A Grand Central Vision For Train Journeys

For the umpteenth time this week the 08:09 was delayed from Ipswich. One seem to make use of some kind of rolling update on their live departure boards. The ‘due’ time increases by one minute every time it gets to within 30 seconds of the train supposedly arriving. Intensely frustrating and, once again, there’s no mention over the PA system as to why the delay has occurred or what their doing about resolving it. I wish that train operators would introduce a bit more transparency and honesty into their customer experience.

One company [excuse the pun] that is doing something about the customer experience (or at least says it will) is newboy
Grand Central Trains. I have to say that I was quite fond of GNER through many experiences travelling to-from my alma mater but I would agree that competition on this line would be a good thing. Top of their customer-centric agenda (read: press release) has been the “Can’t Find A Seat? Have A Refund” message and, slightly lower on the agenda, a simplification of fares ensuring more customers pay lower fares.

I get the feeling that as the network infrastructure improves (it is isn’t it?) then rail companies are going to have to stop complaining about delays and service issues being out of their control and begin to provide the sort of experience that passengers have dreamed about for years. When Harley Davidson execs summarise “What we sell is the ability for a 43-year-old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him.” I have to wonder what ‘one’ and other customer-service-blind operators are really selling – are they selling an experience of effortless, productive and comfortable travel between clean, efficient and breath-taking stations? No, and this is the vision that they must strive to attain else we continue to endure something quite, quite different.

Avian Flu: Don't Panic Mr. Peters...

Somewhat irritatingly I’ve got myself into reading TomPeters.com again … he’s in Asia (or at least has been) at the moment and he’s got himself all worked up over bird flu. I must admit to, rather like the errant farmyard cockrel, sitting on the fence with this. Whilst I can see it makes sense to forward plan and perhaps move a few investments out of Asian markets in advance of any potential pandemic this does rather smack of American protectionism and the thought that anything that scaremongers amongst the fastest growing economies in the world will be good for the US market. At the moment it’s an Asian-European problem and I would imagine there are plenty of analysts on Wall Street who like it that way.

Anyway, if you’re interested in the more scientific monitoring of the spread of the virus, the BBC’s graphics department have produced a
blisteringly effective interactive map and timeline.


The Million Dollar Homepage

Every so often someone comes up with an idea so simple and so effective it causes you to sit back and applaud. On a big scale we’re talking about iPods, Innocent Smoothies, the Lotus Elise, Google …

Today I was told about one on a micro scale, a get rich quick scheme that is so much more innovative than the
pan-handle sites of a few years ago. The Million Dollar Homepage is a simple business model: get businesses to pay to advertise on space you own and will be viewed by many people. It was marketed in the best word-of-mouth style by a simple email campaign. In 3 days this guy had generated $400 (£223.80) in revenue. Frankly it’s money for old rope, but he saw the opportunity and did it. Tellingly there are close to 400 copycat sites itself an indication of the less inventive profiteering from others’ ideas. I only hope that these sites don’t take ‘trade’ from the original idea which, if it grows at current rates, should exceed the million dollar (£559,515.68) target by Boxing Day.

All those dead hours I spend dreaming of the Next Big Thing on the commute to Ipswich and this one had never occurred to me … nuts.

Kate Moss signs for QPR

UPDATED 22nd December with a link to Kate Moss in the Virgin Mobile Ad.
UPDATED 7th November with link to picture of Kate Moss in a QPR shirt

As an ill-disguised QPR fan (though they’ve been absent on this blog so far) I’ve had a good week. Thumping the Budgies at home was a sweet victory, taken in tandem with our mighty identical victory last season at Loftus Road against (then top-of-the-league) Ipswich means I’ve had plenty to crow about to the East Anglian masses at work for 12 months. I knew it would be an omen when I sat opposite Delia on the 17.30 to Ipswich last week.

Then along comes the news that Babyshambles frontman and outed coke-addict Pete
Doherty has written a tune about his beloved Rangers. I knew he was a long term fan and bordering obsessive about the club. Though I despise the chap and his nauseating music I have to say I am oddly tempted to gawp at the apparent picture of Kate Moss in a QPR shirt that adorns the sleeve notes of his latest release, Down in Albion. There’s something oddly appealing to the heterosexual male about a girl in a footy shirt, and for all her powder-snorting nonsense one can’t deny that Kate Moss makes good eye candy.

