Unwanted Social Exposure

The volcanic growth of Facebook has not gone unnoticed by people very used to being in the public eye. Prince William is rumoured to have a profile somewhere on the site, albeit under a nom de plume, various BBC journos and media celebrities can also be found interacting with their public, updating their status and sending each other fish for their aquariums. Whilst such individuals may have come to accept their images being in the public domain, many of us more insignificant mortals find ourselves increasing losing control of our online identity.

Facebook has a lauded interface for restricting privacy. One can customise their profile so that only their closest friends can view their photos, post on their wall and find out what books they have just read. This control even goes so far as to hide your Facebook presence from particular members.

Where these controls come unstuck is in the sensitive area of posting photos; a paradigm not restricted to Facebook of course. It is perfectly possible for your next door neighbour to post a picture of you on their profile featuring you sunbathing in your garden in the kind of bikini that would make Jordan blush. They can then tag this photo and share it with the rest of your street. Worse than that, there is nothing to stop someone defaming your character on their wall, something that must happen with monotonous regularity amongst Facebook’s younger user-base.

That there is nothing on Facebook to stop these actions occurring is not the end of the story. Fortunately the British and European legal system is, for once, moving quickly to adapt. Fuelled perhaps by the thought of celebrity action and the associated fees, lawyers are lining up to unleash legislation not just on the operators of such sites but on the users themselves. Of course, under such circumstance you can bet that Facebook would be defended and a recent article by Ashley Hurst (a member of the media litigation team at Olswang) suggested that e-commerce law could provide that such operations are simply hosts of defamatory material and it is the users that are responsible. Now that’s not particularly sociable of them.

It’s at times like these that we’d all do well to stop inviting our friends to become pirates and tickling vibrating hamsters and spend some time reading through the legals on the sites instead. When we sign up we’re reminded that “content that Facebook deems to be harmful, threatening, unlawful … [etc] “ should not be uploaded or transmitted. Of course, such catch-all terms and conditions can only be invoked to remove content when it has been spotted and objected-to. In the Web2.0 era this could well mean that the image has been circulated or the statement copy and pasted widely before action is finally taken at the source. The fact remains that users only have control over the content that they post and, this is often overlooked, this extends to people who have so far resisted the urge to join.

Facebook recently announced (although you may have missed it) that profiles were to become searchable from Google. Although this can be switched off by users, once again you cannot control whether your ex-girlfriend’s profile can be uncovered by your prospective girlfriend’s Google search and her bitter rants about your sexual prowess poured over and dissected at will.

All this only serves to fuel Facebook’s near-exponential growth. The only defence is ‘attack’, or at least vigilance. If you’re not a member you’ll not know what people are posting and saying about you. Best you get yourself signed up, who knows you might even uncover something delightfully salacious yourself.


Buyers aren't always users

At The Company we've just been introduced to a new expenses system. This system for raising personal and business expenses has been deployed to replace the ageing paper-orientated process that existed before it. The old system necessitated the completion of an Excel sheet which was then printed, receipts attached and sent to Accounts Payable. The problem was that these were invariably untraceable. However, as an end user-experience it was pretty straightforward: use the most up-to-date template, complete, print, sign and send.

The new version is horrendous. This clunky piece of enterprise software (HRMS) sits on a preexisting bit of Oracle kit which manages a host of HR operations. Everything from logging an absence to checking your payslip and updating emergency contacts. For reasons of confidentiality I can't show you screens sadly but suffice to say it is a complete dog's dinner with some of the worst usability I have ever encountered. What's more, the launch of the new expenses system was preceded by a compulsory Flash-based training program. What's that old adage "if it needs instructions, it doesn't work" ?

I'm not denying that the old system needed reform to ensure service levels, audit and security were improved but at the expense of the end user?

What this exposed was the general piss-poor quality of enterprise solutions. Jason at 37signals' blog, Signal vs. Noise, posted a timely article today based on Khoi Vinh's Subtraction piece which highlights and tries to explain some of the failures of the expensive solutions. Essentially the suggestion is that it's not the end-users that are specifying, buying or deploying this junk, it's aspirational senior management who have been persuaded by a round of golf, a night at Spearmint Rhino and a good price to buy what's on offer.

I really wish you, and the people that buy this stuff, could actually see the end result. In a tight, cost and efficiency environment where every member of staff needs to behave as if the business was their own it would do these buyers good to understand the value of their purchase; As Jason so succinctly puts it: "There’s no camouflaging value when the buyer is the user".

(Oh, and we're forced to use Lotus Notes too, but don't get me started on that.)


The Pervasiveness of the Web

Interface orientated blog Functioning Form have used a recent NY Times article to highlight a seep of web-orientated design onto traditional media. Observing rolling news channels and interactive TV offerings certainly shows a similarity with web layout. And not neccessarily for the better. Do we, for example, really benefit from ticking news items below the moving image? Well possibly we do but once you start adding weather data, traffic reports, time and date information, the channel and show identities and possibly a picture-in-picture you have really crowded the real estate.

Where these screens work are in silent environments. The gym, a foyer or reception or at a transport terminus (Liverpool Street sation, London pictured) where sound is muted. Then the moving image becomes semi redundant and the surrounding data (clutter) becomes the focus.

