles of people that Facebook, this year, encouraged everyone to set up (my five haven’t changed since Facebook allowed us to set up groups of friends beyond ‘Limited Profile’). And the feeling of instant gratification was there for things you wanted people to know about—that strange human need of knowing that you were heard.
   I wound up putting some things on Facebook that I would have put on Tumblr a year ago, even if it was to a closed platform, and even if it was to a limited audience. It was “my” limited audience, after all, a group which I knew would appreciate the content. It wasn’t that personally knowing the audience seemed to compensate for the cowardice of not putting something out there publicly—it was the knowledge that it would be seen, and “liked”. We humans need so little to get a kick.
   I know there’s Google Plus, but it’s just not for me. That has been covered elsewhere, but the smaller contact number there has no appeal. Of the 50-odd who have added me to their circles, I have a few real friends, all of whom I can reach more easily through email.
   This seems to be a round-about way for me to advise people that you can catch me on Facebook. For non-friends, I have opened up my account to subscribers, and occasionally write public status updates, or share public photos and links. I’ve also taken the backward step of setting up a fan page, where I record some of my business and political thoughts which are a bit more in depth than the minutiæ of life that form Facebook status updates.
   Then, there is Twitter, which I found myself using a lot less of since everyone went to ‘New Twitter’. New Twitter means an extra click for everything, and it’s far slower and buggier. Only this week have I switched to Twitter Mobile, even for my desktop and laptop, just so I can make a quicker judgement about whether to follow back a follower, and Tweet more reliably without an ‘Oops! We did something wrong’ message.
   I’m not so bold as to proclaim that Facebook is “it”, given the criticisms I’ve levelled at it in the past. I still have concerns over its privacy, just as I have concerns over Google about its terrible record. But, credit where it is due, whomever was responsible for Timeline seems to have understood the needs of some of its users. I know it’s annoyed some people—I have heard of one Facebooker who has used his account less since Timeline, because it turns him off—but, for me, it seems to be one of the better thought-out changes in the nearly half-decade I have been on the service, and fattened their wallets with my private information.

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Posted in business, culture, design, internet, media, technology | 12 Comments »


New Twitter, less utility?

16.12.2010

I might have to go on to one of those Twitter clients, when “new” Twitter is forced upon all users soon.
   When it eventually began working (it didn’t initially), I liked the new Twitter’s overall look. It was only missing one feature: telling us what the last Tweet of the person was at a glance. I didn’t want to click on each person to see what their last Tweet was.
   Knowing what the last Tweet was allows me to make a judgement call about whether I follow that person back. Sometimes you can tell if the Tweeter is actually a spammer, sending automated Tweets that you have no interest in following. For instance, these are my newest followers (sorry, folks—but since anyone can see you, I’m sure you won’t mind being used for this exercise):

Latest Twitter followers

In each case, I already have an idea who is worth following back, and it saves me some time. (I won’t comment on whom I have followed back out of these four.)
   The new Twitter is a little slower because it loads so much more—yet I don’t get any more utility from it, based on my usage.
   We all adapt, just as we did with wholesale changes to Facebook and other services. But I wonder whether it will be like Digg or Technorati, or, for that matter, Infoseek and Altavista (remember the portal gag? I think Google does), where changes scared people away.

PS.: Based on Twitter’s own ‘Help Center’, the bug I reported three months ago is still present for a lot of users. While the bug disappeared for me around six weeks ago, I’m now dreading the change, being one of the first people to encounter it when the new Twitter was launched.—JY

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Posted in design, internet, technology | 2 Comments »