As for the ‘lyrics’ to Doherty’s QPR-orientated ode, the
Guardian reproduces them thus:

I'll be, I'll be there/And just before I hit the bar/With the ghost of Rodney Marsh in his pre-smug pundit days/ Before he sold Rangers down the Swanee/With Gerry Francis's offshore money/ It's a toss-up between Mick Jones/And a consortium from the Middle Eastern equivalent of Barrett Homes /I'll be, I'll be there/With blue and white ticker tape in my hair/Up the Rs/Up the Rs/Up the Rs/What a life on Mars.

The bitter sweet truth of the matter is that this song is unlikely to be used by the club or receive anything but a fans-only airing unless Rangers win the FA Cup. Which, frankly, is as unlikely as Doherty & Moss staying ‘clean’.

The BBC have a small summary article but have added some
cracking photos of the dysfunctional pair (Kate looking glam, Pete looking high).

This week Rangers face Derby.


Tom Peters, Bob Brown and Happy Eater

  • Took a look at a Tom Peters’ (Tom’s wiki biography | Tom’s weblog) book the other day. I nearly wept at how ‘groovy’ it was trying to be. The literary equivalent of a post-menopausal woman in white linen trousers and caked in St. Tropez. It’s impossible to read … you just observe the pages falling open in front of you. The actual content could have been presented more effectively if it had been painted in ink on glass underwater by a blind dog with a mop. If you want to try it for yourself, get RE-Imagine! from Amazon

Usability Issues With Blogging

Jakob finally gets round to writing a piece about blogs so I thought I’d better get round to blogging about it. I’m surprised it’s taken him this long frankly, perhaps he just thought that he’d covered most of it all before with his lists of things you shouldn’t do? So, to take arms against his sea of issues:

No Author Biogs
JN asserts that to post anonymously (or at least without a full biographical reference) is to erode the credibility of your comments and that users have a natural urge to know more about the writer. I’m not sure this is the case. I can think of several popular blogs that have no explicit author biography and are none the poorer for it. Do we really demand this sort of content? Is a contact email not sufficient if your inquisitive mind is not sated? JN assumes I suppose that everyone’s blogging about subjects they really ought to be qualified in. Along the same lines is ….

No Author Photo
Has he really thought this through? Does it really matter to the user if their readers can’t see who they are? Do we care, as consumers of literature, that we don’t really know what Shakespeare looked like or that our latest tome from Amazon didn’t have a mugshot of the author? Just because JN’s gurning mug is plastered in the NNg site in high-res (and interestingly only vaguely on his blog-like useit site) doesn’t mean I remember it more than anonymous blogs with a strong visual identity. In essence, I remember the look of a page/site, not the author’s face – a person I am highly unlikely to meet. Personally, keeping a photo off my blog has meant that I’m unlikely to see my face utilised for ‘inappropriate purposes’ by errant friends, colleagues associates and net weirdos.

Nondescript posting Titles
Is the joy of writing headline copy not the skill involved in capturing the essence of the story but in an intriguing manner. It might not always be obvious what the content will be but I would agree that it should tempt the reader to explore further. When seen a purely a link (ie. When the post has moved off the front page) it should remain as engaging and tempting as it did as a headline. In that sense, headline writing is indeed “the most important writing you do.”

Links Don’t Say Where They Go
JN’s missed a trick here. He could have praised the blog community for reviving the lost art of contextual linking. I see more contextual and descriptive hyperlinks amongst blogs than I do almost anywhere else. Bloggers, in their desperate hunt for more readers, have taken on board the benefits of using the sort of links that search engines love. Of course, there are still some of us that occasionally slip in the odd ‘click here’ or ‘more’, we’re human after all and sometimes, in the spirit of quick postings, it’s just not worth my while re-phrasing a paragraph to make a link descriptive.

Classic Hits Are Buried
Here JN is absolutely spot on. I for one know which posts are popular but I also know that they’re popular because people find them through Google and I don’t actually make reference to them that often in other postings. This is principally because I thought it bored people, regular readers, to keep hearing about the same stuff. I will, however, reference the most popular posts in a sticky link in the right menu as it can’t hurt and might actually make new visitors instantly discover worthwhile wheat amongst my blogging chaff.

