Some of the most unlikely people now have Macs

Sat on the train the other morning minding my own business (well adding ratings to my iPod – more on that later) when a woman sat herself opposite me. She dived into her generic handbag and whipped out a MacBook, a big one too. I smiled to myself at the pervasiveness of this brand and then it all became clear; she dived back into her back, past a floral umbrella and deposited an Innocent smoothie carton on the table. I wanted to take a look under the table and see if there were Birkenstocks on her feet and then I realised I didn’t need to look as I’d already got a full house, she was wearing square, thick-rimmed specs.

If anything puts me off buying a Mac it’s this creep toward commonality (and maybe Steve Jobs’ insistence on wearing black shirts tucked in to jeans with all the collar buttons done up).

But back to the ‘pod. Last weekend I was clearing up my hard drive after the traumatic but oddly easy transfer of all my music and photos to a Buffalo Linkstation. I saw my old shared music folder and thought I don’t need to share that anymore, cue changing of file access rights. A few hours later after I’d reset and returned to do some more work I discovered iTunes wouldn’t open, complaining that it could find or change the ‘My Music’ folder. But I’d carefully saved that hadn’t I? I’d made sure when I changed the location of the music that I’d retained the .itl and .xml files with all my playlists, a year’s worth of ratings and play counts …

However, the priorities changing meant that windows had lost information about which ‘My Music’ folder I was now using and, despite attempts at file recovery and re-installs of iTunes, I couldn’t recover any of this information. Gutted. Ok, so the music was safe on the Buffalo, but the thing that really makes iTunes and the iPod work is use, a worn path that indicates favourites, preferences, moods etc. etc.

The solution was complicated and basically involved a session inside RegEdit (a 'how to' guide) to find the keys pertaining to My Music (a Shell Folder) and restoring these to a given location. TweakUI hadn’t been any help as it didn’t even show ‘My Music’ in the list. That done iTunes restarted, I switched to an Ethernet connection and imported 30GB of music again and began to set-up a host of playlists.

Fortunately the iPod had retained a load of ratings and play data so I made sure that, before I re-synchronised it I printed off a few playlists to go back and re-rate. I should consider it a positive. Hindsight allows me to rate more tunes in context and complete a process which I’d got bored of about three months after getting the pod, in a few weeks of long commutes I should have begun to get that wonderful sense of ownership and familiarity again.

And the best part about it? I don’t blame Apple one bit, it was a Windows cock-up caused by a naïve user error. Apple are blameless. In fact, after a weekend trip to the Apple store in Bluewater to show my fiancée the New Nano I’ve decided I’m getting one too (despite middle-aged frumpiness and Steve’s black shirts), sticking my worn first-generation Nano on eBay. But, before I do, any takers at a good price?


Body off Baywatch, face off Crimewatch ... do customers prefer it to function, look good or both?

Fortunately in the blogosphere (eeugh) someone somewhere will be talking about a topic that's pertinent to your current interests. This week my regular read of Marc’s dancingmango site hit a nerve (in a good way) by talking about transactional regions (“Most retail banking web presence is just not connected”). At The Company my colleagues and I were recently debating whether transactional areas should look different from static ‘brochureware’. I think they should, or at least that it doesn't matter if they don't. In the olden days, Jakob used to say that web-based applications shouldn’t ape browser interraction. But this was before XHTML and JavaScript reached near universality and the vast majority of users expect a rich interface.

Marc’s spoken in the past about breaking free from linear form completion in a wonderful post (“Shoot the wizard! Designing a real world form”) and I support this idea of complete user control. Where I differ from him, and to return to the point, is that I believe customers appreciate a pared-down approach to look and feel on transactional sites. Yes there are legacy issues and, from our own back-end, I know these things tended to have been built by systems guys rather than web designers but the effect has been that there tends to be less distractive marketing guff (page bloat is another thing .. see below) and provided they’ve been interatively designed and user tested, things tend to work functionally.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I think the future will see us move to a more conversational web and increasingly customers will eschew sites that hark back to the days of padded table cells in favour of sites where the brand fits their expectations and aspirations - but we’re not there yet. We’re still, as consumers, focussed on speed and task efficiency and so sometimes keeping the box of crayons away from the menu board helps keep this focus. That said I am aware of situations where non-native web coders (and by that I mean teams where the day job is back-end code) have been left to develop the presentation layer and the result is bloated code, high page weight and long download times. Not to mention accessibility and cross-browser compatability issues.

In short, I don’t think we need to sweat it too much when transactional elements measurably work but don’t look great but I do think we need to worry when we separate static from transactional for cost and infrastructure reasons only to find that we’re suddenly using a top-nav where a left nav was before and the page loads would test the patience of a narcoleptic sloth. Marc cites some great examples where this disconnect has resulted in sloppy coding on transactional sites (HSBC image and First Direct image).

My final caveat is that this holds true for financial services sites and the more tedious transactional elements online. It’s pretty brand dependant; Lloyds TSB for example don’t need an exciting online banking service, they need one that’s quick, fully functional, compliant, compatible and secure. On the other hand if the Apple store was all this but visually dry and plain you’d start to feel a disconnect with the brand because, for someone like Apple, their consumer brand runs right through the entire customer lifecycle.


National Customer Service Week

Just a short post to direct people to the National Customer Service Week website ... some of my 'favourite' non customer-orientated companies are listed on the participating organisations page.