By contrast, the traditional viewer who is able to hear the sound is increasingly distracted, particularly if the story is cognitively challenging. Part of the explanation here may be due to the evolutionary psychology and the way we perceive the visual field. Our high resolution focus is limited to small cone (foveal vision) - items on the periphery (rod cells) of our vision are in low resolution and ignored until they move. Useful for spotting a predator sneaking up on you when you're focusssed elsewhere, also particularly distracting if a peripheral banner ad is blinking on a website or if a news ticker is scrolling on a TV screen. This triage of information is something we should respect, not attempt to interrupt for attention*.

Anyway, back to the main point. High-contrast visual displays and interactive TV programming is apeing the web. Even newspapers are starting to look more web like as online newspapers become less print-like. The trouble is, some of the bad interface stuff is making its way onto this old media.
* - caveat: I realise that distant high-contrast displays like those at train stations are sufficiently far from us so as not to be as profoundly affected by the strength-weakness of foveal and peripheral vision as you might a TV or TFT screen, indulge me.

Unwrapping Apple's Packaging Moments of Truth

Regular readers (if there are any left after this ridiculous hiatus) will know that despite my vocational specialism in web user experience, my desire to comment on an array of customer experience issues is a recurring theme of this blog. Something which I have never touched upon until now is packaging design.

Inspired by a Design Critique podcast I wanted readers to consider the experience of owning rather than consuming a product. More often than not User Experience Architects (UEAs) like me will pour insight and design into the choosing and purchasing of a product or service. We sometimes refer to these as ‘moments of truth’. Experience design shouldn’t stop there though, because the experience itself doesn’t.

In the podcast they discuss the packaging of an iPod (the 1st generation Nano as it happens) which I also own. Where this resonates with me is the fact that I didn’t purchase this product, it was a Christmas gift and as such I didn’t have the purchase experience; my first interaction with the product was to unwrap the box. At this point I’ll skip to the end; the box for my Nano sits proudly on my shelf. I haven’t retained the box for some perfunctory purpose to store the Nano again when I come to move house. I don’t keep it so that I can put the Nano away every night either. I keep it because, in itself, it’s a beautiful little piece of design that is worthy of display.

That morning when I received the gift I remember distinctly being impressed with the occasion of opening the packing. The box opens like a book, or perhaps a limited edition CD, the iPod was recessed into the box and encased in a cellophane wrapper so I could see it clearly and see its virginal newness. The tape that stuck the cellophane wrappers down was printed in an established Apple typeface, the whole package (and I use the word literally and metaphorically) was an example of minimalism and lean design. It almost seemed a shame to ruin it by actually getting the iPod out. However, once having done so it remained intact and thus it remains on my shelf.

And I’m not the only one who was impressed. All over the web you’ll find blog posts, flickr photosets and suchlike documenting the arrival and unpacking of their iPods and other Apple consumables. Apple are thinking experientially about ownership, about the loyalty that owning one of their items creates. Hence why so many of their consumers are brand advocates. This is a wonderful example of marketing extending into ownership to create or strengthen a positive opinion of the brand.

Maybe this is not by design, but by accident. Maybe it’s the result of over-design; a marketing and design team that just don’t know when to stop? Who knows how much this packaging actually costs Apple. Is it the most cost-efficient packaging? Does it protect the item better than the usual bubble wrap and polystyrene? Is it environmentally ethical? To answer some of those questions we might well look at the 2nd generation Nano. This came packaged in a polycarbonate case, reducing the overall size of the box but retaining two core factors – clarity (the item was visible and did not require a cover photo - the item’s form factor was immediately obvious) and secondly, durability (the Nano was safely surrounded by shatterproof plastic). I can’t comment on the environmental aspects sadly but I’m sure Apple’s site has the answers.

Now this may seem a bit vacuous, after all we’re talking about the box for an MP3 player, but perhaps the type of device actually goes some way to explaining the effort Apple have gone to. Would you keep the packaging of, say, a new razor, if it was stylishly designed? Almost certainly not. Your MP3 player is not just a device to be used to perform a needed function, it is more personal than that. It reflects your style and your taste, it’s a personal accessory, a luxury item, a nice-to-have. Of course size helps here too – your new 50” Plasma might say similar things about your success and style but it’s a bit more impractical to store the box for that on the shelf. We need to look at items that compare in terms of cost, size and personal association, and for items that are similar we nevertheless find a dearth in experiential packaging.

I find it’s always worth putting a comparison alongside to illustrate the point even more clearly. Consider an alternative packaging style for consumer electronics, the clamshell. These hugely frustrating ultra-sonically sealed packages have no clear opening and require the consumer to cut them open. These are borne out of a fear from the manufacturer that their item, a highly portable and valuable product, will be divorced from its packaging and stolen. Their products are less popular and compelling than the iPod, Apple can afford to solve the theft problem not by introducing a clamshell but by ensuring customers have to ask for their product, they’re generally not left out on the shelf. Asking for the product only adds to the sense of luxury and exclusivity. Once again Apple have solved a problem in a way that enhances the user experience.

It’s certainly worth taking the time to listen to the (albeit lengthy) podcast over at Design Critique where Tim unravels these kinds of issues in some detail. The podcast discusses a fascinating paradigm of allowing non-dextrous patients (i.e. the arthritic) access to their medication whilst preventing the same medication from being accessed by highly-dextrous children. This problem and its leftfield solution is one which would prove to be a great interview question for aspiring UEAs