Calendrical Navigation Is Rubbish
I would have to agree here too. I so often come across blogs when googling for subjects only to click on them and find the relevant post missing. A search using the native tool is regularly ineffectual and you have no idea where to start clicking through dates to find stuff. This blog is constrained by the fact that it’s a generic blogger-powered one and therefore can’t do categories. Believe me, if I had the technical nouse I would have added a better archival system and navigation months ago. I blame Blogger. (BTW: Some other people have discussed calendrical blog archiving)

Irregular Publishing Frequency
This is like people telling Wayne Rooney to calm down. It’s simply the nature of blogging that it will be infrequent. In its purest form blogging represents the erratic ramblings of web-connected individuals, capturing thoughts, moments and experiences online. In the same way that it’s unrealistic to expect them to have biographies and high-res press photos, it’s unrealistic to expect them to stick to defined publishing schedules (a la Alertbox). It’s enjoyable, in a frustrating way, to await the arrival of a new posting from a blogger you’re interested in. I would not want to dictate to people when that should be posting. The benefits of RSS feed readers is that they notify you when posts are updated and this usually is a damn site quicker than traditional web pages.

With this in mind, to tell people not to post if they having nothing to say is for others’ to make judgement on the worthiness of the articles and to my mind that’s a bit wrong. A blog will, inevitably, contain a bit of rubbish every now and then. In many ways it makes the better (more worthy) content stand out more.

Mixing Topics
A subject close to my heart. I mix content all the time. Some customer service, some user-centric web development, cars, holidays, one anglia, Taco Bell, politics, economics etc. etc. As long as there’s an even thread in the blog – in my case customer/user-centred thinking – then it’s ok in my book. People like a bit of irreverence. Granted, if you set a site up like useit then it’s going to seem odd if Jakob starts talking about his dog, his problems with public transport or the economic policy of China but in most public blogs the joy is figuring the connections between the apparently disconnected. Finding out a little about the character behind the writing – without being spoon-fed such information in the biography (vide supra)

Forgetting That You Write For Your Future Boss
Ok, so the web is persistent. I find stuff on there all the time that should have expired a long time ago. I find some stuff on my blog which I’m a bit ashamed about (see Katrina ramblings) but it’s going to stay. I’d not be stupid enough to expose myself to legal action or severe controversy as I know my current boss reads it. Bear that in mind and keep some perspective (bosses are human too) and I can write to my heart’s content. I am naturally cautious about appearing ‘expert’ – especially on topics I’ve only ever really dealt with academically – but people are still visiting you site for analysis, though and consideration. If you shy away from forming opinions then you really are saying nothing at all. As a future boss I’d find that a little sad and vacuous.

Having A Domain Owned By a Weblog Service
… i.e. blogger. Well, apart from expense, blogger got me online in minutes and has supported pretty much all of what I wanted to do – except category archiving. We can’t all afford servers, hosting or spend the time setting up MovableType, PHP, MySQL etc. etc. As far as I can tell, blogger keeps advertising away and has ensured that I’m instantly part of a major blogging community – all for nothing. I’d love to move to my own server and I accept JN’s argument that the longer I leave it the harder it will be so if he wants to sponsor my move to a standalone site could he let me know?

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2 Fascists: Saddam Hussein and a non-compliant vending machine

Two things today, firstly something political: A great piece by John Simpson about the trial of Saddam Hussein where he muses over SH’s potential to become a martyr, the evidence the prosecution may present and some of SH’s possible lines of defence.

Secondly, a wry observation on the very essence of HCI. I tried to get my usual vending machine coffee today (two 58s with the cup dispensing overridden to dispense into a mug) but the machine displayed: “Sorry No Cups”. I thought this wouldn’t matter, I’ve got my own mug, It’ll still dispense my usual cup-free option … not so. No cups mean no fluid whatsoever. It really doesn’t want to play if there are no cups. Ridiculous. A system blockage preventing a very plausible human interaction but one that vividly illustrates a neglect of user-centred design.